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Friday, February 15, 2013

Christian Unity: Two Models.

The ideal of Christian unity is a theme repeated throughout the New Testament.

We are exhorted to be "of the same mind" (Phil 2:2), to "agree with one another" and be "perfectly united" (1 Cor. 1:10), to be "of one mind" (2 Cor. 13:11), to "keep the unity of the Spirit" (Eph. 4:3) and more.

Even Jesus, himself,  prayed for all believers, that they would be united (John 17:20-21).

 It is no surprise then in light of the New Testament's heavy emphasis on the unity of believers and the nation's major headache over seemingly epidemic political partisanship, racial division, class warfare, many Christians are longing for the unity described in Scripture and experienced in the early years of the Church's existence.

The Church is not now, not has it ever been, immune to divisions (Rom 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-11; Jude 1:16-19; 1 Corinthians 10:11-13),  leading many to become disillusioned with the Church, making themselves easy prey for false systems that take advantage of this perceived disunity.

Before I develop that idea in more depth, let me offer a perspective on how we might understand Christian unity.

 I am coming at this by way of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement tradition (RM) as will be evident throughout this post, but I encourage you to examine how your own tradition would address this issue.

In the RM, we live by the motif  "where the Bible speaks, we speak and where the Bible is silent, we are silent"; we don't compel anyone to accept anything found outside the canon of that Scripture; and doctrine not necessary for salvation is not made a test of fellowship.

This perspective does not preclude the active pursuit of doctrinal unity, but takes into account that well-meaning Christians may disagree on Scriptural interpretation, and every such disagreement need not result in the fracturing of a local congregation or the expulsion/discipline of a believer thereof.

Another unity theme is believer-to-believer unity within a local congregation.

Consider this lengthy, yet helpful, statement from an article on unity and the Stone-Campbell Movement, written by Dr. Douglas A Foster:

In a sense, this earliest unity impulse in the Stone-Campbell Movement was a modification— a hybrid perhaps—of the spiritual and organic unity ideas. Leaders believed there were true Christians in all the denominations, yet they were not satisfied with the idea that unity was already perfect in some intangible spiritual plane. Rather, all such Christians must leave the sectarian/ denominational organizations that divided them and come together to be visibly/organically united in local congregations of Christians. The unity envisioned was not organic in the sense of mergers of denominational structures but in terms of individual Christians uniting with other individual Christians in every place without any features that would stop them from full recognition of all other such Christian groups.

We see this type of organic, visible, individualistic unity expressed consistently among Christians in the Restoration movement, though, of course there is much room for improvement.

Finally, if peace, love, and humility (as defined and described in Scripture) are not employed in the pursuit of Christian unity, then all hope is lost, for unless we are willing to be vulnerable, putting others before ourselves, and end all arrogance and petty squabbles, then what hope is there for unity (Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:3, Col. 3:14)   

I've tried to make this perspective on unity general enough so as to allow room for others to add to this concept, but not so general as to promulgate unattainable, esoteric, theo-babble.

So how does this organic, congregational, minimalistic approach to unity compare to other ideas of unity?

 Many Christians, fed up with the lack of unity in the Church, have found they unity they desired within the communion of the Catholic Church.

 I mention the Catholic Church, because Catholics are very vocal about their belief that the "Protestant church" is hopelessly and necessarily divided and that true visible and spiritual unity is in Rome, not to mention it provides a great model for compare and contrast.

There are several reason why I'm not persuaded by the Catholic claims to unity over against those of any other church.

(1.) The doctrinal unity of the Catholic church, whether it be the uniform body of doctrine that comes from the Magisterium (teaching authority) or any purported general unity of mind Catholics may have on doctrinal issues, is contrived and inorganic.

 When you have a living teaching authority that can say definitively "this is what we believe" or "this is what we don't believe" and that reserves the right to excommunicate or discipline a person based on adherence to any and all of those beliefs, is it any surprise that dissenters would be in the minority?

This kind of visible unity is not spontaneous, natural, or miraculous; it is manufactured and meticulously so.

Any far out, sectarian, psuedo-Christian cult can claim visible unity on this basis (and many do), but what does that prove?

I'm not calling the Catholic Church a cult, to be sure, but in light of the fact that Catholics are morally compelled to believe and accept everything their church says is truth, under the pain of discipline or expulsion, it is neither surprising, nor impressive, that they would reach a high level of doctrinal unity, albeit essentially artificial.

  While we in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ would agree that there are causes for dis-fellowship in cases of wrong doctrine (not counting wrong behavior stemming from false doctrine), this would be applied to doctrine which is seen as interrupting a person's saving faith.

This makes doctrinal unity much more impressive because it is not forced on a member, but received in a non-compulsory fashion.

(2.) Catholic claims that the "Protestant Church" is divided is like comparing apples and oranges and is petty in its nature.

The "Protestant Church" is, in reality, many different traditions that hold to a common Protestant philosophy.
To make an accurate comparison, you have to compare a Protestant tradition (with its divisions) to a Catholic tradition (with its divisions).

So you can have a church with one division, another with five, and another with seven, with the Church with one division being the most united.

This is, of course, petty, sectarian and fruitless because the number of divisions in a tradition doesn't indicate the truthful quality of the tradition, which leads to my next point...

(3.) The Catholic Church, by and large, is not unified on the truth.

What does it matter if a church is united perfectly on every front, if they are not united on truth?

I believe that the Catholic Church, with its sacraments, penances, purgatory, indulgences, infant baptisms, popes, sectarianism, and, most preeminently, it's "sacrifice" of Mass is not founded upon the truth.  
And if one is convinced of this, he cannot be Catholic in good conscience, no matter how united he feels the Catholic church is.

The same goes for any non-Catholic Christian Church.

So, principally, the issue is whether or not the foundation of a particular tradition is true, not whether or not all its members agree it's true.

I have many other thought's but I'll summarize my case and conclude:

 The Churches of the Restoration Movement and other similar churches who, by and large, have an organic, believer-to-believer, congregational unity that is minimalistic in the area of doctrine and founded upon Scriptural truths, are more united, in a genuine sense, than another church with a contrived unity,  founded upon untruth.

Agree or disagree, one thing is for certain: wherever we are in our pursuit of Christian unity, we can do better and, with God's help, we will.