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A Culture Divided, a Church United?

Kenneth J. Howell, Ph.D.
October 14, 2014 No Comments

The call for Christian unity resounds more loudly than ever. In what appears to be a disintegrating culture, unity among Christians may be the one source of real hope.

Many observant Christians today are troubled by the fragmentation of American life and the erosion of the moral fabric of the West. In the last decade in the United States we have seen an intensified divisiveness in American public discourse that rivals anytime since the Civil War. Americans seem more divided than ever. Nor is the situation any more promising among Christian churches. Many of those denominations once called mainline are now receding into obscurity as their memberships dwindle and their moorings unfasten from anything rooted in classical Christian doctrine and morals. The recent vote in the Church of England to ordain women as bishops has sent troubling signs to the Catholic Church and its hierarchy that the years of discussion between the two ecclesial bodies may now be permanently damaged.

Among the spectrum of churches that dub themselves independent, non-denominational, and charismatic, there is a wide range of theologies and views that sometimes seem irreconcilable. While such churches often affirm the uniqueness and primacy of salvation in Christ, there seems to be little else that unifies them. Amidst all this diversity and confusion somehow Christians have to find their moorings, to drop their anchor and fasten onto a sure rock from which they can search for greater peace and unity among Christians.

The time seems ripe for Christians of any creed to reconsider the roots of unity and to ground themselves once again in the historic witness of Scripture and Christian history. Questions about unity stand at the center of this inquiry because the problem lies not only in the unresolved differences among Christians but even in the differing understandings of what unity is. How exactly should Christians view the search for greater unity? What does unity consist of? Even if we can agree on what unity is, what practical steps can be suggested to pursue unity?

One obvious problem lies in the mandate for unity. Is there a mandate from God to have more Christian unity? Is Christian unity an optional nicety that Christians may have if convenient or a command from God that must be pursued? It all depends on how you read the New Testament. One of the deepest divides among Christians is whether the Church in the New Testament possessed/possesses a spiritual oneness that is enough for unity or whether it also includes an institutional unity that manifests the spiritual oneness in Christ. On the one side are Evangelical Christians of independent leanings that often insist we already have unity through our common belief in Christ. For them, that is enough. On the other are historic Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox churches which insist that unity is always expressed through unity in a common faith and liturgy. For these churches Christian unity cannot be had without unity in faith (creeds), liturgy, and moral teaching.

 Since all historic believers take the New Testament as the word of the living God, they must always return to its pages with fresh eyes and an open mind to rediscover its teachings on unity. Space does not permit me to offer an exegesis of the key passages but every Christian must grapple with classic texts like John chapter seventeen, I Corinthians 1:10-18, 12:1-28, and Ephesians 4:1-14. The need for a fresh reading is twofold. These New Testament texts will always be the foundation of Christian faith and cannot be jettisoned in favor of some supposed better understanding that ignores the meaning of these texts. In addition, we may have read these texts wrongly and so misunderstood them. If we remain in our ignorance, we may never find our way out of the labyrinth of disunity. Just as the Constitution of the United States will always function as a bellweather for our democracy — and can never be set aside or reinterpreted into irrelevance — so the New Testament must always be the anchor for Christian unity.

A second factor plays into the search for greater unity, the role of Christian history. Ours is not the first generation to face the problem of disunity among Christians. In fact, almost every generation of Christ’s disciples has confronted this problem. A sensitive reading of the Letter of First John reveals an underlying problem of schism and heresy, as do several other letters in the New Testament. But the same problem surfaced again in the third century with the Novatian and Donatist schisms, the latter persisting into the time of St. Augustine. Time and time again the two-sided coin of heresy and schism menaced the Church. Even if one believes in Scripture alone as the final authority, it would be foolhardy to ignore these historical struggles as case studies for understanding Christian unity. Both Scripture and Church history have much to illumine this perennial problem. Let me share some important lessons.

First, the temptation is always present to treat the problem of unity on the model of political negotiation where one expects to find give-and-take among discussants. Yet, Christian unity is not a negotiated peace among warring Christians. Unity is a gift from God and a metaphysical reality in God. God Himself is the source of all unity for the Church because all the original unity and diversity rests in God. To understand this point, go back to the foundations of the world. Imagine what existed before the universe was created. All there was was God. All created reality, both physical and spiritual, derives from God Himself. And while God could have created the universe in any way He pleased, He chose to have reality reflect and embody His triune nature. Nicene Christians believe that this God, their God, was eternally One in Three or Three in One. Diversity and unity are both in God already. And this God — one nature in three persons — is perfect in all His attributes.

The trinitarian nature of God implies that the perfection of love is in God, as the apostle John says, “God is love” and all love comes from God. He is the source and summit of love. Yet, God is also truth. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all agree on truth and love one another in the truth they are. For us human beings, truth is something external to us; it does not arise from our inner being; we must bring in truth from the outside. In God, however, truth is not something external to Him as Plato may have thought. Rather, God is the source of all human truth; truth is internal to God and is equally shared by the three Persons of the Trinity.

The implications of God’s trinitarian Being are profound. The unity of Christians then is not a human creation, much less a negotiated peace. The unity God desires for the Church is a gift of God Himself. The search for unity is not really a process of compromises but a voluntary relinquishing of mistaken ideas about unity to embrace a greater truth that can liberate Christians from our time-bound ideas. The unity we should be seeking is the presence of God Himself in the hearts of the faithful to bind them together more fully and to enfold them more completely into the body of Christ.

A second implication involves distinguishing the inner core of unity and truth from the outward expressions of that unity and truth. The Church has always been diverse and contained many expressions of liturgy, piety, and orders of service. Part of St. John Paul II’s emphasis in his Orientale Lumen (1995) was a call for the Church “to breathe with both lungs.” The Church cannot experience the fullness of Christ’s teaching without the profound contributions of the East and the West. Even within the western Patriarchate under the Pope as the Bishop of Rome, there were small variations in liturgy and wide variations in piety well into the early modern period. Still today, the Ambrosian liturgy is the officially sanctioned one in the Archdiocese of Milan. The great variety of religious orders and charisms in the West attests to the value the Church has always placed on properly constituted diversity. The Church has never been monolithic.

Yet, the Church has always been one in her core and inner dynamism. That oneness lies in the presence of the Holy Spirit as the active agent in creating love among the brethren and forging bonds of unity. The Spirit moves in the hearts of the faithful who are properly ordered under their pastoral leaders to inspire and create communities of service to reach out into the world. That same Spirit guides the Church in her deliberations over matters of doctrine and morals. Even the diverse expressions of the faith in East and West must yield to a unified expression of the faith so that there may be true oneness in doctrine. Liturgies may contain differing expressions but the same faith must be the core of those outward forms.

There is a mandate for unity, not only because it is taught in the New Testament, but because God Himself is a unity of three Persons in one nature. Yet, the necessity for Christian unity also lies in the Incarnation, in the act of God becoming man. When John proclaims that the Word (Logos) became flesh, it was a declaration that God intended to unite all humanity in the person of His Son, the Word of God. Over time the Church realized the full significance of this truth by proclaiming Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man. Had the apostles proclaimed Jesus as half God and half man, the gospel would not have changed the world. It would have been just another variation on the theme in Greek mythology in which the gods became human by becoming less divine and humans became like the gods by shedding their mortal humanity. But when Christians proclaimed Jesus as one-hundred percent God and one-hundred percent man, they offered the first real hope of uniting all humanity into one. That was the very message that the sagacious St. Athanasius saw in the On the Incarnation of the Word as the lynchpin of our faith. By the Logos becoming man and dying for all, the God-Man Jesus Christ absorbed all humanity into Himself and provided the foundation for unity in the Church.

Since the Church is Christ’s body in the world, the Church is now the instrument for uniting all with one another and ultimately with God. That same Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, is still at work today helping us to maintain the bond of peace. He accomplishes this work of unification through the active ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, called the soul of the Church by many Church Fathers, animates the visible body of Christ to bring Christ’s disciples together and to urge them on to greater unity.

In the light of these central truths, what is our responsibility as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, in promoting Christian unity? It would be easy to outline platitudes for us all but ultimately the practical work of unity must be engaged. What is that practical work? Contrary to our activist inclinations, the most practical thing we can do is to pray for unity. Remember that unity is a gift but God usually gives His gifts only to those who ask (Mt 7:7-11) and especially to those who beg unceasingly (cf. Lk 18:1-18). Divine unity will only be achieved through the outpouring of God into the Church. That’s the most practical thing we can do.  

Kenneth J. Howell, Ph.D.

Kenneth J. Howell taught for thirty years in various colleges and universities before taking his present position as Resident Theologian of the Coming Home Network. He has published seven books including two on the early Church Fathers.  For more information about Dr. Kenneth J. Howell click here. You may also read his conversion story by clicking here.

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