Christian TraditionsChurch HistoryEcumenismReformed

“Keeping Wide and Kind the Bounds of Christian Fellowship”: Robert E. Speer on Christians Working Together

Like congregations working together to carry out ministries of mercy in their local areas, our writing together at Conciliar Post is a kind of cooperative Christian endeavor, based on the idea that we can all learn from the various emphases that have been cultivated by our various traditions. While often this kind of action flows naturally out of shared Christian convictions, some have attempted to explain the basis of cooperation scripturally and theologically. One such person who attempted to articulate a rationale for Christian cooperation was Robert E. Speer (1867-1947), secretary for the Board of Foreign Missions for the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the 1920s. In 1923, over a decade before the northern church broke apart in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Speer explained how Protestant denominations could work together to coordinate missionary activity around the world. The essay, “Is Identity of Doctrinal Opinion Necessary to Continued Missionary Co-Operation?” is encouraging and illuminating for our thinking today because of his focus on belief in Christ, his willingness to acknowledge alternatives to his position, and his attempt to balance various scriptural injunctions about the terms of Christian fellowship.[1]

In a simple and direct phrase, Speer said that “a fundamentally unitary faith in and about our Lord Jesus Christ as He is set forth in the New Testament” was the basis for Christians working together. Speer’s own profession of faith with which he opened his essay was a declaration of trust and rejoicing in aspects of Jesus’s life, including the incarnation, miracles, and death through which he brought salvation. In identifying this singular criterion of cooperation, Speer’s intention was not to set up a “low bar,” as though trusting Christ were a small cognitive thing of passing importance. Rather, since Paul declared that Christ was the only foundation, Speer found that faith in Christ was the “sufficient and indispensable condition” of Christians’ working together. On the basis of this substantial common ground, he thought a Christian “ought to be willing to allow, within the associations which he supports, the presentation of convictions which in all probability are as defective as his own are likely to be, in the patient hope of some larger and richer comprehension of the truth.”[2] Speer found that this foundation could support all sorts of cooperation, especially for efforts that were likely to be shared convictions of a variety of churches, such as producing Christian literature, establishing healthcare facilities, and maintaining Christian schools.

Speer firmly believed that a shared faith in the Christ of the New Testament was the necessary and the adequate common factor. He boldly stated that the end goal of missionary work was “the persuasion of all men to the truth, above all to the truth of the pre-eminence of Christ,” and that “the path to this end is not the way of alienation and judgment and expulsion but the way of gentleness and meekness and love.” Therefore, his vision for Christian churches was that they work “by keeping wide and kind the bounds of Christian fellowship, by preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and by doing together as much of the service of the Kingdom of Christ as we can.”[3]

In spite of the fact that this statement was his concluding position, Speer did not fail to consider objections. Rather, he described in fair terms why some saw cooperation, especially in a sense of institutional connections and mergers, as impossible. Adoniram Judson, for instance, found it necessary to leave his mission sending board in the midst of his traveling to India, because he came to a different view on baptism. Speer also sympathized with a Lutheran professor who did not think his Lutheran church could merge with a group of Reformed churches, because Luther’s “whole conception of the means of grace” was profoundly different from that of the later Reformed leaders. The Lutherans had to remain separate or else the church would be “denying her own genius, her own life.”[4] While Speer did not follow the lead of Judson or this Lutheran professor, he stated their objections candidly.

Finally, Speer brought up several related scriptural passages that seemed to be at odds with each other—some of which spoke about maintaining unity, while others spoke about breaking off fellowship. The apostle Paul and John, both “on moral grounds” and “on grounds of belief,” Speer asserted, “sanctioned the principle of the withdrawal of Christian fellowship even to the extent of social separation.”[5] Several of the passages he called upon referred to avoiding those who departed from received apostolic teaching, such as Paul’s statements to “keep away from every believer who…does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6) or to “watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Rom. 16:17). He also cited 2 John 9-10, where he says “if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [of Christ], do not take them into your house or welcome them.” To this list of references Speer could have also added 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul states, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” when the Corinthian church was retaining in fellowship a man who had a sexual relationship with his father’s wife.

On the other hand, however, Speer countered, “both they [Paul and John] and St. James and St. Peter preached a principle of inclusion far transcending our present Christian practice.”[6] Several of the passages he called on required not keeping away from those with false beliefs or sinful actions, but instead urged moving toward the person in loving correction. He indicated 2 Timothy 2, which says “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth…” (v. 24-25), and Galatians 6, which says “brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” Several more passages urged peaceful rather than contentious relationships both within the church and with those outside: “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18) and “love your neighbor as yourself. If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed” (Gal. 5:14-15). He also appealed to Romans 14, in which Paul urges Christians not to “pass judgment on each other” over the question of whether or not to eat food some considered unclean, and Philippians 1, where Paul rejoices that Christ is preached even by those who do so from motives of “selfish ambition.” Finally, he pointed to the unity referenced in Colossians 3:11-14:

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

In looking at the passages requiring social separation and at those urging unity, Speer concluded that since “our human frailties have ever too free a play” in fencing other Christians out, the best path was “to try to live yet more fully by these normal and regulative ideals” set out in passages like Colossians 3. Because of his patient and even-handed discussion of the question, as well as his willingness to state his opinion alongside fair representations of those he disagreed with, Speer’s essay provides us with a good model for our thinking today.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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