Posted by: mattcolvin | October 16, 2013

Muhlenberg on Ecumenism and Orders


W. Augustus Muhlenberg expressed his views on evangelical ecumenism more fully in a tract entitled Hints Toward Catholic Union. The most relevant quotation is section V, in which he explains how to deal with the different sorts of ordination existing in evangelical churches. It is important that he does not suggest passing over the question, or allowing diverse sorts of orders. Here is his plan:

A mutual acknowledgment among the confederate churches of the full authority of “their respective ministers, and of the validity of their ministrations, would be essential to union. Without this, a confederacy would be an empty name, and unhappily in this lies the chief difficulty of the whole scheme. Different opinions are held by different Churches, as to the proper channel of an external commission to the ministry; some placing it in the presbytery, some in the congregation, and some in the episcopacy. The advocates of each theory defend it on scriptural ground, and therefore it is not likely they would come to any understanding which required the abandonment of their ground. The only possible way of removing the obstacle appears to be this: In a council of representatives from the various churches, assembled to debate the matter, let it be agreed to adopt that form of ordination, or conveyance of the external commission to the ministry, which all believe to be sufficient, and not repugnant to the word of God. In order to accomplish this, the sufficiency, and non-contrariety to the word of God, of the proposed ordination, must be the only question considered. There must be no inquiry which ordination is the most apostolical, or which the most [15/16] like that of the primitive Church, or which the most excellent; for on these questions every one would have his own views, and of course would Contend for them; and thus there would be a repetition of the old and endless controversies with which the Church has long enough been perplexed. The single point to be determined should be, what form of ordination is acknowledged to be valid by all, and may be received by all without any sacrifice of conscience. If no such ordination can be found, union is impossible. If there cannot be a cordial admission of the due authority of one another’s ministry, by the several churches, it is evident they must remain asunder. But the requisite ordination, it is believed, may be found. Let Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, meet harmoniously and compare their views. Let them canvass the question in the spirit of brotherly love, and honestly endeavor to discover some ground of peace and union. Let them consent to substitute, in place of what they now prefer, any form of ordination in which all could conscientiously unite, and they would not be long in coming to a decision. [See page 45.] This appears to be the most equitable, and indeed the only way of arriving at any harmony in the [16/17] essential point of the ministry. [The question of the sufficiency of ordination could not be determined by the plurality of voices in the council. For the conscience of no one must be violated. The majority could not change the minority’s views of truth. The problem to be solved is, what is expedient in the exigency, and lawful in the eyes of all. Any arguments of divine origin, or superior antiquity, would only throw the council into interminable discussion.] After an authorized council had decided upon the expedient mode of ordination, (as a measure of peace, be it observed, not what each, would otherwise prefer,) all future ministers of the confederate churches might be ordered according to it. Perhaps it could not be expected that clergymen after having long preached the Gospel, and administered its ordinances, should consent to any new ordination; though in the cause of peace and union, we cannot tell what good men might be willing to do, especially as they could provide for the understanding, that there was no question about the sufficiency of their former commission, and that they submitted to this apparent reordination, only for the sake of harmony and greater good. [Which might be done hypothetically. Thus, “If thou art not ordained, or duly commissioned, we now ordain, &c.”] Yet all new candidates for the ministry might be commissioned according to the adopted mode. In a few years there would thus be a large [17/18] number of clergymen, all having received their commission from a common source. These could officiate in any of the confederate churches, for exchanges would be in the spirit of the union, and as charity would lead them, when preaching out of their own sect, to avoid its peculiar tenets, only the happiest effects could follow the arrangement. How would sectarian prejudices be dissipated, when congregations learned to listen, not exclusively to ministers of their own persuasion, but to all who proclaimed in truth the everlasting Gospel. How would their charity expand, when they learned to hail as brethren in Christ, not only the fellow-members of their own society, but all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Then too, at stated festivals of peace, might be seen the delightful spectacle of Christians of different name sitting down together at the table of their common Lord. Now they commune in clans, but then, like children of the same gracious parent, they would gather around his board in love, and anticipate the joy when they shall meet at home, at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Then, further, missionaries of different name would go out hand in hand, wherever it were necessary, and labor together in the vineyard, which so greatly needs a combination of their strength.

Thus, Muhlenberg would extend the utmost charity to non-episcopal clergy, but he does not imagine any union without a unification and regularization, however gradual, of orders.

In the Hints Toward Catholic Union, intended as it is for a readership of all diverse sorts of Protestants, Presbyterian and Congregationalist as well as Episcopalian, Muhlenberg naturally refrains from any suggestion that non-episcopal polities are excluded an initio. By contrast, when he turns to address himself to the bishops of his own church, in his Muhlenberg Memorial, he assumes that only episcopal ordination can be the sufficient basis of a united polity. But there is no real inconsistency: in both, he insists that the question of ordination must be resolved; there is no question of simply letting it slide, or of any successful scheme of union that ultimately preserves Presbyterianism and Episcopacy side by side.


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