The Scandal of Disunity

Not everyone in the world is a Christian and not because they have not heard the Gospel. Christianity has had the biggest influence on the world. Some of the contributions have become so much a part of us, that we take them for granted and do not even perceive their origins. As someone interested in Christian apologetics, the reasons for people not coming to faith are very important to me.  One of the common reasons is Christians, specifically how they behave. One particular form of the objection which is often posed to apologists often by Muslims is, if Christianity is true why are there so many denominations? Another way it is posed is which Christianity do I accept? The common apologetic response is that Christianity is pluriform, that is, Christianity comes in many forms. Dr Ravi Zacharias puts it this way,

Unity does not mean uniformity of expression.

And also,

We may compromise on the form but we cannot compromise on substance and content.

This kind of response is a push back against the claim that Christianity is completely divided. There are core beliefs that you must have to be considered a Christian, which are non-negotiable, but other things we can disagree about. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis takes a similar stance. Not being a professional theologian he tries to avoid the finer points of theological and doctrinal debates and differences between denominations. He rather tries to present what the Christian worldview looks like and what it means. These type of responses demonstrate we have a form of unity and assumes or seems to imply this unity is primarily theological. However, it does not deny there are divisions and does not tell us if these divisions are necessary or by its own criteria are theologically permissible. If consequent beliefs come follow from core beliefs how come we don’t agree on these resulting beliefs? Granted there are different ways of expressing Christian faith shouldn’t there be somethings that lets us know they are still Christian? The response to the question does not belittle the issue of unity but there are many things it does not address. Basically the response is, if you define unity one way then we are united, if you define it another way then we are not so united.

Unity today is a very complicated thing. In my own country our fore fathers, who came from diverse ethnic backgrounds were forced together into political territories by a bunch of people sitting in Europe, ignoring the differences between them. As such in Ghana, and in many other African countries I imagine, ethnic tensions are very much present in society. Muslims who usually bring up the allegation of disunity are themselves made up of scores of sects. Organizations like ISIS has brought Muslim identity to the forefront. Many Muslims in the West deny ISIS is Muslim whiles ISIS claims anyone who does not support them is not Muslim. (Even President Obama has waded into the debate declaring ISIS non-Muslim but I wonder when he was voted an authority on Islam?) Modern America is itself undergoing a cultural crisis of identity, that is, what does it truly mean to be American?

Unity in the ancient world was also difficult. Early Christianity was initially one of the sects in second Temple Judaism. Each claimed to be the true heir of the faith of Abraham and strong polemic against other sects was common. Even within early Christianity itself unity was difficult. The first division recorded in Acts is between Palestinian Jews and Hellenic Jews (Acts 6.) Later the distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians took centre stage (Acts 15) which was a major preoccupation of Paul. Unity in any human organization is hard and the Church is no exception.

Now the problem with the Christian church is that it does not claim to be a mere human organization. Of course it is comprised of humans but there is something more to it. The Church claims to be a divine organization, that is, the family of God. On a purely human level, we could democratically agree to disagree. However, if we are the children of God, we ultimately do not determine our identity or the state of our relationship with one another. It is God who determines who is a member of his family and how they are supposed to behave. Unity and holiness are the two central features of the Church which are both very hard things to do. This is very apparent in Paul’s writing of whom Pauline scholar N.T. Wright contends that it is the Church which is the centre piece of his worldview. Therefore, the apostle in his mission and his letters, works very hard to keep Christians together. In the Jew-Gentile debate he argued that all are one family in the Messiah. Paul is not the only one tackling disunity. James discusses socioeconomic divisions in the Church and why they shouldn’t be. Other writers tackle it in their own way. New Testament writers emphasize the ethic of love as the solution to these problem. If you look closely at the virtues mentioned in the New Testament like love, patience, humility, sincerity etc. they are all things that promote Christian unity. Now the Christian ethic of agape does not come from abstract moral philosophizing. It flows from the Cross: if God loved us so much, then we should love one another. There is then an obvious problem if we do not love one another as much.

As I began to reflect on Christian unity more and more I settled on a simple slogan used by Tom Wright: One God, one people. One of the principal passages on Christian unity in the Bible is Ephesians 4:4-6. Our oneness is understood in terms of the oneness of God. If we have one God and Father, we cannot live as if we didn’t belong to the same family. Church is therefore meant to be the reflection of the god we believe in. When we live in disunity we are saying we don’t believe in one God. This is a very serious allegation. It also calls into question the ability of Jesus to save. Jesus saves us equally into the family of God (Ephesians 2.) When we are not unified it implies some people do not really belong to the family therefore Jesus was not really able to save them. These ideas are not simply something that Paul came up with. Jesus originates them and in John 17 he articulates his view of a unified Church in his prayers.

“I do not ask for these 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. – John 17:20-23 ESV

Jesus knew the world would take his message seriously if his followers through love acted in unity and holiness. Unity for Jesus was as non-negotiable as there being only one true God. If it is blasphemous to deny the oneness of God then disunity in the Church is a true scandal. I am trying to highlight that there is a big problem. This is not just a peripheral issue from which we are safely cocooned within our comfy denominational traditions. If we are Jesus people we are supposed to act in the way he wants. The current state of the Church doesn’t reflect that.

I am not a Church historian but it seems ever since the Protestant Reformation we deem it far more preferable to go our separate ways. As soon as we face disagreements we begin to promptly eye the exit doors. We even encourage it for convenience sake. Right now, depending on how you define “denomination,” there are over 30, 000 Christian denominations. We are very comfortable in this state of micro-fragmentation often with the excuse that theologically it makes sense. Unity however is a lived theology and not an academic abstraction. True Christian unity is the strongest evidence we can provide to the world that something truly momentous and unique has happened. As such it is bringing people together from all backgrounds, transcending every conceivable human distinction which can only mean a greater power is at work, which is none other than true love, the love that can only be embodied in the one true God. If we truly believe in the good news of the love of God it would be seen in the way we live with one another. Perhaps that is why we tend to reduce the love of God into a private feeling and do not want to live it out in unity in the Church. Disunity is a sign that we do not really believe in the love of God.

Colluding in disunity also means we have given into the flesh, that is, to act according to baser desires. This is not something I came up with. Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. Our unity is based on the oneness of God so anything other than that is decidedly not from his spirit. Thinking about it in that way is very humbling. We often come up with high minded reasons for division but it in fact it is base, unspiritual, and this worldly. Now it is easy to blame those who “left” but it takes two to tango. We believe in the prodigal love of our Father but when others depart do we with careless abandon seek them out? We hardly ever do. Instead we defiantly say, “If they wanna go, let ‘em” with hearts in which the spirit of love supposedly lives, slowly congealing in cold indifference. We cannot say we believe in the love of God displayed in the cross if we cannot willingly and freely sit in the same room with one another.

Honestly the kind of apologetic answer that I first mentioned is an embarrassment. When we press the issue, it is not a good answer but a poor excuse. Having gone through just a fraction of what the Bible teaches on unity in this article, it is quite evident we have fallen short. As I said in the beginning I love Christian apologetics. If the world is going to take our message seriously we need to direct our apologetic inwards. Christian apologetics quickly skirts over the issue of unity yet it is strong evidence for our claims. Probably the reason why it is avoided is because on a macro scale it is absent. There is a common apologetic line which says, the way Christians behave should not put people off Jesus. Funnily enough the New Testament does not teach that. The spirit of Jesus is at work in Jesus’ people. People can draw valid conclusions about Jesus from how we live. We have long colluded in disunity because we have felt nothing really was at stake. Guess what? There is something worth fighting for and that is how Jesus is represented.

I brought up the Protestant Reformation because it was the last great schism in the Church. Yes that period brought many benefits but it did not further the divine agenda of one people in the Messiah. When I was younger I thought it was basically a theological parting of ways with some moral implications as well. Luther and his friends were the heroes of the story against the wicked papal powers who were obscuring the truth of God’s word. That is how it is often portrayed in Protestant circles. I wonder what narrative Roman Catholics are taught? Having learnt more about it I know it is not nearly as simple. Theology was not the only issue and Luther and his pals were far from perfect heroes. There were a lot of political machinations, egos at work, and intrigues that could fill a historical thriller. The leaders of the Reformation gained political power and they used it against their political enemies. When I first came across the case of Michael Servetus, a brilliant physician and an anti-Trinitarian theologian, it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. John Calvin forced him into exile for his “heretical” beliefs and finally executed, being burned at the stake. Arius, who has become the prototypical heretic, was also exiled for his beliefs during the period of debates that resulted in the formulation of the classic Trinitarian creeds. No matter how wrong these people supposedly were they did not deserve such treatment. The Church has not handled political power well over the years. The Reformation is one major incident in a long line of failures regarding unity. From how the Church has reacted we can see the splits are not merely theological but there is far more to them, even though they might begin as doctrinal issues.

The Church Fathers were not a paternal as we might think, the theologians not as logical, and the Reformers weren’t all that reformed. If our predecessors did not get it completely right, sometimes very wrong, what hope do we have today? We have the benefit of hindsight. A lot of the things we do today have been learned from the past. If we can identify the origins of some of our attitudes and problems today, we have a good chance of addressing them.

I know what I am advocating for, no what God is calling for, is something beyond human ability. Yet it is the lofty standard we have been divinely called to and surely God by his grace can accomplish it in us if we are willing to yield to him, to yield to love. I know there is a problem but I certainly do not have all the answers. It requires a concerted effort which involves using our hearts and our minds to bridge these unnatural gaps. What ways can you contribute to building unity in the Church?

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