What does it mean for the church to be unified? This last week in our book club study on church history we were reading about developments in the early 1900s. The world council of churches was one of many attempts to unify Christians together cross-denomenationally. One thing that bothers many people (christians and non-christians) is that there are so many different denomenations. Christian scripture certainly calls Christians to unity, and the lack of unity due to denomenonational divisions seems to some to be a failure on the part of Christians to live up to this call.
There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about unity of the church, but a basic question is: are we called to structural/organizational unity, or unity of spirit and focus? I am pretty skeptical about the benefits or importance of structural unity– in other words, I don’t think there is any need for there to be one worldwide denomenation for example that all people would join. There have been a lot of conference and councils in the last half a century (a lot more as of late) to reconcile old rifts– Lutherans and Catholics together, Evangelicals and Catholics together, etc. And these are great in that they have helped people understand each other better and acknowledge important insights on the ‘other side of the fence’. Evangelicals sometimes focus so much on salvation by faith and praying a prayer that we underemphasize the fact that Christ redeems us to redeem the world, and part of how he makes our salvation complete and transforms us spiritually is by us obeying his call on our life and doing what he asks of us. At the same time, Catholics have at times focused so much on the importance of doing certain things that it has appeared that they don’t believe in grace by faith. So understanding each other and learning from each other is really helpful. But the real significant differences between denomenations is not all a matter of misunderstandings and trivial differences. There are heartfelt honest convictions at stake, which bring people to different conclusions about significant matters. But to expect that after 500-1500 years of differences of conviction that today we will suddenly realize that all of those apparent differences were merely misunderstandings and exagerations which can be overcome by ‘thoughtfully coming together’ today seems to me to overestimate our current understanding of things and to trivialize the centuries past.
I have dear friends who submit to a 5 point Calvinism, something I am not prepared to do, and for which reason I am not allowed to fully participate in their church. I have dear friends who submit to the authority of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, something I do not do as a non-catholic. Its hard for me to imagine an organizational unity of the church which wouldn’t ultimately end up with everyone becoming Catholic, because of the hardline stance that the Catholic church has on many things (including the authority of the Pope, closed communion (only Catholics can partake) etc). I respect and honor those limits and those beliefs. But I do not hold those beliefs. There are many denomenations who have certain restrictions– Wisconsin Synod Lutherans have a lot of restrictions, Missouri Synod Lutherans won’t allow you to take communion with them unless you are one of them (the same is true of the Catholic church and many other denomenations). Many Calvinist denomenations wouldn’t allow you to be a member unless you are a 5 point Calvinist, and many others would let you be a member but not be in leadership unless you were a member. I think there are good reasons for these restrictions, coming from each of their own particular denomenations. But these restrictions are the reason why the denomenational walls will remain. It can just as easily be seen from the other side. The Free Church, for example, allows anyone who has asked Christ to be their savior and currently is submitting their life to Christ to participate in communion. The ELCA and others also have open communion like this. But this is unacceptable to other denomenations, because it seems to not protect the sanctity of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ (some denomenations think the bread actually becomes the body of Christ (Catholic transsubtantiation); some think Christs body joins with the bread (Lutheran consubstantiation), some think Christ is uniquely present at communion (Calvinist); and others think the bread and wine are just a symbol to remember what Christ did (remembrance view of Zwingli and a lot of evangelical churches). Each of these denomenations have their reasons for holding their own viewpoints. To expect unity of agreement on this doctrinal point, much less all the other doctrinal points, is to my mind, expectation frustrated.
3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)
Fortunately, there is another way of unity though, and that is the unity which comes from being commonly committed to Jesus Christ. To me this is the more important kind of unity (more important than organizational unity– ie, being part of the same denomenation). Each tradition might think of this slightly differently, but if you asked me who is a Christian, I would say, “anyone who has acknowledged their broken state to Christ, asked forgiveness, and begun to live their life for Christ”– a shorthand version of this might be, “whoever loves Jesus”. If the important thing is not whether you belong to this or that denomenation, but rather, whether you are a Christ follower, then we suddenly find that people spanning across all kinds of denomenational boundaries have unity– in Christ. Should we seek after mutual understanding that helps us overcome certain barriers? Of course. Many denomenations have for centuries tried to cross denomenational boundaries to partner with other churches to work on joint projects for their communities.
The important thing is respecting the differences of conviction and conscience regarding various niceities of Christian doctrine. As it was often said to me as a young boy, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things Charity” This happens at two levels– at the level of denomenations, and then at the level of Christianity. At the level of denomenations, a church expects you to believe certain things. If you go to a Church which adheres to 5 point calvinism, then you need to believe those 5 points to be a member of that church. IF you said, “well, are you saying all Christians have to be 5 point calvinists?” the answer could be, “no, but to be in this church you do, because we have agreed together that that is an essential for us”. If you wanted to be Catholic, but didn’t want to believe in the authority of Rome or in transubstatiation of the bread and wine, that would be a problem, because those are eseential elements to being a Catholic. Denomenations have their essentials, and those differ from one denomenation to another. But there are usually a core of beliefs that most all of the denomenations have in common which make them Christian, and those are the essentials at the level of Christianity itself. Of course there is debate on these as well, but generally if we look to the historic creeds of the Church some of the basic Christian doctrines would be that Christ was God made flesh, he died on the Cross for the sins of humanity, and grace and mercy are available through belief in him, and transformational power of the spirit of God is available to us through this redemptive work. Traditionally all Christians would also believe in the virgin birth, the actual resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and a variety of other things. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and all the rest would generally hold to these doctrines. And that is where we do have an important source of unity in belief, which leads us to a common practical belief– that Jesus redemptive work is what we are here on earth to do. We believe these truths of doctrine together, but we also belief together that Christ wants to work through his church (in all of its denomenational forms) to heal and restore the world and redeem it from sin and destruction. Ironically, one of the few denomenations to reject quite a few of these standard Christian doctrines is the Unitarian Church 🙂
So, while I’m not a fan of mon0-denomenationalism, and don’t have a lot of hope for organizational unity of the church myself, I certainly believe in the unity of all believers who admittedly come to the table with a wide variety of diversity.
“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)