COCU: Self-Defeating?

can this merger achieve its own most central objectives? And could a merged church forward the continuing effort of the body of Christ to become more truly evangelical, catholic, reformed?
by Vernard Eller

This letter was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on September 20, 1963. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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The Consultation On Church Union (COCU), also known as the "Blake/Pike" proposal, was an attempt to unite all American Protestants into a great, national "true church." Ultimately it went nowhere, but Eller's critical analysis of this great ecumenical effort is nevertheless instructive with respect to the "spectrum" of denominations and any attempt at achieving a union through the process of political compromise. ed.

There can be no quarrel over the absolute rightness of the avowed objective of the Consultation on church Union: to form a church truly evangelical, truly catholic and truly reformed; but the question can be raised whether COCU gives any real prospect of attaining this objective or, because the goal itself is such as to defy anything like final achievement, whether COCU actually marks a move in that direction.

The decision whether a church is truly evangelical is indeed a matter that calls for (and calls forth) discussion. However, not The Christian Century but Christianity Today has claimed the right to speak authoritatively in this area, so the question can be left to that publication. The answer will appear in its next issue--as it already has in the most recent issue and in the one before that and the one before that.) In any case, this is not the hassle in which I choose to become involved.

The Spectrum of Catholicity

"Catholic," of course, means all-inclusive, universal, encompassing. But before the adjective can make sense one must ask: Catholic of what? Universal, or inclusive? In what sense?

Certainly the COCU goal (or at least its foreseeable goal) is not to be numerically catholic, to include every Christian of the world under its tent. And because it is a national movement, its catholic intention cannot be that of geographic universality. Its catholicity could be its witness to the total gospel or the application of that gospel to all of life, to all stations of men; but to intend merely this is to say nothing different from "truly evangelical," and there is no reason to believe that a large, merged church could accomplish more on this score than the present denominational structure offers.

It should be apparent that if a catholic church is to be a catholic church one of its central catholicities will have to be this: to give expression to and foster the practice of the whole wealth of ecclesiological insights and perspectives that have arisen within the Christian tradition. To be truly catholic this church, within itself, must be every sort of church that all varieties of sincere Christian seekers feel the church is called to be. If this church does not demonstrate (or at least allow for the demonstration of) what I consider the truest nature and intention of church of the Jesus Christ, then, obviously, for me this is not a truly catholic church.

This sort of catholicism requires an understanding of the ecclesiological spread represented by modern Christendom. Perhaps our investigation can best be organized with the help of an analogy from the field of physics, namely, a spectrum analysis of visible light. Imagine, as the background for a mental diagram, a strip of the continuous color field white light separated as by a prism into all of constituent monochromatic wave lengths. Prominent on the chart will be what physicists know as the seven primary--or "rainbow"--colors, running in order: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.

However, it must be understood that in actuality none of these colors is more primary or basic than the off-shades that fall in between. There is here a theory of pigments or color mixing; each point the scale represents simply a distinct and independent wave length neither truer nor less true than any other. And just so the ecclesiological spectrum implies no evaluational judgments whatsoever; a church that falls on an in-between color is just as legitimate as one that falls in the middle of a primary color.

In our physical analogy the colorful background of the spectrum is crossed in numerous places dark absorption markings known as Fraunhofer lines. These come about when a given substandard betrays its presence and identifies itself by "blotting up" the particular wave length of color that comes at its characteristic spot on the spectrum. Our "Fraunhofer lines," then, will represent classic historical traditions within the realm of Christian ecclesiology.

We must distinguish the classic traditions that arose and defined themselves during the Reformation period of the 16th to 18th centuries from the modern denominations that represent these traditions on the current scene. The historical exigencies of the interim have had the effect of somewhat modifying, breaking up and blunting the classical types; probably no modern denomination stands as a pure specimen of its own tradition. At the same time, however, no modern denomination can be divorced from its own tradition; it is necessarily a product and to that extent a representative of its own past.

The Classic Lineup

With some confidence we can plot The Fraunhofer lines of the classic ecclesiological traditions; to plot similar lines for the complex alignments of contemporary denominationalism would be a much more difficult and ticklish undertaking. Nevertheless, the classic lineup can tell us a great deal about the current situation, for it is out of that lineup that the current situation has derived.

The "high" end of our spectrum is the violet range, representing the ultrachurchly traditions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (with the Orthodox falling somewhat down the scale from the Roman Catholics). Here the church is understood predominantly as a

  • Hierarchically authoratative (i.e., priest-dominated),
  • Formally constituted (i.e., priest-dominated),
  • Territorially comprehensive (i.e., the church is coincident with the community and the citizenry belongs to the church as a matter of course),
  • Institution (as over against a fellowship, community, or Gemeinde) transmitting,
  • An objective deposit of grace through
  • Ex opere operato sacraments administered by
  • A sacrosanct priesthood.

Moving down the spectrum we come to indigo, the high church sector into which the Anglo-Catholic tradition naturally falls. The appropriateness of this indigo range is clearly demonstrated in the reluctance of the Episcopal and Anglican churches to have themselves identified with either violet Catholicism on the one side or blue Protestant churchism on the other. Here is "a middle way" if not "the middle way."

The blue sector is the established; churchly wing of Protestantism, represented by Lutheranism, then Calvinism, with British Puritanism perhaps skirting down into the greenish hues. Now

  • Hierarchical control is greatly weakened although there is still a strong clergy-laity distinction.
  • The life of the church is still rather highly prescribed but perhaps less so than in the violet and indigo.
  • There is no change as to territorial comprehension.
  • The church still is essentially an institution.
  • There has been a radical shift at this point, for the "objective deposit" now is understood as
  • "the Word of God," a much more personal and subjective entity than the sacraments. However this "Word" is still highly objectivized through emphasis on its dogmatic definition in creed, confession, and symbol. It must therefore be administered by
  • an academically-theologically qualified clergy.

the green sector includes most of the churches of a particularly British development, the "free church" tradition, running from British Puritanism up near the blue through Congregationalism and Wesleyan Methodism. Here there is a "loosening up" in all categories, but the drastic change comes in

  • Territorial comprehension, because the church is now disestablished and membership is voluntary.
  • Religious experience, rather than dogmatic definition has grown in prominence, but
  • a rather strong institutional bent is still seen in the retention of such churchly accouterments as infant baptism, creeds, clerical authority, vestments, etc.

yellow identifies the ecclesiology that Ernst Troelstsch described as the sect-type. Here appear the Fraunhofer lines of the English Baptists (up near the green), the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, the Mennonites, and the Church of the brethren. In the yellow of sectarianism

  • The government of the church is completely democratic and non-authoritarian, strongly congregational in its orientation. The clergy-laity distinction has become a purely functional one without any sacerdotal implications, although the group is still highly enough structured to require "offices."
  • Worship and church life have become quite free and informal; vestments, prescribed liturgies, the church year, orders of worship--all have been sloughed away. The sacraments have been retained as acts of obedience to New Testament commands, but they are called "ordinances" expressly to avoid the churchly implications of "sacrament."
  • Membership is now emphatically voluntary, and infant baptism has been rejected in line with the new emphasis. Further, any sort of territorial consciousness has been completely transcended; wherever two or three members happen to be, there is their church; political boundaries are beneath their notice.
  • The church is now essentially a community of believers rather than an institution.
  • The Word of God still stands as a powerfully objective norm, but the dogmatic understanding of that Word of God now must involve the inner movings and leadings of the Spirit--in conjunction with the objective authority of the written word.
  • The written Word is interpreted and the living Word experienced directly--although by the Christian community rather than by individuals in isolation--so there is no need for the mediatorial role of a clergy.

In the orange sector--best exemplified by Quakerism--the church begins to lose all structure.

  • There is now no clergy, even in the functional sense.
  • Outward organization is at a minimum and the sacraments are not observed even as ordinances.
  • The Bible begins to lose its role as either a pattern of organization or a definition of faith. Private inspiration, we observe, is moving into the demination.

The red end of the spectrum represents what Troeltsch called "spiritual religion," pointing to its emphasis on the subjective action of the Spirit. Here appear two alternatives, each quite distinct from the other but both clearly qualifying as spiritual religion. One alternative is atomism--represented in such men as Thomas Münzer, Sebastian Franck, Melchior Hofmann, Servetus--in which the concept of the church as a structured fellowship is gone and there are left only individual Christians, each under the direct operation of the Spirit within him. Under the alternative of cult--most dramatically represented in the Münsterites--organization and even institutionalism again appear, but no longer is the New Testament revelation the norm of faith nor the New Testament church the pattern of organization; that objective pattern now has been replaced by another, namely, esoteric, private, extrabiblical inspiration.

Away from Catholicity

This is the spread of Christian ecclesiology which a truly catholic church by rights should incorporate within itself. How one church organization possibly could do this is a little hard to see; if it were so diverse in thought and practice, in what would the oneness of the organization consist? Indeed, it would not be difficult to defend the thesis that the proliferation which took place during the Reformation centuries marked precisely the church's struggle to make itself catholic, to occupy the entire ecclesiological spectrum rather than be confined to one end of it--although this is not to defend the unrighteous spirit in which this proliferation was carried out nor to defend the need for every single denomination that has resulted.

Within this frame of reference, however, it is hard to understand how COCU can be a move toward catholicity. A COCU church would be one whopping big denomination, but if it were an actual organization it would have to make ecclesiological commitments in such a way as to spot itself within a given sector of the spectrum. All the indications are that it would lie well within the blue of Protestant churchism; and if it had to meet all the conditions the Episcopal Church already has laid down for its participation the COCU denomination would find itself close up toward indigo.

< p>What the COCU movement portends for the future of the spectrum, then, would seem to be this: Neither the violet-to-indigo nor the red-to-orange ends would be touched; the groups situated there are not involved and show no inclination to become involved. What is in the works is that the groups of the blue-green-yellow center (which is where the cooperative ecumenical movement already has been active) will amalgamate into a blue denomination. This would have the inevitable effect of submerging or dissipating the ecclesiological insights of the yellow-to-green sectors, and, I submit, would mark a very serious erosion of the true catholicity of spectrum even as it now exists. In what sense, then does COCU promise the enhancement of the catholicity of the church of Jesus Christ?

Toward Nonreformability

According to current interpretation, a church that is "truly reformed" is continuously reformability is always open to new leading from God, ever ready to modify and even sacrifice its own structures to make itself more conformable to the mind of Christ. But the very nature of the case will mitigate against the COCU denomination's being a model of reformability.

It is quite obvious in every realm of social organization that the larger, richer and more powerful an institution becomes the more resistant it is to change and reform. This is no impugnation of motives but only the observation that a mouse usually can get to where he is going before an elephant can get on his feet. Neither is this to say that smaller denominations are truly reformed simply by virtue of their being small; but where there is equal commitment to the principle of reform it seems apparent that the smaller, more cohesive denomination stands a be chance of achieving it.

And the present activity within Roman Catholicism is no argument against this thesis. Although the Protestant press tends to trumpet the Vatican Council as marking the very acme of reform, we ought not overlook the fact that every one of these heralded Catholic advances represents an idea that modern Protestant churches long have taken for granted as being self evident. What we are witnessing, then, is a frantic attempt to catch up with the with the 20th century--an attempt being made by a church whose size and ponderousness had stifled its reformability until it had to reform or perish. But surely this is not what it means for a church to be truly reformed.

Yet not only its size and power structure but also the coalition character of its genesis would hamper the reformability of the COCU church. For example, the Charter of the United Nations is a virtually unreformable document simply because the balance of the constituents' interests is so delicate. The right of veto in the Security Council exists not for good of the U.N. and its work but as a compromise that is necessary to hold the organization together and for all practical purposes that item is not eligible for reform. And if COCU brings together churches from as broad a range of the spectrum as it proposes to do, its charter will have to be sprinkled with many compromises of the same order and the same unreformability. In what sense, then, does COCU show promise of making the church of Jesus Christ more truly reformed than it is at present?

To be a church truly evangelical, truly catholic, and truly reformed is an objective incumbent not simply on COCU but on the totality of Christendom and on each individual church within it. We are indebted to COCU for having lifted up this fact. But; although there may be many good arguments in favor of the proposed union, the case has not been made that COCU can achieve its own most central objectives or that the existence of a merged church would itself forward the body of Christ in its continuing effort to become more truly evangelical, catholic, and reformed.

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Copyright (c) 1966, The Christian Century