Christian Unity: Fact of Fiction?
It’s obvious, isn’t it? Isn’t it almost impossible to see one united universal church? Wrong!! You’re absolutely wrong. Let me tell you why. If you believe in the infallibility of the bible and the power of the Holy Spirit you have to redefine history accordingly. The bible says “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:1). And when St Paul was faced by divisions in the Church of Corinth he cried out” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”(1 Corinthians 1:13). St Paul did not assign our unity to our effort to unite, but to the Holy Spirit sealing our faith with baptism into one Body of Christ. The lack of unity, therefore, is not due different customs, cultures and irrelevant ritual differences. The bible is very clear; there is only one church; one body of Christ that encompasses all true believers of Christ. We are all invited to believe in this fact, following what St Paul says “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose,” (Phil. 2:2). All these requirements are not through our efforts to unite, but through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
What divides us?
So, where is this one true church? Does this one holy church identify with one particular historical group of Christians? Only in the first four centuries AD when the true church was identified with the Apostolic Church of Orthodox faith. Later through history many denominations tried so hard, with no success, to claim being the one true church, while stigmatizing other denominations as false and fake. For example, my Coptic (Alexandrian) Church’s leaders usually would say that Catholics and Protestants are heretics. Same applies to Catholics pointing fingers at Protestants and Orthodox churches, and Protestants would do the same. What a mess!
Indeed, it is a political mess. All these fake divisions were literally invented after Constantine conversion. By his conversion mixing church and state became the norm. Bishops of local churches of the four big metropolitan cities; Alexandria, Antioch, Rome and Constantinople, were fighting to acquire the Pope title to lead all local churches with authority. And by the fifth century, the church was already divided into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian sects over translational issues from Latin to Greek [i]. Further division between Chaledonians occurred in the Great Schism of 1054 into Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches. Later, the Protestant Reformation happened in the 16th-century, leading to a split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. All these divisions go back to political agendas of certain bishops in the fifth century, who covered their ambitions with religious zeal, while using miscommunications between Latin and Greek theologians. Should we start blaming historical figures for our lack of faith in One Holy Apostolic Church? This would be our biggest mistake.
What unites us?
When we look closer, we see common faith in one savior, Jesus Christ, hidden underneath currents of human-made dogmas. So every Christian, while looking at Christ of history asking for guidance, needs to define the essential dogmas of One Holy Apostolic Church. I won’t be trespassing if I say that the essential dogmas shared by all Christians include: our belief in the existence of one Triune GOD; the full divinity of Jesus Christ our savior; the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Son of GOD, His ascension and His future return to judge all people in the final days; the power of the Holy Spirit that unite us into one Body of Christ through faith in his blood sealed by Baptism and maintained by the Eucharist (communion); the essentiality of scripture in delivering the complete truth of faith [ii]. All these are common between all Christian denominations, sometimes with different interpretations of the meaning but not on their essentiality to define Christianity.
To recognize the hidden one true Church, we need to understand the importance that the body of Christ was not broken on the Cross (John 19:36). Because His body remained intact through death and resurrection, early Church fathers understood this as a sign of one Holy Church represented by one unbroken Body of Christ. The unity of this Body is not maintained by human efforts or good intentions. It is maintained through the ages by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the membership is open to whoever believes in Christ and follow Him as savior and redeemer of all humanity.
Therefore, from each Christian denomination there are true believers and followers of Christ unified in Him (Eph. 4:5). On the contrary, whoever follows after individuals or leaders rather than Jesus, no matter what his denomination is, is by default excluded from this Holy Body. Paul says that Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:12-13). So, apparent political divisions don’t matter anymore. Membership in Christ Body is for faithful individuals not denominations.
Interestingly, sometimes the Holy Spirit uses our divisions to enrich the Christian church with diversity and effectiveness. St Paul explains: “For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). Over the course of history, God used certain denominations to preach the gospel because they were effective at it, others He used to maintain coherence and protect Christianity from outside annihilation, third to keep intact doctrines and suffer martyrdom for the sake of true faith amidst hostiles. It is all part of the diversity of members in one body.
Essentials vs. non-essentials
To keep our spiritual unity, it is important to recognize the non-essential matters like worship styles or different feast days, pre-tribulation rapture vs. post-tribulation rapture, Arminianism vs. Calvinism, etc. We can debate about them and disagree, but whether we believe one or the other, it does not affect our salvation through Christ. Yet many Christians, especially church leaders, use these non-essential differences as justification for hating other denominations being heretics!! When this occurs, our love for God is sacrificed to our pride and vanity. An attitude of humility always helps to bring unity. We should sacrifice our thoughts of “perfect” dogma to accept another brother or sister in Christ. Also further fragmentation and rejection for other denominations does not help our spiritual journey in Christ, while we need to advance the Kingdom of God not fight one another. I do believe that all our differences are due to our ignorance. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known [iii]. Someday, will have our theologies corrected when we stand before the throne of God.
What should we do?
We don’t need to do anything. We only need to look up to Jesus crucified and draw nearer to him. The more we believe in Him and grow in faith, the more we learn to believe in His one True Church; His own unified Body. We will recognize our weakness and ignorance, and understand that we need to accept others so we can get accepted ourselves into His kingdom. The truth is already there, we just need to see it. Pray that the Lord would remove the veil and provide us with enough faith to see His true Church across denominational lines. Then we will see that the One Holy Apostolic Church has never left history, it is manifest in History all along, while our sinful arrogant non-repented hearts couldn’t see it. Pray to see and believe.
[i] Further clarification of this issue will follow in future posts.
[ii] More details will be exposed in future posts.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 13:12