Divided Churches but United Faith?

February 28, 2017

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” Ephesians 4:3–6, NIV

The Christian church does not seem to have done a very good job of remembering Paul’s words to the Ephesians.

Why are there so many different types of churches? We have built so many denominational castles using the stones of our doctrines and dogmas.

It all seems to contradict Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11, NIV).

Very simply, it has become obvious over time that Christians have not “made every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Rather, Christians have brought harm to each other through their fights and disagreements. Even more profoundly discouraging is that our inability to remain unified in Christ has negatively affected our witness to the world.

There are volumes of books which speak about the history of the church and its struggle to maintain unity. Also, one could talk about the classic definitions of the visible and invisible church.  The visible church is, quite simply, the church we see, which includes different denominations and expressions of the Christian faith. The invisible church, however, is not defined by buildings, borders, or even time. It is the unified gathering of God’s people over all time and places.

As Article 27 of the Belgic Confession states:

And so this holy church is not confined,
bound, or limited to a certain place or certain people.
But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world,
though still joined and united in heart and will,
in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.

For most of us, the background is helpful and worth knowing, but for today, how can we encourage the unity of the church?

I take comfort in Paul’s words, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, NIV). These words sit at the foundation of how we may begin to talk and approach one another.

For example, the Apostle’s advice helps me do the following:

  1. Seek points of unity with others. If you stand next to someone from a different Christian tradition and both of you can confidently recite the Apostles’ Creed together, there is infinitely more that unites you than that which divides you.
  2. Assume the posture of a student, rather than a teacher. What can we learn from others about their understanding of the Christian faith in order to make our own faith richer? For example, what are positive characteristics of those who emphasize infant baptism? Believer’s baptism? What can we learn from those in the charismatic tradition who seek the extra-ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit? What can we learn by following the liturgical seasons of the year? Even the simple act of touring the worship space of a church outside of your own tradition can teach you some things about what they value and how those things may help to deepen your own faith.
  3. Know your own faith background. Sometimes we define ourselves by what we aren’t, but we have very little knowledge about who we really are. Read and study the doctrinal standards and position statements of your church. Know your history. Don’t paint others with a broad brush when you don’t know your own tradition. Learn to describe your tradition in positive terms.
  4. Display grace when you differ. We won’t always be able to agree. We may have principled and defensible arguments for why we believe as we do. When those moments occur, we don’t need to call down divine judgment. Remember these words: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV). I am confident that all of us will have something to learn when we appear before God’s throne. I smile to think that I might look to an Eastern Orthodox brother or Pentecostal sister in heaven and have to say, “You got that part right!”
  5. Remember it’s God’s Church, not our own. When I was a child, I don’t remember being explicitly told that my church had all the right answers; but, implicitly, that’s the message I received. We would read more polemical portions of our confessional documents and feel fairly certain about the eternal destination of people who attended certain churches. As for people who belonged to other churches, they could make it to heaven, but their pants might be on fire when they arrived (cf. I Corinthians 3:15). Our goal should be to see God’s church grow, not for us to be self-assured in our own correctness.

Finally, remember that we should be united in Christ, but that doesn’t mean that we are all called to be identical to one another. Consider the portrait of worship in the world to come, where we see people who are clearly still visibly and audibly different from one another, and yet are all praising God together: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9–10, NIV).

As I read these words from Revelation, it makes me grateful for the diversity of churches in the world. Not all churches have been borne from division. Gatherings of believers large and small meet all over this world. While we might differ in color, culture, or language, we are united through the sovereign power of the Father, the redeeming gift of Christ, and through the counsel of the Holy Spirit.

If we spend all of our time trying to discern who is the truest “true church”, I believe we contradict the vision contained in Revelation. As churches and denominations, we should continue to develop our unique accent or voice in God’s great choir—realizing that we might miss a note from time to time, and that there will be some dissonance, but that the most important part is that we are all singing the same song, glorifying the King.

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