Christian unity has become a popular topic in recent decades, and a lot of people have made appeals that we need to come together as one, just as Jesus prayed we ought to be. There are a number of breakthroughs people seem to experience along the way towards fostering this godly desire for the Church to be one.
The first breakthrough I’ve noticed is the realization that the Church is the gathering/congregation/assembly of the people of God, and not just the building. Getting past the property-oriented or legal-oriented uses of the word church is an important first step. This gets us focused on people, which opens to the doors to the next steps.
The second breakthrough is to realize that the Church is not just the local gathering of the people of God, but all the people of God throughout the world. (This usually follows quickly on the heels of the first breakthrough.) This opens our eyes to the need for the Church to be unified in our present day and age, because we now see other Christians in our hometowns and in other countries under a common label: “members of the Church.” What’s frustrating at this stage, though, is that there is no obvious solution to how the Church can be unified; different models of church polity/governance exist today, and most of them are mutually exclusive; we’d have to choose one or another of them. So instead the best we can do at this point is settle for a “spiritual unity” with no physical or tangible manifestations. But this isn’t what we see commanded and described in Holy Scripture, so tension remains. What to do?
The third breakthrough is to realize that the Church is not just the people of God throughout the world, but also throughout time. This is a simple realization to make, but it has enormous implications. Suddenly all those commands in the Bible to submit to one another, respect our elders, obey our leaders, and so forth, take on a new dimension: we have to include the Christians who’ve come before us in the equation of submission and respect. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, this means “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” By ancestors, he means ancestors in Christ, those who have come before us in the faith.
How does this actually work? What does this look like in real life? First of all, if we include our scope of “the Church” to include all God’s people throughout time, we find that we’re in the same group of people as Mother Theresa, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, John Wesley, Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius of Antioch, the original Apostles, Jesus of Nazareth, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Judas Maccabeus, Nehemiah, Ezra, the Prophets of Israel and Judah, King David, Moses, the Patriarchs… everyone who has ever feared and loved the Lord! This not only helps us better understand how God sees us all as his family, but also gives us further insight into how the Old and New Testaments of the Bible relate to each other and to us.
Secondly, we begin to realize what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” Not to say that we take a simple majority vote through history to see how we resolve issues in our present day, but we realize that we cannot in good conscience simply ignore the past as irrelevant to the visible Church today. As this pertains to the question of Church unity, it helps a lot to look at the Church in history when it did have unity: the years 33 through 1054. When we look at what led to the split of East and West in 1054, a lot of it seems pretty stupid: favorite language, the kind of bread used in communion, which calendar to use, and so forth. But some of it is pretty serious: can something as important and basic as the Creed be changed by Papal decree or by a Council with representatives from all over the Christian world? As as we walk back through history to find the period of time before those disunifying conflicts took hold, we find a great model of Church unity lasting 500 or 700 years!
At least in my view, it seems foolish to ignore the reality that there was visible and tangible unity among Christians for centuries, if we’re going to talk about reunification today. What were the instruments of unity? What did they do together? How did they organize themselves? How did the local and the global levels stay connected?
When I bring this up, people often say to me that the books of Acts (and the rest of the NT) shows us the unified Church. Well, yes, that’s quite true. Nobody is questioning that. The point of debate is how to interpret the organization (or lack thereof) of the Church in those years – there are different opinions today. What I’m trying to say is that if we look at the subsequent several centuries of Church history, we can see the interpretation of the Acts model that worked. Was the Early Church happily unified for 500 to 700 years with anarchy, or with a congregational polity, or presbyterian polity, or episcopal polity? How did they worship? How did they read the Bible? What doctrines did they hold close as dogma and what did they consider secondary?
Too often, people who talk “church unity” are trying to re-invent the wheel. It takes a great deal of humility to submit to brothers and sisters in Christ who are departed this life, but as someone who grew up apart from it and entered into that type of Church as an adult, it has been well worth it. It ain’t perfect; there are still competing visions of how to live and organize and worship like the early undivided Church, but at least the “denominations” are far fewer in number, and the oxymoron concept of a “free church” or “independent church” doesn’t exist.