Can the Many Christian Churches Ever Be United?

by William Powell Tuck

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One of the most powerful movements sweeping across the Christian world is the quest for Church unity. Since the Second Vatican Council and the establishment of the World Council of Churches, many Christian bodies have labored diligently to see if the broken body of Christ, the Church, could be united. Many Christians have seen the fragmentation of the Church as a scandal and a factor that harms its witness to the world. Many believe that the wide variety of denominational expressions of the faith hurts the cause of Christ. The fighting within the Church between Christians about correct doctrines and Church practices is an affront to our Lord. As we gather at the Communion Table, we join other Christians around the world who worship on this day with a prayer for Christian unity.
Those of us in the Western World need to be aware that we have increasingly become a minority in the Church. Since the middle of the last century, the majority of Christians in the world are now colored. The white skinned Christian is no longer the dominant race in the Christian Church. People of color will likely continue to grow in their numbers in the Christian community.[ene_ptp] Jesus prayed for the unity of the future Church (John 17: 20-26). He prayed that the future growth of the Church would not inhibit its unity. What then is the debate about whether or not the Church should be united? The last will and testament of our Lord was a prayer for the unity of the Church. All the debate about whether or not the Church should be united is superfluous, if we really want to follow the intention of our Lord. The unity of the Church was our Lord’s basic desire.
The efforts to bring about the reunion of the Church have never been easy. Anyone who has labored within ecumenical circles to bring about the unity of the Church knows the difficulties and obstacles for such unity. But we have to start someplace to reunite separated Christian churches. Any small step is at least a step in the right direction.
In a CBS special several years ago, Bill Moyers told about a man in New York City who decided he would try to do something to help the hungry. As he went to work each day in New York City, he distributed a hundred sandwiches to the street people. The street people soon learned about his kindness, and they lined the sidewalks waiting for him to hand them a sandwich. After a TV segment which showed the man handing out sandwiches to the people, Moyers observed: “New York City’s population now runs in excess of eleven million people. A hundred sandwiches will hardly scratch the surface in the need. But while Sam may never move his world very far, at least the direction he is moving it is forward.”
Every effort we make to move the Church forward to be united is at least a step in the right direction. Every step we take to bring fragmentation in the Church, we move away from our Lord’s intention.
Jesus prayed for a unique kind of unity for his Church. He prayed that the future disciples in the Church would be united as he and the Father are united. “May they all be one, as you Father, are in me, and I in You” (17: 20). Jesus’ unity with his Father was based on a unique personal communion of the Son with the Father. The Church’s unity is a reflection of the unity within the Triune God.
The unity for his Church for which Jesus prays extends beyond organizational or ecclesiastical uniformity. This unity is not simply under some giant administrative group that brings various factions together, but rests on an openness to the Spirit of God who works in our lives as God worked in the life of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The basis of the Church’s unity, as it is modeled after our Lord’s unity with his Father, is rooted in the nature of God and Jesus’ obedient love. The Father was “in” Jesus, and Jesus was “in” the Father. As the Father has “sent” the Son, so Jesus “sends” his disciples into the world (17: 21). Jesus mediated the presence of God through the temple of his body (John 2:17-19), and the flock was united under Jesus, the one “Shepherd” of his Church (John 10:16). The unity of the Church in the contemporary ecumenical movement needs not to be a unity void of all diversity of theology or administrative form. Instead, it is a unity based on the Triune nature of God, characterized by the diversity within the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is sometimes sad to listen to the various theological discussions about the reunion of the church and to see how inflexible many persons are in their stance in various denominational traditions. Dick Shepherd, a leading Anglican churchman of several generations back, gathered a group of church leaders together to discuss the question of the reunion of the Church. He thought the meeting had been very successful until he heard the two clergymen who were the speakers for the night make a comment to their own followers. One of them remarked to his minister friends. “I don’t think I gave anything away, did I?” The other minister observed to his friends: “I rather fancy I held my place all right. Didn’t I?”
How unlike our Lord who laid down his life for the Church. Too often we are more concerned with. “Can I get my way?” or “Is my position well established?” If unity is going to be achieved, each side must seek to see what each give and not what can they hold on to. To recover unity, sacrifices will have to be made.
Our model for the unity in the Church comes from our Lord. Jesus Christ extends God’s grace to all persons.  Jesus called all persons to experience the Father’s love. Instead of exhibiting Christ-like love, we often draw circles and exclude persons from the Church. We often want to include only those who think like we do or act like we do. Only those who fit in certain theological boxes or believe along our rigid patterns can be included in the fold. Jesus encountered this attitude in the Pharisees who built their religion on exclusiveness. Their religion erected walls and fences to keep people out. But this was not the kind of religion Jesus proclaimed. Rather than excluding persons, Jesus reached out to include them. Rather than pushing people down, Jesus reached out to lift them up. Rather than crushing people with heavy burdens, Jesus sought to liberate them. Rather than hating people, Jesus sought to love them. Rather than trying to destroy people, Jesus wanted to redeem them. The Christ who reaches out to all of us with his love is the same One who instructs us to reach out to our brothers and sisters across all racial barriers. He does not want to build walls that separate but doors that open to include others.
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  1. Thanks for this post. A fundamental question is what it means to be UNITED. I am not at all certain that unity in terms of doctrine is ever going to happen, BUT I think there is such a thing as an ‘ecumenical center’, i.e. those beliefs that most Christians can affirm. I think we need to work hard to both articulate those and find ways to put them into practice….

    1. Bob:
      I agree. We will unlikely find churches of many denominations agreeing on doctrines, but we can work together in the spirit of Christian love to share the gospel message and labor in Christ-like tasks.

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