believe in One Church
Ephesians 4:1-6, I Corinthians 12:14-26
I came early to the conviction that God was extremely good to me in my early journey as a Christian. I came to Christ as a 21 year old, and found myself immersed in the community of Christians that called themselves the Free Methodist Church! It was a great place to belong. But within weeks of my conversion a group of us on a Sunday evening decided to go to one of the more popular churches in town, which will remain unnamed. I will remember until my dying day the sermon that was preached that night.
The sermon was entitled, “The Four Foes of True Christianity.” The preacher was energized. He was a pulpiteer of eloquence who spoke with passionate intensity and carried all before him. He named in the four major sections of his sermon the four great foes of the Christian church. He used four “C’s.” They were Communism, Catholicism, Calvinism, and the Charismatic Movement. One after another he declared them to be demonic and the four great evils that were damaging the Church of Jesus Christ.
But God was good. Even as I sat there I sensed a hesitancy rising within me as I listened. I sensed that God was saying to me “be careful.” I left the meeting troubled in my mind. My conversion to Christ had been brought about by people of all sorts of theological backgrounds sharing with me about my need for Christ. I worked for the Westinghouse corporation and on the bus I rode to work each day, my seat mate was a Roman Catholic guy who went to mass every morning on his way to work, and who shared with me about the Love of Jesus. At a nearby desk there was a Pentecostal colleague who continually demonstrated a passion for Christ in his life and words. That may have contributed to my bewilderment with the sermon. But I pondered it in my heart: could it be true?
As the next months and years went by it seemed like God was always placing me in connection with people from traditions quite different than my own. These people loved God, loved the church, were concerned about the world and cared about the very things I cared about. I came early to reject the sermon and in its place there grew a deepening conviction that God has only One Church and all of its parts were equally important and precious to God. Later, when I had read more widely, I discovered that I was not alone in that conviction.
The great church of God never held to the idea that there was more than one church. Though congregations were scattered throughout every geographic region, and could be called the Church in Corinth, or the Church in Ephesus, or the Church in Calgary, they were only seen as extensions of the One True Church into Corinth and into Ephesus and into Calgary. (Like Starbucks: one company with thousands of outlets in various countries, offering one product with a few variations depending upon the region.)
And though Christendom in the early days looked like many churches, in fact it was One church in Christian union connected together by God’s Spirit. Listen to the Apostle Paul. (Ephesians 4:3-6)
“Be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call. One Lord, One faith, One baptism, One God and Father of us all, who is above all, and through all and in all.”
The Dis-unity of the Church
For its first thousand years the church was able to maintain that unity, though it was continually threatened by dis-union. There were centrifugal forces always wanting to divide the church. There was always some who wanted to create a second church and a third, which they invariably defined as the “True Church”. But there was a centripetal force of other influences in the church that worked on drawing these splintering groups of the church back to the center.
One of the interesting issues of the first four centuries of the Church’s history dealt with the definition of a “heretic”. A heretic was not a person who had strange ideas about any particular doctrine. Almost all Christians have some weird ideas (except for you and me! and sometimes I wonder about you.) But we are not heretics. We may simply be unorthodox. But a heretic was anyone who divided the church by saying “Our group is the only true church!” thereby un-Christianizing the rest of the Christian family.
That, by the way, is the mark of difference between a denomination and a cult. All cults claim to be the only true version of the church. Denominations simply hold to certain ideas that mark them as different than the rest of the churches. But they do not claim to be the only church. But be careful here. Some churches consider themselves to be the “best church”, and become unduly sectarian, and become a “sect” if not a cult. To say “best for me” is a modest statement. To say “the best” is arrogant and divisive.
But in the year 1054, one of the most grievous criminal accidents of history happened. It is called “The Great Divorce.” The Church divided itself into two large halves, which refused to have anything to do with the other, each one claiming to be the original church, and calling the other half “heretics.” They pronounced the word “Anathema” on each other – “Let them be cursed!” and so excommunicated each other! It was the great split between what later would be called The Orthodox East and The Catholic West. The unity of the church was sliced down the middle. At this moment the reasons are not important, but the results were that the unity of the church was split and has remained so for the past thousand years. Instead of working together, they went to war with words and swords and the whole church faltered!
But if that were the only such division, perhaps we could live with it, but it was not the end. The Eastern Church went its way and the Western Church went its own way. But the Western Church within another 500 years was facing another great split. This time it was in the 1500’s. There were great concerns over the spiritual health of the church and when men and women arose to move for the reform of the church there was a brittleness in both church leaders and reformers, and instead of reformation taking place, splintering took place. When Martin Luther drove the nail into the Wittenberg door, it split the wood, and the hammer hitting the nail gave off sparks that caused an unstoppable conflagration. The consequence was that the church was fractured into dozens and then hundreds of separate pieces, each one flying off in different and colliding directions.
And before long there were Lutherans, Calvinists, Arminians, Reformed, Mennonites, Anglicans, Moravians, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists and many other minor groupings. In short order Christianity was dis-unified, but not just dis-unified, but at war with one another. Pretty soon the Protestants parties attacked each other over minutia and spent their best energies squabbling among each other over trivialities.
But we did not learn our lesson. The splintering of the family of God kept on. The bad news is that more new denominations have sprung up in this last century than in all the 19 centuries before. There are now well over 35,000 denominations with most of them starting in North America.
When any of us say, “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church” it is said with a great degree of awareness that it might be true in theory, but it certainly is not true in practice. The church is a fractured and factional affair, and often its own worst enemy and the biggest obstacle to the healing of the nations.
Its underlying Unity
But as far as God is concerned, He only has One church. He is not blind to its self-imposed hurt. He has seen the damage done to people and nations by the dividing of the unity. But God is not divided. Jesus is not divided. The Holy Spirit is not divided. Heaven is not divided.
God has always lived with a sinful people and a wounded people, and even when we are in the wrong, God’s love is not withdrawn. “Ichabod” which means “The Glory has departed” has not been written over the door of any part of the church, in spite of our hasty judgments.
Of course, it has been easy for us to declare other churches to be in the wrong, but I am not sure that verdict has been seconded by God. There is a high reluctance in God to divorce any part of His hurting and sinful church.
The Pyramid and the Mosaic
But the question comes to the fore, why do we treat each other in the family of Churches so unkindly? Let me offer you a model of denominations that has been too dominant.
The Pyramid Model. Churches are placed in a hierarchy of value from the most “godly” to the most “defective”. Now we do not officially talk this way, but it emerges every time we think of a friend moving to another city, where they must look for a church to call home. We place our own kind of church at the apex, with descending positions assigned to those we feel less and less kindly about. We end up grading each denomination, usually incorrectly
The Mosaic Model, or the Stained Glass Window model. Just as there are in the local church great diversity of gifts and callings, (I Cor. 12:14-26) so the same diversity exists in the Greater Church of God. Each church and denomination is of a varied texture, varied colour, varied shape. Some pieces are more prominent and some less. Each church is a fragment of the whole, and no fragment is the whole window. No piece is better than or less than another in importance.
But we are not a window. We are not a mosaic. St. Paul tells us that we are a body, and each part of the body has its own gift to give and also its own weakness. Every part has something marvelous to give to the whole body of the church, and every part of the body has a great need, that can only be supplied by the rest of the body.
We cannot take time to speak about the strengths of each denomination, or its weaknesses, but some churches and denominations may be called upon by the Sovereign Lord of The Great Church to arise and contribute something to the whole that has been neglected.
But be careful here! That new body does not exist to criticize the rest of the body, or to stand aloof from the rest of the body. It exists to contribute its strength on behalf of the whole.
- The Salvation Army has a calling to remind the rest of the body about how crucial it is to minister to the welfare of the person through social ministries.
- The Anglicans may have a calling to remind the rest of us of the centrality of Worship.
- The Charismatic churches may have a calling to remind the entire body of the gifts that God gives to his workers.
But then that raises the question about the Church of which I am a member. Why has God raised us up? Is it to be the top dog of some imaginary Pyramid that spends its days singing, “I’m the King of the Castle and you’re the dirty Rascal?”
Oh no! God forbid. Those that stood at the beginnings and at important junctures of the history of a particular movement, felt the Spirit of God moving them to proclaim a message that was being ignored in too much of the church. They had a desire to share their perspective on the Christian message in their communities. It was never intended to be some kind of super-deluxe church that prayed, “O God, we thank you, we are not as other churches are.”
Now why do I share this with us? God has only One church, and we are not it. But thanks be to God, we are part of it. Across this nation and in our cities and towns thousands of churches are involved in ministry. On every occasion let us affirm the rest of the church. Let us pray with thanksgiving and with intercession for the members of God’s greater family. Let us avoid all competition and all one-up-man-ship. Let us participate in all the damage control we can whenever others are prone to divide the body of Christ. If we do, the belief expressed in the song “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord” will be true in the world’s experience as well as truth before God.
The Current good news
I am becoming an optimist on this matter. Some things are happening now that would have been unbelievable years ago.
- In one small town in Alberta: All Saints Anglican, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic, St. Peter’s Lutheran, the Christian & Missionary Alliance and the Baptist church were all using the Alpha program to help people start and grow in their faith.
- Christian bookstores introduce us to a wide buffet of options from across the whole church, and we are enriched.
- Many of us connect regularly to the Internet to Willow Creek, Saddleback & others churches having unusual ministries, from which we want to learn.
- In Christian Colleges and seminaries with faculty and students from various denominations working and studying together for the greater purpose of the Kingdom of God, is a great boon to the next generation of church leaders.
- In every city social agencies are sponsored and supported by dozens of churches across the spectrum.
These are wonderful days to be part of a church that after all of its divisions is learning to be One Church under God.
A Prayer for the Church
O God we pray for your whole church throughout the whole world:
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, teach it.
Where it is superstitious, correct it.
Where it is in the wrong, reform it.
Where it is in need, supply it.
Where it is divided, repair it.
Where it is persecuted, comfort it.
Where it is dying, resurrect it.
Where it is tired, rejuvenate it.
Where it is disheartened, grant it Your courage.
And where the church is healthy, confirm it in all goodness.
And may Jesus Christ be praised. Amen.