Christian Unity 2014: Disciples in the Same Boat

MysticalChurch

Disciples in the Boat Together

Why does the church, the body of Christ, remain so divided? Is there an essential unity in the worldwide church we just don’t see?

When I look back on the last fifty years, I see many things that seemingly contributed to the unity of the church. Here is my list of some of them with my analysis:

1. The Ecumenical Movement. This probably reached a peak in the 1960s in the wake of Vatican II. There was a hope that the initial moves of the Roman Catholic leadership to modernize its church and give some recognition to non-Catholic Christians might progress to something big. It didn’t really happen. The big ecumenical organizations like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches are barely surviving and don’t wield much influence today. Why? I’m not sure, but here are a couple of suggestions. First, the funders and influencers in these groups were white European/American church professionals. The ecumenical movement was always top down and never had a grassroots swell of support. Second, the denominations most involved in the ecumenical movement are generally in decline now. Third, as Christianity wanes in Europe and North America, it thrives in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. These newer communities never were a part of the WCC style ecumenical vision, seeing it as a type of continued foreign domination of their national churches. They wanted to stand on their own.

2. The commercialization of evangelical Christianity. Money has always fueled a great deal of what looks like cross-church cooperation, but this reached almost absurd heights in the 1990s and continues today. Yet Christian media (especially TV) has little appeal to Generation X and even less to the Millennials. It is seen by many as overly political and aligned exclusively with one political party and one foreign policy viewpoint. Another aspect of this is the prominence in Christian television of the prosperity gospel preachers who appeal to a narrow group of Christians and are near pariahs to others. The commercialization of Christian music and worship has had some unifying effect, but this has also caused a doctrinal leveling and blandness that robs the Christian message of some of its vitality and counter-culturalism.

3. The rise of mega churches. This may be the most hopeful development in the realm of Christian unity, because there is an interconnection between large churches and their pastors that has broken down many long-standing barriers in the Christian world. I mistakenly thought that the mega church was dead in the 1990s, a victim of pastoral hubris and immorality combined with staggering debt loads, but there has been a rebirth and renewal of this type of Christianity. The inability for observers to pigeonhole many mega churches in a denomination way is, I think, also a good thing. I’m not sure where this is going, but the new trend to multi-site churches has some appearance of the renewal of denominationalism with a different face. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

4. The opening up of Christian institutions of higher education to all comers. The huge capital investment to build colleges, universities, and seminaries by churches of the past was unsustainable unless these institutions broadened themselves in whom they admitted as students, in whom they allowed to be teachers, and in what programs they offered. There is no single model in this, so it is difficult to generalize, but this sort of scenario wold not be uncommon: a young man who grew up in a Baptist church attended trained for ministry in an Evangelical Free seminary and ended up as a pastor in a Christian Missionary Alliance church. The hyper-sectarian schools of previous generations have either broadened or are dying. Yet I also see the rise of new sectarian schools of a different stripe, some being generated from mega churches. I also don’t know where this is going.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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9 thoughts on “Christian Unity 2014: Disciples in the Same Boat

  1. While the various forces contributing to the breakdown of denominational divisiveness in Protestant Evangelicalism is generally a good thing (except to the extent that it results in “doctrinal leveling” or downplaying/ignoring of doctrinal questions), Protestantism still lacks any substantial visible unity because it lacks any unifying element or authority. I know that the obvious answer is that Scripture is the unifying element, and that claim lies at the heart of the Stone-Campbell movement’s search for unity (which has only managed to create yet another Protestant tradition, and then split into three sub-traditions). But as most people who have delved into biblical studies have discovered, the Scriptures can be interpreted in many different ways and to support many different doctrinal and ecclesial schemes, there is a certain level of indeterminacy in the Bible. Even sound historical-critical studies cannot surmount this indeterminacy and give precise, incontrovertible answers to doctrinal questions like: what is the meaning and effect of baptism, what is the “biblical” form of church polity, how and at what point are we “saved”, what is the role of “good works” in the Christian life and salvation, how and when does the Holy Spirit indwell the individual believer, etc. The Stone-Campbell Restoration tradition within the Protestant tradition (not to pick on it, it’s just the one I’m most familiar with), in trying to make the Bible its unifying element assumes the perspicuity of Scripture (and thus, a lack of indeterminacy in Scripture); the reality, in my experience and based on the history of Protestantism’s exponential schism’s (literally thousands of denominations, all seeking to follow “just the Bible”), is the opposite.
    I don’t write this to pick on the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement specifically or Protestantism generally, but simply to point out that unity will only come from some unifying element, and that because Scripture cannot (and was never intended to) fulfill that role, Protestantism has no unifying element, and will be limited to tenuous approximations of unity (as you see today within Protestant Evangelicalism and Restorationism). I would argue that either you can have the bedrock Protestant principle of Sola Scripture (the bible alone as the sole source of authority, as interpreted by the individual believer), or you can have unity, but you can’t have them both.

    Am I missing some other potential unifying principle?

    • I would have to answer this in a different blog, Dan. I would be the first to admit that the Stone Campbell solution to unity didn’t work. But if we seek unity in a single human authority, the Roman Catholic solution didn’t work either, or else there would be no Protestantism.

      • Yes, I realize that the points I raised open a whole lot of theological “cans of worms” that go way beyond the scope of what you were originally writing about.
        However, I do want to make a couple brief comments about your response:
        1. As to seeking unity in a single human authority: I don’t think there is any other option but to have some sort of human authority. Scripture is always mediated to us through an interpretive process and theological perspective(s)/tradition(s) (the human element). As Christian Smith noted in his book on biblicism (“The Bible Made Impossible”), the current state of Evangelicalism is one in which, in a functional sense, each individual believer is his/her own authority because each can and does choose (consciously or not) between a myriad of interpretive/doctrinal options in the present state of “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” as he calls it. So, in my view, the question is not whether we seek our faith, and potential unity of such faith, through human authority/interpretation/mediation (that is inevitable, whether our own authority or an ecclesial one), but whether God has given us any reliable human authority upon which we can rely and seek unity, or if we are merely left to our own best interpretive efforts (and then try to achieve unity by attempting to build a consensus around those interpretations). The Catholic claim (which I understand sounds audacious from the outside) is that there is such a human, though divinely protected/guided, authority in the Catholic church on the basis of the authority given to the Apostles and uniquely to Peter (John 16:14; Matt. 16:16-19; Matt. 18:17-18) and passed on through apostolic succession in the episcopate (something attested to by early church fathers) in union with the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome. All this to say that the Catholic church does not see itself as just another human authority, but as a human authority commissioned with certain unique authority by Christ (and thus worth seeking unity in).
        2. As to the Catholic solution to unity not working because of the existence of the Protestant Reformation, I grant this is true if by “working” you mean an absolute prevention of any schism. However, when I talk about a system of authority for Christian life and doctrine “working” or not to achieve unity, I mean something more like an internally coherent system of teaching and governing the church and resolving disputed questions of doctrine and scriptural interpretation (transcending individual interpretations and opinions). The Catholic church’s approach (Sacred Scripture + Apostolic tradition, interpreted and taught by the teaching authority of the church) certainly is both internally coherent and kept millions of believers together in unity for centuries, and has produced a far greater level of unity than Protestantism or even Eastern Orthodoxy.

        Also, it should be clear that my conception of unity involves some level of doctrinal unity and not merely a “least-common-denominator” style of liberal ecumenism unity.

        … So much for my “brief” comments. I apologize for the length; I have yet to learn the virtue of brevity and clarity that you display so well in your blogs. Thanks for putting up with my overly-long comments.

      • Robert,
        It’s been awhile since I wrote that blog, but let me say a little more. I realize that there was a lot of variety in the earliest churches. This is reflected in the books of the NT themselves. I still think that unity among Christians is a worthy goal, however. We should not accept the failure of the NT church era to be unified as our example.

        When I talk about Christian unity in the largest sense, I am relying on what Jesus prayed in John 17. What does it mean for the disciples of Christ “to be one” as Christ and the Father are one. This is a philosophical question, I know, but also a theological one. But it boils down to an issue of praxis. Do we focus on the disagreements we have with other Christians and other traditions, or do we focus on the unity we have in Christ? Do we decide who is “in” and who is “out” or does he? It seems to me that we often don’t act as if Christ is living and the head of his church. We take a lot on ourselves to be the membership police.

        MK

      • Thank you Mark for taking the time to reply (especically to an older post). I agree that the NT church should not be our model as far as unity is concerned (and for many other issues as well). I also agreed with you that a spirit of humility should be a driving factor. Your reply brought up a term (praxis) that anticipated my direction of thought. We perhaps a better model for unity is not Christian orthodoxy but Second Temple ‘orthopraxy’. Jews were all over the place in terms of there beliefs (ie. “Two powers doctrine,” views of the Messiah [a king, a priest or both], etc.) But they were able to self-identify by other means that usually revolved around practices. Even the ethnic component became a source of debate, but the point is that belief and doctrine were not on their top 10 list for what makes a someone a Jew (the shema was recited daily but what that meant in detail was not a daily debate). “Don’t talk to me about your faith, show me.” Again thank you for taking the time to respond on a topic that I think is important and I also think that the current Restoration Movement has ceased being a pertinent and creative player.

  2. Missions is another area where there has been some interdenominational cooperation. Gen X and Millennials have embraced social outreach and at times made it virtually the center of mission. It’s not unusual today for evangelical churches to cooperate with others of a wide theological spectrum in urban and international ministries focused on issues like sex trafficking, poverty alleviation, and disaster relief.

    • Yes, I had not included this, but it is true. Despite the legacy of fierce sectarianism that was taught by the missionaries of the 1950s and 1960s, there is a different kind of unity there today.

  3. My comments come late in the day but it seems like the concept of unity needs a little clarification. Yours and Dan’s comments seem to assume some kind of institutional unity; Dan highlighting the Roman Catholic model and yours the Evangelical megachurch model. Both models presuppose some level of agreement on the cognitive or belief level that assumes that this ‘concept of unity’ is worthy to strive after. The restoration movement achieved many significant things, but one of its historically conditioned flaws, it seems to me, is its assumption that the New Testament church offered a goal and pattern for Christian unity (again whatever that means). New Testament studies over the past 150 years has uncovered just how problem-filled and disunited the New Testament church was from the get-go in terms of belief systems. I guess I am asking what you mean by unity?

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