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Controversy still rages over Church Unity

The United States alone has more than 250 separate denominations.
Major ecumenical movements are afoot to bring all differing and conflicting sects and denominations together.
But what are the chances for success?
Will the near future see all Christians united?


“HOLY FATHER, keep through your own name those whom you have given me, that they may be one even as we are one," prayed Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, just before His crucifixion.

Later, the Apostle Paul, in writing to the early church at Ephesus, stated, "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:4-5). But is there really one faith, body and baptism in Christendom today? Hardly.

Today Christians are anything but "one." The divisions of Christendom are blatantly obvious for all to see. With more than 250 conflicting, contending sects and denominations in the United States alone, church leaders sometimes appear — and feel — like Madison Avenue merchandise hawkers, trying to prove that their "brand" is better than the one down the street.

No wonder a "solid majority" of Catholics and Protestants recently told American Gallup pollsters they were in favor of some kind of church unity.

Perhaps that is why the decade of the 60's saw more spectacular ecumenical moves than any other: Vatican II, Uppsala, Consultation on Church Union, not to mention the many small-scale church mergers.

With the flurry of publicity over the ecumenical movement, are strides really being made toward effective church unity?

Just what are some of the problems involved — and how likely are they to be overcome? Can we expect church unity even in this century? Are Protestants and Catholics — or even the major divisions of Protestants — too incompatible to ever get together?

Perhaps even more fundamental is to ask how and why did church Disunity begin. Certainly the One who said He would build a united Church is not the author of the current confusion.


Why DIS-unity?

If the New Testament Church had unity of belief and unity of Church structure, why are churches divided over doctrine and organization? Did the early Church "go bad"?

Protestants as a whole claim to take their beliefs and practices directly from the Bible. But there is little agreement either on what the Bible says or what it means.

The Catholic Church does not appeal to the Bible alone but claims to trace its history to the Apostolic Church. However, the present-day Catholic Church is far different from the Catholic Church of Justin Martyr, Origen, and Eusebius. And, according to church historians, that early Catholic Church of the second, third, and fourth centuries differed greatly from the original New Testament Church of the first century A.D.

Notice what one church historian has written on the subject: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look, and when at last it rises . . . we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (Jesse L. Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, p. 41).

Let's take a look back into history. Where did disunity start — and what steps toward unity have been taken?


Schisms Early in Church

Even during the Apostolic Age, there were problems of apostasy and deliberate attempts by some to draw away followings after themselves. The New Testament gives broad hints of the problems, though few details. But with the completion of the New Testament about 100 A.D., a sudden silence falls over the early Church. The few writings during the next half-century tell little about the state of Christianity.

It is not until the time of Justin Mar-writing about 150 AD., that we — again have statements about specific "heresies." Justin tells us that there were many different groups which bore the name Christian. He names a number extant in his time. This first Catholic writer shows that "Catholic" Christianity was a misnomer in the 2nd century.

Justin places a major share of the religious confusion on one Simon Magus, whom he identifies with the Simon of Samaria in. Acts 8. So we are told that heresy and schism in Christ's Church began even in the early days of the apostles!


The Catholic Church Divides

It was precisely because of the many schisms and differences of belief that the Roman emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. — a conference to decide basic tenets of Christian belief. Constantine was not so much concerned about what was decided for doctrine, just so long as there was unity. Minority opinion was squelched in the council. "Heretics" (individuals and groups who did not agree with the decisions of Nicaea) were forbidden to meet together and, later, violently persecuted. Those who insisted on other forms of Christianity had to leave the Roman Empire or keep hidden. For over 700 years no great variance in religious belief was tolerated. Then came the great split in 1054 between East and West, giving rise to the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches.

Several attempts were made in the following centuries for a reconciliation. The Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Councils of Basle, Ferrara, Florence and Rome (1431-43) made temporary reunions. But these were all repudiated after a few years.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. Once the idea of "protesting" got under way, it was hard to stop. The original Protestant groups themselves subdivided, followed by further branching of the subdivisions, followed by splintering of the branches.

This was the state of things when the great missionary activity, to native peoples reached its height in the 19th century.


Beginnings of the Ecumenical Movement

As missionaries of one denomination moved into an area, they found their counterparts from other denominations already there or soon arriving. The "rivalry for souls" was a constant source of embarrassment for all concerned. As one writer noted, it was somewhat disturbing to ask a Hong Kong citizen what his religion was and receive the reply, "I am Canadian Baptist."

Such a state of confusion resulted in the first major step toward unity on an international level: the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910. This eventually produced the International Missionary Council, founded in 1921; the "Life and Work" movement, 1925, which sought unity through mission and service; and the "Faith and Order" movement in 1927, designed to work on the problem of divisive doctrines.

An attempt to unite the latter two movements was cut short by World War II. But 1948 brought forth the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam. Then the WCC merged with the World Missionary Conference in New Delhi in 1961.

The WCC has remained the main international movement for union among Protestants. But there have been more localized attempts. Two of these in the United States are the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Consultation on Church Union (COCU).

But this history of ecumenical drives would be incomplete without some discussion of the historic Vatican II.


Vatican II — "Some Fresh Air"

It was January 1959. Pope John XXIII was preparing for the termination of a prayer week for church unity. Suddenly a most unusual thing happened — he was told, according to one source, by a heavenly voice that unity of his church would be brought about through an ecumenical council: "As we found ourselves in deep prayer," he said, "we heard through the intimacy and simplicity of our spirit a divine invitation to call an ecumenical council."

Despite opposition from conservatives in the church itself, Pope John pushed ahead with his plans. It is related that, when asked by one cardinal what he hoped to accomplish by the council, he threw open a window and replied, "Let some fresh air into the church."

John presided over the opening of Vatican II (Vatican I was the council in 1870 which established the doctrine of papal infallibility), but he did not live to see its completion. The council began in October 1962; John died the next June, and his successor, the present Pope Paul VI, assumed the papal chair.

When the council ended in December 1965, it seemed that the Catholic Church had already begun a new era. Perhaps one of the most significant declarations, at least to non-Catholics, was that of religious freedom. Protestant "observers" had been pleasantly surprised in many cases at their relations with the Catholic delegates. An air of tolerance pervaded the council.

To most Christians, Vatican II was indeed a breath of fresh air!


Some Against Church Unity

The majority of Christians are for church union, but let's not overlook the vociferous minority opposed to it.

One of the major charges against the World Council of Churches (and the National Council of Churches of the United States) has been that of Communist sympathies, Communist influence, or some similar charge relating to Communism. One does not have to look far to realize why such charges are made. A good example can be found in the Fourth General Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden, in the summer of 1968.

An observer from Christianity Today magazine later wrote that a "deep current of anti-Americanism ran beneath assembly deliberations" (August 16, 1968). Another magazine editor at the assembly pointed out that the "real thrust" of deliberations was more concerned with political and economic issues than with traditional religion.

There seemed a general preference for socialistic ideas, over those of capitalism. Archbishop Nikodim definitely implicated the United States when discussing "victims of aggression" but said nothing of those Eastern Europeans suffering under Communism.

One well-known columnist and editor for several Southern farm magazines called the National Council of Churches the "most powerful and diabolical political organization in the United States" (emphasis his). Others have made similar indictments of the NCC and WCC.


The WCC and NCC Defend Themselves

But these charges have not gone unanswered.

Many feel that disunity among Christians is itself of great benefit to the Communist cause. One widely published Roman Catholic ecumenist Dr. John A. O'Brien wrote: "With Communism striving to complete its conquest of the world by pulling the remaining free nations behind its Iron Curtain, the need for Christians to unite is imperative. Unable to present a united front, we are losing one battle after another in the underdeveloped countries."

Some feel church unity — a united crusade of Christians — is the only hope for world peace. They see the failure of national governments and feel only a religious organization — transcending national boundaries — can effect that elusive goal of peace and harmony among nations.

There is no doubt that a union incorporating the majority of Christians would have great potential power. It is just this possibility of immense political power which some fear. They can, of course, point to the actions of the powerful medieval church and its not-always-beneficent influence over the known civilized world of that time.

So the charges and countercharges go back and forth. Leaving the question of politics behind, let's consider the more pertinent question of religion, the biggest consideration for many. Must churches be willing to compromise in order to get together? Is church unity contrary to the Bible?