Category Archives: Unity of the Church

Gentiles, Homosexuality, and Grace in the Body of Christ

As the church wrestles with whether women and men who practice homosexuality ought to be embraced into the full life of the church, it is important to remember that the church has struggled with questions of membership from the very beginning. The primary conflict in the life of the early church had to do with another question: Should Gentiles, who do not keep the mosaic law, be received into the fellowship of the body of Christ?

The church embraced believing Gentiles, but only after an intense conflict that featured breaches of fellowship (between Peter and Paul, among others), intense argument (Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans, among others), and even a major church council (the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15). It took testimonies of special revelation (Peter’s visions in Acts 10), indisputable signs of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles (Acts 10-11), and careful study of Old Testament prophetic texts to determine that the Spirit was indeed calling believing Gentiles and believing Jews to be united in one body.

In the end, the apostles determined that to deny Gentiles membership in the body of Christ was to deny the gospel. It was to commit the heresy of saying that salvation comes by the law rather than by grace through faith.

Image result for jerusalem council

Should the church use the same process of discernment to determine whether or not to receive our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends, and family members into full church membership?

It is an important question because nothing less than the graciousness of the gospel is at stake. To exclude a gospel-believing person from the church because she is same-sex attracted is to abandon the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, without question. And does the exclusion of such a person, if she refuses to give up the practice of homosexuality, also amount to an insistence on salvation by works of the law? What if she confesses the faith of the gospel, as did the Roman centurion Cornelius, who heard Peter preach in Acts 10? What if her life evidences the fruits of the Spirit, as did the Gentiles who experienced their own Pentecost at Antioch (Acts 10)?

A lot is at stake. As Paul put it in Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”

On the other hand, we must flee the sort of cheap grace that claims justification apart from the fruits of the Spirit. In the same letter Paul warns that those who practice “the acts of the flesh,” including “sexual immorality,” “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21).

So we have got to get this right. How exactly did the early church discern that Gentiles, despite their infidelity to the law of Moses, had received the Spirit of Christ? And what would it look like for the 21st-century church to discern whether gay and lesbian men and women have also shared in the blessing of grace?

Read my answer to this question at the Banner, where this article originally appeared.

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Why is the Reformed tradition in decline?

On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.

As Evans writes,

There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K.  The list goes on and on.  Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality.  Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.

Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.

Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market.  But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.

Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.

Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?

To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,

What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation.  To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Who cares about unity anyway? The Significance of the PCA

The Presbyterian Church in America is by far the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States. Totaling approximately 300,000 members, it represents a powerful proportion of the combined population of the United States and Canada: approximately 0.09%. If you are confused by the combination of decimals and percentages, take it simply as a decimal: 0.0009. Or if you find fractions more helpful, members of the PCA represent approximately one out of every 1,111 Americans and Canadians.

Perhaps with such staggering statistics in mind, PCA pastor Sam DeSocio suggests that the PCA might be too large and should consider splitting. The PCA is simply too big, containing within itself too many factions, none of which can win control of the denomination, with the result that it has no clear identity. In addition, the PCA’s size makes it hard for the various confessional Reformed denominations to unite together without being dominated by the PCA.

Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

The sort of split DeSocio proposes is therefore not the kind of split that is required when Christians have to defend the gospel, or expel heresy. Rather, it is the sort of split that is needed for better functioning. It’s all for the cause of greater peace and harmony – even unity. Never mind the fact that once denominations split the likelihood of success in getting them back together is about as high as is that of dismantling a federal program or bureaucracy. It’s happened once or twice, but I wouldn’t bet my spending money on it.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on DeSocio here, although it might seem like it. I take him at his word that his long-term objective is indeed greater unity. But I’m less concerned with what one person thinks than I am with the general assumptions an increasing number of Reformed leaders appear to hold when conducting these debates. It seems that there is little left of John Calvin’s conviction that unity in the gospel is one of the most fundamental obligations of the church. More precisely, there is little left of the old Reformed consensus that various churches are called by Christ to come together in assemblies of churches called presbyteries, synods, and ultimately national (if not international) assemblies. Our synods and general assemblies today are much more like voluntary associations, parties of like-minded churches, if you will, than like anything representing a confessional, territorial church. In short, we seem to believe that while there are biblical, Reformed principles of church government at the congregational level, these principles are not binding on any broader level.

Note that I’m not even talking about organizational unity with the vast majority of Christians in the world – that would be unthinkable – folks like Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, or, obviously, Roman Catholics. I’m not talking about unity with “Reformed” denominations whose allegiance to the orthodox Christian creeds has significantly faltered. I’m talking about unity with Reformed denominations who hold to the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.

What DeSocio is suggesting is that because the PCA is divided into various factions unified by their respective approaches to church and ministry, the common confessional allegiance is no longer sufficient to warrant organizational unity. Yet as Scott Clark writes in his excellent response to DeSocio’s argument:

What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

This is hard. Remaining united with people with whom you hold significant practical disagreements requires immense patience and humility. It requires the willingness to abandon unrealistic or inappropriate objectives of uniformity or power. As one Reformed elder, who is by no means happy with much of what he sees in the PCA, wrote to me,

Unity takes a lot of humility. I think it is of utmost important for denominations to know what is the basis of their unity and with Scott Clark it is our Confession. So we have to guard the confessions and swallow our pride when things are not as we like, but are not contrary to our confessions.

If unity takes humility, then its opposite is pride, or ambition. And as John Calvin never tires of observing, the main reason why Christians divide from one another – the vice that lies at the heart of virtually every heresy and schism – is ambition. It is often ambition for power, control, or influence that drives one faction against another at a church assembly. It is ambition for worldly success that frequently drives pastors and churches to abandon their more conservative brothers and sisters in order to forge some new path ahead. It is ambition for an unrealistically pure or perfect church that consistently leads others to insist that fidelity with the few is more important than unity with Christ’s whole body, if such unity requires toleration of its flaws and weaknesses.

One of Rome’s major apologetic arguments during the Reformation was that the Protestant logic of sola Scriptura would – rather than unifying the church under the true gospel – turn every church and every Christian into its own pope. Calvin may have been right to retort that fidelity to the gospel and to Scripture – in short, allegiance to Christ – is a sufficient bond for the maintenance of unity. But, ironically, he seems to have overestimated the interest of his followers in actually maintaining that unity.

Do Reformed Christians still believe that ecclesiastical unity is an obligation, or have we embraced the ethos of American Evangelicalism on this point, more interested in our freedom and independence than in solidarity. When it’s all said and done, the very important question underlying all of this is, Do we care? Does unity matter?

The Scandal of Reformed Division: Daniel Hyde’s challenge to the churches

Reformed churches have made the characteristics that distinguish them from one another into idols that divide the church. Although he does not put it in such terms, that, essentially, is Daniel Hyde’s charge in his important recent address at the 38th meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Hyde, the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in California and the author of numerous books, points out that according to the New Testament the whole church is, in fact, one in Christ. He also points out that already during Paul’s life he had to exhort the church to walk in a spirit of peace and unity. In Hyde’s words:

Paul’s exhortation is evidence that we do not do this anywhere near the level to which God demands and desires and that we need. Simul iustus et peccator is a living reality for the church. The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin. That’s why on a bad day I would say that the Reformed churches are hopelessly divided in the spirit of Corinth: “’I follow Paul,’” or ’I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor. 1:12).

“The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin.” I appreciate it that Hyde came out and said what I believe many among us would actually deny. He goes on to speak in terms that should be as challenging to conservative Reformed believers as they are mystifying to the majority of Christians (who have never even heard of these moments in Reformed history, these concepts and practices that are at the core of our self-understanding):

Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today. Not shocking enough? Here is why I believe this: we are too carnal and insufficiently spiritual for such an assembly. We are too carnal in holding up “distinctives” as virtually inerrant. We revel in famous dates in our respective histories, as if they are a direct line from the apostles through the Reformation to us. We hold up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).

All of this, I might add, in the context of an age in which Reformed believers make up an infinitesimal fraction of the “holy catholic church” in which we profess to believe (NAPARC makes up about 0.18% of the U.S/Canadian population), in which the gospel is routinely misrepresented or ignored in so many of those organizations that call themselves churches, and therefore in which very few of the people who live around us even know what genuine Christianity (i.e., the Gospel) is.

Family Tree of Christian Denominations

(Incomplete, but even so, notice how small the Reformed/Presbyterian wing is)

Back to Hyde:

We are too carnal with so much infighting over preaching. We cluster in our respective corners and raise our flags: biblical-theological, redemptive-historical, grammatical-historical, experiential, evangelistic, fallen-condition focus, and everything in between. We do this as if preaching methodology trumps what we all confess is the first and primary mark of the true church: preaching the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

I do not want to be disrespectful of anyone’s work or concerns, but you do wonder when bright, sincere Christian people devote their energies to writing ruthlessly polemical tracts (or articles or blogs or speeches) against other equally thoughtful, sincere Christian people, on differences that are rarely as crucial or clear as the authors’ seem to imagine. To be sure, it is much easier to devote oneself to solving relatively manageable problems that are relevant to small numbers of people than it is to insert oneself meaningfully (i.e., in such a way that people will listen to you) into efforts and debates that concern millions of people quite different from yourself. And in a sense, of course, it is appropriate to have a sense of vocation about the people and issues within your realm of concern and influence. But that does not explain the tendency to approach these matters in ways that are divisive and destructive. As Hyde writes,

[W]e are insufficiently spiritual. We do not evidence the fruits of the Holy Spirit that reflect the high calling to which we are called (Eph 4:1). Therefore I believe our once legitimate historical, cultural, circumstantial divisions are now a discipline from the Lord upon our movement. Will we fall on our faces together in repentance? Will we arise and with open arms embrace in charity and humility our brothers who differ with us on lesser matters? Can we not follow the example of our forefathers? Are our distinctives and differences any more important than those that existed at the Synod of Dort?

One example should suffice. On the issue of how to express the extent and intent of Christ’s satisfaction, there was diversity. Some said Christ died for the elect—period—and that the ancient sufficiency/efficiency distinction was useless. Others said that this distinction was useful since Christ’s intent was not to save the whole world, however, his death has an infinite and intrinsic value sufficient in extent to save the whole world. And there were even a few who affirmed an even broader sufficiency, saying that Christ died efficiently with intent to save the elect, but that he also died sufficiently for the whole world, with the intention of establishing a conditional covenant of grace such that everyone who believes will be saved. And as you read the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly what you learn is that in virtually every chapter of its Confession, there was a serious and significant debate.

Hyde gives examples from a work by the Reformation historical theologian Richard Muller.

[Muller] chronicles debates of non or sub-confessional issues such as supralapsarian-infralapsarian debates, non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism, the imputation mediate or immediate of Adam’s sin posterity, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, the nature of the keys of the kingdom, the millennial kingdom, the nature of Adam’s reward, the organization of covenant theology, justification from eternity, and elements of Cocceian theology.

If you are an outsider to the Reformed world reading this blog, these issues are precisely the sort of things that often consume Reformed people in their disputes with one another. This is not a list of obscure matters that are irrelevant or that no one should care about. And yet within the confessional unity that Reformed believers once maintained, unanimity on these issues was not required. Even in the age in which the concern for confessional orthodoxy was at its height (and when most people in the countries involved were members of Reformed churches, Reformed theology being a concern of state politics), our Reformed forbears often had a better sense of what issues are genuinely worth dividing over than we do.

This is a lot to think about. Most of Hyde’s essay is not as critical or provocative as the quotations I’ve highlighted here suggest, but the whole is well worth reading. You can find it at the Aquila Report here.

What holds the Methodist Church together?

Real Clear Religion has kindly put up my piece, originally published with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, on the Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society. Although the UMC is the most conservative of the mainline denominations the GBCS still leans quite far to the left and is absolutely committed to the social gospel. This has given rise to considerable tensions within the denomination, as many Methodist pastors and congregants find that the legislative positions advocated by the board in Washington D.C. fail to match their own convictions about the implications of Christianity for politics.

While many denominations lean either solidly to the left or solidly to the right, the Methodist Church is unique in that it represents a cross-section of the American populace. For obvious reasons, the politicization of America has therefore helped to politicize the Methodist Church itself, now torn apart between left and right. One might think the way to preserve unity in the midst of all of this is to focus on the gospel and the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith, but a representative of the GBCS argued that a different bond holds Methodists together:

“The Social Principles are a way for us not to kill each other. We don’t talk about it that way, but that’s what they are. We see churches divide … we see churches split. In the United Methodist church we don’t sing the same hymns, we don’t read the Scriptures and the canon in the same way. We speak many, many different languages … but we have one set of social principles.”

You can read my whole piece here.

Robert Godfrey’s proposal for Reformed unity: does anyone care?

Every time someone suggests that various denominations should end their divisions and join together with one another someone, somewhere raises the same old objection. Our unity, they say, is grounded in our common faith and in the bond of the Spirit, and such unity does not require formal bonds or practical cooperation. Unity has nothing to do with visible denominational cooperation, and to say that it does is actually to deny the invisible unity that all Christians have in Christ.

Really? Is that what Paul was thinking about when he criticized the Corinthian church for dividing itself into factions that each aligned with a different preacher (one faction smugly declaring its own allegiance to Christ in contrast to all the others)? Is that what Jesus meant when he told us that the world would know that we are his disciples by our love for one another? Is that what Luke was referring to when he described how representatives from the various Christian churches (missionaries from the Gentiles and apostles and elders in Jerusalem) met together to discuss how the church should handle the thorny question of the Mosaic Law? Is that what Paul was describing when he called the Gentile churches to pay their debt to the Jewish churches by providing them with resources during hard times in Palestine?

To be sure, Scripture does not require the sort of top-down, hierarchical unity that Christians so often fear when they consider what it would mean to break down denominational barriers. In fact, I would argue that this model of unity is really about power and uniformity rather than the kind of unity appropriate to the body of Christ – a body with many different kinds of parts and various gifts but only one head. True Christian unity must be able to allow variations of practice and conviction within the breadth of fidelity to the gospel and the authority of Scripture, not because we are willing to compromise the truth, but because each of us is humble enough to recognize that our interpretations, judgments, or practices are not the same thing as the truth itself. In short, we recognize that while genuine Christians agree that Jesus is Lord, that he died and rose again for our salvation, and that he exercises his authority over the church through Scripture, they may not come to the same conclusions about what that means for church government, for the details of worship, or even for particular nuances of doctrine.

But it’s not just that we ought to be unified. It’s that we need each other. Robert Godfrey writes of the various denominations making up the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council,

Each of these denominations has peculiar strengths and emphases that it brings to the Reformed community. These various denominations are often perceived as expressing Reformed Christianity distinctively: some seem to have particularly strong congregational life, some to lay great emphasis on piety and prayer, some to stress clear doctrine and maintaining the antithesis between believers and the world, some to be devoted to evangelism and missions, and some to champion the historic Reformed approach to worship. None of these strengths and none of these histories should be lost.

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And yet in practice each denomination finds its own distinctives far too precious to be diluted through union with a denomination that may have a different strength. “You may have need of us,” we say in essence, “But we have no need of you.” The RGX ends up attracting all the people attracted by quality A, while losing all the people concerned about quality B to the PZY. Meanwhile the PZY loses all the people concerned about quality A to the RGX, and so forth. And as a result each of our denominations finds itself marked by tragic blindspots and weaknesses corresponding to our greatest points of strength.

We need each other.

We also need each other because without unity our witness to the world is diluted. It is not just that the Reformed witness is complicated. It is that broken up into a hundred fragments, it is incomprehensible. As Godfrey writes,

The failure to manifest unity greatly weakens the credibility of the Reformed cause. Our opponents too easily can claim that conservative Reformed Christianity is hopelessly divisive and expends its energy on theological warfare rather than on making Christ known. That charge misses the real hostility of our culture (and many churches) to Reformed Christianity, but still has an element of truth to it.

But how could we join together without compromising the truth? Godfrey notes but passes over the option that is most often tried but rarely works for obvious bureaucratic and political reasons: “to continue having interchurch relations committees talk to one another and seek organic union after working through all differences and suspicions.”

What solution does he propose instead?

Our confessional Reformed denominations should consider a bold move to express their unity and increase the credibility of their witness. Let all of these denominations (or as many as are willing) join together under one general assembly ( or general, national synod) with each former denomination becoming a particular synod under that general assembly.

This simple (and modest!) proposal would obviously have to be worked out in terms of specifics, but let me suggest some of the elements of the idea that would help it work. The general assembly would adopt the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity as its confessional basis. It would meet every three years and have very specific, limited powers. It would have the authority to make decisions in relation to joint actions of the synods. The general assembly would be composed of delegations from the synods according to the size of the synod (in fairness to the larger synods), but the decisions of the assembly would have to be ratified by a majority of the synods (in fairness to the smaller synods.) The assembly would have the authority to remove a synod that was judged to have departed from the Reformed faith but would not have the authority to interfere with the internal operations of a synod. The assembly would encourage greater cooperation and coordination among the synods, and over time some synods would probably merge, but each synod would be free to make those decisions on its own.

Each synod would initially continue to function exactly as it does now as a denomination. All current practices, teachings, and ministries would continue as they are. For example, the Reformed Presbyterians, if they became a synod under the new general assembly, would be able to preserve their doctrine and practice of exclusive psalm-singing without musical instruments without any possibility that the General Assembly could ever interfere with that position.

Godfrey admits that this is somewhat of a dream, and his proposal has received little traction over the years (though it has probably received more attention than any other proposal in the Reformed world). Why is that? As one of my professors in seminary used to say, “What is wrong with us?”

Perhaps the problem is simply that we don’t care enough. Perhaps it is that we are too influenced by the American democratic ideals that suggest we should each be free to go our own way. But that’s why I think we need to keep emphasizing the point. Jesus called us to be unified, both in theory and in practice, and he taught us that whether or not the world recognizes us to be his disciples will hinge to a certain degree on whether or not we obey him. Perhaps (perhaps?) if we really care about witnessing to the world we should take our lord a bit more seriously. Unity is not simply an ideal. It is an obligation of the gospel.

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).

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