Christian TraditionsEcumenism

Seeking Church Unity, Part 2

The first half of this essay was previously posted here.

Three Kinds of Unity

Is the reconciliation of the major branches of Christianity even possible? And what can we do to make a difference?

Catholics care the most about unity, and are willing to make practical accommodations for Christians from other backgrounds, such as allowing converts from other denominations like Anglicans to bring their own liturgical traditions in with them. Although they are a big institution which changes very slowly, they do change, and they know how to fall in line behind the decisions of the Pope. The difficulty is that they think that many of their past official pronouncements are infallible, and that assent to them is a prerequisite to becoming a part of the Catholic church. So in doctrinal terms, it is impossible for them to ever compromise. That sounds a lot like a deal breaker to me. Of course, if the Catholics are right about everything, then the hundreds of Protestant denominations would just need to all recognize this fact simultaneously. Right, that sounds plausible.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is a lot closer in its theology to the Catholic Church, and it would be more feasible for them to hash out a compromise. And I will wildly celebrate any such union should it occur. But there’s also a lot of bad blood between them as a result of various historical incidents (such as the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, which apparently some of the Orthodox remember as if it were yesterday). Plus the Catholics made political attempts to take over various of the Eastern patriarchies, which succeeded in creating several organizations for Eastern Rite Catholics, but alienated the remaining Orthodox further. Twice the two churches met together in councils which announced they were reconciled, but both times the Eastern Orthodox back home refused to accept the decision.

So there’s been so much entrenchment of the various sides, with enough bad history between Catholics/Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox etc. that the groups reuniting with each other seems to be quite impossible.

And it is impossible. Impossible for human beings, that is. Not impossible for God:

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

“‘If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  (Mark 9:23)

There’s always the option of fasting and praying, and genuinely asking God to shine light into our hearts.  Surely God is willing to act when the time is right:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  (2 Chronicles 7:14)

So the first step is to realize that it is something that God will do, not something we can do.  All of the parties to this dispute believe that there is a God in heaven who can act, so why do we so frequently act as though a negative outcome were inevitable?

The second thing is to recognize how far we’ve come already.  For a couple centuries, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in order to try to come out ahead politically, until people got sick of that and decided to have secular republics instead.

Even after that, until quite recently (perhaps a century ago), many Catholics and Protestants seem to have believed that basically  everyone on the other side was going straight to Hell when they died. This era too has passed.

And it wasn’t my generation’s doing, either. It was the hard work of a few individuals in previous generations, who insisted on talking to each other and opening up honest communication, even when it seemed impossible. Vatican II was a pretty big deal too, what with Catholics rethinking their attitude towards Protestants and accepting some Protestant ideas in the process (e.g. Mass in the language of the people). Meanwhile, even if there are still some fundamentalists out there who think ecumenical dialogue is of the devil, for the most part Protestants also became more open to the idea that some Catholics have actual spirituality and relationships with Jesus, and that we can be allies in some ways.

“Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:37-38)

In fact the wounds of division have already begun to be healed.  The first stage was unity of love.  This step was taken when different Christian groups became genuinely interested in the well-being of Christians in the other groups, even before they convert to “our” side.

It is just barely possible to love a group of people and also think that they are lying scoundrels who will go straight to Hell, but we all know that love isn’t what usually motivates this attitude.  It’s not a coincidence that the word “charity” is used to mean both “Love in the Christian sense” and also “Not interpreting what other people say in the worst possible light”.  When you care about people, you don’t just want to see the negatives but also the positives.  As St. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper.  Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?  If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.  You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.  If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.  Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.1

Compare to this attitude:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.   It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:4-8)

There are always going to be silly, superficial reasons to condemn the other side. No matter how many good arguments there are for a position, there will always also be some terrible ones too! But love does not look for reasons to condemn, but for reasons to rejoice. If it criticizes, it does so not to boost its own ego, but out of genuine caring and out of respect for the good it sees is already present.  It is willing to investigate carefully, before deciding that the other side are evil rebels (Joshua 22:9-34).

The next stage is the unity of hope.  This step comes when people not only care for those on the other side, but also actually believe that their situation isn’t hopeless, that if we form friendships and have dialogues and do good for each other, then it may actually make a difference. This is the stage we are currently working at, although obviously we could always use more love to fuel the process.

With hope, we actually begin to desire to be in communion with each other, because we have begun to think it might one day be possible.  And even now, we can want this together (making due allowances for the fact that what complete unity would look like, is itself one of the theological controversies in question), and we can pray for it together.

“Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

I’m thinking this means, two or three Christians who have to work a bit to understand each other and agree about something! Not 2 or 3 self-satisfied Christians who are already primed to think in exactly the same way, and who don’t care what anyone outside their group thinks. Real unity requires effort, but the reward is that it produces real community:

How good and pleasant it is

when brothers live together in harmony!

It is like fine oil on the head,

running down on the beard,

running down Aaron’s beard

onto his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon

falling on the mountains of Zion.

For there the Lord has appointed the blessing—

life forevermore.  (Psalm 133)

Of course not all of us are called to ecumenical work trying to understand other types of Christians—some of us are to focus on serving individual congregations (which can already present enough challenges for reconciliation!), or to provide aid to non-Christians, or to evangelize, or to serve the body of Christ in some other way. We all belong to each other, and according to the law of our King, the Son of David:

The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.  (1 Sam 30:24)

And the final stage will be the unity of faith, when the love that is between us allows God to show us the right way to repent of whatever errors divide us. I don’t know exactly what a practical version of this would look like (and as I said, this is one of the very things which is disputed), but I can still work towards it. Jesus prayed for it; it is possible. Let’s have it happen in this world rather than wait for the next one.

Speaking as a Protestant, I would emphasize that this unity of faith does not necessarily require us to agree on the exact same list of doctrines. When St. Paul writes:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

it is clear that for him, “one mind” does not actually mean “agrees about everything”, for the theme of the entire previous chapter and a half up to this point (Romans 14:1-15:7) is about dealing with situations in which two Christians disagree about disputable matters.

A doctrine can be true, or even important, without being an essential dogma which must be believed to be a real Christian. Even Catholics don’t think everything is a dogma, but they do have a procedure for moving more and more things into the “dogma” category, thus making reunion harder and harder as time passes.

There’s a terrible idea called “secondary separation” in a few Protestant circles, which is that you should not only separate yourself from Christians who disbelieve in the doctrines you think are essential, you should also separate from Christians who fail to separate from such people… and so on ad nauseum.  Clearly, in the absence of a Pope to resolve disputes, that can only end with a tiny schismatic group of self-righteous Pharisees.  Which is why we shouldn’t think that way!

Instead, we need to accept one another. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any standards for what we mean when we call somebody else a Christian, since both Jesus (Matt 18:15-20) and St. Paul (1 Cor 5) taught that in extreme circumstances, the church can and should excommunicate people. But it does mean that our standards for other people need to be less strict than our standards for ourselves. To summarize in a picture:

Note what happens here if we allow the little circles to expand until they become as large as the big circles.  In that case, we will come out of communion, by refusing to accept somebody else unless they are exactly like us. This is schism, in which a failure of love leads to a rupture in the bonds of faith.

Although I wrote “believe” in this picture, the same thing applies when we talk about which behaviors are acceptable in a Christian community. Here it is a bit easier, since we have more control over our behaviors than over our beliefs. To have a functioning community, we need to be strict with ourselves, but more accepting when it comes to the conduct of others.

People are always alert to hypocrisy, situations where somebody says that X is required but doesn’t do X themselves. You might think of this as a situation where the “small” circle is actually bigger than the “big” circle, and the person is condemned by their own standards.  But merely avoiding hypocrisy is not nearly enough. If two people each allow themselves to do everything they personally think is OK, then unless they have identical beliefs, one will step outside the bounds set by the other.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (Luke 6:37-38)

How to get other Christians to accept you

It’s fun to argue, and it may cause some individuals to move from one viewpoint to another, but I don’t think it’s where the most important work lies. If you want to contribute to church unity, the way to do it is to serve. The way to get other groups of Christians to recognize what you believe in, is not to fight them but to make yourself indispensable to them.

Think about St. Lewis’ writings. He led millions to Christ, and to a deeper spirituality. He chose to write primarily about those things which Christians have in common. And the funny thing is, Christians of pretty much every kind all have him as their hero. For example, the Eastern Orthodox have a tendency to think that Orthodoxy is the One True Church, and many of them think that those outside of it aren’t real Christians. And yet an enormous number of them admire and respect St. Lewis, an Anglican. It doesn’t matter if it’s inconsistent with their general views about the non-Orthodox, they’re forced to recognize him as a Christian, because he is just too darn useful to their spiritual lives to anathematize.

“When Christ ascended on high,

he took many captives

and gave gifts to his people.” (Eph. 4:8)

The communion of saints operates through the gifts we give to each other.  It has not been held back by denominational barriers. I have heard hymns written by Protestants sung in Catholic Masses; I have seen books written by Catholic saints provide guidance for Protestants. We are already one family, we just need to realize it.

So go and serve other groups of Christians. Find out what they need, and then give it to them. Make it so they can’t help but see that the Spirit of God is moving you.   At the very least, we are always able to pray for each other.  Make the Lord’s priorities your priorities:

When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you?  You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.  I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

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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