by Arthur F. Glasser
The Apostle Paul told the Christians in Galatia: “Ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:29). Since he addressed them as individuals (“Ye”), he was referring to a unity of persons. Since he affirmed that they were “in Christ,” he was restricting this unity to a favored group, not to the world in general.
The Apostle Paul told the Christians in Galatia: "Ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:29). Since he addressed them as individuals ("Ye"), he was referring to a unity of persons. Since he affirmed that they were "in Christ," he was restricting this unity to a favored group, not to the world in general. This unity was—similar to the unity for which our Lord prayed in John 17. Not a unity that everyone in the world might conceivably enjoy with everyone else, but a unity that a particular, people (the "elect") should enjoy with one another. It is the unity of those who share the same "divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4) the family of the twice-born and the Spirit-indwelt. Not a unity to be sought after as though not yet attained; rather, a unity to be kept, enjoyed and expressed.
The New Testament writers never regarded the unity of the church as a problem. They proclaimed it as a theological fact and described it in precise terms. Christ reconciled all His elect, Jew and Gentile, bond and free, Greek and barbarian, not only to Himself but to one another. He thereby created His one, holy, catholic church. "As this unity is one which church members do not make, so it is one which in the ultimate sense they cannot break, any more than they individually can pull or be plucked out of their Saviour’s hand. The unity of the church is something which can be disregarded or denied, but cannot thereby be destroyed" (Packer).
Whereas this oneness belongs to the invisible church of the elect in every land and every age, it must affect the life and fellowship of the institutional church. Hence, when Paul exhorted the Christians in Ephesus to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4:3), a natural question arises. Was he referring to the life of the invisible church, or was he referring to the life of the institutional church?
A wholly satisfactory answer to this question may be found in Paul’s warnings to the Christians in Corinth. The unity of their congregation had been fragmented into four factions (1 Cor. l:12 ). This horrified Paul. "Is Christ divided?" he thundered, then went on to add: "If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are" (3:17). Only careless exegesis would lead one to conclude that we should attribute unity to the invisible church and be unconcerned about the tragedy of the present brokenness of the institutional church. A more accurate understanding of the New Testament will lead one to regard the invisible church as God’s ideal and to determine before God to struggle and pray that the actual (the institutional church) will increasingly approach the ideal. Take a parallel illustration. In the New Testament I find that I am "in Christ." But the New Testament also presses me to be what I am! So with the church. "It is holy; therefore it must be holy. It is one; therefore it must be one" (Ladd).
"The unity of the Church of Jesus Christ is directly and significantly related to her worldwide mission. Our Lord’s earnest petition to the Father on behalf of His Church (John 17) was for her essential spiritual unity and its visible expression in the world. His concern `that they all may be one’ was in order `that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me’ " (Wheaton Declaration).
At Wheaton we turned a deaf ear to the many voices calling for organizational church union at the expense of doctrine and practice. Indeed, the data before us then convinced us that organizational church union of itself seldom appears to release any fresh missionary dynamism, or any upsurge of missionary recruitment. We rejected the conciliar thesis that "mission can only be fulfilled with unity." We were only too aware of the fact that on a hundred fronts throughout the world mission was being prosecuted vigorously without unity. Nonetheless, this did not keep us fromconfessing our failure to manifest fully our biblical oneness through "camel differences and personal grievances." Our evangelical disunity had also hindered the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
We continue to be burdened about evangelical unity. Why? Because we are largely taken up with the pursuit of mission overseas. Over there "the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions" press us to review and review again this tremendous problem. Not without reason has the initiative towards unity come from overseas, in those areas where new churches are coming into being. In this connection, H. Boer has written the following:
On the mission field denominationalism tends to lose its urgency, and even the creedal raison d’etre of denominationalism loses some of its cogency. The reason for this is not difficult to see. In the loneliness of a foreign land, in the face of common problems and difficulties, missionaries from different ecclesiastical backgrounds tend to be drawn together. On the mission field the supreme concern is to find an opening for the elemental realities of the Christian Faith. The theological and historical backgrounds that were factors in bringing the sending Churches into being are, therefore, not invested with that primary importance that is associated with them at home. But especially is the desire for Christian and ecclesiastical unity on the mission field understandable from the viewpoint of the younger Churches. They nearly invariably constitute a very small minority in an overwhelmingly pagan environment. Confronted by a colossal mass of non-Christian religion and mores, by the power of age-old cultures, by indifference and not infrequently by hostility, the younger churches are more aware and appreciative of the faith that unites them than of the differences that divide them. The things that draw them to each other, moreover, frequently commend themselves to their understanding much more than do the denominational and creedal differences that separate them. The being drawn to each other is born of a sort of Christian instinct. The divisions that exist between them, on the other hand, are often regarded as things that have been imposed, the rightness of which may live deeply in the sending Churches, but which may appear as something less than essential to the men and women who are not the product of the theological and historical factors that brought the differences into being (Pentecost and Missions).
"Voices expressing pain over existing divisions and urging more striving toward unity and reconsideration of the things that divide have never ceased to come from those who are deeply concerned about the spread of the Gospel in the missionary areas" (Boer). As missionary leaders we are painfully aware that these voices are striving to be heard. We cannot but believe that they come from the Spirit of God, since He is so mightily at work in the very areas where they are most vocal. In partial response, our Wheaton Declaration affirmed the desirability of organizing evangelical fellowships "among churches and missionary societies at national, regional, and international levels." It also called for evangelical mission mergers wherever needed and cautioned against "competition" between evangelicals.
CONCERNING EVANGELICAL FELLOWSHIPS
In the past decades, patterns of intermission and interchurch relations have developed in Africa and Latin America in ways which made it possible to avoid the development of fully parallel and competitive structures representing "ecumenical" and "evangelical" positions. This was possible because in the missionary context the span of doctrinal diversity was not nearly as great as in the sending countries. Hence the need for mutual recognition and cooperation was also relatively greater. The relative success achieved in maintaining a broad evangelical unity in the younger churches and the younger nations was dueto the following prerequisites:
1. The resistance to the false dichotomy between ecumenical and evangelical. Today the custom seems to be that one can take for granted that "evangelical" is an alternative to "ecumenical." Actually, evangelicals have different views about the precise form in which the unity of God’s people should be manifested. Some missionaries of our own societies belong to churches actively engaged in the ecumenical debate and in the search for organizational unity, and themselves desire such visible unity, provided that it is not achieved at the expense of essential, biblical truth. To them the World Council of Churches by no stretch of the imagination can be said to be anti-Christian, for its central affirmation is the deity of Christ.
2. The possibility of dual membership in interchurch agencies having a conservative theological statement. This has meant that not only individuals or congregations but also mission organizations and national denominational groupings could be participants in national interchurch fellowship with a conservative doctrinal statement, at the same time that they remained in denominational fellowship with sending churches whose theology was less conservative, and with ecumenical agencies such as the United Missionary Council and the WCC.
3. The possibility of active membership of conservative missions and denominations in national Christian councils deal ing with administrative and legal matters, in honest awareness of doctrinal diversity, but handling concerns where doctrinal diversity does not hinder cooperation. This was exemplified by the fact that two of the founders of the Evangelical Fellowship of India were at the same time officers in the National Christian Council.
4. The possibility of nonalignment with international agencies as the principle underlying any national interchurch group. National Christian alliances in several Latin American countries have maintained their internal unity by forbidding, constitutionally or as a matter of stated policy, any identification with international bodies.
It seems to me that a new mood is pervading evangelical thinking today. Voices are being heard affirming that dual membership is neither practicable nor desirable on the part of units larger than local congregations, and that the appropriateness of the nonalignment of national alliances needs to be challenged. Furthermore, a new form of discrimination appears to be emerging. It is reported that some Christians are being challenged, even rebuked when they refuse to bow to those who imply that their affiliation with an ecumenical agency should be broken if they desire full status in a national evangelical fellowship.
My feeling on the matter is that the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association and the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association should never be party to any structuring of interchurch relationships that exclude individuals or congregations or denominational groupings on the basis of their associations rather than on the basis of their stated faith.
We should never abandon our sense of identity with great numbers of true believers still to be found within all the larger denominations, who believe that God has called them to be His faithful witnesses and His true remnant within their communions.
EFMA and IFMA ought not to exclude from their fellowship and common activity the large numbers of missionaries and national churchmen whose personal commitment to Jesus Christ and His church and whose sincere piety and biblical orthodoxy are unimpeachable.
We ought to avoid the erection of competitive ecclesiastical power structures with their demands for "secondary separation," since these are the evidence of willful divisiveness, and thereby mar our witness before ecumenical agencies and "divide" Jesus Christ.
CONCERNING MISSION MERGERS
Many are now aware of the following relevant factors:
1. Abundant evidence now exists substantiating the fear that many missionary societies consume valuable personnel, funds, and time in maintaining their separateness in a highly competitive field.
2. These societies are so similar in calling, ethos, and organization that their differences are minor and not worthy of perpetuation as separate organizations.
3. Growing impatience exists among discerning laymen over the costly, competitive stance of these societies. They not unnaturally inquire into the reasons why these societies are reluctant to think positively about pooling their resources with a view to achieving greater efficiency. Businessmen value good management, the reduction of unnecessary overhead, and the centralization of administration.
4. The constituencies of these separate societies do not seriously object when mergers are under consideration.
5. Mergers should be considered at the highest level of economy and efficiency. At home, this means the North American administrative level. On the field the tension between national church and foreign society is likely to be resolved far sooner than many are prepared to believe possible.
6. Steadily rising costs, diminishing numbers of recruits, and shrinking "homeside" constituencies could conceivably cause some of our smaller societies to become desperate for the sort of relief a merger could provide. Rather than wait for this type of situation to develop and thus push societies reluctantly to merge with one another, it seems that the cause of evangelical unity and a desire for the greater glory of God should press our societies to act positively and spontaneously in the light of this challenge.
We should not hold back through fear of missions becoming too large. With the rapid emergence of vigorous national churches, it seems that increasingly the foreign missionary force in any one country is going to need greater autonomy.
Has not the time come to consider the merging of administrative operations in North America in the interest of keeping abreast of the emergence of evangelical fellowship overseas? The following possibilities are suggested:
1. That the formation of an Africa Missionary Fellowship be considered with regional subgroupings patterned after the areas currently considered under the jurisdiction of the largest, oldest evangelical societies in these various areas.
2. That the formation of an East Asia Missionary Fellowship be considered with missionaries coming together under the sponsorship and counsel o£ the dominant societies currently in the separate countries.
It seems to me that the present impasse over mergers can only be broken by our larger societies doing something sacrificial and comprehensive as tangible evidence of their serious determination to express the oneness that is Christ’s body. The fragmentation of evangelical missionary activity in today’s world confronts us with an imperative, not a problem. I can hardly believe that the more than 125 separate societies laboring in Japan alone can be viewed as an answer to our Lord’s gayer. The whole of the New Testament teaching is a plea for unity and not division. There is no hint in Paul’s writings to the erring churches of Corinth and Galatia that a new denomination should be formed if things become bad enough. Yet, this is what we have done again and again. We say that we must retain our independency as voluntary societies that are evangelical in theology, interdenominational in membership, and distinctive in our objectives. Actually, we are very similar to one another. We draw our candidates from the same schools and go to the same churches with a view to enlisting their support. Overseas, our objectives are the same. But because we live in isolation from one another and in competition with one another, we are weak and in need. Who can justify our organizational separateness on scriptural grounds? Who does not sigh before the Lord that He give grace to face up to the scandal of our divisions and seek positive solutions?
The benefits would be enormous. Mergers would release good field men who accepted administrative jobs with reluctance. They would insure that men with administrative gifts would attain posts providing scope for the capabilities. Christian students would not be confused by the multiplicity of competing agencies. No longer would there be the vast wastage of money spent in promotional magazines. Best of all, such mergers would demonstrate that evangelicals are at long last learning to trust one another more, and fear one another less. Oneness would be displayed, and the world would believe.
Nothing is so destructive of the mission of the church as its careless toleration of the competitive spirit. Marty writes:
The outcome of the ecumenical movement which will stir the world is not an organizationally-fulfilled, undergirding and over-arching Christian unity. What will be satisfying is the honest portrayal to the world of reunited Christian churches which do not compete but do accept and support each other and which-this is most important of all-carry on together their mission of serving and saving through word and work in the world.
We are to love our neighbors, not shove them. We are to get the world evangelized, not produce new denominations. But the competitive spirit causes the leader of each new movement to downgrade those whom he regards as his competitors, thus erecting barriers and furthering the division of Jesus Christ. If we compete among ourselves we only succeed in producing new groupings whose raison d’etre rapidly passes when the next generations takes over. We have produced denominations around Bible study methods or Scripture memory systems. We have a variety of competing student movements whose differences are minimal, being concerned with details of evangelistic method, group dynamics, and attitude toward culture. Only by a consistent act of the will and a constant summoning of energy can we reverse what appears to be an instinctive tendency within us all-that we devote ourselves most to what divides us.
I do not know what we can do: about this other than ask our responsible religious journals to talk to this point again and again, until God’s people become ashamed of the lavish way in which they pour their wealth into those charismatic movements which swagger and compete, boast and grasp, to the negation of the oneness for which Christ prayed.
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