Christian TraditionsEcumenism

Seeking Church Unity, Part 1

A previous version of this post originally appeared on my own blog, Undivided Looking, where I mostly talk about physics and theology.  I have divided it into two halves for purposes of publication on Conciliar Post.  Note:  It is my custom when blogging to refer to all serious Christians by the title of “St.”, because I believe all Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit.

My Own Testimony

I suppose I may as well start by discussing my personal history. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan denomination, but at various stages of my life I have regularly attended services with the Free Methodists (7 years), Baptists (3 years) and Lutherans (1 year), not counting smaller visits. I also like stepping into Anglican services, and even (without taking communion) Catholic Masses.

While it’s true that I’m the sort of Protestant who reads the Catholic Encyclopedia for fun, my adventures in ecumenism really started in earnest at St. John’s College. During my last semester there I attended Holy Trinity, a wonderful Antiochian Orthodox congregation in Santa Fe. When I had first been invited to visit the church my freshman year, it seemed like a bizarre eastern cult that just happened to also be about Jesus, but over time I came to realize the commonalities and differences more clearly. It had a profound effect on my spiritual and musical sensibilities. Also, the priest (St. John Bethancourt) is the most visibly holy person I have ever met on this earth. He cannot enter a room without caring about whatever person he meets within. I am eternally grateful for the treasures obtained during this time, yet after careful consideration of the differences in theology, I remain a Protestant.

As a graduate student I attended Layhill Community Church, where during the time for prayer any person could go up to the altar railing to pray with St. Wil, the associate pastor. He was a man of great faith and I noticed that eerie coincidences would sometimes occur after I prayed with him for things. Some skeptics may see this as an instance of confirmation bias but I attribute it to Divine Providence.

For instance, one Sunday I asked to be able to worship God better, and the following Tuesday, while opening a bottle of olive oil to cook with, I suddenly remembered all the passages in Scripture about anointing with oil and the Holy Spirit, and was full of joy and praise. Only afterwards did I remember what I had asked for.

Another time I was praying at the altar with St. Wil for the unity of the church, and within a couple weeks, my housemate St. Ray invited me to attend a new Bible study for grad students at the Catholic Student Center just off the University of Maryland campus! So of course I went, and actually attended for what ended up being 4 years. Each year the study was led by a different monk from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC (except one year we got a seminarian instead).

After Ray invited me, he suddenly got worried it would be disruptive if I started arguing with everyone about Protestantism, so I agreed to keep it cool. The first meeting I was silent about that, but vocal about everything else. The second meeting I confessed; they were rather surprised because they had thought I had been speaking in a particularly Catholic way about the allegorical meaning of Adam and Eve during the first meeting. I was even invited (along with the others) to sometimes lead class discussions, which I tried to do with a minimum of controversy, focusing on commonalities except when absolutely necessary.

I got to see a lot of their struggles with various aspects of Catholicism, and sometimes tried to formulate ways of looking at the problems which combines the strengths of both types of theology, e.g. “Sacraments are not a way that we manipulate God, they are a way that God manipulates us.”  They were aware that I disagreed about certain important things, but even though we weren’t in communion, there was still community and communication! It was excellent practice for charitable discussion, and I am deeply grateful that they were Catholic enough (the word catholic means “universal”, after all) to include me.

As I said, I tried to avoid excessive controversy in the group, but after-hours I had some vibrant discussions with the Dominican brothers about Catholicism, and when I visited the House of Studies I got to have a friendly intellectual brawl, of the sort that causes so much consternation among people who don’t like arguments, since they associate them with hostility. They gave me books by St. Cardinal Newman, whose epistemology (“theory of knowledge”) I still find untenable. (I got into a long argument with somebody on my blog about this, but unfortunately it flagrantly violated Socrates’ rule for for good conversations, that comments should be kept short!)

An Index of Communion

As is well known, Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, on the night of his betrayal:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  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.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

For the unity of our love is one of the signs by which the world can see that our faith is real, thus fulfilling his command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

But unity is not easy. Although in a sense we Christians are already one due to being part of the body of Christ and “members of each other” (Romans 12:5), and in this way we are part of the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church and the communion of the saints, practically speaking the expression of that unity may be impaired. We are like quarreling siblings, who are still one family genetically even when they are not  united in affection, or like quarrelling spouses, are  one in flesh but divided in spirit.

So the expression of unity is something that requires us to all work together to exercise maturity of character, using the gifts which God has provided us.  As St. Paul says in Eph. 4:7-8:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,

he took many captives

and gave gifts to his people.” (Psalm 68:18)

Paul goes on to say, that when we are all using these gifts to build up the church, we will find unity:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.   From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  (Eph. 4:14-16)

So, how are we doing on this front?

Well, the bad news is that the Church has splintered into numerous different denominations, not all of which regard each other as being really Christian. And a few of them aren’t really Christian, though most accept the basic truths of the faith as expressed in e.g. the Nicene Creed. But as St. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, the commonalities are far more profound than the differences.1

Let’s try to be honest about how bad this problem really is. The most common figure one hears (from atheists complaining about the fractiousness of Christians, Catholics complaining about the fractiousness of Protestants, or Protestants complaining about the fractiousness of everyone) is to simply count the number of denominations, getting some huge figure in the tens of thousands, but this is an absolutely terrible way to assess the state of Church unity!

First of all, a lot of these organizational splits were for historical reasons (based on how different groups got evangelized, or because of doctrinal differences or attitude towards slavery or something like that which is no longer a live issue) or were for administrative convenience (e.g. to deal with being in different countries, or because the churches have somewhat different organizational structures which would be difficult to combine), and are perfectly compatible with both groups thinking the other is really Christian and cooperating for the sake of God’s kingdom.

It would be better to ask “What is the probability that two randomly selected devout Christians are in communion with each other?”  This gives a numerical measure, a “communion index”, describing the degree of church unity.  The answer turns out to be about 1/3 (see below).  Could be better, could be a lot worse.

Merely having administratively independent units is not the same thing as being divided in love, or in communion. Even the Catholics have 24 nearly-independent administrative units (which appoint their own leaders and have their own customs and rules, but remain in communion with the Pope and accept his doctrinal decrees), while the Eastern Orthodox have about 15 “autocephalous” (self-governing) churches. These churches were in communion with each other until about 1054 when both sides started excommunicating each other over an arcane theological dispute about Trinitarian relations. These excommunications were lifted in 1965, but the churches are still not in communion for other reasons.

There are also 6 independent Oriental Orthodox churches, a group of churches including e.g. the Copts who did not accept the decision of the Council of Chalcedon. Although I personally think Chalcedon provided the best language for understanding the Incarnation, in retrospect the “Monophysite” or “Miaphysite” group was probably just using different words to refer to the same thing and were not really heretics in the same way the Gnostics and Arians were.  Thus it was wrong to excommunicate them; and this is not only my own opinion but also the opinion of leaders on both sides:

Hence we wish to reaffirm solemnly our profession of common faith in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, as Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Jacoub III did in 1971: They denied that there was any difference in the faith they confessed in the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become truly man. In our turn we confess that He became incarnate for us, taking to himself a real body with a rational soul. He shared our humanity in all things except sin. We confess that our Lord and our God, our Saviour and the King of all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God as to His divinity and perfect man as to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united to His humanity. This Union is real, perfect, without blending or mingling, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without the least separation. He who is God eternal and indivisible, became visible in the flesh and took the form of servant. In him are united, in a real, perfect indivisible and inseparable way, divinity and humanity, and in him all their properties are present and active.

The subtext here is the thing which only really mature people are capable of saying, namely: “Oops, I’m sorry, we were wrong.” However, since this original schism, the Catholic church has developed their theology further, so the churches are unfortunately still not in communion.

Protestants have a lot more sects, but then again most Protestants regard most other Protestant groups as being really Christians, and therefore part of the Universal Church founded by Jesus. Nowadays the biggest disputes tend to be about the axis that runs from liberal/modernist to fundamentalist/literalist axis, not denominational loyalties I’m somewhere in the middle, since I think miracles have really happened and the Scriptures’ teachings on things like  sexual ethics need to be taken seriously, but I also accept the findings of biology and physics and don’t think rigid definitions of inerrancy are the best way to talk about the authority of the Scriptures.

With a few exceptions, most Protestant denominations allow all those who confess Jesus as their Savior and Lord to take communion in their church.  So does the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient apostolic church which was at one time known as the Nestorian church because the heretic Nestorius was received there, but it is now generally regarded as unfair to tarnish the whole group by his opinions.  (The Assyrian church is much smaller than the others, although historically it was very important and and even spread to China).

So for purposes of calculating the odds that two Christians will be in communion, Nicene Christianity is really divided into 4 large subgroups: 1) Catholics, 2) most Protestants, 3) Eastern Orthodox, and 4) Oriental (listed in decreasing order by number of adherents), plus some smaller groups.  Because the groups are not all the same size, the odds of two random Christians being in communion is closer to 1/3 than 1/4.

I conclude that there is already a greater degree of Christian unity than many people give us credit for. However, I hope and pray that in the future, this number might be closer to 1! In the second half of this series, I will suggest some practical strategies for reconciliation between different kinds of Christians.

Aron Wall is a postdoctoral researcher studying the thermodynamics of black holes at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a member of the Church of the Nazarene.

(1) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 91.

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  • Matthew Bryan

    Excellent Ephesians 4:4-6 article!

  • finally read this! Aron, I enjoyed your article, but that is not a surprise. I enjoyed reading your testimony and how God has worked in your life; and how you have known various Christians. I look forward to your next article! Now, since you are the one person I know in person/real life… I do want to say, gently as possible, that you are not giving adequate treatment to why the Orthodox find the filioque to be of so much importance. I don’t have time (in the next 2 months) to really delve into this on CP, other than to say that we believe that doctrine and the filioque is important because it tells us who God IS and what a human IS and can BECOME. Sometime in the new year I hope to write on this, but it is going to take more study and reading. I would be happy, though, to understand more about why you don’t think it is relevant/important/of much weight as it can help dialogue further on this. Would love to dialogue here, in person or however! ps: for some reason CP does not mention your name in this post, that would be helpful to rectify!

    • Also, Aron, thinking more on what you write here, I think you are implying fairly directly that Orthodox and Catholic do not have unity within themselves. I can’t speak for Catholic, so I will let them talk about that (the 24). But the 15 autocephalous, that I can speak a bit on. That’s the beauty of Orthodoxy: we, Orthodox are conciliar; we have communion with each other while having the ability to have self-governing bodies in unity with each other. Also, unity it seems here, as you would be describing or questioning, is an administrative unity. True unity I would say is not having one central organization/unit (i.e. having administrative unity) but that communion is held between the groups – and that they are joined by sharing one Holy Communion. That is, I would say, where a lot of where unity is shared or lost.

      • Elizabeth,
        Actually I did not mean to imply that. I am trying to say the same thing that you are saying, namely that administrative unity is *not* necessary for full spiritual unity, which of course includes sharing in the mystery of Holy Communion.

        I began the paragraph you mention by saying that: “Merely having administratively independent units is not the same thing as being divided in love, or in communion”, and then I mentioned the Catholic and Orthodox self-governing jurisdictions as examples of this kind of unity. My point was that, when judging the unity of Protestantism, one also should not simply count the number of administrative units.

        When I went on to say that “These [two] churches were in communion with each other until about 1054” I was referring to the rupture between Catholics and Orthodox, not to the administrative units within each church!

        So I agree with you that the Orthodox church is (mostly) in communion with itself. I say “mostly”, because there are specific difficulties arising from time to time between various Orthodox churches. For example, I understand that Antioch and Jerusalem are currently out of communion with each other, due to a territorial dispute in Qatar. (Words fail me.)

        • Hi Aron,

          Sorry, I missed what you were saying here! I will re-read this part more carefully!!! Am away from my normal computer etc so will write more later – soon I hope!!! From what I understand here, I get what you are saying and can see that.

    • Thanks for your kind words!

      I thought my comment about the filioque might get a reaction from somebody here. It is not that I am personally uninterested in the question of whether the filioque is true or not! In some sense, any fact about God is of infinite importance, because God is of infinite importance. But that does not mean that we humans are in a position to know everything about God. God is a bottomless mystery, and in this life we only “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). The doctrine of the Trinity is essential to the Christian faith, but that does not mean that every single aspect of the relationship between the three persons is doctrinally essential or even understandable to human beings.

      Personally I think the word “filioque” can be taken to express a truth, but it might also be interpreted in a misleading or wrong way. (Certainly the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father cannot be understood as being disconnected or separate from the begetting of the Son. So there must be some correct way to state how it is connected.)

      For that reason I am comfortable saying the Creed in either form, depending on which church I am attending at the moment. I agree that it was imprudent for the Western Church to add the word to the Creed without getting the consent of the Eastern Church. However, I do not think that the Orthodox church has ever declared in an ecumenical council that the “filioque” is definitely false. For this reason I am having difficulty seeing the issue as a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy.

      As far what it might imply about the relations between God and Man, perhaps it would be better to wait to discuss that until you’ve written up the blog post you mentioned. But I don’t see why a Christian can’t believe in the filioque and (say) the Orthodox doctrine of “theosis” at the same time. If there is any inconsistency between these two ideas, it must be fairly subtle.

      • Hi Aaron,

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, I would think you would get a reaction to that one, glad you foresaw that! 🙂 I am glad to know your perspective on this, thank you, what you write here is helpful to understand why and what you are thinking about it. It may be sometime before I get to the article/article series on this, because I have at least 3 or 4 books to read (one I still need to get but am working on that).

        While I think one can be a Christian, obviously, without ever knowing what the filioque is, it does have some real powerful implications. The more years I am Orthodox, the more I find of things that I did not realize I believed or had believed that are contrary to basic truths of Christ (example would be years ago when I realized that Christ ascended to heaven bodily with His body, with the wounds from the Cross, etc; i.e. that He is still in bodily form today) as set forth in the Gospels.

        To quickly respond to the actual issue of the filioque, it would be that the Orthodox see it as something that is confusing/obscuring the actual unique Persons of the Holy Trinity and that it creates an imbalance that is simply not there. And by that, it can impact how we see God, ourselves and what we can be. So in this way, you are right to pick up on both filioque and theosis.

        But you are also right that I should work on these thoughts and publish them. Right now I am in the middle of wrapping up my series on St. Phanourios so that will come first, I think. So it may not be until Feb or March of the next year DV (2017 that is) that I get to these issues. But I do want to and I sincerely love talking about them with folk like you.

        I most enjoyed your comments and thank you for taking the time write back!!! I appreciate you as a new author here and am glad you are here! 🙂

    • Matthew Bryan

      Elizabeth, I agree with Aron in encouraging your future explanation of the link between theosis and the filioque. While I agree with the EO preference for the original wording of the creed, I have no idea how the filioque relates to theosis. So it will be good to learn more.

      You recommended Patrick Reardon’s “Reclaiming the Atonement” in past comments, and I’m enjoying it so much that I’m creeping very slowly through it, which is one of the highest compliments that I can pay. I usually burn through a book, highlighting the nuggets and moving on within just a few days. Reardon’s “Reclaiming” is thoroughly engrossing, and most pages require serious reflection, one page at a time. So thank you for the recommendation!

      • Hi Matthew Bryan,
        So glad you are enjoying Fr. Reardon’s book! You are ahead of me, I need to get this book to read yet! I will try to get to those essays – life keeps happening and I have a lot on my plate at present, but I do hope to get my reading done so that I can write more on this. I have ordered some of the books I need and these will be delivered to me in early January. Because we have Jan 7 Christmas + Christmas parties in the 12 days of Christmas + life in general, it will take me sometime. I do recommend Elder Sophrony’s letters to his family – it will give some perspective on this – but also on his life and point of view – on what a human is, who Christ is, the filioque to some extent and a bit on how he saw Orthodox people and in contrast those who are not (ie RC, Protestant, etc). I understand very much about reading slowly and taking notes! I have a lot of notes in a journal for Elder Sophorny’s letters and it is more of his letters that I am turning to understand this topic in greater depth. I am excited to do these essays and hope that God gives me the time and strength needed to do them! You are very welcome for the recommendation, so glad for this for you!!! Blessed Holy Days! ~ Elizabeth

  • Greg Herr

    “…I will suggest some practical strategies for reconciliation between different kinds of Christians.”

    As a practical application, you might consider:

    “Despite continuing dialogue, unity between the [Protestant] and Catholic Churches seems as far away as ever. But there are practical examples of where communion between the two is real.”


    “…Pope Benedict XVI’s establishment of the Ordinariate has shown that genuine ecumenical success is possible…the Ordinariate provides a structure…to be in full communion with the Catholic Church…”


    Our Catholic parish is comprised of about 60-70% former Protestants of various heritage. Mine is Baptist; wife’s Anglican. We’ve got Presbyterians, a sprinkling of Methodists, Brethren, etc.

    As practical unity, it’s working.

    • Greg,
      I actually have a sentence mentioning these kinds of accommodations in the 2nd half of my article! (Which is already written but hasn’t yet appeared on CP.)

      Given what you believe, I’m sincerely glad that you’ve found a place where you can worship in a way that helps contribute to the unity of the church. But it is a solution only for those who believe all of the dogmas of the Catholic church. Since I don’t, it is not directly relevant to my situation.

      Of course, by going *into* communion with the Catholics you have gone *out of* communion with me, because Catholic rules do not allow Protestants and Catholics to take communion with each other. I say this not as an accusation or a complaint, just pointing it out as a fact.

      • Greg Herr

        Hi Aron,

        Thank you, yes, it is a place for me (or us, as married). I guess I’d add, for whatever it’s worth, all of us (ie, the converts) felt/believed just as you do at one time—in my case, as a stridently anti-Catholic Evangelical.

        So I/we recognize the difficulty and challenge of dogma. Truly, we do. I found, in my case at least, while I could become Catholic without ‘crossing my fingers behind my back’ there were certainly VERY challenging/threatening dogmas that I simply had to accept on the Faith of the Church (ie others), as compared to the ability of my own gray cells to understand, let alone believe.

        When you say you do not believe them, I understand; however (and I don’t mean to be trite here), there is a sense in which I don’t believe airplanes can fly because they are made of material that baffles me, airborne.

        Yet, I accept that airplanes fly and do not have to apply my personal (very un-engineer-like) disbelief when I unfearfully get on a plane. I trust that others know what they are doing when they build those hunks of steel. And it was very much this way when I became Catholic.

        Coincidentally, part of the homily this morning — on Heaven, the last of the Four Last Things — covered this very aspect of how we are in communion and koinonia, and as family. Namely, communion.

        I know what you’re getting at about being “in” and “out” of communion, and without wanting to slice n dice this too thinly, it’s not quite what the Church teaches. What the Catholic Church teaches is that we are in partial or imperfect communion. We Christians celebrate our communion because we are baptized. So the accent in the Mind of the Church is on what we do share, which is a great deal, not on what we don’t (Eucharist, or full communion).

        We continue to long for that completion of course, which is why we are striving in as many practical ways as we can find to make that bridge concretely available.

        As a part of your next essay, will you take up that theme: that, what in effect, are dogmas for other Christians with whom you would hope to be in full communion are dogmas which you would accept?

        I realize, having been a Baptist/Evangelical (and with many friends who are), that the term is often avoided, but can we admit that, truly, certain denom’s really do hold certain beliefs every bit as dearly as the Catholic Church holds Hers, and that they are non-negotiable?

        So, say, randomly, the first thing that occurs to me, Predestination for Presbyterians (or others) is something that would be nonnegotiable? For some that I know, it is a singular criterion. Just by way of example.

        Looking fwd to the next installment. 🙂

        • Of course I agree that there are important aspects of koinonia which we still share in common; otherwise I would not have gone to church today at a Spanish-speaking Catholic Mass! (I don’t speak any Spanish, but I’ve been attending a physics conference in Valdivia, Chile, and this is the church I could walk to.)

          So I should have said “full communion” above. I was specifically referring to the ability to take Holy Communion together.

          And of course I admit that there are nonnegotiable dogmas for Protestant denominations as well. Even if there are not quite as many. But I believe that Churches can and should exclude from full membership those who do not believe essential doctrines of the Christian faith such as the Divinity of Christ or the Resurrection. But generally speaking Protestants would not want to exclude people on the basis of any doctrine which is not clearly taught by Scripture. (Even if we do not always agree on which things are clearly taught by Scripture.)

          In the 2nd half of my essay I will say a bit about how to negotiate the situation where we disagree on the nonnegotiable dogmas. However, I also plan to provide some advice for promoting unity in the current situation, before all the doctrinal disputes are resolved. Hopefully some of this advice will be actionable even for those with very different ecclesiologies from myself.

          • Greg Herr

            Love that!

            In a similar discussion here on CP not too long ago RE unity, I asked if the proponent could offer a specific actionable plan, to adopt your term (love the term).

            Anything more than advice, ie a drafted plan, with milestones, targets, dates, ID’ing the specific actions themselves, what you and your community would/will do, what other communities can and will commit to do…all of that would be so cool to see.

            Add to that what you’re currently doing—whatever it is. Joint prayer groups, Bible studies, retreats, pro-life, serving the poor together through a charity (or not), men’s/women’s groups, marrieds groups….all of that concrete stuff thrills me to read about.

            Funny that you went to Spanish mass today. I had that conversation with someone at church (the wife is Latino), and I told him how much I enjoy Spanish mass and don’t understand a word! Thanks for sharing!

          • Greg Herr

            The other discussion, with Plan, was here on CP:


            See Comments: “Now, you asked me to offer steps for a plan that I will implement…..”

            Maybe you guys can get together on this and join your communities! Keep me posted! 🙂

      • I look forward to reading part II of your article Aron! 🙂

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