Before we talk about evangelical unity it has to be important that we speak first on the general subject of Christian unity. Let me therefore begin by putting down some propositions on the broader subject:
In Scripture the unity of Christians is presented as a reality which exists in consequence of union with Christ. One cannot be united to Christ as the head without also being united to the members of his body. So unity is the result of regeneration and the indwelling of Christ. We are brethren because of our relationship to one Saviour and, where there is sure proof of the reality of that relationship, 'We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren ... every one that loves is born of God and knows God' (1 John 3:14; 4:7). Such unity, 'the unity of the Spirit' is something known to all Christians; they all possess the fruit of the Spirit and no matter what their race or country, commonly, they can quickly recognise one another on a personal meeting.
The fellowship of Christians is therefore entirely distinct from all human forms of unity. The book of Acts (4:23) says that the disciples 'went to their own company'. The reason why they were persecuted by the Jewish leaders was because the latter did not belong to that company; there was a fundamental difference between them, and the Bible teaches us that that same difference will exist in all ages: 'Marvel not my brethren if the world hate you' (1 John 3:13); 'As then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now' (Gal. 4:29).
A denomination cannot make Christian unity: it may manifest it, it should maintain it, but it cannot make it. This is the point at which we have a fundamental difference in the religious scene. The Church of Rome claims that the preservation of the oneness of the body of Christ belongs essentially to her. The Church of England has sometimes appeared to make a similar claim in England. And Puritans and Presbyterians have also made the same mistake. To be in Scotland in the seventeenth century, and not to be in the national Presbyterian Church, was regarded as being in schism. Behind this mistake, of course, lies the idea that the unity of the church requires one visible organisation, and one over-all authority (whether Pope, Archbishops or General Assemblies): not to be within that organisation is to be an opponent of Christian unity.
It is strange that even Protestants fell into this way of thinking because, were it true, then the division which took place at the Reformation loses its justification. Before the Reformation a remarkable Church unity existed across Europe – one organisation was visible everywhere, one common authority was recognised from Rome to St Andrews and identified as the holy, catholic and apostolic church. But the Reformers came to see that this church represented not Christ but Antichrist. Of the churches in communion with the Papacy, Calvin wrote,
(Antichrist) has profaned by his sacrilegious impiety, afflicted by his inhuman domination, corrupted and well-nigh killed by his evil and deadly doctrines, which are like poisoned drinks. In them Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out.1
The same words could have been written by an English reformer. William Tyndale was scorned as an irreligious man by Thomas More because he did not attend the holy Church.
We are familiar with the claim of the Roman Church that the validity of the sacraments depends upon a visible succession of bishops from the apostles. Without such apostolic succession there can be no true Church. The Reformers replied that it is only the gospel which makes the church, and to preserve that gospel it was necessary to break with the organised religion of their day.
This argument has always met with the same response. 'Evangelicals,' it is said, 'attach no value to the Church;' they are addicted to individualism, 'They preach a gospel without a Church.' They only believe in an 'invisible Church.' This is patently untrue. None have upheld the Nineteenth of the Thirty-nine Articles as faithfully as evangelicals: 'The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ's institution.' What evangelicals have not done is to say that such a congregation only attains to 'church' status by belonging to a denomination which can claim the title of 'the Church.' Here lies one of our great differences with the ecumenical movement. The latter assumes that Christian unity and a reunited Christendom will come through a reunion of denominations. The union envisaged is essentially horizontal and structural. Evangelicals hold that congregations of faithful men are already united because they are all part of the assembly whose seat is in heaven, gathered around Christ: 'You have come,' says the Epistle to the Hebrews, 'to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first born' (Heb. 12:22-23).
We need then to go on to say something about the status of denominations. Ideally they should not exist; they are clearly not entities known to the New Testament. Canon D. B. Knox, late Principal of Moore College, Sydney, wrote:
'It is impossible to discover in the New Testament any other link or relationship of the local churches one with the other than this invisible bond of mutual love to the members one for the other.' 2
But this is not an argument for the abolition of denominations. There are justifiable reasons for their existence. For instance while Christians are united in the gospel they do not understand all biblical issues in the same way: differences over church government, sacraments and similar themes are not to be minimized and if Christians cannot agree on such issues it is far better that they have liberty to hold and teach their convictions rather than be required to belong to churches which assert and practice the contrary. So, since the seventeenth century, parallel Protestant denominations have come to exist side by side in the same area and I do not believe this is to be regarded as an unmitigated wrong. Freedom of conscience is better than compulsory uniformity.
There are other reasons why denominations exist. A denomination, as D. B. Knox says, can be a valuable 'service organisation', providing local congregations with advice, ministerial training, channeling missionary support and such like. Denominations may also provide continuity to the churches from one generation to the next. I recall Archbishop Marcus Loane of Sydney being asked to name some of his concerns in the present church scene and high among his priorities was the need to preserve continuity. The continuity of denominations is not to be despised. The traditions of many generations are not lightly to be set aside. The alternatives may be worse.
But denominations have dangers and one of them is that, instead of recognizing that they ought to be distinctive from others only with respect to secondary issues, they come to think of themselves as the true upholders of the unity of the New Testament churches, and therefore possessing superior claims to the loyalty of all Christians. This is a serious mistake. It is to claim a status which belongs to no denomination and it means looking upon the churches of other Christians as inferior. What is supremely important about a denomination is that it has the gospel and at the most fundamental level it has therefore a common bond with all Christian bodies. Christian unity is not, and cannot be, denominational.
The contemporary mainline denominations in Britain have been so influenced by unbelief and the entrance of the world, that it is not the denominational link which confers on a congregation a true church status. That status belongs to every local church which meets the description of the Nineteenth Article. But where a local church is not a congregation of faithful men where the pure word of God is preached, its connection with other congregations of the same denominational order in secondary things gives it no church status. Unscriptural teaching and practice today has meant that most denominations do not show Christian unity. The differences within are too serious. Even those taking the name evangelical within the same denomination are not necessarily one. Writing in the 1920s, Bishop E. A. Knox of Manchester spoke of the divergence among Anglican evangelicals as 'one of the greatest sorrows in my experience.' He spoke of 'three camps':
- 'those who maintain verbal inspiration, known afterwards as the Bible Church Missionary Society;
- those who inclined to less decisive opposition against Modernism and Anglo-Catholicism...
- and those, who, like myself, held fast to their Protestant traditions and were opposed to Modernism without accepting verbal inspiration.' 3
I mention this only to underline that adherence to the same denomination by no means guarantees unity. And if a denomination as such cannot secure unity, far less can a conglomeration of denominations amalgamated together. To quote D. B. Knox again:
'The efforts of the ecumenical movement in aiming at the unification of denominational structures are directed towards achieving an irrelevancy, and if successful will accentuate the temptations of denominationalism proportion to the success in creating a big denomination.'4
To summarise, Christian unity exists wherever there are Christians. The prayer of John 17:21, is not a distant dream, it is a reality. There is now a communion of saints and it transcends denominational differences.
What then is 'evangelical unity'? I think the phrase is used in two different senses. In one sense, it is sometimes used as synonym for Christian unity. More generally we use it as descriptive of the relationship between those holding to those articles of faith which have been distinctive of gospel ministry since the Evangelical Revival. All Christians should hold these articles but we do not say no one can be a Christian unless he believes them all implicitly: what we argue is that no one should be regarded as a gospel preacher unless he knows them and lives for them.
There is surely a very important distinction here. It is not given to any man to lay down the precise boundary between Christian and non-Christian; it is not given to us to state the minimum that an individual must believe, or the amount of grace he must show, in order to be regarded as a Christian. Certainly to be regarded as a Christian there needs to be a profession of faith and a changed life, but no certainty is given to the church to judge the reality of that profession and change. However, when it comes to what is necessary for a man to be judged to be a faithful minister of the New Testament, evangelicals have had very large agreement and their agreement has led to co-operative agencies and endeavours at home and on the mission field.
That is our present concern and it brings us more directly to the title given me. It seems to me that when we talk about evangelical unity we are basically talking about the unity of evangelicals engaged in the public leadership of the churches. That is surely where the main problem lies. Christian unity in the broad sense of the word is not the problem. It has existed, and does exist, irrespective of denominational differences. Unless denominations have become sects – elevating secondary things above the gospel – they are not a threat to Christian unity. All that is needed is Ryle's counsel, 'Keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them as often as you can.' 5
Christians in the various denominations are united at the deepest level. They need no organisation to demonstrate it. When they go on holiday and meet strangers who are fellow-believers they enjoy a unity which needs no additional name putting to it.
However, when it comes to clergy and preachers there is a different position. It is not enough for them occasionally to meet fellow workers as strangers on holidays. They need to know each other. There needs to be corporate endeavour and mutual support. There needs to be a common stand against dangers to the faith. This is what evangelicalism in the past has done so much to provide. It is when evangelical leaders are united a recognition of that unity will certainly filter down to their congregations.
How then is the unity of evangelicals to be restored?
I believe there is really only one way. It is not by settling denominational differences, nor by ignoring secondary matters which involve biblical issues. It is not by forming a new organisation to which we must all subscribe. It is rather by our obtaining a greater measure of communion with Christ and a greater measure of the Holy Spirit's power. This is no mere pious statement before we come to more 'practical' matters; it is absolutely fundamental, and that because the great problem today is not organisational but spiritual. We are in great danger of supposing that our main contemporary problems are ones which the Scriptures do not address, and that we must therefore find new solutions. To believe that is to ignore the teaching of 2 Timothy 3:1617. How unity comes is clearly laid down in Scripture. Acts 4:31-32, for instance, or Ephesians 3:16-4:6, could not be clearer. When men are brought nearer to Christ, they will be nearer to each other: and being nearer to him there will be a common identifiable testimony in our ministry. The chief problem of the hour is that we are too far from the apostolic pattern: 'They were all filled with the Holy Ghost and they spice the word of God with boldness. And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul' (Acts 4:31, 32).
To say this is not to deny that there are some signs of progress and some causes for encouragement at the present time, but the fact is that nothing will make much impression on our age except a new enduement of power from on high. The general scene over the last century has been one of apparently irreversible decline in church and nation. What has been the main reason for this? It is no use our merely blaming the heterodox. Surely it would have been different if the kind of thing which Ryle said at the end of his book on The Christian Leaders of England had been taken more seriously by ourselves. He said: 'We have none who preach with such peculiar power as Whitefield or Rowlands.' Contemporary evangelical preaching, he believed, was neither 'so full nor so distinct, not so bold, nor so uncompromising.' Instead he saw a fear of strong statements, a lack of fervour, directness and holy boldness. As David R. Breed has written: 'There must come down on our ministry some mighty vital influence, like electricity in the physical world, to overcome the sad paralysis.' 6
We need to recognise what Whitefield and Wesley saw so clearly, namely that it is not by aiming at unity that you achieve it. In times of declension and darkness, especially, there has to be a much higher priority. In Whitefield's words:
I despair of a greater union among the churches, till a greater measure of the Spirit be poured from on high. Hence, therefore, I am resolved simply to preach the gospel of Christ, and leave others to quarrel by and with themselves.7
Until we see a new era of powerful preaching, I doubt that any talk of more evangelical unity will succeed. The fervent preaching of Christ and of his redeeming love is the supreme way to greater unity. Evangelicals will rally to pulpits and to leaders who preach the Saviour in the power of the Holy Spirit. Such men are not produced by the churches or by organisations, they are sent and their work always leads to greater unity. This is what I mean by saying that our main problem today is not organisational but spiritual.
But there is another factor which is very relevant. We are not to court controversy or persecution, yet it has been invariably true that bold and powerful preaching always produces an uproar: it disturbs the world and is bound to provoke opposition. The unregenerate heart is the same today as in the time of the reformers and as in the eighteenth century. And the unregenerate mind is never more antagonistic than when it is found within the church. It was when evangelical leaders of the past turned the word of God on the churches that all kinds of abuse and derision descended upon them. Yet the striking fact is that it has been in the very periods when there has been the most reproach on account of faithfulness to the word of God that the gospel has prospered the most. The first thirty years of the nineteenth century are a typical example. It is commonly agreed that evangelical influence was never stronger in the Church of England than in those years. At that time, says Henry Liddon, 'The deepest and most fervid religion in England was that of the Evangelicals.' But what kind of status did these evangelicals have in the Church of England? Dr Carpenter writes:
They were abused, laughed at, and kept under ... They were even victims of popular persecution, Charles Simeon's church at Cambridge was made the scene of disgraceful riotings. For years they could obtain no preferment ... Many of the best of them remained unbeneficed nearly all their lives.8
One man who ministered through this period of great evangelical influence was Dr William Marsh, friend and colleague of Simeon. His biographer says: 'The position of an evangelical clergyman seventy years ago was not an enviable one in the eyes of the world. Promotion was a thing rarely known amongst them, and they bore the reproach of Christ in no slight measure. But these were considerations that had little weight with a character like that of William Marsh.' 9
However we account for it, Christianity thrives best under the cross. It may well be that the greater unity for which we look will not be seen again until a new day of suffering for Christ is seen in the land. We are not to give needless offence. 'If it be possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men' (Rom. 12:18). And there are accommodations to other views which have to be allowed in the churches, but when it comes to the gospel to its authority as divine revelation, to its prostrating of all human pride by the message of salvation through faith and by grace – there is no room for any adjustment to contemporary opinion. Satan is today claiming liberty for another gospel, a spirit of universal tolerance is abroad that supports his claim, and those who in the name of God denounce it will be sure to face demonic anger. But God allows the wolf only to drive the sheep closer together. If persecution comes in Britain, as it has in recent years in such places as China and Cuba, we need not be afraid of the outcome. Our cause for fear should rather be that our preaching is so tepid and ineffective that it disturbs no one. Nothing but a spiritual awakening is the way to the blessing our churches need, and that blessing may come and thrive best in times harder than these.
A wise Bishop of Sydney in the nineteenth century, Frederick Barker, summarised what I have been trying to say in these words:
What we want is not so much fresh organisation, but new life, the life which the Spirit of God imparts, the life by which a church becomes a light and a power in the world.10