Monday, November 14, 2011

Church Unity Revisited

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.

John 17:20-23

As I have written in a previous post on this subject, a striking feature of this prayer is the extremely strong expression of the Trinity that's present in it. While the Holy Spirit isn't mentioned by name, it is through the work of the Spirit that The Church will continue to be nurtured and empowered following the ascension of Christ, so His role can strongly be inferred in the Son praying to the Father for The Church. 

A very key word in this passage to me is the word "as". "May they be one as you are in me and I am in you", and "that they may be one as we are one." As Jesus conveys these sentiments he twice prays for the unity of the Church, and both times he uses "as" to signify that there is a certain way or manner that He desires for the Church to be one; namely in the same way that the Father and Son are unified and one. And how are the Father, Son, and Spirit one? 

I have always found this illustration to be a helpful expression of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the historical Christian creeds and confessions. It doesn't say all there is to say on the Trinity by a long shot, but it does seem to be a true representation of the manner in which the Trinity is one. And if this is how the Trinitarian God is unified and one, then shouldn't his Church be one in the same manner? And isn't the manner of unity important, since Jesus explicitly mentions the manner in which the Church ought to be unified? And doesn't "being one as God is one" mean something different for those who believe in a Trinitarian God than for someone who believes in God as wholly singular in the strictest sense, such as the god of deism or Islam?

From the helpful illustration above I have derived the following illustration of what may be something like Christ's vision for the unity of His Church. 

In addition to Christ's prayer for Unity seeming to call for a Trinitarian form of unity, other passages in the New Testament seem to call for unity in 'mind and thought' or 'love' or 'faith' (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:7-16), rather than unity under a single 'roof' as it were, or uniformity in every way imaginable, even on non-essential matters. Which leads me to believe it's possible that some visions of unity are misguided. 

Many ecumenical efforts seem to have the long-term goal of collapsing all differentiation and diversity within the Church into univocity. And yet there is an internal dynamism, dialogue, and life within the Godhead, which is the model of unity Christ has in mind for The Church. If we don't feel the need to 'resolve' these tensions within the Godhead -- as we shouldn't -- then we shouldn't feel the need to resolve them within the Church. If our vision for church unity is utter univocity on all things, then why did Christ bother with the words that follow "as"? Shouldn't the vision of unity for a Trinitarian church differ from that of the vision were God's nature not Trinitarian? If a Muslim or a Jew had a vision for church unity which reflected the Oneness of God, it would make sense that there should be no differentiation within that church at all, but doesn't the Christian, Trinitarian God differ on this count?

Though these are the three largest branches of historic Christianity, I'm not claiming that the Church must be triune with these three specific distinct branches, or even that there couldn't be a larger number of branches. And of course under each umbrella, especially that of Protestantism, there is further differentiation still which isn't shown. The point is only to raise the question of whether 'One Unified Church in Christ' ultimately requires collapsing all of these distinctions.

Of course, this leaves open the question of which so-called divisions are not actually meaningful, sinful divisions, but are actually just an expression of the glorious life of the Trinitarian Church, and which divisions are products of sinful pride which are in need of healing. And I'm not claiming to address the question of which is which here.

The pictorial depiction of Church unity that I've given is what I imagine might be a rough approximation of how the Church can be unified, and yet still contain a manner of diversity on non-essential matters within that greater unity. In other words, that depiction doesn't show the existing divisions that are products of sin and which are legitimate barriers to Church unity. A visual depiction of those types of divisions might be a lightning bolt emanating from the space between two of the branches of Christianity, which results in "The Church" at center having a fracture in it. This type of division, of course, we can not abide and must seek to heal and overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit. My point is only that we should be mindful of the fact that our unity is to be modeled after the Trinity, and if that is the case we should attempt to make a distinction between unhealthy, sinful divisions that injure Church unity, and differentiation within the Church which reflects the life of the Trinity. Otherwise we risk wasting energy attempting to resolve some of the healthy, dynamic, lively expressions of the Trinitarian Church. 

While it's noble to seek reconciliation and healing of divisions within the church in many cases, in other cases it can be problematic to imagine yourself as being 'separated' or 'divided' from brothers in Christ in the first place, when you actually aren't. 


  1. Some good thoughts on what unity looks like and what it might not have to look like. Some of my thoughts:

    1. Jesus commands his church to act in unity and display love for one another which would include reconciliation between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

    Studying Jesus’ last words to his disciples found in John 17, it is hard to ignore his repetitious prayer for his followers to be one with each other so that their words and deeds would not be dismissed by those looking on. Jesus’ words here seem more then mere commands but more like a pleading for unity to his followers. This unity of purpose and love for one another appears to be at the heart of what Jesus wants to leave behind through this new thing that would come to be known as his church.

    With the split of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox at the end of the first millennium after Jesus’ prayer, the church begins to fragment in a big way. This fragmentation is not so destructive with regards to theology, but the unity of the church erodes and has never completely healed.

    Five hundred years later another fragmentation would take place between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant churches. The complaints or criticisms seemed to be fair ones in retrospect, but, again, these protests continues to this day, though the issues for the original split have long been laid to rest. Like the Hatfields and McCoys, the feuding or distrust, even hatred, continues within these churches long after the original grievances have gone.

    But what is meant by ‘reconciliation’ in this statement? Does it require the end of the Eastern Orthodox Church or the protestant churches as we know them? No, this is not the meaning or the intent. What is meant here is an agreement that we are all part of Christ’s church, and this means we have to take Jesus’ words in John seriously. We have to treat one another as sojourners in the faith. We have to see ourselves as agents of Christ that must team together to defeat evil wherever it rears its ugly head. We have to treat one another with love and respect as Christ asked us to do.

    What would this reconciliation look like in practical terms? It could start with public pronouncements by the leaders of Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, but likely will have to begin with the parishioners themselves. They could begin to work together to feed the poor, care for the widows and orphans, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned. They could treat one another as saints through works of service. They could publicly acknowledge their common ground in Christ. They could share their resources with one another – be it money, talents, gifts, influence and even strategies.

    The parishioners could also demand a proclamation be crafted by the church leaders dated November 1, 2017 saying something to the effect, “From this time forward, the Protestant and Catholic churches proclaim their kindred relationship in the Christian faith, testify that Jesus requires all Christians act in love and unity towards one another, recognize the need to work together to fight against individual evil and evil world systems, commit ourselves to building up the Kingdom of Heaven, and acknowledge that any past grievances are long overdue to be forgiven.” This document could further specify strategies for systematically attacking the problems of world poverty, regional wars, genocides, sickness and disease, homelessness, while at the same time helping governmental leaders identify oppressive regimes and suggest morally acceptable strategies for dealing with such evils.

  2. This vision of unity is definitely preferable to those that seek to collapse the diversity of the Church, and close to how I see it. Though I'm not sure all of it is completely necessary.

    I tend to take a stance similar to David Bentley Hart in his essay titled "The Myth of Schism", which is abouth the Great Schism (Catholic-Eastern Orthodox) and which largely advocates members of those churches simply taking communion with each other -- which already happens in many parishes -- and realizing that the Schism just doesn't meaningfully exist today, already.