By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D
THE STUDY OF ECCLESIOLOGY
CURRENT PROBLEMS INDIRECTLY INVOLVED
1. Whether there is any warrant for the existence of the organised Church, or any need for its persistence.
(1) Radical criticism denies the trustworthiness of the Gospel records, and consequently makes it impossible to ascertain what words Christ actually used. At the
(2) Even supposing it certain that he employed the word in question, or its equivalent, there remains still the doubt whether he had in mind or purpose a formally organized body. The institutionalism of his time was frowned upon by him. He foreshadowed a new era in which emphasis would attach to that which is "within" — a "worship in spirit," as contrasted with the sensuous externalism of Judaism. "Institutional Christianity" has accordingly been bitterly denounced as a perverse misrepresentation of Christ's fundamental idea. Pleas
(3) Moreover, supposing the formal Church to have been a normal development in the beginning, there is room for doubt as to its permanent usefulness. Having been born of Judaism, and having taken on a Judaistic tinge, may it not have outgrown its earlier conditions? May it not now need to be put aside like other "childish" things inherited from "them of old time"? Roman Catholicism may have been a judiciously devised cocoon for a crude populace, but ought not such swaddling-clothes to be recognized as outgrown? Ralph Waldo Emerson
2. Questions have arisen as to the normal constituency of a Christian church.
(1) Must it, in order to merit the name lawfully, be composed exclusively of those who have voluntarily attached themselves to it? In some countries every citizen is, by virtue of his citizenship, constituted a member. In some communions birth into a
(2) What of the requirement of definite belief in Christ, or salvation through his intervention in any form? The "Broad Church," the "liberals," the "ethical reformers," sharply assail credalism as obstructive, if not destructive, in tendency. Formulas of all kinds, it is said, have arrested development, bred tyranny, and ended in persecution. "He can't be wrong whose life is in the right." "Out of the heart," not out of the head, are "the issues of life." The Presbyterian Church requires subscription to a creed only of the ordained. Anglicans rebel against such subscription as "a yoke that neither we nor our fathers could bear." But why should any informal profession of faith be required, since sincerely good intent, wholly apart from intellectual attitude, is alone essential?
(3) Is there need of any prior experience of inward change — any hint of what is
(4) Is baptism, as an outward act, essential to legitimate membership in a normally constituted church? The Friends, for instance, a most devout and gracious people, wholly repudiate all obligation to observe ordinances in literal form. The disposition to remand varying forms of baptism to non-essentialism, as touching an "externality
3. Serious questioning of the wisdom of prolonging of denominational distinctions begins to become insistent.
The alleged weakness of divided Protestantism over against the compactness of the Church of Rome, the growth of social and national tendencies toward unification in organization, and especially the expressed desire of our Lord for the oneness of his followers, have awakened renewed doubts as to the legitimacy of the partition lines that now isolate Christendom into sects. Such questions as these are becoming rife; viz:
On the other hand, Dr. Philip Schaff, a most competent authority, vigorously defended the existing order. "Denominations," he asserted, "are most numerous in the most advanced and active sections of the world. A stagnant church is a sterile mother. . . . Sects are a sign of life and interest in religion. The most important
An earnest plea for the revival of denominational enthusiasm was also later issued by an influential Presbyterian paper. It claimed that "diffusive Christianity is no more effective in saving men than sheet-lightning shimmering over summer clouds." The editor thinks that all the Christianity in the world has been almost entirely the product of denominational zeal and enterprise. He feels assured that Christian work, to be greatly and permanently effective, should be divided up, carried on and sustained by denominations, and in furtherance of this view continues:
"Denominationalism, intense, intelligent and loyal, forcing itself into power by saving men, is not a curse, but a blessing. If the world is saved, it will be saved in this way. Undenominational efforts, however well meant, and however apparently successful, have always failed of permanent results, and as long as human nature exists as it is, always will fail. Denominationalism is not what is popularly called sectarianism; it does not promote bigotry. The most
(2) But, admitting that some lines of partition are advisable, and even inevitable, it remains to inquire at what point such partition becomes needful or advisable. Most denominations divide upon details of polity, upon creedal differences, or upon questions of ritual or outward detail. Baptists and Episcopalians are ordinarily singled out by a common instinct as chief obstructionists of the final reunion of Christendom. For it is seen that the points at which they dissent from other bodies are most radical. For Baptists pertinaciously adhere to immersion as the only authorized baptism, and therefore essential to the normal constituency of a New Testament church. While the Episcopalians, with equal fidelity, claim that ordination at the hands of the "historic episcopate" is essential to clerical efficiency, and therefore to legitimate baptism itself. Questions of polity or ritual are largely questions of expediency; but questions of supposed fidelity to express command or
4. New social, political and other conditions are pressing anew upon us the inquiry as to the nature and range of the ftmctions of the Church.
(1) Ought the Church any longer to attempt the supervision of private conduct by way of discipline; and, if so, for what? The English Church agrees with Augustine that the parable of the "tares" forbids any interference with the growing crop; to root out offenders is to interfere with the work of the angels. Let all "grow together until the harvest." Although Charles Darwin was a professed agnostic up to his death, there was no hesitation in reading the burial service over him as having died in the "odor of sanctity." Trials for heresy have come to engender bitterer criticism of the heresy-hunter than of the heretic. He who boldly departs from and sneers at the common faith is no longer a "miscreant." He is more likely to be crowned, by the secular press at least, as a hero. "Worldly amusements" were once thought to be deserving of ecclesiastical notice, and those who shared in them were subjected to the humiliation of being "labored with," and, if obstinate, of
(2) Pre-eminent among the growing problems of the day, perhaps the one supreme subject of hesitating inquiry is that of the relation of the Church, as such, to economic and other social questions. What attitude ought the Church to assume toward labor organizations, and toward the whole movement which they, in part, represent? What of the work of "institutional churches," and official participation in efforts for social betterment among the poor and the vicious? How far may the Church properly go in seeking municipal or other corporate advance in such betterment? At what point ought the Church to stop in the effort to combine the ethical and the strictly religious? Is there any danger of swamping the latter in the former? It is needless to particularize further. The intricacies of the problem are labyrinthine.
Dean Fremantle, in his book on ''The
Dr. R. J. Campbell, the brilliant successor of Joseph Parker in the City Temple, London, in his "New Theology Sermons," thus exalts the present social functions of the Church:
"As to the function of Christianity. 'Other-worldism' has in reality nothing to do with Christianity. . . . The Church of Jesus originally knew of no commission to get men ready for a heaven beyond the tomb. . . . Co-operation must replace competition; brotherhood must replace individualism; the weakest (morally and physically) must be the objects of the tenderest care
Not so confident or optimistic are the conclusions of a returned missionary as to the observed workings of this theory on the foreign field. As the result of long personal acquaintance with the facts, he notes that the ratio of conversions was never so small in proportion to the exertions put forth; that conversions among the heathen are not in the ratio of the difference of the means employed sixty years ago, while schoolteach-ing and general intelligence are greater; that respect for Christianity, through its missionaries, has increased and is increasing, but, if we contrast the results of present activities as to conversions, the difference is most perceptible. He asks why this is so, and then gives reasons as follows:
"It is not that the missionary is less industrious and self-sacrificing; he is vastly better equipped in every way for his work. The trouble is that his exertions are too general. The attempt is made to cover too much ground. Besides, there has been the counteractive influence of the popular notion that Christianity is rather for the betterment
"The churches have fallen into the channels of mere humanitarianism. The trend now is toward municipal Christianity. Christian power is diverted to reputable secularities, ethics, and enfranchisements, in order to greater political liberty, until the operation of Christian sacrifice comes in only incidentally, soul-saving being not the only, or even the main, end or object. Everybody is preaching everywhere to the masses, but who is preaching, and quietly bending all his energies, to save the individual? Where is the society for solitary auditors? Where is the house-to-house organization to wrestle with the unsaved alike in the slums and behind brownstone fronts? The name 'slums' generally shuts the door against all efforts in the more destitute portions of our cities. Work for the improvement of moral natures is spread out, like a little butter over a whole loaf."
(3) The exclusion of the Bible from the public schools, and the consequent antagonism of the Roman Catholic clergy to them as "godless"; the embarrassments connected with stringent Sunday legislation; the
5. Changing social and other conditions suggest new queries as to the true status and functions of the Christian ministry.
(1) Is the ministry intrinsically a lifelong office, and must it therefore be so continued? The motto, "Once a priest, always a priest," was inherited from the Romish Church, where even the pope could not efface the indelible seal of ordination. The notion of a clerical caste, thus engendered, was frowned upon by the early dissenters from Rome. The Independent churches, including the Baptists, ordained to a local pastorate only. That pastorate ending, his ministerial function ended with it. A new ordination must equip him for a new location. There were in those days no "reverend" coal-dealers or insurance agents, or ministers
(2) A cognate question arises in view of the multiplication of itinerant workers, evangelistic and other. May one be lawfully ordained to a special form of non-pastoral service? May we rightly "lay hands" on a brother to accredit him specifically to the work of a missionary, as they did in the case of Barnabas and Saul, when they "sent them away" to the Gentiles? May one be ordained as a colporter, a Sunday-school organizer, a Bible reader, a "settlement" worker? Lay work rapidly takes on clerical aspects; may ordination be adjusted anew to its demands?
6. The old question of the proposed "enrichment of the service" recurs with varying local atmosphere and increasing obeisance to the demands of higher esthetic culture. Shall we return to the rigorous observance
Only a few of the perplexing queries that swarm out of the depths have been thus hinted at. Their intelligent solution is of the highest importance. But, in order to this, there is need of patient and thorough study of the preliminary question as to the divine ideal of the Church itself.