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The Growth Of The Spirit Of Christian Unity

SPECIFIC plans and programs for the unification of the forces of Christendom are advanced on every hand; but before any one of these can be put into operation, however practical it may be or theoretically wise, there must be a more thorough cultivation of the spirit of Christian love. The unity for which we pray, when it comes, will not be a manufacture, but a growth. Like the Kingdom of God it "cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here! or lo, there!" for, behold, the sub-stance of Christian unity "is within you." World Conferences on Faith and Order, Chicago-Lambeth Proposals, Denominational Commissions on Comity or Christian Union are, without doubt, helpful; but these never can accomplish anything unless they find within the churches a deepening spirit of Christian love to which they can make their appeal. The consummation of any scheme of union, whether of local churches or of denominations, would be, like a marriage without affection, a calamity and fore-doomed to failure, if it were not the fruit of Christian love. And love cannot be forced or hurried: it must lead, not follow. The spirit of cooperation is not always most prevalent where circumstances seem most to favor it. It is less evident, sometimes, in communities of few churches that do not need to compete than in others of many churches in which competition can hardly be avoided. No apparent necessity can compel churches or denominations into co-operation where the spirit of love is lacking. Never were truer words spoken than those of John Owen, one of the greatest of Puritan divines, when he said, "I should be very sorry that any man living should outgo me in desires that all who fear God throughout the world, especially in these nations, were of one way as well as of one heart. I know that I desire it sincerely. But I verily believe that when God shall accomplish it, it will be the effect of love and not the cause of love. There is not a greater vanity in the world than to drive men into a particular profession and then suppose that love will be the necessary outcome of it; to think that if, by sharp rebukes, by cutting, bitter expressions, they can drive men into such and such practices, love will certainly ensue."

It would be worse than useless for the denominations to come together in organic unity until they have so far reached a common understanding that it would be possible for them to live and labor harmoniously together. The situation that would result, if so premature a union were effected, would be as awkward as that described by the Russian fabulist, Ivan Kriloff, in his story of The Swan, the Crayfish, and the Pike:

"A crayfish, pike, and swan agreed one day
To pull a cartload all together;
So, harnessed each to his own tether,
They pull with might and main!
Alas! 'Tis all in vain!
The load seemed light enough; but in the sky
The swan soared high;
The crayfish always backward ran,
And, in the pond, the pike to pull began.
Which was to blame? Which right? We cannot say;
But still the cartload stays there, to this day!"

The largest contribution that any man can make, therefore, to the cause of Christian unity at this stage in its progress is the promotion of mutual acquaintance, understanding, and appreciation among the divided communions of Christendom. The ignorance of intelligent men as to the spirit and tenets of other denominations than their own is as curious as it is sad. There is no ardent denominationalist who has not, at times, been chagrined at the misrepresentation that his denomination has suffered at the hand of some sincere but ignorant representative of another denomination; and such misrepresentation tends, as much as any other single cause, to perpetuate the spirit of division. Every seminary curriculum ought to contain, together with a course upon comparative, religions, a course upon comparative denominationalism. Instinctively we shrink from what is strange and unfamiliar, and friendship is impossible without acquaintance. We should find ourselves much more closely in agreement with those of other Christian bodies if only we fully understood them. The Talmud says: "Walking on the mountains one day I saw a form which I took to be a beast; coming nearer I saw it was a man; approaching nearer still I found it was my brother!" We never can understand our neighbor until we get his point of view. Standing by his side and looking at truth from his angle, it is marvelous how reason-able his views appear. Again and again, in the reports of the Continuation Committee Conferences, lately held in the Orient, stress is laid upon the importance of mutual acquaintance and the mutual esteem and understanding that flow from it; as at the China National Convention at Shanghai, where one of the resolutions called for "the fresh study by all Christians of the faith and order held by those who differ from them, in order to promote cordial mutual understanding; and the holding of local conferences from time to time for the discussion of the important subject of Christian unity."

Many influences to-day are drawing the churches together. Among these must be counted the fuller light that is being thrown upon the history and origin of the Christian bodies. An impartial study of Christian history is a great destroyer of both pride and prejudice. It will destroy pride, because no perfect church is discovered anywhere in the record. The earliest church-members were charged with grievous sins in the writings of their leaders. There are few churches which have not been persecutors in their turn, and those not employing the carnal weapons of fire and sword have been guilty of misrepresentation and bitter controversy. On the other hand it will destroy prejudice, because the story of every church is fragrant with the spirit of self-sacrifice and adorned by noble lives that have been lived within its fellowship. All modern lines of spiritual descent are seen to converge in the first century; all the divided branches of the Church inherit the tradition of the unbroken unity of the first disciples of the Lord. All modern communions claim as their own the great leaders of the early centuries. Christ's presence has been manifest in every church and in every age. The study of history, therefore, wonderfully softens asperity. Viewed from a distance remote from the occasions of division and strife, the causes of controversy lose their sharp angles: distinctions, once seen in bold relief, melt into one another in the mellow light of time. Many a divisive theory has been proved to be untenable as the results of historical study have become more accurate.

Modern scholarship, as applied also to the study of the Bible, makes strongly for Christian unity. It reveals in a stronger light the unity that prevailed in the primitive Church, and upon how broad a basis it rested. The unity of the first disciples was evidently founded, not upon identity of theological belief, for there was more than one school of thought in the Church of the apostles, nor upon uniformity in church polity, since every form of organization may find its prototype in apostolic times, nor upon similarity in forms of worship, for, side by side with the freest expression of religious emotion, fragments of liturgy and creed are found embedded in the in-spired writings, but upon loyalty to the one Lord of the Church, and on fidelity to the cause of his kingdom on earth. It was "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," unity amid diversity, and compatible with the fullest liberty of development. It consisted in no hard-and-fast mechanical uniformity of method imposed by heaven according to a pre-arranged plan, but was the outgrowth of experience and the instrument of efficiency. As the method of the early Church was plastic and adapted to the particular conditions with which it dealt, so there is nothing in God's Word that forbids further adaptations of method to new conditions as they appear. Its emphasis is upon unity, and not upon the means by which unity shall be secured; and he who sacrifices the end to a mistaken loyalty to a method is false to the spirit of the Bible. We are beginning to see that the great laws of social evolution that shaped the institutions of Old Testament times apply also to the period of the formation of the Church and to its history through the ages, and that many of the incidents of that history and of the particular forms that characterized it are accidental and not essential.

The older view of the Bible, with its doctrine of a mechanical and verbal inspiration and a completed revelation, has tended to perpetuate the divisions of Christendom: the modern view that the Scriptures contain the record of a progressive revelation, communicated through the experiences of men dominated by the influence of the Spirit of God, promises to be among the most potent of future influences making for the unity of the Church. The temptation of those who held the earlier view was to attempt to harmonize the various conceptions of truth presented in the New Testament, to abstract from each its points of distinction and individuality, and to "conventionalize" them into a single pattern or summary of doctrine to serve as a standard of orthodoxy for all time. There could be little room for differences of conviction as to either doctrine or polity within a Church dominated by such a method. Naturally those who could not subscribe to the standards were forced out of the Church. The modern view, which recognizes a development of doctrine within the New Testament, and differences of conception among the leaders of the early Church, finds larger room for variations of belief within the Church to-day, and for a continued development within it, in both doctrine and polity, under the guidance of the Spirit of God. God has not made here and there, only, a revelation of himself to man. Such revelations are not confined to particular ages, nor to a single collection of books, nor are they restricted to a single method. God is continually revealing himself and his purposes, and in every succeeding age more fully and clearly, as men are better able to receive them. "God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners," hath in these days spoken unto us, who, like the apostles and the prophets of old, may enjoy the influences of his indwelling Spirit. To the Christian consciousness may come to-day new truths that shall develop new forms through which they shall express themselves. We have a right to trust the guidance of that Spirit of God who is to lead the disciples of Jesus into all the truth. And while the old light will not be quenched, but made incomparably brighter by the new illumination, it is conceivable that new revelations may compel us to discard some of the old forms and formulas, old polities and dogmas, and construct new. "The Holy Spirit," writes Professor Herrmann, "works synthetically, not analytically, and the composition of the New Testament clearly shows this. If Christians seek unity by means of unalterable doctrine, then they must give up the authority of the New Testament. For in the New Testament there is no unalterable doctrine which embraces the whole scheme of Christian thought. . . . It is no imperfection, it is rather an excellence, and thoroughly as it should be, that the epistles of the New Testament are messages for definite circumstances, and not contributions to a doctrinal system which shall be valid to all eternity."1.

Favorable to the cultivation of such a spirit of fellowship as is essential to the fullest unity of the Church, is the clearer recognition of the measure of unity that already prevails among Christians. Members of a single denomination constitute a community that is bound together by all they jointly possess. There is a sense of likeness, a unanimity of thought, among its constituents; a realization of group individuality that arises from participation in the same convictions and activities, and in the same memories and hopes. This group individuality rests in a sense of the continuity of the past, now stored in memory, and of the future, now conceived in terms of hope and expectation, with the present, all within a single consciousness. Such a condition of oneness characterizes every separate body of Christian people. Similarly all Christian churches are bound together in a larger and more inclusive individuality, sharing with one another a vast fund of Christian truth more fundamental than their differences, and the memories, hopes, and expectations that belong to Christians of every name. There is a "communion of the saints" that is very real in spite of all differences among them. There is a "Holy Catholic Church" that transcends all artificial boundaries, whose unifying elements are a common vital energy, a general history, and a mutual ambition for the future. How rich is the heritage of this community, how vigorous this interpenetrating life, and how harmonious its aims! And the strongest of all the bonds that unite those that enter into it is loyalty to one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The same sun shines in London and in New York: it is not the same sunshine, but it is the same sun; and every eye that gazes upon it, and every frame that feels its warmth, is thereby united with every other over the whole earth.

There is a unity of Christian scholarship that ignores denominational divisions and seeks only the truth the whole truth. "The lovers of the truth are one." The modern Revised Bible in English, as Dr. Schaff has pointed out, is a noble monument to a united Christian scholarship, representing, as it does, the harmonious labors, through fourteen years, of about one hundred British and American scholars of various affiliations Episcopalians, Independents, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Friends, and Unitarians.

There is already a degree of doctrinal unity among the great evangelical bodies of Christendom. Differ as they may in dogma and theology, they agree in the fundamental articles of faith that are necessary to salvation. All believe in the one Father in heaven, in the one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, all accept the same Bible, and can repeat together the Apostles' Creed. There is also a devotional unity: all worship the same God, revealed in Christ; all pray together in the words taught them by their Master, and surround the same throne of grace. In sacred song they unite hearts and voices in the great hymns of the Church universal, by whomsoever they may have been written, whether it be "Rock of Ages," by Toplady, the Calvinist; or "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," by Wesley, the Methodist; or "In the Cross of Christ I Glory," by Bowring, the Unitarian; or "Hark! hark, my soul!" by Faber, the Roman Catholic.

There is also an ethical unity. All revere the same qualities of Christian character, though they may arrange them in different orders of precedence. All cultivate the fruit of the Spirit as defined by the apostle, and acknowledge Jesus as the model Man. All accept the Ten Commandments as interpreted by Jesus and believe the whole law to be fulfilled in love to God and neighbor. Books on Christian ethics are not dependent for their value upon the denominational creed of their authors, but upon the fidelity with which they represent the spirit and teaching of Jesus and reflect the contents of the Christian consciousness.

There is unity, moreover, in the forms of activity to which Christian charity incites. "Mrs. Barbauld" I quote from James Freeman Clarke "has a little apologue to show that charity, or love to man, is the same thing in all sects and churches. A mother is walking with her little boy on Sunday in the streets of a large city. The street is filled with people who turn into different churches, some into the Established Church, some into the different chapels. And the little boy wonders why, since they have the same Master, they should go in such different directions. But when the services are over, and the people are on their way home; a man falls in the street with a sudden attack of illness; and then a Presbyterian runs and lifts him from the ground, a Methodist runs for a doctor, a Baptist gets water and bathes his forehead; and the mother, turning to her little boy, says, 'You see, my child, that though their modes of worship are different, their charity is the same.' " Men separate for their services but unite for service.

Finally, there is unity in the conception of the fundamental aim and purpose of the Church that is held by all branches of it. All would agree that the function of the Church is the establishment upon earth of the kingdom of God, defined as the rule of God in the hearts of men. A social state in which all men live as children of the Father in heaven, and brethren one of another, is the dream that all communions cherish in common. Differ as they may, the united desire of all the churches is to infuse into men the spirit of the Christ until it transforms all hearts, transfigures all human institutions, and redeems man and society. Not in the fact that "we are all trying to get to the same place here-after," as is so often fatuously said, but in the fact that we are all living together in the same place here, and that it is not now a satisfactory place to live in, lies the basis for unity of program and action for the Church. Men may conceive that separate heavens will be provided hereafter, but there is no question that the fates of men are bound up together here where

"Rich men hate the poor, who curse the rich,
Who agonize together, rich and poor,
Over and under in the social spasm
And crisis of the ages."

There is very general agreement that if the world is to be made over into the kingdom of God, it must be by all men of good-will working together.

Such a conception of the mission of the Church forms the basis of a union immediately possible, and suggests the means by which a unity still more complete may be achieved. Union of effort for the accomplishment of the practical program of the Church may not only be undertaken at once, but will open the way for other forms of co-operation and federation hardly conceivable at present. Absolutely nothing counts in Christendom but Christlikeness: that alone is essence; the remainder is accident. When Christians thoroughly appreciate this and accept it with all its consequences, they will be willing to agree also that all that helps the development of Christlikeness in men and nations should be approved and accepted, and that that which is discovered to advance it most should be adopted by all. In proportion as the efforts of Christian men the world over are directed, not to the building up of particular institutions, at the expense, it may be, of others, or to the formulation of creeds, but to doing the things that Jesus came to do, to lifting up the lives of men, in that proportion denominational differences will sink into in-significance as unworthy the place they have occupied in modern thought. "All classes of Christians," said David Livingstone, "find that sectarian rancor soon dies out when they are working together for the real heathen."

Here, at least, is a platform upon which all Christians can meet. We do not need to wait until we worship together before we labor as one. There is nothing that so promotes mutual acquaintance, understanding, and esteem as co-operation in a common task. Said the head of a great industry, after some months of work upon the board of directors of a philanthropic society among whom were some of his own workmen, "These workingmen are a fine lot: it is a pleasure to know them. When they come to me in future to discuss some matter of work and wages I shall feel quite differently about it, now that we have become really acquainted." Union in unselfish service is the shortest road to fellowship. In so far as Christian men labor together to alleviate poverty, to protect the life of youth, to heal the sick, and to minister to all the needs of men, they will find themselves knit together by bonds of sympathy so close that no differences in creed will be permitted to break them, and the way will be opened for co-operation in every form of service in which the Church can engage, and for fellowship in worship. The federation of Christian forces in the field of social service is the first step in the direction of organic unity. If such federation is impossible, it is futile to hope for something closer and more exacting still. Programs of church unity that begin with the attempt to secure agreement in doctrine and polity, and that have no patience for the slower processes of education through co-operation in practical tasks, are doomed to failure. Mutual acquaintance, understanding, and esteem must precede any form of corporate unity, and these are secured best through co-operation in specific endeavors.

The influences making today for a better under-standing among the churches are many, the points of attachment are multiplying every year; but the process of the unification of Christendom will not progress faster than does the increase of love. Denominations, like metals, fuse only when at white heat. There is a story of certain bridge-builders who were engaged in constructing the two halves of the single arch that was to span a river. From either side of the river they labored simultaneously, building out from the great piers on opposite banks the two arms of the bridge that were to meet in the middle. The day came when, at nightfall, the last truss and girder were put into place, but to their dismay the plates of the bridge were several inches apart and would not meet. But the next morning the sun rose above the horizon and, as it neared the zenith, poured its warm rays upon all below; and the foreman, walking out upon the bridge, found that the two great arms of the arch had expanded until they touched each other and were easily riveted together. While coldness of heart drives us apart, the warmth of Christian love thus draws us together. The greatest hindrance to unity is lack of the Christ spirit. Selfishness is always divisive. "I didn't get that family to come to us," a good woman was heard to say, "but one thing is certain, they will never go to the other church!" Such a spirit would delay the unity of the Church until the day of judgment! But when the churches are possessed of the spirit of John the Baptist, when he said of his Master, "He must increase, but I must decrease," essential Church unity is already achieved.

Such a spirit of sacrifice is contagious: it spreads from heart to heart. "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man." The cause of Christian unity waits for the church that shall first have the courage to lose its life for Christ's sake and the gospel's; and if this spirit be there, such a church, according to the promise, far from losing its life, will find it unto life eternal. When all churches shall be willing thus to lose, all shall gain, and the cause of the Kingdom will go forward with leaps and bounds. There is a legend in the Talmud of two brothers who owned in common a field upon the site on which King Solomon later built the first Temple at Jerusalem. One night, so the story runs, the younger of the brothers said, "My brother has a wife and children to support, while I have no one to care for but myself. I will go into the harvest field and take some of the sheaves of grain that fall to me and put them with my brother's sheaves without his knowledge, that he may have sufficient to provide for those he loves." On the same night the other thought, "God has blessed me with wife and children, while my brother lives alone. I will arise and take of my shocks of grain and lay them with my brother's share that he may be comforted in his loneliness." Thus, in the morning, to their surprise, each found his share undiminished. The next night each repeated his kind deed and with the same result. On the third night both brothers determined to watch, and, to their mutual surprise, they met in the middle of the field, each laden with his golden sheaves. And God said of the spot where they embraced, "This is the holiest spot I know: here I will build my holy Temple."

The cultivation of such a spirit of love ought to be possible within the Church, for love is the essence of religion. Religion is social comradeship. It has, indeed, been said that, as a matter of fact, religion has exercised a divisive influence in history and has served to keep men apart. So a superficial reading of history might seem to indicate. But below the surface differences which it has evoked, religion has been the fundamental bond that has held humanity together through centuries of evolution, the living principle that has made of society an organism. "It would be impossible," writes Benjamin Kidd, "to conceive any economic or political motive influencing the human mind so consistently or continuously, and on so large a scale, and producing over so prolonged a period results of such character and magnitude as that of religion. It has been said of the synthetic philosophy that Spencer found little place in it for systems of religion except in relation to our emancipation from the past. But no change which is in progress in our time as the result of the extending conception of society is more striking than that which is taking place in our estimate of the influences in the evolution of society of the integrating conceptions of the human mind hitherto represented mainly in the great systems of religion, which are thus in the deepest sense rendering society organic. It would seem as if it is these stones which the builders of social science in the past have rejected that we must place now as the head-stones of the corners."1.Religion is the vital principle of spiritual evolution, and religion without love ceases to be religious. The "spirit of Christian unity" is the spirit of love, and it is futile to imagine that the unification of Christendom will ever be consummated by any scheme of organization of which Christian love is not the organizing principle. "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God."

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Union Of Christian Forces:
The Expense And Waste Of Christian Disunion

The New Testament Ideal Of Christian Unity And What Became Of It

The Passing Of The Sectarian Spirit

The Growth Of The Spirit Of Christian Unity

Christian Unity Through Federation

The Union Of Christian Forces In Country And Village

Co-operation In Home Missions

Co-operation On The Foreign Mission Field

Organic Church Unity

The Basis Of Organic Unity



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