Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)

Unity. This word frequently presses on my mind in relation to the Church. There appears to be little unity these days. We’ve splintered into thousands of denominations. Even the large denominations and groups are internally divided in many ways. Churches split from churches for stupid reasons. Churches fall apart because of horrible, divisive people. So many groups make their distinctives as though they were the Gospel itself. Baptists condemn those who baptize infants, conservative Protestants in general condemn those who don’t follow sola fide, Pentecostals accuse other groups of lacking the Spirit, Catholics anathemize anyone who doesn’t follow the Pope, Calvinists accuse all others of compromising God’s sovereignty or even works-righteousness, many evangelicals (or more fundamentalist ones) condemn everyone who doesn’t subscribe to strict Biblical inerrancy, progressives accuse conservatives of bigotry, etc.

This is to our shame. Do we have the right to divide Christ? Of course we must stand up for truth, and rebuke and correct fellow believers when they go wrong, and rally around the Gospel of Christ as opposed to all false Gospels, but where is the line? I believe wholeheartedly that the line is Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God and Lord of All. Those who trust in Him are all bound in a way that condemns and transcends their divisions.

I, alas, do not have all of the experience and eloquence to make the case I want to make, so I want to highlight an amazing series of blog posts by Alastair Roberts. I deeply agree with and resonate with almost everything he says in these posts about church unity and denominations. I’m just going to link to his posts on this and provide an excerpt from each.

#1: The Denominational Church

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

#2: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

#3: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

#4: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

2 Replies to “Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)”

  1. As Alastair Roberts has at the head of his Blog a picture of St Andrew’s Cathedral. I wonder if I can make a couple of comments drawing on the Scottish experience.
    If we take the model of the Cathedral, after it was wrecked at the time of the Reformation it was turned into a quarry and the people of St Andrews incorporated what had been sacred into their secular spaces. The Kirk held the field after the Reformation and by the end of the 17th Century, except in certain areas, the Roman Catholic faith was all but forgotten. Despite this the Kirk was, despite the best efforts to impose uniformity, riven with fictionalisation, the most notable being that between the Presbyterian and the Episcopalians. This dispute was settled in a political way, however this did not bring the Church – though there may have been a basic uniformity – real unity.. The sticking point was the relationship between Church and state. Over this basic problem there were a number of splits, and also subsequent reunions. The Ultimate Union took place in 1929, though on the way there the Church had lost people for whom the old areas of disagreement were important. In the meantime there had been the growth of non Presbyterian denominations – sometimes exotic imports, at other times caused by local disputes in the Kirk.
    Basically in 1929 there was a Union between the Volunitist Tradition who traced their roots back to the early 18th Century, but which was probably theologically liberal,, there was a branch which traced their roots to the Bourgeoisie revolution of the mid 19th Century and the branch which traced its history back to the Reformed days. though all the traditions claimed to be the true inheritors of the history of John Knox, though of course the all were (including the Scottish Episcopal Church and the largely immigrant Roman Catholic Church in some way touched by Knox
    The events prior to 1929 meant that Scotland was decidedly over Churched, with often three Churches where one would do. As part of the settlement to bring the Voluntarists in the Church had given up her patrimony, so effectively you had a large number of Churches which very often were not that different. Over the next 60 or 70 years there was extreme rationalisation. However while for the first 30 years or so, the Denomination actually grew, there then developed a slow but steady decline.
    Part of the discussion is whether that decline merely reflects the decline of main stream denominations, or whether there is a specific reason for this decline. I was appointed by a Presbytery as the Convener of the Committee which was responsible for planning the use of of resources, and as part of my remit I visited a large number of Churches in what was a large Presbytery. I discovered that at the bottom of much of the wastage was the legacy of how congregations had been joined (historically the vast number of Churches were closed by uniting two or more Churches.
    I therefore offer a number of observations on the topic.
    1. Many of the original splits in the Church were effectively sociological rather than theological.
    2 That while the original reason for the split may have been sociological, that there had developed within the congregations differing theological understanding of the role of the Church in society, and different liturgical practices.
    3 No one ever seemed to have prepared the Congregations for the different understandings of the Church.
    4 In the Reformed tradition we are very poor at celebrating how different traditions “do Church” and this means that there are unnecessary culture shocks.
    A final story, I went to a union of 12 years standing where there had been mayhem. When I was called the leaders from one of the factions left. When I’d been there about 6 or 7 years I was invited to give a lecture on local Church history to a local history society which was run by these same people. I traced the varied histories of the Congregations in the town. After the lecture was finished the leader of the group said to me “You know, if we had heard this lecture 20 years ago, the union would, never have happened.
    As we share baptism and are joined at the same table, the Churches already have unity in Christ. I remember the great heady days as we discovered ecumenism in the 60s and 70s. It was always torpedoed on practical arrangements.
    I was the Convenor of the ecumenical committee in a Presbytery and I was also the secretary of the local clergy fraternal. All the ministers worked together from the Parish Priest to the Free Kirk Minister, because we understood we were united in Christ. When we took communion in the Episcopal Church on Maundy Thursday we celebrated our unitedness, but we also realised that there were different ways of doing Church. The weakness of those who are pushing for Church Union is that they are merely looking at the institution, and are ignoring the feelings and the prejudices of the people of God who need to be addressed at a micro level before there can be some traumatic event in “their” Church

    • For these reasons and others I am content, like Roberts, without institutional unity for a very long time. Nonetheless, I am very interested in a unity of cooperation in ministry and voice, and for as much theological bridge-building and as few anathemas as is practically possible.

So what do you think?