Dawn and I have three children. They love each other, and generally speak to each other respectfully, treat each other kindly, and get along well. What a joy that is to this average father’s heart. Every parent’s ideal is to have a family where peace and unity prevail over individual differences.
But, God’s earthly family stands in stark contrast to this. His kids don’t seem to get along well at all, and as I bemoaned in Sometimes I wish I could be Catholic, the Protestant quarters of which I’m part, seem to generate the most frequent door-slamming in the family feud. To me, western Protestantism seems more like a concentration of rival wolf packs than a mutually supportive family. Is there a way to repair this?
Let’s Be Realistic
Please don’t misunderstand. While most of our divisions are unhealthy for God’s family, I’m not so idealistic as to think that all Christians should belong to one massive worldwide organization. Dividing into smaller organizations due to geographic, language or cultural barriers is often necessary and wise. Smaller organizations are also more manageable, and can better focus on pursuing the Great Commission where God has placed them. This is not to deny that Jesus instituted only one true, universal (that’s what Catholic means) Church. I’m just acknowledging that local expressions of the universal Church can be self-organized without contributing to disunity.
THE CHURCH & Local Congregations
While I’m on the subject, a person belongs to The Church because he or she belongs to The Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Those who belong to Christ are assured of His promise to reign eternally with Him in His Kingdom. Belonging to a local congregation is an obedient response to one’s belonging to Christ, but it’s not the cause of it. This implies that local congregations of all kinds (good and bad) will always consist of a mix of people who do, and don’t, belong to Christ. It’s a messy world, and so in consequence, a messy Church… for now. Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the weeds that He isn’t going to separate the belongers from the non-belongers until the end of the age.
So, What’s The Problem?
I said in Sometimes I wish I Could Be Catholic that I believe the source of the many unhealthy divisions in Protestantism is the bad — sometimes heretical — teachings that seem to multiply faster than you can say the Lord’s Prayer. Roman Catholics don’t seem to have this problem because they have a clear authority structure that maintains a consistent standard of teaching. The absence of such an authority allows Protestantism to continuously mutate into forms that bear little resemblance to one another. Consider the differences between Liberal Protestants, the Amish, Evangelicals, Universalists, Fundamentalists, and Prosperity-gospel Charismatics, not to mention Mormons, all of which are divergent shoots of the Protestant vine.
The Problem Isn’t New
As one person commented on my previous post, the solution to our disunity is that we obey Paul’s instruction to the very divided church at Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Wow! Here we have 1st-century Christians in one city and one church who received the gospel from One Apostle and they had trouble believing the same thing? Why? How? — Partly because false apostles who didn’t recognize Paul’s authority came along teaching a different gospel.
Church disunity is a threat to the purity and clarity of the gospel.
So here’s the root of the matter as I see it: Church disunity is a threat to the purity and clarity of the gospel, and the gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who believes it (Romans 1:16). But what happens to that power if the gospel is no longer clearly understood and proclaimed?
That was Paul’s main concern and mine.
Toward a Solution
Ultimately, I think Christ and His kingdom are not at the mercy of human squabbles. He will accomplish all that is His good pleasure in spite of us, and our divisions will only serve to make His mercy toward us more glorious. But, I hope you, like me, would rather that He receive glory from our faithfulness, not our failings.
So, I have some unattractive, idealistic, impractical thoughts for us to consider on how Protestantism, and ultimately all Christians, can reclaim the unity that gives the gospel clarity. I don’t like some of these, but I think this is what it might take to achieve unity.
1. A recovery of Church unity depends on the efforts of our denominational leaders. They will have to decide that the status quo of disunity is no longer acceptable. Perhaps they would, if they were faced with a grass roots “Christian Spring” or “Occupy” type of movement that calls for unity.
2. To recover unity, Christians need not agree on everything, but we must agree on some set of essentials that we view as non-negotiable. I hope this would include a clear definition of God and Jesus. How wonderful it would be for a whole generation of Christians in all churches around the world to be taught to understand and love the definitions of the Godhead and of Christ’s deity and humanity contained in the statements of Nicea, Athanasius, and Chalcedon?
Two other essentials I would propose are clear definitions of, and priority given to, the meaning of the gospel message, and the mission of the Church. Perhaps, the non-negotiables should go no further than that.
3. To maintain clarity of these essentials, a new trans-denominational doctrinal authority would have to be established. Such an authority should probably given oversight of ministerial training and ordination. Churches should continue to self-organize and and self-govern in regards to their mission, internal structure, ministries and teaching on non-essentials. But Christian unity would depend on their willingness to submit to this authority in regard to whatever non-negotiable essentials are established.
4. We must acknowledge that Christian unity will always be threatened. There will always be personality cults and persuasive hotshots building their own domain. But unity among the majority, would make the errors of the few more obvious and avoidable.
5. I propose we drop our denominational labels in favor of something more inclusive that expresses our faith in the essentials: of God our Creator, Jesus our Redeemer, His gospel of salvation and the mission He gave to His church. I think just plain, “Christian” would do fine.
6. To recover unity, Christians will have to learn humility and love regarding our the non-essentials, and courage regarding the essentials. We must learn to accept one another for Christ’s sake, but there must be a point at which we are willing to say, “That is not orthodox; it is heresy.”
7. Finally, recovering unity will require entire generations. Whatever plan for Christian unity is ever pursued, it could not possibly be successful in less than 50-100 years. Humpty Dumpty split in a day, putting him back together is a different story.
I know what you’re thinking…
This all sounds like the makings of a second-rate, sci-fi movie about a dystopian society where the errant are “rehabilitated.”
Yeah, it does.
So, I’m hoping someone has better ideas than me.
Do you think Christian unity is possible? Does it matter?
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10 thoughts on “Can We All Be Catholic (Universal) Again?”
Lon, wish it could be so. My husband is an Anglican Bishop. Consider this: In some of our churches in his diocese (which encompasses several states), the local Roman Catholic priests believe us to be in unity and will come to our churches for functions and receive Holy Communion. In another state, the local Roman Catholic church website lists our parish and our priest as heritical and declares our Holy Communion invalid. Both churches in both states, are exactly the same. In India, my husband can celebrate Holy Communion with a Roman Catholic priest. In one US city where we have a parish, the priest warned their Spanish members from the pulpit that Holy Communion is not valid in our church. It doesn’t make sense. How can anyone have the trademark on Jesus, yet some RC churches claim that they are the one true church and that the recieving of Jesus is only valid in their church. Nevermind that there are the Eastern Churches, Greek Orthodox, Polish National Church, Anglicans, etc..all liturgical churches with valid apostolic sucession who have split from Rome, but carry on with the same ancient catholic service. I get frustrated because I know that Jesus is real in our church, too. Wish we could all get along.
Me too. Such a shame. Thanks for your comments.
This is a needed word and something I too have been thinking about. Every sermon I have ever heard on Christian unity concerns local church unity. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone talk about faith wide unity in any meaningful way. Thanks for this.
Thanks. The situation is so bad and so old it seems “normal”, but it’s not. And the proliferation of weird teachings today has me wishing we could do something about it. Unity for the gospel’s sake!
Good morning Lon,
You said, “Wow! Here we have 1st-century Christians in one city and one church who received the gospel from One Apostle and they had trouble believing the same thing? Why? How? — Partly because false apostles who didn’t recognize Paul’s authority came along teaching a different gospel.”
You’re right about one reason why the trouble in Corinth was present. Another is found in 1 Corinthians 11:19 – “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”
I agree 100% with you when you said we need to drop our denominational names. And I would add the denominational practices that validate the need for the denominational name as well. The simple truth is that a whole lot of people want to be a denomination. When people ask me what “I am” and I respond by saying “a Christian” I get looked at like I’m being a smart mouth :/
Basically, the vast majority of disagreements and divisions amongst people who claim to follow Jesus comes from a lack of respect for the Bible and a lack of effort to understand it.
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15
There are room for opinions on certain matters without a doubt; but there are certain things in the Bible that God has made very clear when there is no room or need for our opinions (Ephesians 4:1-6). There is a big difference between the spirit of unity and the unity of the Spirit.
A person needs to do as the Bereans did when Paul and Silas preached about Jesus to them – “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
I believe Christian unity is possible or Jesus would not have prayed for it, and unity matters (as I think you are seeing) a lot more than most people think (John 17:20,21).
Take care, Lon.
Thanks Eugene. I appreciate your point. The biggest problem is that almost any sane person would say, “We should agree on fundamentals and leave room for differences on secondary matters.” Unfortunately, no one agrees on what is “fundamental” which is why I proposed a very, very short list. For example, I attend a Presbyterian Church in Atlanta because I’m convinced I share their reformed stance on most matters that are important to me. But, I’m not a fan of infant baptism. I can see the Reformed point, but it’s not crucial. If I lived in Minneapolis, I’d be attending Bethlehem Baptist. I don’t think Puritan Baptists and Puritan Presbyterians should have separated all those centuries ago in England. And today, the problem is 10,000 times worse.
I’m inclined to believe that, even though there were issues with the Catholic church, the Reformation may need to be examined again and see what the source of it is. So many of us accept it as a “Godly” intervention, but the complete fracture of the “unified” church that has resulted does leave some unanswered questions (which I will not list right now). I appreciate the foundation of the Catholic church because it is not only has a foundation based on scripture, they also embrace the apostolic traditions that the apostles exhibited – and were the ones who had walked with Jesus. But, theological differences aside, if we love God, then we will love the people around us – and isn’t God’s love the primary message of the gospel (yes, the forgiveness of sins – I know – but it’s God’s love a.k.a. the Prodigal son story)?
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