Ever since the Protestant Reformation, we’ve tried to negotiate our way to unity. Unity meetings have been like negotiations for an international trade treaty, with long-winded speeches, committees, and white papers – and little to show for the effort. This is totally the wrong approach.
Famously, Luther and Zwingli failed to unite their reformation movements because they disagreed over the presence of the body of Jesus in the communion elements.
Philip of Hesse wanted to unify all the leading Protestants because he believed that as a divided entity they were vulnerable to Charles V. As a unified force, they would appear to be more powerful. Philip’s theory was sound but it failed to take into account one major issue – beliefs.
Luther and Zwingli had corresponded in the early years of the Reformation and they met at Marburg in October 1529. This meeting became known as the Colloquy of Marburg. If Philip wanted the meeting to be a symbol of Protestant unity he was disappointed. Both Luther and Zwingli fell out over the sacrament.
Luther believed that Christ was present at every celebration of the sacrament – though he was never too sure about what happened to the bread and wine in the Mass. Zwingli believed that the communion service was a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifices and that the bread and wine were purely symbolic.
Both men clashed over the phrase ‘hoc est corpus meum’.
Luther held the view that this meant ‘this is my body’. Whereas Zwingli believed it meant ‘this signifies my body’. Both men believed that they were right and the meeting only served to demonstrate that the Protestant world was a divided one especially over interpretation. Luther refused to shake hands with Zwingli when he departed and he made his dislike of Zwingli very public.
They agreed on literally every doctrine they discussed – except consubstantiation – a doctrine with very little practical implication. I mean, you take the Lord’s Supper the same way regardless of your view on this question. And yet the two great theologians refused to even shake hands – and risked military defeat of their religious reforms – over this single issue. In fact, Zwingli soon thereafter died in a battle that likely would have been avoided had the Swiss and German reformers agreed.
We assume, utterly without scriptural justification, that we must agree on any issue we happen to feel strongly about to be united. And yet Rom 14 teaches to the contrary. The founding principles of our Restoration Movement teach to the contrary. And now we need to live what the Bible and the Restoration leaders both teach.
Therefore, the solution to the church’s lack of unity isn’t a series of unity meetings or speeches or papers. It’s for congregation A to reach out to congregation B and invite them to meet together for communion. It’s as simple as that.
It’s not a weekly prayer breakfast of pastors. It’s the Eucharist. It’s shared bread and wine. It’s remembering the death and resurrection with people who disagree over predestination or tongues or how often to take communion. We agree that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God, we’ve committed to be faithful to him, and we trust him to keep his promises to us – and so we may all take communion together. It’s just a step across the street to take communion together.
Not everyone there will have been baptized the way I think they should have been, but they all will consider themselves baptized. They’ve all obeyed that command as they understand it – and that’s all God requires.
I mean, we act like this is the hardest, most difficult thing in the world, and I’m telling you that unity is as easy as eating a cracker and sipping a cup of Welch’s grape juice or wine with someone who disagrees with you about something not nearly important as Jesus or the unity for which he prayed.
Now, we start there. Grape juice and matzos. We don’t even have to take up a collection. Just remember and proclaim Jesus at a shared table. How hard would that really be?
Yes, there are narrow-minded, legalistic, hateful people who will “write you up.” So? Wear it as a badge of honor.
You may have family members who treat you as a stranger – and that won’t be any fun. But if I can’t suffer a sneer from my great aunt to follow Jesus, I’m not much of a Christian, am I? I mean, what greater cause could there be than the unity of the Christian church? Would I die for it? Well, then, I should be willing to endure an uncomfortable Thanksgiving or two. And if my family disowns me, well, I will have gained thousands, millions, billions of brothers and sisters. Someone will take me in.
Do it two churches at a time in a shared building. Most church buildings will easily accommodate a larger crowd once a quarter or so. And then, once a year, rent a basketball arena or football stadium, and invite every Christian in town to take communion together. It’ll be a lot of trouble, but God gifts many of our members with the organizational skills to pull it off.
There may be tensions over leavened vs. unleavened bread, fermented vs. unfermented fruit of the vine, who is authorized to say a blessing over the elements, who can pass the elements, whether people come forward or receive elements in their seats, and all sorts of other things. But people who love Jesus and desire his unity with the same passion he does will find a way. You’ll figure something out. It can happen because God wants it to happen.
Then the pastors can meet for a weekly prayer lunch. But at this point, pastoral prayer meetings will seem small and inadequate for a truly united church. Rather, we’ll need to have leaders gather to coordinate mission. Literacy programs. Food programs. Job training. All the things churches do separately they’ll want to do together. If I, a lifelong Church of Christ member, wish to participate in the Methodist’s job interview training program as a teacher, they’ll welcome me and I’ll feel like I belong.
God’s united church will be able to share talents and resources. We’ll stop competing and instead celebrate every conversion, every baptism, and every church plant in our town because we’re one. We’ll stop thinking like Wal-Mart and McDonalds and instead think like family. We’ll love each other. We’ll eat together. We’ll share ideas. We’ll swap pulpits. We’ll do theology together and might even persuade each other on a few points – but we’ll be far more focused on bringing the gospel to the damned and healing the brokenness of our community than getting all the churches agreed on the nuances of inaugurated eschatology.
Some churches will merge. Some will close their doors so their members can join churches that are better at doing God’s mission. Some will share youth ministers. I mean, leaving behind the American franchise competition model and trying God’s one-family model will be revolutionary.
And your hometown will notice. It will change everything.