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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