Must the Church Itself Go?
Jessee B. Thomas, D.D. in The Examiner
Baptist Minister and Professor
From The Home Field Journal, 1913
[An Essay Contra Ecumenism]
THE "GET TOGETHER” SENTIMENT has of late become so universally pervasive as to create what Mr. Balfour calls a "psychological climate.” It grows impatient of all barriers artificially erected, whether by tradition, current opinion or express authority, which tend to keep people apart. And this sentiment, having become dominant in racial, political, industrial and social life, and having even invaded domestic relations, has become pre-eminently importunate in the religious realm. The intense longing for a "united Christendom” has been reinforced by bitter invective against the persistent bigotry that cuts the nerve, wastes the resources, and neutralizes the evangelistic force of Christianity by its perpetuation of sectarian rivalry in the face of the new and better Zeitgeist.
It cannot be denied that the sentiment in question commands instinctive recognition, as both generous and profoundly Christian. For was not this "mystery of fellowship,” through the breaking down of "the middle wall of partition,” the ever recurrent chorus of Paul’s exultant song of praise? But sentiment alone, however eager the desire, and however impetuous the impulse it may create, has no help to lend when asked how the result desired may be most safely reached.
"Unionists” Cannot Agree Among Themselves."
EXCEPT there be interposed some "hitherto shalt thou come, but no further,” the incoming tide is apt to obliterate all lines indiscriminately, whether essential or non- essential For it is madness to insist that partition is in itself an evil. The work of creation involved successive partitions - beginning with the division between light and darkness. Henceforth the rash blotting out or blurring of outline has tended back to darkness and chaos.
The advocates of headlong consolidation of religious bodies that have grown into isolated Independence through long discussion and experience do not always seem to recognize the radical nature of the questions thereby raised, nor the paltriness of the reasons assigned for the step proposed.
Modern advocates of “Christian union” have become uniformly embarrassed and divided when they came to the question of a right stopping point. Should the new scheme include Romanism, Unitarianism, Swedenborgianism, or the other more or less amorphous bodies that call themselves Christian? The Anglican church has fallen into discord over proposed affiliation with the Greek church. Some of her devotees have sought eagerly to be recognized as legitimate children of the "harlot” of Rome. The Lambeth appeal has offered the sheltering wing of the "Historic Episcopate” to all Protestants.
The Baptist Union of England requires no doctrinal test as a condition of membership, and an eager effort has been made by some of its constituency to efface all denominational lines outside the State Church, under the general character of "Dissenters.”
Meantime, the famous Parliament of Religions
at Chicago signalized its breath of sentiment by enthroning a Romish cardinal; persuading Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists and Agnostics to fall into vocal harmony in the joint recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; and receiving from a Shinto priest the benediction of the "hundred million cities of Japan." Which of these experimentalists was wrong?
A Prior Question - the New Testament
BUT, ASIDE FROM THE DEMANDS of the "era of good feeling," It is strenuously urged that our "petty differences" ought to bow themselves out In the presence of “financial expediency,” “scientific management” “socialistic efficiency’’ and "statesmanlike strategy." This raises at once the prior question as to the validity of the reason? out of which grew the “petty differences” referred to. It furthermore compels study of the origin, nature and purpose of the church Itself as indicated in its New Testament history. For, unless Its appointed field of operation be primarily financial, scientific, socialistic or politically strategic, considerations drawn from these spheres can hardly be decisive, to say the least.
The idea of segregation was inseparably connected with the grouping apart. Into a “sect everywhere spoken against,’’ of those who had become “of one heart and one soul," after the day of Pentecost. This sect resolved Itself again into local bodies, such as those In Galatia, in Corinth, in Thessalonica, and even in a private "house," to whom apostolic letters and congratulations were sent.
The process went still further; for especial emphasis was from the beginning laid on that "Individualism” which Is so much dreaded in our day. Peter’s demand of obedience to Christ was specifically individual: “Repent and be baptized every one of you.” This was indeed the new note of Christianity as compared with Judaism. The Gospels are a personal biography, while the Old Testament is a national history. Nicodemus, already a corporate member of the elect people, must be individually "born again."
Whatever obscurity may hang about other details, such as polity, ritual or the like. There is no lack of clearness as to the occasion and function of the newly formed church itself. This Is manifest both from the symbols employed in referring to it, and from the nature or the counsels addressed to it. It was to be primarily Just what the single disciple was to be, although in a larger sense - a "living epistle”, a visible “witness” of the beneficent “fruits” of Christianity.
Individual and Group Responsibility.
IT WAS THUS to incarnate the Christian ideal, for It is called a "body" of Christ. This implies localization and visibility. For it was necessarily through such incarnation that "God" became "manifest in the flesh." A recent writer in the Examiner erroneously referred to Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:27 as pointing to the church universal. But that letter was addressed specifically to a local church; and, moreover, the text in question should read, "Ye are a body of Christ” (not “the body,” as in the Common Version). The eminent exegete, Canon Hort (in his treatise on the New Testament Ecclesia) calls attention to the absence of the definite article in this and like cases, adding that "To each local ecclesia St. Paul has ascribed a corresponding unity of its own; each is a body of Christ, and a sanctuary of God.” The hypercriticism which revolts at the notion of "several bodies” of Christ must therefore settle the matter with Paul, and not by rhetorical implication. It is worth noticing that modern textual criticism tends increasingly to emphasize this distributive application of the figure. In Ephesians 2:21, for instance, (again appealing to the authority of Dr. Hort) we should read, "every building,” instead of “all the building;” and in Ephesians 3:15 it should be “every family,” instead of “the whole family.”
This allusion, to each church as a family, as well as a body, suggests some features of striking parallelism. For both family and body are organism, made such by trial, rather than artificial agencies. There are "members" in both. Entrance into bodily life and into that of the household is alike by birth; and "dally bread” Is essential to Its maintenance in either case. The church, in like manner, is composed normally of those who are "born again” and who continually feed upon the "bread of life.” And
her ordinances symbolically repeat these household phenomena and in this order. Paul's allusion to the “rejointing” of a member (Galatians 6:1) becomes especially significant in this connection. The term used is a surgical one. It reminds us that, as a dislocated member brings pain to the whole body as well as to itself, and as an errant child plunges the whole family into grief, so every true "household of faith” will be "bound up in the bundle of life” so closely that its constituents will have become literally "members one of another."
“Following a Multitude to Do Evil” Versus Standing for the Faith.
ALL THIS SYMBOLISM becomes meaningless if it broadens its reach beyond the local and visible church. That church, therefore, must, like the individuals that compose it, be meant to incarnate before men the teachings and precepts of him whom it calls Lord. Intelligence and liberty, the royal gift of God involves corresponding responsibility. He, who has received, or believes himself to have received, a truth has been made custodian of a priceless treasure. At his peril he must “keep that which is committed to his trust.”
Every man is at liberty to become “fully persuaded in his own mind;” but, having been persuaded, he is not at liberty to withhold, neutralize indirectly or barter away his convictions. It was always easier to "follow a multitude to do evil” than to stand for the truth at all cost. It was thus that the word "witness” and “martyr" came to be synonymous. It was thus that “separatists" for conscience sake were ever, for the same conscience sake, in the persecuted minority. It was thus that the so-called "denominations” came into being.
SEEKERS AFTER A "UNITED CHRISTENDOM" AND DENOUNCERS OF "SECTS" SHOULD RECALL THE FACT THAT CHRISTENDOM WAS NEVER MORE CORPORATELY IMPACT THAN IN THE MIDDLE AGES - AND NEVER MORE DEBASED AND INEFFICIENT. THE NINETEENTH CENTURY WAS PAR EXCELLENCE THE MISSIONARY CENTURY; AND IT WAS THE CENTURY OF “DENOMINATIONALISM” - OR, MORE ACCURATELY, OF "INDIVIDUALISM." FOR IT WAS WILLIAM CAREY'S SUDDEN RECOGNITION OF THE FACT THAT "THE CONVERSION OF THE WORLD DEPENDED, UNDER GOD, ON WILLIAM CAREY," THAT INAUGURATED AND GAVE THE KEYNOTE OF THE NEW ADVANCE.
Fraternal Sentiment is Good, But Loyalty to Christ is Better.
THE PRESENT Increasing sense of individual responsibility Is not to be dreaded nor discouraged. Neither distribution into companies or drill squads, nor personal prowess, weaken army efficiency. It is not the “shouting of the captains,” be it never so vociferous, that wins the battle.
The individual church, then, like the individual disciple, must seek unflinchingly to know the “mind of Christ,” in doctrine and practice, and, having honestly convinced itself of this, must bear witness, wide equally unflinching fidelity, to "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Falling this, it ceases to be a “faithful and true witness" - nay, it becomes a “false witness,” and having ceased to fulfil its appointed function may fitly “wax old and vanish away.” How trivial, from the New Testament point of view, becomes the appeal to financial, scientific, socialistic or political considerations as justifying the withdrawal of protest against error, or consent to the obscuring of truth. The “wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” FRATERNAL SENTIMENT IS GOOD, BUT LOYALTY TO CHRIST IS BETTER, AND SUCH LOYALTY IS, AFTER ALL, SAFEST. FOR IN THE LONG RUN "WISDOM IS JUSTIFIED ON THE PART OF HER CHILDREN."
51 Quincy Street, Brooklyn, N. Y.
[From Victor I. Masters, editor, The Home Field Journal, July, 1913, pp. 5-7; via Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives digitized documents. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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