A recent article proclaims, that in the US the “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” (link). I do not buy into doomsday scenarios. The church has often faced decline. She has also often experienced reformation and revival. Together Scripture and Church History hold out a light by which we can see our modern faults. By this same light they show us the path forward.
This is part two of my series on the Challenge and Opportunity fo Christian Unity (part one). In my first post I argued:
Many today are concerned that the church seems to be a spent force in the West. The cultural battle seems to have been all but lost. And yet Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18).
Jesus cannot fail. His church is being built. So what is happening in the West? Could it have to do with division and factionalism?
The Challenge to Christian Unity
Does it not seem strange to you that there are, according to one statistic I read, over 200 distinct bodies of Christians in the US (link)? Yet, Jesus asked the father to sanctify his followers, and “keep them in your name . . . that they may be one even as we are one.” (John 17:11).
The sanctification that unifies is “Truth” John 17:17. Ironically, the truth is both the challenge and the opportunity for Christian unity. Most early breaks in the church have been over the perception of truth among the major groups. This was true of those who would not sign on to Nicene orthodoxy in the 4th century. It was true of the split between the eastern (Greek) and western (Latin) church in the 11th century. It was true during the Reformation of the 16th century.
Truth and Divisions
But are all “truths” worth dividing over? Why are there 27 Baptist denominations in the US alone (link)? The Baptist movement began in England among puritan/independent parties seeking biblical faithfulness in one of the two Sacraments of the Church. Practically, it became impossible for a Baptist and a Congregationalists to worship together.
Some divisions may make functional unity impossible. I still believe that even these diverse groups should be able to come closer together. However, one wonders whether the many distinctions that separate the 27 baptists churches are necessary? Why do we keep seeing this fracturing?
The Faith and Unity
Could it be, because we stopped valuing unity as a fundamental of the faith? Remember that Jesus prayer was that his people be one. Jesus instruction was that we love one another. The Apostle Paul reminded us that there is “one body” (Ephesians 4:4), urging us to “make every effort to keep the unity” (4:3). The early Church professed “one holy catholic and apostolic church” (Apostle’s Creed). Once this fundamental of the faith was abandoned, Christians appear to have substituted all sorts of preferences as in its place. This seems to be what history teaches.
Jesus was very firm that we should not substitute the traditions of men for the commandments of God. Scripture commands us to preserve unity in the Church. Unity is one of the four primitive marks of the true church, according to Scripture (see my first post) and according to Church history.
The Challenge unto Christian Unity
The Church has always seen Christian Unity as essential and disunity as sin. For this reason, when the earliest Christians clarified the definition of the Faith, they included this confession: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed AD 315/381). The content of this Creed was affirmed and confirmed by its universal acceptance amongst the orthodox of all times and places.
The Reformed Community and Unity
The Creed was reaffirmed during the reformation, as for example, in the English Reformers, Articles of Religion, which state that its contents, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” (link). The Lutherans as well mark the Creeds contents, “because they are drawn from the Word of God, and on that account we regard their doctrinal content as a true and binding exposition of Holy Scripture and as authoritative” (link).
The Reformers were not interested in the fracturing, but rather the reforming of the Church. “One theme that emerges throughout Calvin’s works as well as some Calvin biographies is the importance he places upon ecclesiology. We see this in various ways, for instance in his fight for the unity of the protestant movement . . . The Nicene creed begins the section about the church by saying ‘I believe in one…. church.’ The oneness of the church is something that Calvin insists upon throughout his career” (“John Calvin & the Four Nicene Marks of the Church”, link).
The Failure of Reformational Unity
Unfortunately, the Reformers vision of unity did not come to fruition. Politics, personalities, and no doubt the enemy’s efforts resulted in a fracturing of the body. None of the Reformers every gave up:
Calvin saw the dispute between Lutheran and Zwinglian understandings of the Eucharist as the major block towards church unity. Thus Calvin attempted to navigate a way between both positions, a way which could unite the church. He did this by signing the Augsburg Variata and the Consensus Tigurinus, as well as cultivating a relationship with Melanchthon. He even traveled extensively, journeying to Berne, Zurich, Basle, Frankfurt, and Strausbourg in order to cultivate unity. Sadly, the unity he desired was not achieved (ibid).
The Challenge for Christian Unity
The Apostle Paul pleads with the readers of Ephesians (a circular letter according to most scholars meant for all churches and situations) to walk worthy of the calling to which we have been called. And that calling is defined in Ephesians 4:4-5, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
Today the church seems to care very little for unity. Or, in areas where it does pursue unity, it often does so at the expense of truth. Truth was the foundation of Jesus prayer for unity, “Sanctify them by the Truth” he prayed, “your word is Truth” (John 17:17).
Christian disunity is a sin, and a walking unworthy of our calling. We need to take up the Apostle’s challenge to walk worthy of our calling once again. But what can that look like and what does that mean? Fortunately, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
In my final post on this subject I explore one historic path attempting to chart the way to faithful, biblical, and apostolic unity (link).