We’re so divided today, how could we ever achieve such a thing today?
A couple of thoughts.
First, we need to stop thinking of unity as something for humans to achieve. God has united us already. We just need to recognize and honor what is already true.
(Eph. 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Our job is to “maintain” the unity of the Spirit, not to create this unity. And just as soon as our thinking shifts, our division will start to dissipate. We are only separate from our fellow believers because we think we’re separate.
If we recognize our God-given unity in our minds, then we’ll start acting more like a united people. And the Spirit will reform our hearts so that we see other believers as part of the same church as our own.
Second, unity is maintained best at the grassroots level. It’s much more about individual members thinking in united terms than theologians with D. Min.’s negotiating white papers on apostolic succession and the five points of Calvinism.
That is, it’s easy to see the Spirit at work in his churches to move the members to want a real, meaningful unity — and in many places, the members aren’t waiting on their denominational leaders to get on board. They’re hold joint prayer meetings, joint evangelistic campaigns, joint benevolence efforts, joint environmental clean up efforts, joint teen events, joint training efforts … all sorts of things.
Frankly, in my experience, the biggest hold up in many communities is that the preachers (pastors, evangelists, priests, etc.) don’t prioritize joint action among community churches. Their elders (vestry, deacons, etc.) assume that the most important thing is the growth of their own churches, and so they reward baptisms and good sermons, rather than success at realizing the unity God has given us.
In fact, some church leaders are jealous and fearful of other congregations in town, afraid that if their members hear the other church’s band or preacher, they’ll leave. Well, they’re already listening to other preachers by downloading mp3s and visiting other churches as they can. You can’t hide your inferior worship program or preaching. You’d may as well get credit for doing something profoundly right and biblical — working toward unity with all the other churches in town.
Do you really expect all the churches in your town to merge?
Not in my lifetime. But until the founding of America, this is how it was in nearly every city in Europe, Asia, or Africa with a church. There were very few — if any — towns with churches of two denominations in town. The church was so closely tied to the state that it was unimaginable that there could be both a Presbyterian and a Catholic Church in the same city.
For a while, religious toleration was tried in France between the Calvinists (Huguenots) and Catholics, but each side treated the other so abominably that, in the French Revolution, the French decided atheism would be better. (Only to find out how wrong they were.)
In England, eventually a level of religious toleration developed, so that a single town might have an Anglican, Presbyterian, Puritan, and Baptist congregation. The British learned from the failed French experiments not to let the majority church have too much political power — so that they wouldn’t persecute each other using the police and powers of the state. (Thank John Locke and his 1689 Letter Concerning Religious Toleration.)
The British example was taken to a greater extreme by the American colonies, especially in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While Locke offered no toleration to atheists, Jews, or Catholics (because the Pope was a prince of another nation (the Papal States in central Italy) who insisted on loyalties that might be against the best interests of the British state), the First Amendment’s scope is not so limited. After all, many of the American founding fathers were deists rather than Christians, highly influenced by French thinking (shortly before the French Revolution).
Now, religious tolerance is one of the great accomplishments of the British Enlightenment, to which we American Christians are heirs. But toleration was only needed because the various branches of Christendom were fighting, even at war, with each other. The French Religious Wars, not studied in most American high school and college history classes, left some 2,000,000 to 4,000,000 dead — all over whether to be Catholic or Calvinist. Really.
In Germany, the Peasants Revolt of 1524 left 100,000 dead — in fighting among Lutherans, Catholics, and Anabaptists. Luther approved the government’s brutal suppression of the revolution his teachings inspired.
In fact, if you were to trace the roots of modern atheism, you’d find its roots in these wars, not Charles Darwin or the end of school prayer. That’s right: the historical roots of atheism in Europe are found in the sinful behavior of Christians in killing each other.
And division in Christianity arose as a solution to the fighting that took place when Christian denominations were given control of the government. They used the government to persecute those who disagreed. And so arose Locke’s idea of separating church and state — a revolutionary idea that saved countless millions of Christian lives.
Of course, separation of church and state has, in the U.S., been reduced to petty fights over crosses in cemeteries and monuments in state buildings. It’s become a war over who controls the symbolism of our nation — which I suppose is better than a war over whether our Catholic neighbors get to live.
But that doesn’t mean we’ve landed in the right place. Rather than fighting over church-state separation, we should spend our energies on church-church separation — uniting as the best of all witnesses to Jesus. I mean, if faith in Jesus is the boundary of the Kingdom, then Christian unity would change everything.
I mean, it’s only been in the last three centuries or so that we’ve learned to disagree without trying kill each other with the machinery of the state. Now it’s time to learn to love each so much that we’re willing to take the occasional communion together.