Implications at Oxford

Implications at Oxford—No. 2

A look at the concept of the church as a community.

By W. W. Prescott, Veteran Editor, Takoma Park, D.C.

The thought of the church as a commu­nity, as set forth in the preceding arti­cle, has been further developed in the fo lowing extract:

"Unity is hopeless unless we can find a category which is large enough to contain the whole concrete reality which we call Christianity. The ecumenical movement has now supplied us with such a category. It is that of community. For the first time in the long story of Christian controversy, the conception of Christianity and the Christian church as a community came to the front at these conferences. . . , But though it flitted in and out of the discussion, the fact that it came into the conferences at all is an earnest of the time when it will be established as the generic and regulative Christian category.

"The task before the ecumenical movement is now primarily and inclusively that of exploring the impli­cations of this concept of Christianity as community. It is within this concept, as I see it, that we shall find ground for the consummation of the ecumenical hope. . . . What, then, is the church? It cannot be defined in terms of itself as an institution, or of any of its features—faith, sacraments, liturgy, orders. It can only be defined in terms of a concept larger than it­self. Such a concept is that of community—a super-national, superracial community, emerging in history and continuing in history. . . . Christianity is nothing less than a corporate community. Standing on that common ground, we may then attack all the questions that divide us, with hope of attaining a united Chris­tendom."—Charles Clayton Morrison, in "Christen­dom," Autumn, 1937, pp. 595, 596.

This writer asks, "What then is the church ?" In answering this question, he does not sug­gest that according to the Scriptures it is "the body of Christ,"—an organization in living union with Christ as its head,—but he gives a Modernistic definition, making it a purely human organization—"a community." In this conception, the Modernist seems to reveal the true spirit of his movement, which ig­nores sin and the atoning cross, and relies upon the human rather than the divine to re­store the kingdom. But "the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." 1 Cor, 3:19.

It will be distinctly apparent that in all the quotations which have been submitted, there is not a single text of Scripture used in sup­port of the views advocated, and there is as­suredly a reason for this. Both the Federal Council Bulletin and Christendom are repre­sentatives of Modernism in the church, and Modernism does not rely upon Scripture as an authority for faith or conduct. The feel­ing seems to be that the modern church has outgrown the primitive ideas of the church of the past and its work as presented by John and Peter and Paul, and must now look to human philosophy to provide an interpreta­tion which will satisfy the modern mind. But the near future will demonstrate the utter failure of this plan to provide a new Chris­tianity.

It seems that not all the delegates to the Oxford conference were satisfied with the prominence of the Modernistic spirit there re­vealed. This is suggested by a letter written August 18, 1937, by Dr. Bernard I. Bell and printed in the New York Times, in which he affirmed that there "were far too many Ameri­cans, some of whom seemed to have no theo­logical qualifications whatever," and that "the results emphasized differences rather than agreements." He declared further that for him­self "the most startling and laughable idea was the establishment of a continuation commit­tee of sixty whereon the United States Federal Council of Churches was to appoint all twelve of the American members." He concluded by saying that "no one seemed quite happy over the conference except American 'liberal Prot­estants.' "

It must be further noted that "one very sig­nificant criticism" was voiced in an editorial in The Methodist Recorder published in Lon­don, which reads thus:

"Oxford has talked much about the church, her duties as steward of the Word and sacraments, her task, and her faithfulness. What it has forgotten is the church of pardoned sinners rejoicing in their Saviour. The voice of joy, deliverance, triumph, would seem to have been almost dumb. Yet how can we Christians be true to the New Testament if the oil of joy has not replaced the garments of heaviness ? Sin is there, facing us all; and we shall suffer ship­wreck if we forget what Robert Browning called the primal truth of 'the corruption of man's heart.' But the gospel is not the good news that we are sinners—good news indeed!—but that, in Christ, we have re­demption, forgiveness, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We can neither rightly preach the Word, nor duly receive and administer the sacraments, until we are knit together by sharing the experience of salva­tion and the new life that tramples on sin by the power that worketh in us."—Cited in the Christian Advocate, August 26, 1937.

In this editorial paragraph the right note is sounded. The conference seemed to ignore the real issue involved, and to seek the realiza­tion of human ideals by human methods. This is not the right path to the unity of the Spirit.

One section of the Oxford conference gave special consideration to the relation of the church to the state. In a "Message From the Oxford Conference to the Christian Churches," presented in the Federal Council Bulletin for September, 1937, the conclusions reached upon this important subject are thus stated:

"We recognize the state as being in its own sphere the highest authority. It has the God-given aim in that sphere to uphold law and order and to minister to the life of its people. But as all authority is from God, the state stands under His judgment. God is Himself the source of justice, of which the state is not lord, but servant. The Christian can acknowledge no ultimate authority but God ; his loyalty to the state is part of his loyalty to God and must never usurp the place of that primary and only absolute authority. The church has duties laid upon it by God. which at all cost it must perform, among which the chief is to proclaim the Word of God and to make disciples, and to order its own life in the power of the Spirit dwell­ing in it. Because this is its duty, it must do it, whether or not the state consents; and the state on its side should recognize the duty and assure full liberty for its performance. The church can claim such liberty for itself only as it is also concerned for the rights and liberties of others."

From the same document I quote the pro­nouncement concerning war and peace:

"In consonance with its nature as true community, the church will call the nations to order their lives as members of the one family of God. The universal church surveying the nations of the world, in every one of which it is now planted and rooted, must pro­nounce a condemnation of war unqualified and un­restricted. War can only occur as a fruit and mani­festation of sin. This truth is unaffected by any question of what may be the duty of a nation which has to choose between entry upon war and a course which it believes to be a betrayal of right, or what may be the duty of a Christian citizen whose country is involved in war."

This action and the further development of it in the same document are so general in their character as to have little, if any, effect upon the conduct of a professed Christian in time of actual war. It would seem that the real ques­tion was glossed over in generalities. After a somewhat general pronouncement concern­ing the duty of the church in the matter of education, there follows this significant state­ment:

"While the church is thus concerned with all edu­cation, it has, also, a special responsibility to realize its own understanding of the meaning and end of education in the relation of life to God. In educa­tion, as elsewhere, if God is not recognized, He is ignored. The church must claim the liberty to give a Christian education to its own children. It is in the field of education that the conflict between Chris­tian faith and non-Christian conceptions of the ends of life, between the church and an all-embracing com­munity life which claims to be the source and goal of every human activity, is in many parts of the world most acute. In this conflict all is at stake, and the church must gird herself for the struggle."

Just what is meant by a Christian educa­tion is not stated, and how this Christian education is to be given is not suggested. Surely the state is not prepared to carry this responsibility, and the result of a non-Chris­tian education under the direction of the state is now being realized in the prevalence of ra­tionalism and secularism. A truly Christian education demands Christian teachers who use Christian textbooks, and who are sup­ported by private funds rather than the state. Will the proposed community church provide such an education?

I bring to a close this necessarily brief consideration of the Oxford conference by presenting a paragraph from its action relat­ing to "Changing the Economic Order :"

"Christians have a particular responsibility to make whatever contribution they can toward the transfor­mation, and if necessary the thorough reconstruction, of the present economic and political system, through their membership in political parties, trade unions, employers' organizations, and other groups."

It may not be advisable to say too much about this recommendation, but when we con­sider present conditions in the industrial world, with the constantly increasing number of strikes accompanied by violence and de­struction of property, it does not promise much for the church to be urged to take a promi­nent part in such organizations. The place for Christians to work for those in trouble is in the church rather than in merely human organizations. All hope for betterment is found in union with Christ and His work for the suffering.


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By W. W. Prescott, Veteran Editor, Takoma Park, D.C.

February 1938

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