In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges Christians to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” because “there is one body and one Spirit.” Across his letters, he makes it clear that believers together make up Christ’s body on earth, with Jesus himself as the head of the body. Paul writes, echoing Jesus’ prayer in John 17, of how vital it is that believers live in unity with each other. But how seriously can we take this call to unity today, when we see so many divisions between church denominations and practices?
To begin to answer this question, I’d like to look back at how Christians have historically viewed church unity and what has brought us to where we are today.
From its earliest days, Christianity has been experienced in the gathering of believers together, forming a new community across various social divides (see, for example, Galatians 3:28). The church, as Christ’s body, was where people met with Christ himself. To cause separation within the church was to tear apart the very body of Jesus. Saint Cyprian, in the 3rd-century, considered causing divisions between believers to be such a serious sin that it called a person’s salvation into question. He believed that unity of the church existed in its lineage from the early apostles, because of texts like Matthew 16:18, in which Jesus says that it is upon Peter that he will build his church. For Cyprian, as long as the church was built upon the apostles, it maintained unity, like rivers that share a source.
But just how unified can those rivers be after centuries of traversing vastly different terrain? The church reached a crisis in 1054, as East and West differed on a point of theology and (perhaps more significantly) on how such a difference was to be resolved. Before this, special councils of bishops had been considered authoritative in deciding within what parameters people held to the truth of Christianity. From these councils came the creeds as agreed upon statements of belief. In 1054, the wording of one such creed was being disputed. The West believed that their bishop in Rome (whose line of succession could be traced back to Peter himself) ought to have greater sway than the others, but the East disagreed. An impasse was reached, and the unified confession of faith and practice between East and the West was broken.
With the 16th-century Reformation in the West came still further divisions. When Luther’s attempt to point out issues needing to be addressed within the Western church resulted in his being excommunicated from that church by the pope, Luther burned his notice of excommunication. This new disregard for the authority of the pope (successor of Peter though he may be) opened a new stage in the life of the church, and those in the West who found themselves at odds with the church in Rome had to rethink what it is that constitutes the church.
John Calvin, like many before him, believed that Christ was met and salvation found in the church. Calvin insisted that churches should not be divided over petty reasons, but should instead be marked by forgiveness and grace when differences arose. Yet, Calvin was on the side of those who had split from the Catholic Church. He believed that the proclaiming of the pure Word of God made the church what it was, more so than being able to trace its succession of human leaders back to the apostles. The church’s unity then depended on its shared profession of faith in the Word of God. But, without an objective authority on earth to indicate the “pure” Word of God amongst differing interpretations, Protestants have found themselves continually disagreeing, not just in their understanding of God’s Word, but also over which things are petty differences to be overlooked and which are significant enough to warrant a split within the church.
And so today, the question of the unity of Christ’s body on earth has become infinitely more complex than Saint Cyprian, for one, could have imagined. It may be all very well to say that leaving the church may cause the loss of salvation, but it is very difficult to say which church that one shouldn’t leave – one holding the external authority of the tradition, passed down directly from Peter on whom Christ said he would build his church, and/or one clinging to the true preaching of the Bible, the measure of which can be hard to determine? We may be, in Paul’s words, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit,” but unity with whom and how? We find ourselves in a time when simple answers simply won’t do.
It is all too easy (and I confess myself also guilty of this) to see how complicated church unity has become and to look the other way, ignoring something that held central importance to Christians from the very beginning. Protestants may see their differing denominations as an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed, as they highlight different aspects of what it means to follow Jesus or as viewing them all together may make clearer what it is that makes us all Christians (and God grant that, in his mercy, it may be so). But if we hear what John records as Jesus’ final prayer before going to the cross, we see that the mission of God’s people in the world is aided if we can stand together in unity. Perhaps more of our efforts should be for the greater unity of Christ’s body on earth and more of our prayers echo his:
“I do not ask for these [disciples here with me] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Photo credit: http://melodyandtruth.com/2015/05/29/unity-and-community/