Elusive Unity

June 7, 2017

How can we move toward unity in the Christian church when the contemporary Christian scene includes multiplied thousands of denominations, all claiming to profess the Christian faith? So often, we can’t even attain unity in our own denominations. Stepping back, we can ask: how is it possible to have such divergence, even conflict, among those who confess Christ?

The answer is not hard to find, although it is also not particularly edifying. This year, we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when western Christendom first divided against itself. No question that something had to happen: for two centuries by then, clamor had echoed across Europe for drastic change in the Church in capite et membris – “from head to toe,” as we would say. A recalcitrant ecclesiastical structure fought to preserve its privileges, but a movement finally arose that would not be bottled up, and the result was the division of the western Church into rival Catholic and Protestant bodies, mutually condemning each other.

But none of the Reformers ran up the flag, called out the band, and led a march out of what had been “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” confessed in the Nicene Creed. While that division may have been tragically necessary if they were to stand for the apostolic faith of the gospel, can we really claim the same for what has happened among us in the half-millennium since Luther nailed those 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg?

Over the past five centuries, Protestants have managed to divide and then sub-divide, like an ecclesiastical cancer run amok. Someone gets convinced that something isn’t right, other folks don’t agree, and lines get drawn: lines (supposedly) to separate truth from error, right from wrong – and, regrettably, Christian from Christian. If you’ve ever endured a church split, in a congregation or a denomination, you know how this goes. And yet, down deep inside, you know that lots of those “on the other side” are folks who honor Christ by their lives and teaching. Still, “But they don’t do it our way, the RIGHT way!”

We’ve done it time and again. If we split the difference between the two most common enumerations of Christian denominations (both well argued by their respective proponents) at the beginning of the third millennium (26,000 versus 43,000), we have 34,500 denominations. That comes to an average of sixty-nine splits per year, for half a millennium! The process didn’t start out that fast, but momentum picked up as time passed, and by now it’s a rushing flood. Edifying, eh? And where now do we find that pure truth we have claimed to protect by our triumphal departures? “Well, in my denomination, of course!” Yeah, right.

We would have done well, over these part five centuries, to listen, not to the siren songs of willful division, but to the wisdom of the Church fathers, the faithful teachers of early Christianity, who spoke about unity and division. Some of them (* below) were martyred for their Christian faith. Listen to what they said about splitting the Church:

“We shall bring upon ourselves no ordinary harm, but rather great danger, if we recklessly surrender ourselves to the purposes of those who launch out into strife and dissension.” (*Clement of Rome, The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians 14:2)

“Be contentious and zealous, but only about the things that relate to salvation.” (*Clement of Rome, The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians 45:1 )

“God does not dwell where there is division and anger.” (*Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians 8:1)

“The Lord lives among people who love peace, for peace is truly dear to him, but he keeps his distance from the quarrelsome.” (The Shepherd of Hermas 109:2)

“He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, destroy it – those who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel . For they can effect no reformation great enough to compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4:33,7)

“Can anyone be so criminal and faithless, so mad in his passion for quarrelling, as to believe it possible that the oneness of God, the garment of the Lord, the Church of Christ should be divided, or dare to divide it himself?” (*Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church, §8)

“No one whose furious discord breaks the Lord’s peace can come to the reward of peace.” (*Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church, §11)

“We have become more brutish than animals; at least they herd with their fellows, but our most savage warfare is with our own people.” (Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit §78)

Listening to their counsel will serve us all better as we enter upcoming synods, with the potential the arguments we may bring or hear might have for dissension, bitterness, edginess, and division. May we remember that what unites us is not agreement on every point of teaching and practice, but a faith that – as Irenaeus of Lyons stressed already in the late second century – is rooted in the apostles’ teaching:

“This is the summary of our faith, the foundation of the building, and the support of our way of life: God the Father, uncreated, beyond grasp, invisible, one God the Creator of all; this is the first article of our faith. And the second article is the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and as the Father disposed; all things whatsoever were made through him. He also, in the end of times, for the recapitulation of all things, became human among humans, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and bring life to light, and secure the communion of God and humanity. And the third article is the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, the patriarchs learned about God, the righteous were led in the path of justice, and who in the end of times has been poured forth in a new manner upon humanity over all the earth, renewing them to God.” (Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching Ch. 6)

About the Author
  • Jim Payton is Professor Emeritus of History, Redeemer University College (Ancaster, Ontario). He serves as chair of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and is the ecumenical member of the Commission on Christian Unity of the Reformed Church in America.

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