A few years ago I asked a group of pastors a series of questions that I imagined would be difficult for them to answer. I asked them to imagine counseling a married couple, who told them that early on in their marriage they fought often, and they noticed that it was usually late at night when they were lying in bed that they argued most frequently. In response, the couple decided to sleep in separate bedrooms, and eventually live in separate houses. When they did spend time together they chose to not talk about topics they knew would lead to disagreements, things like politics and religion. Then I asked that group of pastors if they would describe the couple’s marriage as “healthy.” Every single one of them said it was not. Finally, I asked them to consider this hypothetical marriage as a potential metaphor for the Protestant church. Over the years hundreds of denominations choosing to “live in separate houses” and when they do interact with each other choosing not to discuss the topics they know will lead to disagreement. This series of questions led me to ask myself, when does a marriage cease to be a marriage, and when does a church cease to be the church?
In his book The End of Protestantism Peter Leithart has, in my opinion, accurately described the underlying issues within Protestantism that have led many Protestant leaders to believe in a “Protestant Catholicity” that does not seem to exist. He challenges Protestants to embrace a vision of the church that will lead to a more genuine catholicity. What I take him to mean by catholicity is an abstract quality within the Catholic and Orthodox churches that allow them to maintain a high level of global institutional unity, which stands in stark contrast to the fractured ecclesiology of Protestantism. To use the marriage metaphor again the Catholic church has adopted an authoritarian form of doctrinal uniformity, similar to a relationship where one partner or the other settles most, if not all of the disagreements. The Orthodox church on the other hand acknowledges the fact that there are many decisions they can’t make while they continue to be divided from the Roman church; so they’ve learned to live with a high level of internal disagreement regarding controversial doctrines.
I believe the Orthodox churches choice to not make certain decisions while being separated from Rome shows a genuine commitment to the intrinsic value of unity. What I mean by “intrinsic value” is that unity, in and of itself, is a doctrine of the utmost importance. A doctrine which is essential to the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the Church. Often times people claim that they are not willing to sacrifice “truth” for unity, but what they don’t realize is that when you divide the church based on a doctrine that is not as important as unity, then you’re actually sacrificing truth when you claim to be taking a stand for it. When Protestant churches lose sight of this you see churches splitting over trivial issues. The only doctrines that the church has historically declared to be worth dividing over, are the nature of Christ and the nature of the Trinity. I truly agree with Athanasius statement that, “that He (Christ) neither endured the death of John, who was beheaded, nor was He sawn asunder, like Isaiah: even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”
In his book Brutal Unity Ephraim Radner describes the churches adoption of what he calls an “Epiphanian Paradigm.” Epiphanius was a bishop in the fourth century who compiled a detailed list of the known heresies of his time, but he was also known for becoming overly zealous in his condemnations. Radner suggests that Christian groups often develop a hatred toward other Chrstian groups because they view their refusal to see Jesus in the same way they do as a rejection of “their Jesus,” and they use this to justify hatred and violence towards those groups. This hatred and violence can often times mimic the violence that has been carried out against the Jews throughout history for rejecting Jesus. By Radner’s paradigm much of the supposed “unity” that exists in the Protestant church is really a shared rejection of Roman Catholicism. As a whole I agree with Leithart and Radner in their desire for the Protestant church to repent of our past sins, and adopt a renewed commitment to the work of reconciliation between Protestant denominations, and eventually restore proper relationships with our Catholic and Orthodox siblings.
The painting at the top of this post is titled “Unity in Diversity” by Michael Bauzon