6. The Christian Life in a United Church – Part 3

The Unfinished Reformation

An Analysis

Neil Girrard
Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Mt. 7:29 π Mt. 16:18 π Mt. 24:12 π Mk. 4:11 π Jn. 6:68-69 π Jn. 8:31-32 π Jn. 10:27 π Jn. 14:6 π Rom. 12:2 π 1 Cor. 3:3-4 π Gal. 5:20 π Gal. 5:20-21 π Eph. 2:19-22; 2nd π Eph. 4:7 π Eph. 4:11 π Eph. 4:12 π Eph. 4:13-16 π 1 Jn. 5:6 π Rev. 2:6 π Rev. 2:15 π Rev. 3:22

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from The Unfinished Reformation by Charles Clayton Morrison (Harper Bros., New York, 1953)

In this chapter, Morrison has unleashed, to the best of his ability (and for his time and season – 1951!), his imagination toward what a unified ekklesia would look and be like. In comparing

“the spiritual values we may expect to find in the united church with the spiritual life of our denominations” (p. 74),

Morrison offers

“four respects in which the united church may be expected to experience a new birth of freedom.” (p. 81)

As we explore these freedoms, let us recognize that the spiritually united ekklesia will not emerge until the present sectarian idolatry is abandoned and undergoes at least three fundamental changes. This is not to say that the denominations will go away – rather it is to say that those who will not abandon the contaminated wineskins the denominations have created will be given over to their own preferred deceptions even as the true ekklesia undergoes the fundamental changes and abandons the denominations. Those changes are:

If we can envision these large-scale, intensely-deep changes that will usher in the united ekklesia which is the focus of this chapter, we will also see that the freedoms Morrison projected are actually the fruits and results of these changes. In the last two sections of our analysis, we have focused on Morrison’s almost schizophrenic analysis of denominationalism. Now, having set aside – at least from our own thinking – the things which hindered Morrison, let us plunge into his projected freedoms.

Static Uniformity to Inspiring Diversity

Morrison wrote:

“1. We may expect in the united church a release from the static uniformity of the denomination into the inspiring diversity that belongs to the Church of Christ.” (p. 81 – emphasis in original)

We must take care that we do not understand “inspiring diversity” to mean simple tolerance of all the conflicting denominational “theologies.” And we must see this “diversity” as it would likely occur in a local ekklesia and not carelessly import our current practices into our future scenario which has been fundamentally transformed.

The local ekklesia, after the demise of the denominations, would likely find itself composed of at least one or two members from any of the various denominations. Erase from consideration, as much as is possible, also the “church’s” Nicolaitan error of “pastors” (clergy) and a passive, listening congregation (laity). (We will address class distinctions under Morrison’s next freedom.) Most likely, local ekklesias will be composed of residents of a neighborhood (in larger cities) or of a town or village. Ideally, every member of a local ekklesia will live within walking distance of the home in which they gather. When the number of members exceeds the capacity of that home, a second home should be opened up – and again, ideally all who gather there would live within walking distance.

In this transformed context (which, at times, may be more of a goal than a current reality) then, what would happen when Joe, whose understanding is derived from one “theology,” discovers that Mike, whose understanding is derived from another denominational tradition, is not in agreement with him? The freedom that comes in the unified ekklesia is not mere tolerance and the “gentlemen’s agreement” to disagree agreeably. Not at all. The freedom is the ability to simply wait upon the Lord, through His Spirit of truth working in unanimity among all members of that local ekklesia, to bring about a rightly divided understanding of that truth as is held by the mind of Christ!

Morrison, probably without fully understanding what he was “seeing,” when he says the united ekklesia is released “from static uniformity…into inspiring diversity” (p. 81), is envisioning the change of source whereby we gain our understandings of spiritual matters. The “static uniformity” is the traditions of men and doctrines of demons which constitute a hardened wineskin. It is the ages old, life-draining arguments of “Luther said…” “But Calvin said…” It is no different than the scribes of Jesus’ day: “Rabbi Akiba denies…” “But Rabbi Eliezer anticipates…” Jesus still speaks authoritatively ( Mt. 7:29 ) and His sheep hear His voice ( Jn. 10:27 ) if we will but restrain our own opinions long enough to hear what the Spirit of Christ is saying to His ekklesia. ( Rev. 3:22 , etc.; top) The united ekklesia will be freed from both the traditions of men and the teachings of demons and will be enabled to bear with one another in love as we work through the process of rightly dividing the word of truth. And as we patiently wait upon the Lord and humbly work through the process, we will very likely find that many “crucial denominational distinctives” are of no significance whatsoever to the mind of Christ.

We will also have to recognize that truth, especially spiritual truth, is not a static set of intellectual facts, but rather is more analogous to traveling a road that can be measured by various milestones or to a scale divided in increments. That is to say that travelers at a certain place in the road see certain facts from a perspective that differs from the perspective from other places in the road and the “critical” criteria at one end of the scale differs at other points along the scale. There is only one truth – the Person and Spirit of Christ ( Jn. 14:6 , 1 Jn. 5:6 ) – but there are a myriad of perceptions and perspectives. This mature perspective is not available to the beginner nor to the unfortunate victims of “church” discipleship trapped, at best, at the beginning of this road. The true disciple of Christ relinquishes his own perspective so as to embrace the words of truth and eternal life which only Christ has. ( Jn. 6:68-69; top )

Class Dismissed

Morrison wrote:

“2. We may expect that in a united church the Christian spirit will be released from its bondage to the unchristian class distinctions which characterize the denominational system and will find fulfillment in the inspiring fellowship of a classless church.” (p. 83 – emphasis in original)

Morrison identifies eight class lines along which the various denominations routinely segregate:

“First, they divide along a socioeconomic line. The local churches of one denomination tend to operate on the right side of the tracks, those of another on the wrong side. One denomination attracts particularly the well-to-do, another the economic and social middle class, another works among still humbler folk. (It should be noted in passing that American Protestantism has only the most tenuous contact with the industrial workers of the nation.)

Second, these class divisions are also cultural. One type of denomination attracts the intellectual class, another the moderately educated, while another exploits the undiscriminating emotions of the ignorant.

Third, we are also divided on aesthetic lines. One type of denomination elevates form and beauty into a place beside holiness and virtue, another type, scorning all this as formalism, magnifies spontaneity, while still another carries this spontaneity to an ecstatic extreme, on the one hand, and to a crude slapdash rotarianism [a club or association turning around a central point, axis or commonality] on the other.

Fourth, we are divided by separate historical traditions which each denomination justly cherishes but unfairly magnifies out of reasonable or Christian proportions, largely through ignorance of other traditions. This provincialism generates an unjustifiable class feeling of superiority.

Fifth, one type of denomination centers its spiritual life in the experience of corporate worship, another in a moralistic activism, another in some form of pietism.

Sixth, one type of denomination attracts people of conservative mentality, another those of more flexible or liberal mind, while still others provide a home for those who are just chronically heretical.

Seventh, there is the classism of immigrant populations who are drawn into separate churches by the ties of a national heritage brought with them from overseas.

Eighth, and finally, there remains the broad class distinction between white and colored races; a few denominations have succeeded in crossing this line, as the Roman Catholic Church has done, by erasing the distinctions at the ecclesiastical level without modifying segregation in the parishes.” (p85-86 – emphasis added)

Morrison qualifies the nature of this list by saying,

“…these class affinities have not been catalogued in order to condemn them. Some of them represent natural and fruitful associations. Most of them represent inevitable diversities which, or the like of which, will always exist in the Christian Church… A parish church will necessarily partake of the class characteristics of its local community. A local church in a fine residence community, or an industrial or a suburban or a rural or a university community, or in a down-town center, will inevitably reflect the class constituency of its locality.” (p. 86)

What can we glean from all this? First, as Morrison also states,

“…when these class affinities are segregated in a sectarian autonomous denomination, they are inevitably intensified…by the churchism of the denomination which obscures their radically unchristian character.” (p. 86)

Let us again note the almost schizophrenic self-contradiction here – “we are listing these classifications here not to condemn them” but “…these classifications’ radical unchristian character are obscured by sectarian denominations.” If a characteristic or, more properly, our response to an inherent characteristic is “unchristian,” it should be condemned! That “church” now routinely gathers according to these classifications rather than according to the leading of the Holy Spirit is only confirmation that lawlessness (doing what is right in one’s own eyes) abounds. ( Mt. 24:12; top )

And second, Morrison’s statement that

“A parish church will necessarily partake of the class characteristics of its local community”

stands as an excellent measuring stick by which we can also gauge the validity of any particular assembly. Since Morrison’s time, the commuter “church” has flourished because it caters to one or more of these class affinities. Some large mega-“churches” are even built in commercial and industrial zones that have no residents. Everyone has to commute in from somewhere else! But the further away from being a reflection of the local community demographics a fellowship is, the further that assembly is from being a genuine, local ekklesia.

Again, we must also be sure not to transfer the usual Nicolaitan “church” setup into our imagined future, transformed, united ekklesia. Morrison, having dealt (to a limited degree) with the question of clergy and laity in his previous chapter, completely fails to even raise the issue here even though this division still pervades the “church.” This exposes quite clearly Morrison’s subscription to the “church” paradigm. Let us step back into his previous chapter to examine Morrison’s understanding of this class distinction:

“…the Reformers of the sixteenth century said about the Roman hierarchy…that the hierarchy, with the pope at its head, had usurped the function that belongs only to the church itself… The church, said the Reformers…is the living community of believers. The Christian people – the laity – those whom Christ has received into fellowship with Himself – these constitute the true Church of Christ – they are the church. The most radical charge which the Reformers brought against Roman Catholicism was that it had divided the church into two absolutely separate parts – the hierarchical priesthood and the laity. The hierarchy, they said, was an alien structure which had been built up within the church and superimposed upon it. The true church, which consists of Christ’s people, had been led into spiritual bondage to a professional priestly caste, a hierarchical order, which dispossessed the church of the organs and functions that belong to it, and is exercising them in absolute independence and autonomy. The effect of this usurpation, said the Reformers, was to degrade the church into an irresponsible multitude of docile subjects and followers, instead of the corporate body of the faithful which is directly responsible only to Christ its living head.

But the insight of the Reformers was even more penetrating. They saw that the usurpation by the hierarchy of the prerogatives that belong only to the church of Christ’s people, had the effect of reducing the church to invisibility. The hierarchy itself had become the visible ecclesiastical entity. Where it was not present there was no church. The Christian people did not constitute the church. There could be no church where there was no priest, and ‘where the bishop was, there was the church.’ [This seems to be a loose paraphrase from Ignatius of Antioch’s Letters to the Smyrnans, c. 8] The blessings of the gospel could not be received by Christ’s people without the presence and the action of the priesthood. Through it alone could the grace of God be conveyed to the faithful.

The sacraments which belonged by right to the whole church were now in the absolute control of the hierarchy. These sacraments by which the church could manifest itself as the empirical body of Christ, had been taken out of its hands and lodged as a monopoly in the hands of the priesthood. The governance of the church had been withdrawn from the people and concentrated with absolute authority in the hierarchy. The faith of the church was no longer an expression of the faith of the Christian people, but was held by the hierarchy as a divine deposit and imposed upon the people, nor had they the slightest part in it, it was planned, projected and carried out by this self-constituted and absolutely autonomous organization of privileged men who, with infinite presumption, claimed to receive their illicit power directly from Christ Himself…

The Reformers clearly discerned that, by divesting the church of its corporate responsibilities, under Christ, the hierarchy had reduced it to impotence and rendered it invisible… But the church itself had not thereby been destroyed. Though hidden, it still existed. It had been led captive by the false and unholy churchism of the hierarchy. From this captivity the Reformers sought to set it free. Their procedure was to cast off the alien habiliments [clothes] of the apostate hierarchical system and reclothe the church of Christ’s people with the shining garments which had been divinely designed for it, and of which the hierarchy had robbed it.” (p. 69-71 – emphasis in original)

Given this excellent analysis in the previous chapter of the clergy/laity divisiveness as practiced by the Roman Catholics, how do we account for this class distinction’s absence from Morrison’s list of “the class lines along which our denominations divide” in the present chapter? In what may very well be the biggest error that Morrison makes in this book, he writes,

“We are affirming, now, that the denominational system is the Protestant counterpart of the Roman hierarchy.” (p. 71 – emphasis added)

No, the Protestant clergy - like the clergy of all denominations, even the so-called “non-denominational” ones – are the counterpart of the Roman clergy. Denominationalism is the sins of “dissensions” and “heresies” that prevent their practitioners from experiencing and inheriting the kingdom of God. ( Gal. 5:20-21 ) Clergy is the error and false practice the New Testament calls Nicolaitanism – a sin which Christ hates. ( Rev. 2:6 , 15; top ) The two sins are closely inter-related but they are simply not the same thing and the fruit of one should not be confused with the fruit of the other. But this is precisely what Morrison has done.

Morrison thus excludes the class distinction of clergy and laity from his list simply because he is unable to equate Protestant clergy with Roman clergy. Yet the same complaints and reproofs he levels at the Roman clergy and people are equally true of Protestant, denominational and sectarian assemblies to the very extent to which these groups (intentionally or negligently) embrace clergyism. It is the rejection of both dissensions and heresies (denominationalism) and Nicolaitanism (clergyism – both overt and covert practices) that will largely complete the Reformation and usher in a united ekklesia. A local ekklesia that mirrors almost exactly the cultural and class distinctions of the locale from which it springs (without serving or perpetuating the distinctions) and that rejects the Nicolaitan practices of the “church” is well on its way to being a spotless, blameless local expression of the mystery of the kingdom of God.

A Place in the Whole

Morrison wrote,

“3. In the united church we may expect to find that the local or parish church has been emancipated from its anomalous and invidious position as a unit in a mere fraction of the church and invested with the Christian dignity and self-respect which are its birthright as an integral part of the whole Church of Christ. (p. 88 – emphasis in original)

It is in this section that Morrison’s excellent (although dated and handicapped in his available vocabulary) definition comes forth.

A local church is the ecumenical church manifested in a particular locality.” (p. 89 – emphasis in original)

In a previous section, we have taken this definition and expanded upon it with the more precise light and vocabulary now available and arrived at an even more useful definition.

The local ekklesia is the mystery of the kingdom of God manifested in a particular locality.

The local ekklesia, we have seen, is to be intensely local. It is this local anchor which virtually excludes all the denominational divisions men have erected in their commuter “churches.” The local ekklesia is, as Morrison said elsewhere,

“…those whom Christ has received into fellowship with Himself.” (p. 69)

What God has joined together, let man separate at his own risk and cost!

But if the local ekklesia is “simple” to define, what is the whole? How can we, even if we can step away from the practice of the sins of dissensions and heresies (denominationalism), embrace the whole of the mystery of the kingdom of God when:

a) so few are practicing ekklesia as the local expression of the mystery of the kingdom of God in our midst, and

b) all large scale attempts to unite all believers has resulted (or devolved) in mere toleration of various sins or a loose federation of (sinfully constructed) denominations?

The seemingly overwhelming and impossible obstacles this question presents (even just the immense size of it) exposes both the need for Christ to build His ekklesia (which, fortunately for us, is what He said He would do – Mt. 16:18; top ) and the futility of the fleshly attempts men have put forth to bring about “Christian” unity. But if we would simply let the local ekklesias be truly local home fellowships with Christ alone as the Head, we would find the whole would establish itself in unity soon enough. If we would just let the Head be the Head and the body be the body we would soon witness the divine miracle of spiritual unity among the people who truly belong to Christ.

That is to say, do we really need a visible, tangible expression of the whole if the local ekklesia is all that it is supposed to be? If the local ekklesia has Christ as its Head, why do we need a council or synod of representatives? What will they do? All too soon they will establish static, uniform creeds and practices (something which the united ekklesia was supposed to have been freed of) or conduct some business which truly belongs in the sphere of some local ekklesia (or cooperation of ekklesias) or which truly belongs in the sphere of the Head Christ Jesus. If we have no “church” paradigm, no hidden clergy elevations who think they alone need and are qualified to represent their particular sect, what would there be for a world-wide council to do other than to meddle in the affairs of local ekklesias and become yet another interloper between the Head and the body?

It is true that there ought to be unity, interaction and cooperation between local ekklesias especially in regards to meeting one another’s needs, of pooling resources to send to further away ekklesias and to send forth mature workers (true apostles not babes and children on short-term “missions trips”) to spread the gospel of the kingdom. But where there is no small, intimate local ekklesia – which alone can verify that all its members have been received into fellowship with Christ (any other type of assembly is especially vulnerable to infiltration by false “brothers”) because there are many ways to hide one’s true nature and put forth a good “Christian” façade) – Christ is simply not the Head. Where He is the Head, He can direct the various ekklesias to interact and cooperate with other ekklesias and accomplish those things which are best suited to the resources (both human and material) that each particular ekklesia brings to the table and for those tasks which are too great for one small ekklesia to achieve alone.

The element that seems lacking here is the understanding of what the “the whole building” ( Eph. 2:19-22; top ) is. Morrison himself said,

“…the Church of Christ – the ecumenical church – has no empirical habitation, no organization, no meeting times, no visibility at all which would enable them to have empirical membership in it.” (p. 98)

Though Morrison probably meant this as a complaint, it is a profound insight that, in truth, the mystery of the kingdom of God has no expression but local ones. There is – and never can be – any human congregation or assembly in this world that can adequately encompass the totality of this mystery, in part because “the whole building” transcends time. Those members who are dead and those not yet born or converted – though they are included in eternity and in the mind of Christ – are excluded from any temporal gathering in this world. The local ekklesia is indeed the intersection of time and eternity – in accordance with God’s prudence, wisdom and purpose, it is the “only” intersection even though there are many of them and they don’t always look alike. The whole that the local ekklesia is to point us toward is indeed “the whole building.” We need no world-wide attempt to construct yet one more entity which purports to be (or to represent!) the whole. Such an attempt can only fail to achieve its goal and will only produce yet another man-made organization that interferes and competes with the Head Christ Jesus and the rightful place and role of the local ekklesia.

The New Man

Morrison wrote:

“4. In the united church we may expect to find that the individual Christian himself will experience a new birth of freedom to be what he really is. Released from the artificial manmade system of denominationalism, we may expect that, in his consciousness of belonging to the whole church, he will actually become a new kind of Christian.” (p. 93-94 – emphasis in original)

It is statements like this one that gives evidence that Morrison was seeing and hearing something from God far ahead of its time. There is a brilliant light shining through a thick darkness in this statement that longs to burst forth and drive off the darkness. Sixty years after this was written, let us press through the darkness to better walk in the light.

Morrison is hardly the first to link the concept of better, more mature, more complete believers with the idea of unity among all believers. Paul wrote,

“…till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children; tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the Head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying [building up] of itself in love.” ( Eph. 4:13-16 - emphasis added; top)

This passage is the clearest expression in the New Testament that corresponds exactly to what Morrison, in 1951, is attempting to imagine. The “new kind of Christian” Morrison writes of is the same mature, complete saint of which Paul wrote so long ago. This passage is the quintessential description of what every ekklesia should be like – and it is the conclusion of Paul’s thoughts from previous verses. As we work our way back up from this conclusion we find:

“But to each one of us,” Paul wrote, “grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” ( Eph. 4:7 - emphasis added; top) Though Protestantism and denominationalism give lip service to the concept of the priesthood of all believers, these still languish under the heavy weight of the clergy (Nicolaitanism). And it is precisely here that the Reformation remains most unfinished. When the individual is built and raised up, trained to function and flow in his priestly role – a role defined in terms of righteousness (doing what is right in God’s eyes), purity and holiness (set apart for God’s purposes) – the ekklesia will necessarily produce a group of people who will be united in their loyalty to Christ and one another. In their own home areas, they will be the local ekklesia and, wherever they go and with whomever other believers they mingle, they will be a reflection of the whole spiritual assembly gathered together in Christ.

When we, as believers in Christ, cast off all the sins, traditions of men and doctrines of demons that have accumulated over the centuries to make up the “church,” we will be the spotless and blameless bride of Christ. Repentance, renewal of the mind so as to know the will of God ( Rom. 12:2; top ) and obedience to the Spirit of truth, righteousness and holiness is the only way to achieve the unity of the Spirit and will always remain the only way to finish the Reformation.

Let he who has ears hear.

5. The Christian Life in a United Church – Part 2 π 7. The Illusion of Restorationism
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