Few concepts have caused the spilling of more ink than that of the unity of the church. The question of unity, however, goes much farther back than the Reformed Church and Christian Reformed Church, farther back than the Reformation, or the East-West Schism. In fact, it goes back beyond Jesus to the people of God who, rather than remaining united as one kingdom, divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Unity has never been an easy thing for fallen humans, and the people of God are not excluded from this.
In the New Testament we see the issue of unity and division to be a fairly consistent theme. In fact, one of the most well-known passages about unity is the prayer of Jesus, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one”1. In the Pauline letters, we see the image of “the body of Christ”: that is, one body with varied and diverse members2.
Yet despite all of this talk of unity, belonging, and membership, the Protestants of the Western Church have fractured again and again, not to mention the wave of new Evangelical churches which sprout up without any connection to a broader church body.
What, then, are we to do?
Meaning of Unity
To talk about unity, one must first consider the meaning of the term “unity.” Is it uniformity? Or is is tinted with notes of harmony and concord, as with the word eendracht from the famous Dutch motto, eendracht maakt macht (concord makes strength)? And further, we must question the basis of unity. What are the essentials, and what are the allowances for diversity? And even further, what happens when the harmony begins to have bits of dissonance?
The Belgic Confession begins the discussion of the church by describing it as,
…one single catholic or universal church—a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed in his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.3
The unity spoken of here in the Belgic seems to be a spiritual or invisible unity. That is, De Bres (the author of the confession) was largely making an apology for why the Reformed protestants ought to be accepted, namely, that they are still a part of the one universal church.4 Yet, much has changed since the writing of the Belgic, in both cultural and ecclesiastical contexts. As Luther never desired to leave the Roman Catholic Church (nor ever imagining doing so—Luther was thrown out), one might imagine that De Bres would not have envisioned the continued fracturing of the church: all the way down, even, to the present day. Thus, is unity solely invisible, spiritual, perhaps even theoretical? Or is unity also visible and tangible?
Along with the historic doctrinal standards, the Reformed Church confesses the Belhar Confession, which, like the others, arises from a particular context, but also transcends that context. The Belhar speaks not only of a spiritual unity, but also of a visible unity. “…unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; …this unity must become visible so that the world may believe…” Indeed, as G.C. Berkouwer notes,
“The decisive thing in Christ’s prayer [in John 17] is…the perception of an unbreakable unity and fellowship. It is a wonder awakened by the crucified and raised Lord Who is the Head of this Church. To flee here to the continuing sinfulness of the Church as an ‘explanation’ for her disunity or into the reassurance that a hidden unity can survive in the division does not take Christ’s prayer seriously.”5
If we understand unity, then, to be more than invisible, to not only refer to unity in the eschaton, but also infer that unity is something the church should seek after and live out in the world, what, then, is the basis for this unity? When there is so much diversity and disagreement, how is unity possible?
The Basis for Unity
The question of what forms our basis for unity is a significant one in the Reformed Church. Is it affirmation of the four doctrinal standards, the three oldest of which (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort) have often been referred to as the “Standards of Unity”? Historically, these have served as our common foundation for our specific unity. Yet, the doctrinal standards do not address everything except those dogmas which are determined to be essential. (For example, those things such as who God is, who we are, and who we are in relation to God.) The standards address the nature of sin and salvation, justification and sanctification; they address the nature of the sacraments and how God works in and through them; they address the nature of the church, and what it means to be the body of Christ—but they do not address everything.
Further, the standards seek to help us interpret the Scriptures which point to Christ. Ultimately, Christ is the basis of our unity. Christ is the one “in [whom] we live and move and have our being”6. Finding our unity in Christ is, simultaneously, quite universal and quite particular. It is universal in that all Christians across space and time are united together on the common foundation of Christ. It is particular because we are united in this one particular unifying force. As such, it is important that we put our focus on Christ rather than on our thoughts about Christ. Indeed, while issue-based litmus tests (in our current context, namely, one’s views on human sexuality) have become common as of late as the basis for unity and fellowship, such endeavors are misguided at best, unfaithful at worst. How can schism, separation, and secession strengthen our witness to the one God who has called God’s people into one body?
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all”7.
How must we strive for unity? Perhaps rather than as a single melody line, we should understand the church to be a complex harmony, and find the beauty in that. Indeed, there are dissonant chords at times, but the tune holds together—because we belong together. Not because we necessarily like it, but because Christ calls us to it. And if Christ is not enough to hold us together, then who or what is?
Art. 27 ↩
Janssen, Allan J. Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016. ↩
Berkouwer, G. C. Studies in Dogmatics: The church. Translated by James E. Davison. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1976, p. 45. ↩