Has unity in God’s love fallen apart? Is the Christian church something that once was whole and now is broken? Were we once one with God, one with each other, and one with all creation — and now that is not so? Is the effort to be perfected in the unity of God’s love simply a project of putting something back together?
How we frame the story of our lives makes a tremendous difference in terms of the choices we will make to live into that understanding. Underneath the most basic explanation of who we are and how we came to be this way are many assumptions that have power over lives and aspects of lives. Our starting point and our ending point are connected by a line made up of choices that move us from one to the other. If, as children of God, the whole of our being is sacred because it is integral to who we are, then our understanding of both our origin and our destination are critical to how we will connect everything in between.
One of the oft-repeated claims of many in the present-day ecumenical movement is that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church broke apart at key moments in history. Most accounts place their focus upon the split between the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Roman Catholic) churches. The date most commonly found in history books for this schism is 1054 (although the consensus among historians on this point on the timeline is less solid than it was for a long time; some arguing that the split occurred over a long number of years, with 1054 simply having been the low-point in the sequence of unhappiness). The second major date on the calendar of Christian disunity is 1517. This is the year that Martin Luther made his ninety-five theses known to the church and academic community of Wittenberg, Germany (setting in motion a series of revolts against the Bishops of Rome — popes — that led to the second great schism of the church). Neither of these divisions has, so goes the rendering of this version of history, been healed.1
In central and western Europe, and in the many parts of the world affected by people from these regions (including the Americas, parts of Africa, Asia, and Australia), the portrayal of the history of the church is one of a once-whole church being broken into many (as yet unreconciled) parts.
This idea is a powerful one: The church, once whole, now broken, and needing to be reassembled.
The justification given for this understanding comes from that line in the creed, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Each word has been assigned, by some, a meaning that underscores the need to put the church back together again. “One” seems obvious, doesn’t it? One church. Yes. “Holy” (a word related to the word “whole”) means, among other things, pure and untainted by sin. Is not division among Christians a sin? “Catholic” (meaning “universal”) makes clear that it is everywhere; not a religion for one place or another. And, “apostolic” indicates the connection with the apostles — a direct line of connection between the then of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the now of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
For many Christians, the meaning of these words is not debatable. They point to one Jesus, twelve apostles, a church that rose up during the apostolic mission of the Twelve following the ascension of Christ, and the growth of the church under their teaching. It is a story of geographic and popular expansion in which every component of the church is integrated into a growing whole. To be a part of that church means to be in connection with those who followed the apostles as the overseers of the Christian community — the bishops. And to know that you are connected to the apostles, a line of relationship needs to be traceable from the present day back to the commissioning of the apostles by Jesus himself. For some, this means an unbroken line of laying on of hands; for others, the physicality of the transmission of authority is less important.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians hold strongly to some version of this understanding of how the church was born, how it grew, and how it has suffered under the impact of divisions and separations. Many traditions that have close historical ties to these two major forms of Christianity feel and believe similarly. Many of the churches that came into separate existence during the Reformations Era (beginning in the 16th century) also affirm the notion that there was once a single, unified church and that it broke apart. The task of those interested in Christian unity is to work against the human pride and divergence from God’s plan in order to pull down barriers to the full restoration (or realization again) of the unity that began on the Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus.2
Even though this was the version of the history of Christianity that I was also taught, it never set well with me. It left too many things out. And it seemed to gloss over challenges to the neat application of the words, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” I could, however, seemingly ignore the difficulties — since they did not appear to have real impact upon my daily life. Later, as I grew as a disciple of Jesus, and as my knowledge increased, I found it harder to ignore the problems with this frame upon the history of the Christians and the church to which we belong, though.
There are the things that are left out — the parts of the church in Africa and Asia that never really saw Rome, or one of the great patriarchs of the Orthodox church, as the source of religious authority to which they had to defer. Some of these churches, as in Ethiopia and China, have roots that run almost as deep in history as do those of the Middle East and Mediterranean. These non-Roman Catholic, non-Eastern Orthodox, churches are hard to connect to the “authority” by means of anything but the faintest pencil lines on a chart.
One of the biggest problems in the “put it back together” model of pursuing Christian unity is that assumption, in fact — that a line of authority needs to have been present (and maintained) in order to have been part of the true church. This means that we find ourselves drawn back not only to being able to prove that a church was founded by someone in the direct line of the apostles — but also that some measure of living relationship was had and maintained with church hierarchs (the Roman pontiff or an Eastern Orthodox patriarch). This assumption is important to many because it is, in a sense, a guarantee of right understandings of doctrine (the aforementioned authorities being present to make sure the church does not go astray).
In this view, a simple appeal to the workings of the Holy Spirit is not enough. Many post-Reformations churches (along with many members — though not the institution itself — of The United Methodist Church) claim that there need not be an institutional link with previous Christian churches in order to “be church” in their own right. The anointing of the Holy Spirit is enough to authorize a ministry, a church, or a denomination. Indeed, this hyper-reliance upon the authority of the Spirit of God has been cited by many in other parts of the church as a chaotic and disunifying force within Christianity of the past and present.
The rise of Pentecostal-style churches (from the late 19th century to the present) has coincided with a proliferation of more independent churches and denominations than at any time in the history of Christianity. The birth of these churches is said by some to be authorized by the workings of the Spirit. The resulting expansion of expressions of Christianity is seen by many others as a further fracturing (if not crumbling) of the church.
One’s understanding of the Holy Spirit and how it is operative in the world and in the church largely determines how one sees questions of unity among Christians. Those who are part of traditions belonging to (or strongly related to) the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox families of Christians often see a partnership between God in the Holy Spirit and God’s church. The church is essentially the “vessel” of the Holy Spirit in the world. The Spirit enlivens and gives shape to the church; and the church, in turn, shapes the life and growth of Christians throughout the world. Since God chooses to reside largely within the church, proper connection with God needs to be enacted through proper connection with the church. By contrast, however, those who see the Holy Spirit as moving in the world as it pleases — not “confined” to an institution made up of humans — see true Christian authority as residing in the vitality of one’s relationship with the Spirit of God. To claim history, tradition, and connection to specific persons of the past (except for Jesus, of course) is no claim of authority at all. What is important is how one is in relationship with God at this present moment.
There is an assumption in the “putting-it-back-together” conception of ecumenism that all of the development of religious traditions outside of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is at least suspect (if not a clear and visible wound on the body of Christ). In that light, Methodist Christianity is a mistake, Pentecostal Christianity is a mistake, the storefront church on the street corner is a mistake, and the so-called mega-church is a mistake. These communities of Christians each multiply the number of divisions. They compound the problem of a broken church.
In order to put it all back together again, Christians need to be ready to cast away any aspect of particularity, any historical memory, and any theological insight that diverges from, or prevents a return to, the original wholeness of the one church. That means, among other things, the acceptance of forms of church government and doctrines that negate subsequent understandings of how Christians should live together and with the world.
The putting-it-back-together again approach to Christian unity looks very much like a rolling back of history. And one of the things that needs to be noticed is that not all of us had a place in the historical reality into which we are being invited to “return.” The post-Reformations Wesleyan Methodist traditions (United Methodists included) have no place to which to return. The Pentecostals have no place to which to return. African Initiated Churches have no place to which to return. The list of Christians who are being asked to return to an identity they never shared goes on.
If the project of putting it back together is the way we should understand efforts at Christian unity, if the story is of one church broken to pieces, there are also some uncomfortable theological questions raised by this. One of these is, if God is one and is Lord of all creation and the church, how could humans (even humans under the oppression of slavery to sin and death) break apart what God wills should be one? If humans are objects of God’s will who need to conform to that will, how have we been able to do so much to destroy the unity and integrity of God’s Christian community?
What if this basic conception of Christian unity is not correct — or at least not the whole of the story about wholeness? When so much is being asked of Christians to be one in the love of God, isn’t it important to ask the questions about what is being asked and why?
I am suspicious of the claims that there ever was such an institutionally unified church. Indeed, when I look at the history of Christianity, it seems to me that the first big cracks in the unity of the love of Christians comes when some try to impose their control over another — when some claim to be appointed rulers over Christians (rather than to act as servants). I see this mark of division in nearly every Christian community (including in the present moment); with some claiming the right to coerce “obedience” from others — because they say so.
When we look at the earthly ministry of Jesus, he leads a quarrelsome bunch of followers who struggle with one another. He does not squelch their bickering or their jockeying for position. Instead, he teaches, he challenges with love, and — yes — he trusts that, in time, they will grow. It is about education, not domination. Unity is something into which Christians grow, not something that is the outgrowth of submission.
Rather than putting it (the church) back together, I think the real task before us is to come together in the life of love to which Jesus calls all Christians. We need to come closer together to talk, to quarrel, to struggle and to grow. We are the church on the Way together with Jesus.
1For an overview of the history of Christianity, please see Alister E. McGrath, Christianity: An Introduction (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2015).
2For an overview of ecumenical history from this perspective, please see Thomas E Fitzgerald, The Ecumenical Movement: An Introductory History, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).