Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Protestant Problems – Part 3: The Unity of the Church
If there is a heritage that Protestants will have trouble accounting for before the judgment seat of God on the Last Day, it is for permitting and even willingly fracturing the church, the body of Christ.
The apostle declared in no uncertain terms: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6 TNIV) That’s ONE body, ONE baptism, ONE God. Not many, but one. Likewise, as we affirm our ecumenical creed, the symbol of the Faith, we say, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s one.
But if you look around at the religious landscape today, especially in the United States, we have absolutely trampled the biblical and creedal affirmations about the unity of the church. Here in America today, there are as many different divisions in the church as there different answers to all the essential and not-so-essential questions of faith. In many cases, we have withdrawn into our parochial little enclaves, only emerging to take cheap shots at our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations. From baptism to Communion; from church government to worship style; from women’s roles to biblical interpretation, we American Protestants have perfected the act of carving up the body of Christ, like so many Thanksgiving turkeys.
And we Protestants should be ashamed of that. And we should do whatever we can to mend fences with other Christians so that we can achieve spiritual unity, if not actual organic, ecclesiastical unity.
I’ve noticed that interpreting the actions of the first Protestant reformers is a bit like interpreting the actions of the founding fathers of our country: it’s dicey, because people on all sides of the issues can see things that support their own conclusions. But I believe the earliest reformers–Luther included–wanted only to reform the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and restore her to faithful belief and practice without splitting the church. It was only as time went on, and as mutual condemnations and excommunications multiplied (not to mention the rise of individualism in the West), that the capital-C Church became many churches.
So what is the solution to the divisions in the church? Should Protestants “go back” to Rome, as many have suggested? Frankly, it’s not going to happen, although some Protestants may eventually swim the Tiber (or the Bosporus, for that matter). Honestly, today’s Roman Catholic Church is much different than the worldly, corrupt organization that spawned a spate of reformers 500 years ago–thanks in part to the Vatican II Council and other modernizing forces. Denominational reunification, if possible (for instance, among Reformed believers, Lutherans, Anglicans, et al.), is always a desirable outcome. But the myriad differences, especially between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, are insurmountable in the near future.
The solution was easy enough up through the middle of the 20th century: the various flavors of Christianity could condemn the others as being heretics and claim themselves as the “one true church.” But honestly, that has to change. No one’s buying that line anymore. Broadly speaking, there are Christians in every denomination, and the many denominations–to varying degrees–embody a legitimate tradition within Christianity. Even though we may not like to admit it, there are elements of truth in the various churches. But no one has the whole enchilada. In fact, if you look at all the traditions together as one tapestry, then you start to see the fullness and variety of the gospel.
Today we have come to a point where there is little hope of putting all the pieces back together again; like a dish shattered when it falls out of the cabinet, the church is weak, fractured, and damaged. But there are many steps that Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants can take that will correct the course we have set out upon. It begins, I believe, with demonstrating mutual love and respect, just like Jesus taught us to do. Even if we believe the other to be deeply mired in error, we need to love one another as Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. We also need to lovingly confront bias, stereotypes, and bigotry against other Christians wherever we see it.
And following the apostle’s advice might not hurt either: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace…Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:2-3, 32 TNIV)