State of the Church: Some Thoughts on Unity Part 1

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The topic of Church unity has been an interest of mine for a long time, but lately it's been on my mind more than usual.  I've had several interesting discussions about the topic recently, and have read some articles which have motivated me to think about it in more depth.  I'd like to use this post (and a future one) as a sort of blitzkrieg way to get some of these thoughts down on "paper," and share them for the purpose of stimulating further discussion.  As is often the case on this site, I will caution you that I am by no means an expert on this subject, and could definitely benefit from much deeper study here.  For now, take these thoughts with a large handful of salt, and consider them carefully.  I welcome any and all responses, especially those which might enhance this dialogue, because I consider this a very important issue.



Why Should Christians Care About Church Unity?

My first point will be a way of sharing the perspective by which I am approaching this topic.  While Church history is an area of interest to me, my primary motivation for thinking about this is the inspired words of scripture.  In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, verses 20-23, Jesus prays to the Father that those who believe in him, on account of the testimony of his disciples, would be unifed:

“I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one – I in them and you in me – that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me. [1]
This seems to me to show the importance that Jesus placed on Church unity; he obviously finds it important enough to pray to the Father about, and pray for it out loud in front of his disciples at that. The reason he seems to give for desiring unity is that a unified Church would be a better witness to the world than a divided one.  And Jesus isn't the only one in scripture who is concerned with unity.  In Paul's first epistle to the Corinthian church, he pleads with the brothers and sisters there to become more unified:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree together, to end your divisions, and to be united by the same mind and purpose. For members of Chloe’s household have made it clear to me, my brothers and sisters, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” or “I am with Cephas,” or “I am with Christ.” Is Christ divided? Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Or were you in fact baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name! (I also baptized the household of Stephanus. Otherwise, I do not remember whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – and not with clever speech, so that the cross of Christ would not become useless. [2]
You can see by his language that there is a sense of urgency.  Apparently he has learned through Chloe's household of the division that exists in Corinth, and has written, at least in part, to rebuke the church for such division.  

I care about Church unity because it is clear to me through scripture that God cares about Church unity.  Jesus prayed out loud to the Father that future believers would be unified, and Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for their lack of unity.  But what exactly is meant by unity?  What would a unified Church look like?

What Does Church Unity Not Look Like?

I have heard it argued that the Church is already unified in the sense meant in the scripture I have referenced above, and in a way consistent with other tangentially related scripture.  Christians are unified, they have told me, through our shared belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  There's truth in that point; but is that the only sort of unity that Jesus and Paul were talking about in the above referenced verses?  I don't think it is.  My reason is that it doesn't fit the context of Jesus' prayer; that definition of unity would make Jesus' prayer tautologous.  The subject of Jesus' prayer is "those who believe in [him] on account of [the disciples'] testimony."  But if being unified is simply a matter of having a shared belief in Jesus, then the prayer amounts to Jesus praying to the Father that those who believe in him, would believe in him.  Similarly, this concept of unity does not fit the context of Paul's words in Corinthians.  He is speaking to the church of believers in Corinth, urging them to be unified.  But if they are already believers, then unity must mean something more than sharing belief in Christ.[3]

So if Jesus and Paul meant unity to mean something beyond a simple shared belief in Jesus, what exactly would Church unity look like?  Before I attempt to answer that question (Spoiler Alert: I don't completely know. Although I do have some ideas.), let's look at two ways that the unified Church will probably not look like.

Regarding this topic, it seems that there is a spectrum upon which most opinions lie.  On one end of the spectrum is a very superficial unity.  Christians will be unified if they can just forget all about current denominations, ignore doctrinal differences, and sit around a campfire singing Kumbaya
(Side Note: Why do people that are getting along always have to sing Kumbaya? It's a terrible song. Can't we find a better song to sing together, like, oh, something by Taylor Swift? It could be very edifying if we were to encourage our brothers and sisters to shake it off.  The dust from their feet, that is.)

This sort of superficial "unity" fails to take two important things into account.  First, it fails to take into account that some theological differences are extremely important and have a significant potential to affect the life and health of the Church (of course, determining which doctrines fall in this category is a hard thing to do and something many disagree on).  Second, it fails to take into account Church history.  Over 500 years [4] of historical wounds have taken their toll on the Church. There have been wars, murders, massacres, slander and vitriol thrown around, and many more events that have left quite a bit more than a bad taste in many peoples' mouths.  To tell these different traditions to simply forget their differences and get along would be like telling a husband and wife who had separated because of serious issues (physical or verbal abuse, infidelity, etc) to reunite and live together like none of those issues had happened.  It's not realistic, and it's certainly not healthy.  If a husband and wife were to attempt to reunite under such circumstances, it would likely require years of counseling, if not much more extreme measures.  If we are to attempt to reunite different traditions in the Church, we must be prepared for a long hard road ahead.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who think that Church unity can only happen when every theological detail is reconciled. Of course, this is usually coupled with a belief that these Christians are the correct ones and Church unity will be achieved when everyone else believes exactly as they do.  Likewise, I think that this is unrealistic.  What two Christians (even in the same church) agree on everything?  Obviously agreement on absolutely everything is probably more extreme than most Christians consider necessary, but there are definitely many who come close.  It seems that these are the same Christians who cannot distinguish a difference in the priority of doctrine.[5]  All doctrines are equally important to them, and a difference of opinion on any of them is grounds for splitting and forming a new church (or perhaps excommunicating a minority from within a church).  Along with being unrealistic, this attitude is borderline sinful.  What other than pride would motivate a Christian to think that he or she has everything, even the most minor details, exactly correct?  This seems to be what Paul was rebuking the Corinthian church for in his epistle.  They were dividing on the minutia.

Summary Thus Far

Christians should care about Church unity because Jesus and Paul cared about Church unity. One of the reasons for desiring Church unity is that a unified Church is a better witness to the world than a fragmented one.  Once we accept this as a starting point, we are left asking what exactly Church unity looks like. I maintain that it is not a superficial assent to ignore all our differences and simply say we are united. On the other hand, Church unity will not come about through agreement on every minor theological detail. It will be somewhere in between these two extremes. Exactly where it lies in this spectrum will be discussed in my next post, as well as a brief overview of what strides are currently being made (and have been made) toward this end.


Notes:
1. John 17:20-23 (NET)
2. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 (NET)
3. I can see how some people, perhaps those who consider themselves Reformed, might happily accept this interpretation, vacuous as it seems at face value.  Jesus' words could be taken as an appeal to the Father to give to him those who the Father has already chosen.  In that sense, while future believers are already chosen by the Father, they have not yet been given to the Son (they do not yet consciously believe).  So Jesus could be seen as praying that this aspect of the Father's will be fulfilled.  While there are other verses that could lend credence to this concept, this seems like an unnecessary assumption to bring to this particular verse.  We would have no reason to come to this conclusion, unless we come to the text with an a priori assumption that the Church is currently unified in the sense that Jesus meant.  And if Paul and Jesus mean the same thing by unity in those verses that I referenced, unity cannot possibly be meant in this minimalist way.  This is because Paul's rebuke to the Corinthian believers takes place years after Jesus' prayer, years after his death and resurrection, and years after the Church is established at Pentacost!
4. We could go back much further if we include the schism between the Eastern and Western churches in the eleventh century AD.  I think this is an important and relevant event, even though many tend to think of this issue solely as one between Protestants and Catholics.
5.  Daniel Wallace has written a very good article about the doctrine of inerrancy which adequately discusses the need for a priority of doctrines: https://bible.org/article/my-take-inerrancy




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