Examining Christendom’s Efforts to Unite
IN THE days of the apostles there was not a variety of brands of Christianity. There was not a Lutheran Church, a Methodist Church or an Episcopal Church, all teaching and believing somewhat differently, and yet at the same time all claiming to be Christian. The message carried by early Christians was the same whether they lived in Jerusalem, Asia Minor or Rome. All believed and taught alike, for they were “fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought,” in fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer that they might all be one.—1 Cor. 1:10; John 17:21-23.
How different today! The “endless proliferation of sects is generally recognized as the scandal of Christendom,” noted clergyman John A. O’Brien. “It is the direct opposite of that unity which Christ said was forever to characterize His Church: ‘There shall be one fold and one shepherd.’” (John 10:16) In a speech last fall, Keith R. Bridston, former executive in the World Council of Churches, described the effect of such disunity: “If the church goes out to preach the gospel, particularly in the non-Christian areas, the church is so divided that the non-Christian has to decide not only whether he wants to be a Christian, but what kind. A Methodist Christian? A Lutheran Christian? An Episcopal Christian? He may get the idea he doesn’t want to be any.”
More and more now Christendom sees disunity as a threat to her very existence. Godless communism relentlessly presses into her territories and little by little wins the thinking of her confused people. In some areas in Africa the Islam religion wins more converts than all Christendom’s missions combined. Many fear that in her divided condition Christendom will fall; hence during the past several years there has been an intensified program to unite.
HISTORY OF UNIFICATION EFFORTS
The book The Kingship of Christ considers the history of present-day efforts to unite the many denominations of Christendom. In its introductory chapter it states: “Christians are neither united in one Church, nor are they in any sort of position to suppress the evils of nationalism, or to correct injustice in the society around them. No wonder that a movement which seeks to overcome the divisions within the Church, and to draw the various Christian communions together, should be a matter of highest importance to Christendom as a whole.”
Christendom’s supreme effort to attain unity is the World Council of Churches, which was established in 1948 at Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It is the product of years of evolution, planning and work that stems back in particular to the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. As a result of that conference religious movements such as the International Missionary Council came about. This council was formed in 1921 to facilitate the missionary cooperation of the churches. Faith and Order was another movement that developed as a result of the Edinburgh conference. Its purpose was to consider how the various denominations could attain doctrinal unity. Still another force working toward religious unity at this time was called Life and Work. It was concerned with moral and social questions and sought to promote religious unity through a united attack by the religious organizations on the social, economic and political evils of the day.
After a time church leaders agreed that Faith and Order and Life and Work would best join together into a single movement to work for religious unity. So it was decided to unite them to form a World Council of Churches. Back in 1938 a constitution for the proposed World Council was agreed upon by a conference that met at Utrecht, the Netherlands. However, plans for an assembly to put this world organization into operation were interrupted by the second world war. It was not until ten years later that the first assembly of the World Council of Churches was held, at Amsterdam in the Netherlands. On the assembly’s second day, August 23, 1948, the World Council of Churches was finally born when its constitution was accepted without a dissenting vote.
Last fall, for three weeks during the end of November and the first part of December, the World Council held its third assembly, in New Delhi, India. There another significant step was made in Christendom’s effort to unite. The International Missionary Council, with its thirty-three national councils, became the Division of World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches. This event was considered the most outstanding of the entire assembly, for it finally brought together the three main streams of the ecumenical movement that found their origin in the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910. This merger was hailed by leaders of Christendom as almost equal in importance to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Henry P. Van Dusen, former president of Union Theological Seminary, called it “one of the very early events in the second great reformation of Christendom.”
OTHER CHURCH COUNCILS
Besides the World Council of Churches there are other efforts in Christendom toward unification. Many national Christian councils work in association with the World Council and enjoy what has been described as a “fraternal” relationship. Outstanding among such is The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., which includes thirty-three Protestant and Orthodox communions with a total membership of about 39,000,000. This council was established at a convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1950, by representatives of twenty-nine Protestant and Orthodox bodies, “for the purpose of expressing their common faith and witness and of cooperation with one another in various programs.” Its formation brought together twelve interdenominational agencies, including the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.
However, not all church councils work in cooperation with the World Council of Churches. In fact, the International Council of Christian Churches, with headquarters in Collingswood, New Jersey, and many allied organizations throughout the world, is a rival movement. She considers the World Council apostate because some of its leaders are modernist clergymen who deny doctrines of the fundamentalist religions, and because it accepts into its membership Orthodox religions that retain practices and teachings that the reformers of the sixteenth century cast off as unscriptural, some such being celebration of the Mass, praying to Mary and to saints, belief in transubstantiation, and so forth. She also believes that the friendly gestures between representatives of the World Council and the Roman Catholic Church may lead to a union that will sacrifice all that was gained by the Protestant Reformation.
Accusations are also raised against the World Council to the effect that it is influenced by communism. Why so? At the New Delhi assembly the Russian Orthodox Church, with some fifty million members from Communist-controlled Russia, along with twenty-two other churches, were added to its membership. Since the Russian church is so closely linked with the state, many observers consider with trepidation what this may lead to. Some fear that the Communists will be able to use this position to advance their move for world control.
BARRIERS TO UNITY
Although the World Council of Churches has opened wide its arms to receive close to 200 churches that represent some 300 million professed Christians throughout the world, nevertheless, it has failed to achieve unity between its member churches. This was particularly evident during the New Delhi assembly when the hundreds of representatives from the different churches met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Yet because of differences of belief a unified celebration was impossible. Commented The Christian Century: “The celebration of separate rites by separate churches dramatized the division which remains at the heart of the churches. The churches are still nowhere more clearly divided than they are at the place where they should be most surely one.”
Further indicating their disunity is the tremendous difficulty the World Council has had in establishing a Basis for membership that all churches could accept. Prior to the New Delhi assembly, the Basis read: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.” But this statement was not satisfying to the Orthodox, as well as some of the Protestant churches. So at New Delhi a new Basis was submitted that included a trinitarian expression. It read: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Was this finally a statement that all could readily accept? Far from it! There was long and heated contention by those who opposed it, but when a vote was taken there were 383 for the new Basis, thirty-six against it and seven abstentions, exceeding the necessary two-thirds majority for its adoption. However, many feel that this is still not a settled issue. The Christian Century predicted: “The expanded Basis will continue to be a bone of contention in the council and in future assemblies. . . . The debate will continue until a Basis is drawn up which commends itself to the conscience of all the member churches.” Yet it is questionable, in fact, it is improbable that the churches will be able to draw up even a very simple expression of faith that all will be able to accept. How great the barriers that divide the churches!
Although the assembly’s theme was “Jesus Christ the light of the world,” not all look at Jesus in the same light. Council leaders hold conflicting opinions regarding him, some even denying his virgin birth. This disunity of belief was apparent when they could not agree on a statement regarding his position as a basis for their faith. No wonder the churches cannot preach a unified message to the world when they are divided on such fundamental teachings!
When religions hold conflicting beliefs, not all can be right. And when one feels he has the truth it is only natural and right that he should speak it. Imagine the difficulty between the churches when this is done! The assembly had to face this problem. Bishop Theophilos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church complained: “We are distressed by the misplaced enthusiasm evinced by some groups and bodies who call themselves Christian to draw away members of the Orthodox Church into their own folds. They seem to think that this kind of sheep-stealing is part of their legitimate missionary work. We want to emphasize especially the importance of taking definite steps to counteract the un-Christian element in the proselytizing policies of those groups.”
How did the assembly deal with this problem? It condemned as unchristian such proselytism. Yes, to endeavor to preserve unity between the churches it sought to suppress the preaching of the gospel, the idea being that what one believes is not so important just so long as one claims to be Christian. The World Council of Churches is more interested in unity than it is in finding the truth and preaching it. But even the unity that is obtained is only superficial; it is not the unity of thought and belief characteristic of true Christianity.
WHAT IT MEANS
It becomes evident that true unity has not been attained by Christendom. The World Council of Churches will readily admit that the most it has accomplished is a unity of diversity, a combination of many churches that have agreed to work together and to overlook their differences. But this is not enough. It is not the unity that Christ said would mark his people.
As Jesus himself said: “By their fruits you will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit; a good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit.” According to the admissions of her own clergy, Christendom has not produced the good fruitage of Christian unity.—Matt. 7:16-18.
It is true that the religious systems of Christendom call on Christ as Lord, but he warns: “Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will.” (Matt. 7:21) It is obvious that those who have failed to be at unity as one flock under the one Shepherd appointed by the Father have not been doing the will of God. So, too, individuals who indifferently continue to identify themselves with such religious systems are not in this way pursuing a course that God will bless. Now, therefore, is the time to discard the man-made traditions that have divided the religions of Christendom, not only from one another, but from God, and study what God has to say in his own Word the Bible. Then associate with those who believe and teach God’s Word and who, like Jesus, are fearless witnesses of God and, like him, make known the name of his Father, Jehovah.—John 18:37; Rev. 1:5; Isa. 43:10; John 17:6.