Christ, our Light

CQOD Special Archive

Receiving One Another

by Robert MacColl Adams

         “I believe in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints;...” So I have said, and so I do: but where is the communion of saints, that I might believe in it? Is the chaos of sects, which some call the Church and others call the Churches, that holy universal Church of Christ which is the community of those who are made holy in Him? How many sects, large and small, lay claim to be parts or the whole of that true Church, and condemn others that make the same claim? The household of God appears split into hostile factions, and the unity of His followers, which the Lord Prayed would convincingly tell of His heavenly mission even to an unbelieving world, is invisible to that world now. The One Lord is claimed as a party leader by warring parties; the One Faith is presented as a mass of dubious and contradictory dogmas; the One Baptism—just feel your own hackles rise when that word is mentioned, and be reminded that this unifying reality is understood by Christians in as many ways as there are factions among us.
         If you are indifferent to this situation; if you never think about it; if you never pray for help to honor the Lord’s name better than you do; then this appeal will be nonsense to you, because its writer cannot understand you at all. More probably, however, if you are not upset about the state of the Church, it is because of complacency rather than real indifference. You are a member of the Warranted Genuine Church which is manifestly, in the light of Scripture and history, the one true Church of Christ on earth. Consequently, you believe that all the Christians in the world are in it with you, or ought to be. If only a few real believers have fallen victim to the sectarianism of the merely professing “church”, then the cause of Christian unity will of course be best by a fearless proclamation of the name and address of the real Church—and perhaps a warning that the last one in is a rotten egg.
         To me, the great difficulty of your position is just this: there are so many such proclamations being made, and the members of every True Church can see so plainly that all the other True Churches are riddled with error. Each can prove conclusively that all the others are requiring more (or less) for membership in Christ’s Church than Jesus Christ does.
         My own belief is that every such church makes severer requirements for entrance that our Lord makes for our salvation. A profession of belief in the correctness of certain statements of fact and opinion must be made in order to join any of these churches: but what fact must we know, or what opinion must we hold, to belong to the family of God? We are saved by faith, not in the correctness of this or that doctrine, but in Jesus Christ, who is just and the Justifier of us who believe in Him. But let those whose hearts are given to the various exclusive churches debate with one another, and let us go on.
         There are some Christians who are not concerned over the disunity of the Church because they believe that the unity of the Body of Christ is meant to be realized only in the Invisible Church, and that therefore the disunity of the visible churches does not really matter. It is often asserted that what God Desires is harmony, not unison, and that each denomination has its God-given mission to be a faithful witness to the portion of Truth entrusted to it.
         But consider, for example, the various theories of church government—the episcopal, presbyterian, congregational, and others. Each is warmly advocated by many Christians as the only truly Christian form for a church. Their disagreement is no mere difference in emphasis: on the contrary, the extreme partisans of each view assert that theirs is deduced from all the relevant sources, and that the others are all based on misunderstanding, or worse. Can several men, each flatly contradicting all the others, all be bearing witness to the same truth? I do not believe it and such a paradoxical “solution” to the problem leaves me unsatisfied. All this bickering and swiping, this “agreeing to disagree”—can what I read in the New Testament about the unity of God’s people mean nothing more real than this?
         The Christians who agree with me in finding the present situation intolerable, or nearly so, may be roughly divided into the Hermits, who feel that nothing can be done about the situation, and the Formers and the Re-formers, who feel that something must be done about it.
         The Formers take the position that organized church has been corrupt almost since Apostolic times and has been flooded with nominal Christians, false brethren, since Constantine made it profitable to profess Christianity. Therefore, they want all the real Christians to withdraw from their present churches and unite to form The Church. Many efforts of this sort have been made and more may confidently be expected.
         The Re-formers generally take the stand that the true Church exists but has been broken up into sects and factions which must be re-united. Some of the existing denominations were formed by small re-unions, and are actively working toward larger ones; others are pledged to work for the healing of breaches which date back, some of them, even to the Reformation era; and most denominations have at least an ecumenical or re-union party within them. There is a great deal of ecumenical talk and activity going on nowadays, and these will undoubtedly continue and even increase in the future.
         It is hard not to feel sympathy for both these forms of aspiration toward a truly united Church. Those who work and plan for re-union, fighting and pleading against the inertia, the dogmatic conservatism, the vested interests, and the ancestor-worship of their fellow denominationalists, have a great ideal in view, and their devotion to it deserves our admiration. Likewise, those who are willing to break the bonds of family feeling and valued friendship and to take a stand for the truth, to try to realize Christ’s true Church in the sight of the world, should also have our admiration and our prayers.
         I find both these movements less than ideally satisfactory. But there is an overwhelming practical objection to them which makes it unnecessary to discuss any theoretical objections: namely, that neither ideal is going to be attained for a long, long time, if ever. I have probably not more than thirty years before I go to join a Church not troubled by disunity, real or apparent. In the next thirty years, though, can I look forward to nothing but more strife, more unrealizable hopes, more unsatisfied longings for the communion of saints? In a mere thirty years more, will the true Christians all have their eyes opened to the true nature of their beloved denominations, renounce their cherished theological “distinctives”, and form one all-embracing Christian Church, as the Formers hope? Or will the Re-formers succeed in getting the Church of Scotland, say, to send a Patriarch to an Orthodox consistory, or the Reformed Church of South Africa to establish pulpit fellowship with the African M. E. Zion Church, or Golden Gate Seminary to elect a Jesuit to its faculty?
         When I was a child, discussions about healing the breach between the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches, which separated in the 1840’s, were going on; the discussions are still going on, and schism is still with us [as of 1960]. The motto of the discussers is always, “No compromise on essentials”. But the schism took place about matters considered essential, then and still; how is any re-union possible without some surrender on essentials? And who is in a mood to surrender? Even studying the possibility that there might be conditions under which the nation ought to surrender has been condemned as unpatriotic by the President; and such proposals are not taken lightly in the denominations.
         How many attempts have there not been to get the Christians to come out, to leave the denominational and established churches as mere empty spheres of profession and to form the Real Church. The World Almanac (1950) lists 253 religious bodies and groups of independent congregations which (I judge by their names mostly) would claim to be Christian churches. They range from the Roman Catholic Church, with 26,718,342 members, and the Methodist Church with 8,567,772 members through thirty-eight others with more than 100,000 members each, down to the Church of the Gospel, with 47, and The Latter House of the Lord (Apostolic Faith) with 29. Many of these—including some of the largest, such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterian churches—I know to have originated with the idea of bringing Christians together as Christians, with the cry of “Come out from among them, and be ye separate!” And I judge, by such names as “Christian Unity Baptist Association”, “Church of God in Christ (Pentecostal)”, and “Church of the Living God (Christian Workers for Fellowship)” that many other groups began with the same high ideal; the corresponding membership figures—466, 210, 120—show how far these movements got. Large or small, they have all wound up as sects. And so, I think, will the next one.
         Well, what should I do? I don’t belong to a sect which esteems itself as the true Church; and if I wanted to I wouldn’t know which one to pick. I admit that, in a sense not to be ignored, the true Church is the Church Invisible; but I still believe in, and long for, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, here and now, and I can’t be happy with the paradoxical “unity in diversity” that I am offered. I am sure that those who want to form the One Church by inclusion will fail, and that those who want to form it by exclusion will also fail. I have friends among the complacent, the satisfied, the includers, and the excluders—men and women who, I feel sure, are Christians, who love the Lord and belong to Him.
         And I have friends out in the caves, too. These have seen the situation more or less as I do, have decided that none of the offered solutions or compromises are truly the will of God for His people, and have withdrawn from them all. Some are real Hermits, each in his cave of self. Others have withdrawn to family caves, or to caves where there are two or three friends, or even ten or twelve. But there they sit in their cave, waiting—for what? I tell you honestly (and I have lived in the caves as long as most), I don’t know.
         There is a good deal of talk in the caves, and prayer, too, about unity, and purity, and desire to follow where the Spirit leads. And sometimes the cave-dwellers can be persuaded to meet with the Hermits from other caves and valleys—all being careful to keep their lines of retirement clear—for a time of fellowship. Because they are my brothers, I love to join them. They are my brothers even after they have gone back to their caves. But if I go back into a cave too, in what sense do I believe in the Holy Catholic Church?
         What does “believe” mean in such a context? To me, to believe in something involves acting as if it is real or true. I don’t really know what you mean when you talk of “belief” as merely an event in the soul, one that never reaches the heart, the hands, and the feet. Saying we believe and doing nothing because of that belief, we fool nobody but ourselves.
         If I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, I must act as if it exists. I don’t see at all how I am to surmount all the difficulties I see in the way of such action; but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. My first step must be to recognize the Lord’s desire that I be one with all other Christians. I have read what He prayed (in John 17), and to me it is both a duty and privilege to be one with all others who trust in Him. Because we are one in Him, this is possible. If the opposition of my will is truly removed, then there remain only practical difficulties, and I can take seriously St. Paul’s exhortation (Rom. 15:7) to receive other believers as Christ received me.
         And who are these other believers? Who belongs to the Church? Who is my true brother? We cannot always tell whether or not a man believes in Christ; but we can always ask—Christianity is not a secret society. And if a man says he loves the Lord, why should I not treat him as my brother? If I should happen to welcome one who is only a professing Christian, who has not given his heart to Christ, what harm has it done? I will have offered the love of God to one who rejects it, and I will have given a few hours of my life to an enemy—but our Father holds out His hands all day long to a rebellious people, and our Savior gave His life for me when I was His enemy.
         The Lord Jesus received me, not passively but actively; He came to me where I was, and as I was. If I am to receive others as He received me, I cannot wait until they reform their opinions and practices to conform to my version of His truth; I cannot even wait until they see that, for His sake, they must receive me. It is not enough for me to say, “See, Lord, my house is open: John Doe and Richard Roe may come in if they wish. I lay no requirement on them, but will welcome them in Thy name”. If I do no more than that, no will come in, and so I will receive no one. Somebody has to make the first move.
         Since I know this, can I wait for John and Richard? What if the Holy Spirit has not spoken to them?—He has spoken to me. For what clearer message can He ever give me than that I believe I know what is the Lord’s will for me? If I am not moved by this, what visions of angels, what powerful texts from the Scriptures, what tearful exhortations of the brethren, can ever move me?
         I have a Christian friend who is a Roman Catholic, another who belongs to the Church of Christ, others who hold this theology, that loyalty, or the other affiliation, and many who live in caves, large and small. Can I associate, as a Christian, with any of these without endangering my witness to the truth I have received? Because I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe that I can, because I believe that He will be with me. I may fail to make clear to my Roman Catholic friend the true nature of salvation in Christ, or to my Campbellite friend the true place of the Scriptures in the Christian life; but God’s truth will remain. It may not be safe in my hands, but it is safe in His.
         If, however, I fail to go to my Christian friends as they are, make no attempt to rejoice with them in our fellowship in Christ, or to love them as He loves us and receive them as He received us all, then I shall be an eloquent witness against God’s truth. Not only will I be unable to teach them anything (or to learn anything from them); not only will I miss the blessing of the Lord’s presence among us when we meet in His name: I will be showing, to them and to the world, that there is one Christian, at least, who does not believe in the Holy Ghost and who cares nothing for the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.


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Last updated: 08/11/09