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Christian Union, Real and Unreal
By Rev. Thomas Armitage, D.D.
The Baptist newspaper, 1877
      An address by Rev. Thomas Armitage, delivered at a meeting held in the Dutch Reformed Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, to promote the objects of the Christian Union enterprise. The various denominations were represented by Dr. Smith, Episcopalian; Dr. Rice, Presbyterian; Dr. Vermilye, Reformed Dutch; Dr. Armitage, Baptist.

      I appear before my brethren of various Christian denominations this evening, with great reluctance and even shrinking, to discuss the subject of Christian Union. And this, not because I do not love unity among Christ's disciples - for the intense earnestness with which the Redeemer prayed for oneness among his people were enough to hallow the theme to every feeling heart, - but I shrink because of what seems to me the amazing misconceptions of good men as to its real nature, as to the supposed obstructions in the way of its attainment, and as to the true method of promoting it.

      Besides this, the fruitlessness and ill-feeling that have followed most of the attempts to Promote union upon the current basis, seem to torbid future attempts in the same direction as useless, if not worse than useless. Then what is to be done? Are we to settle down into the conviction that the Savior's prayer is a nullity, - that real Christian union is unattainable? I am frank to say that my own conviction is fixed, and settled that the Redeemer's prayer remains unanswered, and that real Christian unity must be unattainable, until the great mass of Christ's followers do radically change their views of the nature of Christian union itself, and bond their energies in an entirely different direction in order to secure it.

      I would not venture to trouble you with my views on this matter, if your Secretary had not pressed me to do so till I am tired of saying "no;" nor even then, but for the assurance that you desired a frank and manly avowal of sentiment here, and that I am perfectly at liberty as a Baptist to say what I think necessary, and that no offense is to be given or taken in the discussion. Assuming, then, the sincerity of this assurance, I will proceed, first of all, to examine the popular conception of Christian union.

      I. As far as I can discover, my Pedobaptist brethren seem to think that it consists very largely in a warm-hearted, loving feeling toward each other as regenerated men.

      The general tone of newspaper articles and platform speeches would lead one to suppose that A new gift of tongues had been bestowed upon the churches, so eloquently do good men descant upon the progress of Christian union. But when you come to inquire as to what they mean, you find that the upshot of it all is, that Christians of various denominations are either acting together now on some subject on which they never differed before, or else they are meeting together in one place to worship, while their meeting is openly organized upon the avowed basis that on all other subjects but those then and there contemplated, they are so positively disunited as to compel the disruption of their concord if one subject of their tenacious differences should happen to be broached. And this is called Christian union! Out of that particular body or assembly their disagreements are earnest, radical, and unalterable. But there they "agree to disagree;" and so disagreement, if you can agree about it, is unity! That is, kneeling on the same floor, sitting on the same seat, singing the same hymn, uniting in the same prayer (when you have never been divided at all as to the floor, the bench, the hymn, or the prayer), and being as different as possible in all other respects, constitutes Christian union! Men of every hue of faith and opinion, and every variety of practice, too, happen to meet in one Board, on one platform, or under one roof, and because they are not bitter, but feel kindly toward each other, they consider that they are making great attainments in the mysteries of Christian union. Yet not a point of difference is yielded in any respect; each man would suffer and die for his distinctive principles, as his fathers suffered and died for them; and each would distrust the other's honesty, if he were not willing to die for them; and tills is looked upon, very generally, as good, fair, Bible Christian union! Well, it may be; but if it is, things have changed vastly since apostolic times. The truth is, that kindly feeling is not Christian union, and may exist where "the unity of the faith" is rent into a thousand shreds.

      Why, indeed, to love one another as brethren, so far as that we can meet together and keep The peace for a short time, like gentlemen, without the intervention of a constable, or even of unlovely feeling, is at the best a very low Christian attainment. We worship with publicans every time that we frequent God's house, but we don't think much of that as a bond of union with them. Jesus says that a publican loves a publican, and the first duty of a Christian is to love his enemy and persecutor - so that a Christian has made no wonderful attainment, I think, when he comes to love his brother, and to worship with him in decency under one roof. But to claim that love as real Christian union - to assume it is answering the prayer of Christ for the same oneness that subsists between himself and the Father - is simply preposterous. I can love any man of any Christian church well enough to worship with him, at any time that it may be convenient for us both. 1 can love him enough to tender him, if a minister, the use of my pulpit, or to accept the use of his - but what does that amount to in the great matter of gospel oneness? I should certainly go out of his pulpit as stern and incorrigible a Baptist as when I entered it, and if he sacrificed his convictions simply on the ground of the interchange, I should much prefer not to exchange with him a second time. This Is not Christian union, however popular and desirable it may be. It may be a certain result of Christian love, but Christian love is not Christian union. Unity can not exist without love, but love may exist where there is no real and serious discord of opinion and faith. Kindly Christian feeling is not Christian union.

      II. Popular opinion seems to make Christian union consist in a common cummumion of all sects at the Lord's Table as one consolidated mass of believers, and holds that the troublesome "close communion Baptists" are responsible for all the discords among Christians.

      The popular cry among our Pedobaptist brethren is for a pulling down of the middle wall of partition, and they persistently hold that these strict Baptists are the chief master-builders that strengthens it. Rev. John Chambers, of Philadelphia, says: "The world cannot be converted until the church is united, and the church cannot be united until Baptists renounce close communion." This reminds me of the fact that Roger Williams, and other early American Baptists, were excluded from the Pedobaptist churches of New England, not because they were bigots on the communion question, but because they would not embrace the doctrine of "Infant Baptism," so-called. Of course, they were obliged to form a communion of their own, for they could in no wise be allowed to approach the Lord's table in the Pedobaptist churches till they renounced their heresy. But because they did so, and the heresy grew, instead of dying, their communion is now denounced as "close," and their children are exhorted by Mr. Chambers to "renounce" that also, on the serious charge of bigotry, and of standing in the way of the world's conversion. This is something like the two old Baptist deocons who had fallen into a luckless quarrel. When they began to relent, one said to the other: "Brother, this is all wrong, we ought to be reconciled. Therefore, I do insist upon it that you shall be reconciled, for I cannot be." Now, there is no more prominent public pleader for Christian union in the land than Mr. Chambers, and I assure you my Presbyterian brethren, that when I read his way of promoting it, I really envied you the possession of so extraordinary a man; for I thought that if Bro. Chambers had happened to have been on my side of the house, he would have made just one of the coolest Baptists that ever writhed before the whipping-post in Massachusetts Bay. 'But this brother is only a type of a very large class. On a Fourth of July, several years ago, individual members of all the Christian sects met in the largest hall In Philadelphia, to celebrate our National Independence by holding a union religious service. At that meeting, one of the most prominent speakers, who had shortly before published a pamphlet on Christian Unity, in which he declared the Baptists to be the greatest bigots in Christendom, said: "I hope, sir, the time will come when all Christians, of every name and denomination, will sit down together at the Communion table; this is the spirit we want, it is the spirit of union." Immense applause followed this utterance, and a telegraphic whisper flashed through the throng: "That's a capital hit at the Baptists." Now, mind you, brethren, all this took place at a union meeting! And to be frank with you, we Baptists have an idea that we are rather commonly lampooned in that way at union meetings, by very loving brethren, so that we get a fancy, somehow, that we are a sect very much in the way of some very excellent men. So much on that head.

      Well, then, as to this matter of destroying "close communion," as a barrier to Christian union, I have this to say:

      III. That communion at the Lord's table is not at all, in any proper sense, a test of Christian union.

      Our Savior did not intend it to be a test of Christian union, so far as we find anything on the subject in the Bible. No Christian denomination so holds it, so far as they set forth their view upon the matter in their best expositors or authorized standards. It is never so used in their Articles of Faith, catechisms, or creeds. Intelligent and honest men never so use it in defining the import of the supper. All Pedobaptists, when in controversy with Romanists, put a different Interpretation from this upon the design of the Lord's supper when it becomes desirable to draw down the Baptists, by stigmatizing them as "exclusive," and "bigots," they call the supper a test, of union. Is this honorable among gentlemen, to say nothing of Christians and ambassadors of Christ? Why give an interpretation to the Lord's supper, when an appeal can be based upon the ignorance or prejudice of men, to the injury of Baptists, which is never put upon it under any other circumstances? The fact si, the Bible defines the object of the supper to be specific. It was instituted for one thing, and for one thing only. What was that? To "show forth" your love for one another? Did Christ say that? No, sirs. To "show forth" your Christian-union? No, sirs. Neither did Christ say that. To "show forth" Christ himself, as the Son of God - born in the manger - healing in the temple - agonizing in the Garden? No, sins; not even that. To "show forth" Christ, truly, but only in one act of his mediation, as Paul expresses it: "To show forth his death." This, and only this. No more no less. And our Pedobaptist brethren never give it any other interpretation, except when, in an unhappy moment, they stand behind the cross of Christ to make their Baptist brethren appear unmitigated bigots. Is not this true? I appeal to my candid and honorable brethren of various denominations now present to say if this is not true.

      Now, then, take another view of the matter. Take the facts of the last supper as Jesus himself administered it. Let me ask you, did John show his Christian union with Judas Iscariot when they took the sop together from the same divine hand? Certainly, if ever, that should have been the time. Did the male portion of the discipleship show their Christian unity with the mother of Jesus, and with his other female followers, when they celebrated the supper alone? Did Jesus intend that they should ? But if the supper is a mark of Christian union, why were those holy women not present to celebrate it, seeing that the discipleship was emphatically one? Our Lord's prayer for union was offered after the supper was administered. Therefore he prayed for a oneness among his disciples that the supper did not, and could not supply. The fact is, that the Lord's supper is practically made of more importance in these days than any other institutions of our Lord. Our Lord evidently intended that in gospel churches the Lord's supper should be of no more importance than the Lord's baptism. If one is a naked form, the other is a naked form; if one is a saving vitality, the other is a saving vitality; if one is a means of divine grace, the other is a means of divine grace; and if one is but a symbolical act, the other is but a symbolical act. If one is a putting on of Christ, the other is a showing forth of his death when he is put on. Then what end for the truth, or the glory of God, can be secured by the foisting in of some mystical sense in the interpretation of the one, which you exclude, from the other? Why do you treat the one as if it were of the most solemn import imaginable, and the other as if it were the emptiest form possible? Both of them are Christ's ordinances, enjoined upon his people; they ore equally hallowed and binding, and neither of them is intended as a test of Christian union. And it seems to me that our Pedobaptist brethren are well satisfied themselves. Hence, none of them are really open communion. When it is convenient, they extol Robert Hall's liberality, but do they practice it? Do they even endorse his principles? Certainly they do not. He did not believe that baptism is essential to the Lord's supper at all, but they do; hence the only really open communion churches that I know of are certain of the English Baptists, and the American Freewill Baptists. They do not believe a man needs to be baptized at all in order to commune at the Lord's table. I know of no Pedobaptist church that believes this, or that will admit its own converts, regenerated men to its table, until in the judgment of that church they are baptized. We Baptists take the same position with yourselves on this point. There is not a hair's breadth of difference between us here. We all hold that no man has a right to the supper till he is baptized. But, then, we hold that you are not baptized with gospel baptism, and of course the question between yon and us becomes one, not of "close communion," but of "close" baptism. We ask to be fairly met on that question, and not on a false issue. Now, brethren, I wish you, in all candor, to look calmly upon the proposition which you submit to us Baptists. You ask us, while entertaining these views, to commune with those who have not been immersed on a profession of faith in Christ: that is, you ask us to commune with those that we hold to be unbaptized. Yet you would subject to discipline any one of your own ministers or churches that assumed to act on this principle by publicly inviting to the Lord's table persons whom they believed to be unbaptized. Is this consistent with your profession that in this proposed union no consciences are to be sacrificed?

      IV. Where open communion at the Lord's table does exist, either among the different Pedobaptist denominations or between them and Baptists, it is never made the test of Christian union by any of the parties interested.

      Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Reformed Dutch and Methodists, are open Communion, so far as that they may all sit down together at the Supper table spread in each other's congregations. But are they Any more united among themselves, consequence of this species Of open communion, than they are with the Baptists? Nay, indeed, isolated individual cases excepted, do they commune together at the Lord's table at all? It is notorious that as denominations, they never think of such a thing. Who ever heard of Dr. Cotton Smith presiding at the Lord's in Dr. Gardiner Spring's church, our of Dr. Verimilye breaking bread in Dr. Tyng's church, or Dr. Rice administering the supper in Dr. McClintock's church? Well, why not? Do they not regard each other as regenerated men? Certainly they do. Do they regard each other as baptized? Most certainly they do. What is the trouble then? I do not know. I know that my Episcopalian brethren do not regard my Presbyterian brethren as properly qualified to administer the ordinance. But I cannot see how that should be in their way as regenerated men, with their views of Baptists and baptism. A number of these brethren are here, they must answer for themselves. They are able. Some years ago, many members of various denominations celebrated the supper in a public hall in Philadelphia as an illustration of good will towards each other, but there was no denominational or even church union about it; so far from it, indeed, that they could not meet in the church edifice of any one denomination for the purpose, but were compelled to meet on neutral ground. I wonder that they did not regard the Philadelphia Baptists as very "exclusive," for not opening one of their church edifices for the service when they would not open their own. It may be said that these various bodies can meet together at the Lord's table, as churches, if they please? But the fact that they do not please so to sit down with each other shows either that they do not consider this act to be a test of Christian union among themselves, or else that, after all, they have but little concern for Christian union among themselves, or else that, after all, they have but little concern for Christian union itself among Pedobaptists - so little, that they feel quite guiltless when they utterly neglect to apply the test. The fact is, the various Pedobaptist bodies find it a moral impossibility to commune with each other, till they can settle the points upon which they predicate their several existence as distinct bodies. If this is not correct, let me ask why Dr. Rice, a Presbyterian, Dr. Smith, an Episcopalian, and Dr. Vermilye, a member of the Reformed Dutch church, are here this evening, all pleading for Christian union among Pedobaptists.

      Again: many Baptists are open communion, but does that bind them closer to other Christian denominations than the strict communion Baptist are bound. The Freewill Baptists of this country are open communion. They number over ____ and an excellent people they are, too, but what Pedobaptist denomination takes special interest in them on these accounts? I have been a pastor in this city for seventeen years, and have Watched with great interest the little Freewill Baptist church Among us struggle for an extensive. These brethren have one Small meeting-house, immediately in the rear of the elegant edifice, in Twenty-eight street, and they have been deliberating for years as to whether or not they could pay their debts, and keep it. Well, how many of you Pedobaptist brethren, who feel deeply about our "close communion," have helped them, in order that you might enjoy Christian union with them? yet you can sit down at the Lord's table with them whenever you please. I have never heard d of any of your churches so much as taking a collection, to save that edifice from the hammer of the sheriff. Does this show that open communion is the bond of Christian union? Another question. Does open communionism promote the prosperity of Freewill Baptists? Are other Christian so enamored of their Baptist principles, aside from that, that they gladly embrace them and unite with them? Let us see. In 1844 they numbered 61,3726 in the United States; in 1865, twenty-one years afterward, they numbered 55,676, that is,6,000 less, while in those years our strict communion Baptists in America have increased more than 3000,000. According to Bro. Chambers' views of Christian union, what Prospect is there of the millennium?

      But my Pedobaptist brethren say: "Yes, but they are Arminians, and it is this that interrupts our Christian union with them." Well, so are that glorious people, the Methodists, yet they increase more rapidly than any of us, and every new convert in as unyielding a Methodist as the old ones, and they are all open communion too; but you have no Christian union of a denominational character with them, for all that, which you have not with the Freewill Baptists. All this goes to show that open communion has nothing whatever to do with Christian union, and that you so consider it when the Baptists are counted out of the question.

      Now, let me ask you to look in another direction. For the most part, the English Baptists are open communion. Well, does that system work differently in Great Britain from what it does here, in the matter of Christian union? Not at all. Who is so lusty a defender of open communionism as Mr. 8purgeon? But does that endear him to other Christians? Let facts speak. Recently he has very boldly attested that infant baptism so called, is unscriptural, and injurious to the church of God; in consequence of which the bitterest war has been waged against him by Christian people in Great Britain that has been waged against any London pastor for the last century. True, he loves to belabor his own strict brethren, but does that render him more acceptable to his brethren of other churches? Not one jot or tittle, so long as he chooses to remain a Baptist. If he chooses to abandon his Baptist principles they will love him well enough. Are the other religious bodies more closely bound to the open communion Baptists of England than to their strict communion brethren there? Not a whit. Scarcely a week passes that the English papers do not publish some scandalous act on the part of clergymen of the established church refusing to bury the infants of Baptist parents in consecrated ground, because, forsooth, they are unchristened. The honest truth is, that where other Baptist principles are held, it is a matter of no consequence with Pedobaptists whether Baptists are open communion or not. So far as appears to the contrary, you might annihilate strict communion to-day, and it would not inaugurate Christian union among the various sects. And this simply because communion at the Lord's table is not and cannot be made Christian union. Why, then, should those who plead for Christian union feel themselves at liberty to perpetually ring the charges of disunion over the heads of close communion Baptists with a sort of holy horror, as if they were the scape-goats to bear away the sins of all the religionists in the world? A man that does that may assume great pious complacency, and may cherish his own views of fairness, but I must claim the right to my views of his manliness, not to say meanness, nevertheless. I do respect a man who sincerely attempts to show that our baptism is not Scriptural, and meets us in a fair, square, manly way, upon the real differences between us and others, namely, what is Bible baptism, and who are the proper subjects for it. But when an otherwise respectable man creates a false issue by attempting to show that my views of the Lord's supper is wrong, when he knows them to be his own to a shade, he must excuse me if my frankness will not allow me to respect him, as I otherwise would. If I could believe him to be honest.

      V. What, then, is Christian Union?

      Ah! truly, that is a delightful question. Let me attempt to answer it. There were no sects in the apostolic church; therefore we want no union of sects in the modem church, for that would be the sum total of sectarianism. But we do want a union of Christians. The prayer of Jesus is, that those "who believe on me may be one, as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us." Not "one" as men may be one in one ecclesiastical body, but "one In us." Jesus prays to the Father that "they may be one, as we are one." Now who would speak of the Trinity as a union? Yet all may speak of the Godhead as a unity. Then for what does Jesus pray? That all his followers may be one, precisely as he and his Father are one - not that they formed a union, but that they constitute a unity. Then his prayer contemplates that believers should attain a oneness of mind in the faith, and not merely a oneness of feeling - a oneness of heart in the obedience which they offer - and a oneness of effort in the works which they do.

      And, then Jesus measures this Christian unity by the standard of the divine nature. "That they may be one as we are one." If this unity among Christians consists in mere heart-kindness, there is no visible oppositeness in this momentous petition. The Father and the Son are one in feeling, action, counsel, name. Therefore the prayer means that Christians are to be one in the same sense; that is, one in feeling, action, Counsel, name. So completely are the Father and the Son one, that the same acts are ascribed to both, and the same purposes are formed by both. Such is their identity in these respects, that the eye of the keenest archangel cannot see a shade of variation. This the real picture of Christian unity, as Jesus hung it up in the supper chamber. Perfect oneness must subsist among the people of God, and their unity must agree in agreeing, and not in differing, just as the unity of the Father and the Son agrees. We are to hold the same affections, the same doctrines, and the same ordinances, and we are to hold them as Jesus held them, or else our union is a counterfeit and a pretention. This is Christian unity, as Jesus prays for it, and it seems to me, with the open Bible before me, that nothing else is. Who would suppose that the Father holds one form of truth, and the Son another, but that for the sake of peace they "agree to disagree" - that is, that they mutually agree to suppress the varying expressions of their mind, and that they call this being at one? The very thought is offensive. Christ was exclusively one with the Father in doing his will, and our unity must be like the unity of the Father and the Son. In other words, Christian unity must be Scriptural, or it is unreal, it is nothing. Therefore, nothing but a return of all those who love the Savior to the naked teachings of the Bible, as the Father and the Son avowed those teachings, can ever result in Christian unity. Christian bodies may declare an armistice and be peaceable, but it is one thing to be peaceable and another to be united. It is a shame that one man should denounce another as exclusive, because that other more fully obeys the word of God than himself. God has expressed his will in the broadness of infinite thought, and that man who does not scruple to obey every part of it is the most catholic believer. His exclusiveness is exclusive oneness with Christ in obeying his will, and therefore he partakes of the spirit Of the catholicity of God. But no man can obey that will without sympathy with the catholic God. Hence, David says, "not when thou shall contract," but "when thou shalt enlarge my heart, I will run in the way of thy commandments."

      I take it, then, that the only way in which we Christians can be united is to agree that we will mutually obey whatever is positively enjoined in the New Testament, and insist upon nothing beyond that. Let each man appeal to the Bible only, and he will need to ask for no concession from his brethren. Opinion will then give place to Christian faith; convenience, and preference, and expediency to divine authority. How common it is for Christians to retain their distinct peculiarities, because they are not forbidden in the word of God. This is a dangerous principle; it is one of the rocks on which Christian sects split. The things that are specially required are the things that are to be done, and not the things that are not specially forbidden. Luther fell into this trap. Carlstadt demanded of him, "Where has Christ commanded us to elevate the host? "Where has he forbidden it?" Luther retorted. So, because it was not positively forbidden Luther concluded that it must be done. Our trouble springs largely from this false position. If we should only ask that each other's tastes and preferences should yield to God's word, we would soon begin to respect each other's views of it, and to grow into real unity. Do you wonder that when a man asserts, for instance, that my views of baptism are Scriptural and apostolical, and then adds that, for some reason aside from their Scripturalness, he prefers something else, and requires me to give up my views in order to accommodate him, that he may unite with me - do you wonder that I resent it as an insult to my convictions? I am tempted to say: "Rather give up what is a matter of indifference to you, be baptized with what you confess to be Bible baptism, and we are one in a moment." So far as I know, no denomination of Christians hold an immersed believer to be an unbaptized man. All say, that is gospel baptism. They sacrifice no conscience in recognizing it. We hold that your sprinkling and pouring, either of a child or a believer, is not gospel baptism, and of course we should sacrifice conscience in saying that it is, and in acting towards you as if it were. Who sacrifices conscience, then, and break the "unity of the faith;" we, in not submitting to a baptism that we think contrary to the gospel, or you, in refusing to submit to one which you conscientiously believe to be taught in the gospel? If you want union, submit to what you hold to be according to the gospel in this thing; we have done that already, and your act will at once restore the primitive "one faith, one baptism."

      These are my views of Christian union, and the method of attaining it. I can see no other in harmony with the word of God. And if this be Christian union, its profound sanctity overwhelms me; its infinite tenderness moves my whole being. The delicious conception of its purity, and preciousness, and power make me tremble with holy awe. I remember that when my Redeemer bowed beneath the ponderous load of my sins this holy thought soothed his bleeding heart, and just before the purple blood-drops forced their passage through every pore of his body he breathed out this intercession for every ransomed disciple, and for me: "That they all may be one, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."


      Note: At the close of this address Dr. Rice, of the Presbyterian church, arose and said he regretted that Dr. Armitage had misunderstood him in his previous remarks. For, so far from believing that "immersion" was gospel baptism, he did not believe it was Christian baptism at all. He believed that aspersion was the only Scriptural baptism, and he would not "immerse" any person even on his faith.


      For this most candid avowal, made in this public way, I do most heartily thank Dr. Rice, because it shows me,
      1. That it is not Baptist views of communion that he objects to so much as their baptism.

      2. That he at least is consistent with himself, whatever other of his brethren may be, and Has abandoned the ground that baptism is a prerequisite to the Lord's table. For he complains that the Baptists are close communion, and that they thereby stand in the way of Christian unity, while he earnestly desires to commune with them, although in his opinion, they are not baptized at all. He does not even require them to be "aspersed" in order to [take] communion with other Christian. I like it. It gives us a new idea of things in their present shape on this union question. Will our Pedobaptist brethren abide by Dr. Rice's position?
      T. A.

[From The Baptist, Memphis, July 14, 1877, p. 1; July 21, 1877. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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