In the telling of the story of the birth of different kinds of Christians, very often that story has been framed as a sequence of tragedies of division. “Why are there churches instead of one church? Why be this or that kind of Christian — and not just a Christian?” These are questions I’ve heard countless times from both Christians and non-Christians alike. Among those who believe that the church was once a single institution, the proliferation of varieties of Christians outside of their preferred central church institution is often seen as so many wounds on the body of Christ. But is there another valid way of looking at varieties of Christians and churches that together make up the one church?
When I read scripture, I do not see Jesus founding an institution so much as a fellowship of disciples. Some do see him founding an institution, of course. And there is much historical weight that can be given to their arguments. But there is also a persistent alternate view that appears over the expanse of Christian history. Many of today’s churches were born out of deliberate choices to view the idea of church in other ways. But, even among many of these, there are Christians who lament the fact that the number of varieties of Christians increases from year to year.
The metaphor of the Body of Christ is an important one. Christian scriptures use this metaphor to describe the relationship of Christians to Christ Jesus and to each other. There the specific gifts, contributions, and functions of each of the Christian faithful is seen as part of a harmonious whole in which they function as particular organs in the body. The whole is constituted by right relationship to Christ and to each other — by mutual interdependence wherein every part is essential to the health and life of the body. In this conception of the body, Christ is the head, giving direction and purpose to the life of the whole and all its component parts.
Some Christians believe that the church is the vehicle through which Christ acts as head of the body in this world. In my own conception of this idea, the institution of the church (and here it becomes logically necessary to have only one) serves as a kind of viceroy — or agent — representing the interests of God in Christ Jesus. It is a delegation of responsibility to take care of and feed Christ’s sheep.
In the understanding of the Body of Christ in which the church plays the key role as the earthly representative of Christ in caring for and nurturing the growth of the Christian faithful, it is logical to see how the proliferation of varieties of Christians in church communities is a threat — even a kind of disease. Many faithful Christians hold one or another variation on such a perspective on the Body of Christ and the centrality of a unified church institution. Seen from such a perspective, churches not unified as one single institution are, by definition, clear evidence of the lack of unity among Christians.
But there are other ways of viewing the metaphor of the Body of Christ. One perspective that I believe offers a better way of understanding the virtue of having varieties of Christians is to conceive of the growth of the body on a cellular level (a concept not a part of the thinking of the authors of the Christian scriptures; because knowledge of the microscopic was not available to them during their time). Looked at from the perspective of the cellular growth of a body, we can imagine all of the church unified in it’s originating “cell” — Christ Jesus himself. The vital growth of the body founded by him is represented in the first generation by his disciples during his earthly ministry. Each of those cells has already taken on particularity (evidenced in the personalities of the individuals called to walk on the Way with Jesus). Each successive generation led to further expansions of the number of cells — and with that expansion, the organization of those cells into “organs” with particular, specified functions. In this, the differentiation of communities of Christians, adjusted to meet the contexts and needs of their surrounding societies and environments (including language, culture, and so on), was a healthy growth of the Body of Christ as it met all peoples in all places according to their particular needs. Such growth was not simply geographic. The “specialization” into “organs” also involved adaptation to the needs of different parts of society within the context of the same geographic place. Thus we see specialized communities of Christians who have joined together to address the needs of the poor, of travellers, of migrants, etc. In fact, I think the history of Christianity evidences this pattern of growth.
This understanding of growth need not exclude the possibility of the church being institutionally unified; and the development of monastic communities and mendicant orders within Roman Catholic Christianity demonstrates this. But a unified institution of church is not necessary either; as evidenced by a multitude of churches that have developed in the wake of the Reformations Era. My own United Methodist traditions are an example of Christian movements with origins in the 18th century (with historical ties to earlier movements as well) that, in the early years — and in some places up to the present — served specialized functions in ministry to the poor, to migrants, and to many of the people affected by the economic and social changes of industrialization.
When we think of the unity of Christians — and of the problem of disunity — what is the real problem? For many, and for a very long time, the problem has been portrayed as one of the multiplicity of denominations (church institutions) and the lack of a centralized teaching authority that applies to all of the Christian faithful. In my own mind, this lament draws me to imagine a great edifice of stone that has broken apart and which is crumbling all the more with time.
But what if the focus has been put somewhere other than it should be — what if the church as institution does not play the role of intermediary between God and God’s world? What if Christ remains the head of the church universal in his own stead? This is, of course, a typical “Protestant” sort of question. But it is one that, I think, it is wise for us to consider again as we face the present moment and what we mean now when we speak of “Christian unity.”
How we view the proliferations of varieties of Christians will be seen in a different light if we answer the question of whether or not a church institution stands in as an intermediary for Christ in the world. If an institution is needed to represent the head of the body, then that will place the choice for where particularity and specialization will be permitted squarely in the hands of men and women who govern that institution. If, however, one believes that Christ needs no intermediary and that God’s Spirit moves with freedom beyond the bounds of an existing church institution or institutions, there is a challenge of trust and faith that needs to be acknowledged.
I, myself, hold to the view that Jesus does not govern his church through intermediaries. For me, unity is in Christ directly and the task before us is to build active and positive relationships among the many varieties of Christians that God calls into being. The church is a community of churches — gatherings of the faithful into various configurations of community (organs, if we refocus our attention upon that metaphor of the Body of Christ).
There is disunity in the church today — as there has been, perhaps, all along. As the body is in constant need of maintenance through attention to food, drink, exercise, rest, and healing from wounds and diseases, so it is for the Body of Christ. No generation will live in a time without challenges and without the need for care. The real symptoms of disunity are seen in our inadequate living out of the life modeled by Jesus himself: the care of the poor; the proclaiming of an open invitation to life and life more abundant, and; the healing of the sick. This Christian life is diseased to the point of making the church an invalid when we cannot love one another as Christ first loves us.
If the body is viewed within the frame of cellular growth, there are many things to observe when we consider how such a body needs care. One of these is the realization that cells die and are renewed by new cells. Much energy at many levels of the church is spent on trying to deny that these cells (congregations — even denominations) have a life cycle and they participate in eternal life by finding themselves renewed in Christ by new manifestations of relevant ministries. Also, there is a constant need for communication among the parts of the body. Coming together to confer with one another, engaging in conversation (and even debate), is essential to the practice of unity among Christians. It is in such conversations that the universality of the church is maintained alongside its particularity. The cultivation of right teaching of the living doctrines of God grows out of the discernment achieved in fellowship with one another as Christians. The Body of Christ is not divided by disputes — but it is divided by our turning our backs upon one another.
Looking at the Body of Christ through the eyes of cellular growth, there is another thing about which we must be aware — the issues of cancer in the body. When cells become cut off from the design of the Designer and begin to take on a shape and character that does not keep a harmonious relationship with the body of which it is a part, it becomes cancerous. Cancer is a normal part of life for a living organism. It is a normal part of life for the Body of Christ as well. Often times in our own bodies, tendencies towards cancer are dealt with by the organizing functions of the body such that we are barely — if ever — aware of the potential disease. One way our body works to keep cancers from going beyond potentialities into full manifestation is by maintaining good practices of health. We exercise. We eat good food. We drink clean water. We alleviate stress. So it is with the Body of Christ through a variety of analogous activities. And, just as it is with the human body, these practices of good health are far better ways of dealing with the potentials for disease than anything that might be done to deal with the disease once it is manifest.
One of the worst things Christians do is decide not to be in fellowship with those with whom they disagree. Just as Jesus laid hands upon the sick and healed them with his touch, so we need to embrace one another and heal one another with love. We are here to bind up the wounds of the world — including those Christians have as well — so God can heal us all. Not one of us in this Body of Christ can say “I have no need of you.” And not one of us in this Body of Christ can afford to be so arrogant as to say “I will not be together with you until you become as I am.”
If the Body of Christ is healthy, it will become more varied in its organs — not less. It will have more differences — not fewer. The most important question is, “Will we, or will we not, accept one another as members of the body?” The Body of Christ whose head is Christ Jesus.