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.
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.
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.
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.
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.