Is lack of unity the great sin of the modern church?

The most effective argument made by Catholic apologists against the Protestant Reformation has always been that Protestantism inevitably fractures the church and destroys its unity. When Scripture rather than the authority of the magisterium is the bond of unity you end up with millions of popes rather than one pope, each Christian following the inviolable authority of his or her own conscience. When confessional documents are the authority the result is merely a paper pope that lacks the flexibility and personality of a real human being like the bishop of Rome.

The response of theologians like John Calvin was to argue that the unity of the church is grounded in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and that all other differences between Christians or churches are to be negotiated in the context of unity. For Calvin arguments over worship, church government, or even discipline were important but secondary. No one had the right to separate himself or herself from a church unless the gospel itself was at stake. Calvin labored long and hard to keep the various branches of Protestantism united. He downplayed differences with the Reformed churches in places like Zurich, and unlike Luther, he bent over backwards to make unity between Lutherans and the Reformed a reality.

He failed miserably. Although for a time Protestants remained relatively unified within their various national boundaries, by the 17th Century the churches were fracturing into denominations and sects, especially in the English speaking lands that were the bastions of the Reformed tradition. By the end of the 18th Century there were Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and numerous other sects (as well as ethnically oriented groups like the German Reformed and Dutch Reformed) present in the American colonies. During the 19th Century the forces of democratization and fragmentation exploded American Protestantism into what have since become thousands of fragments, each claiming to represent Christ’s body in its purest (or close to purest form).

According to Wikipedia (citing Christianity Today) there are over 38,000 Christian denominations in existence today.

Of course, some of these differences are legitimate. It would be impossible, even by Calvin’s criteria for unity, to bring Baptists and Anglicans into the same denomination, due to differences over baptism. And a good number of the denominational splits have been the result of the abandonment of fidelity to the gospel in a particular existing denomination (for instance the Presbyterian split of the 1930s, or the exodus from the Episcopal Church in the United States in the past decade).

But many more of the divisions are simply the result of petty disputes or theological arguments over secondary issues. For instance, although the conservative confessional Reformed world is unified under the North American and Presbyterian Reformed Council (totaling roughly 500,000 Christians), that body is itself divided into no less than 12 different denominations. These denominations profess the same basic doctrines and hold to the same confessional documents, they observe the sacraments in the same way and have the same form of church government, and they even worship in broadly similar forms, but due to various cultural or theological distinctives they cannot seem to join themselves together as one church.

And of course, the lack of unity among Protestants (or Catholics for that matter) does not simply pertain to the proliferation of denominations. Perhaps the most painful demonstrations of division and enmity take place within particular congregations. These divisions stem from anything like disputes over theology and practice to personal grudges and resentments arising from struggles over power, culture, or tradition. Christians judge one another, break fellowship with each other, or refuse to pursue reconciliation together over any range of issues. You name it, and I’m sure you could find an example somewhere in this country.

What is perhaps most tragic about this, however, is that we are so resigned to it. Many of us seem to think unity is an ideal rather than a commandment. Most Reformed pastors I speak with accept separate denominations not simply as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. We act as if any theological or practical difference is a matter of principle over which there can be no compromise – especially because we are always on the edge of some dangerous slippery slope. And our anger is always righteous anger of course. It is the others who are at fault for our inability to be united in Christ. We have done all we could.

It was with some of these thoughts in mind that I recently reread Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In this letter Paul describes a church with more problems – and more serious problems – than any modern church of which I am aware. And at the heart of the struggles of this church – a church “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2) – was division. “Each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1:12-13)

And then Paul makes a staggering statement. Note that in the following declaration the “you” is plural. He is speaking to the church as a body, not to Christians as individuals.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him (3:16-17).

This is a terrifying warning, and it indicates that God takes division in the church very seriously. Schism amounts to nothing less than the destruction of God’s temple. And God will destroy those who are guilty of it.

I used to think the great sin of the American church was covetousness and materialism. But lately I am beginning to wonder – and of course my humble opinion on this point is worth a grain of salt – if our true blind spot is our lack of unity.

Unity is not simply an ideal. It is a command. There may be much evil in a church (as there was in the Corinthian church) but you do not solve an evil by creating another evil (division). We need to stop justifying ourselves every time we refuse to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to stop pretending that the worship of God is more important than that reconciliation. It is not (Matthew 5:23-26; 23:23). As Paul puts it, “Let no one deceive himself” (1 Corinthians 3:18). No matter how much faith or knowledge our church has, no matter how faithful we are in worship and teaching, if we do not have love for one another, we have absolutely nothing (1 Corinthians 13).


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 10, 2012, in Calvin, Roman Catholic Church, Unity of the Church and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is lack of unity the great sin of the modern church?.

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