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.

Aron Wall

Aron Wall

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