A Proposal on How to Unify the Church




Jesus prayed that the church might be one (Jn 17). But the church is not one. There is so much division and factionalism it is ridiculous. Chrstians should pursue and promote unity because Jesus said to. But there is another reason I think unity is important. When the Pope speaks, he is always surrounded by reporters and cameras. If he issues a statement on doctrine, people take note. If he speaks against an atrocity, it carries weight. Why is this? Because he is speaking for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. No other Christian voice even comes close in terms of representing large numbers of Christians. If the church wants a prophetic voice to the world, she has to have a voice. But right now, it is more like listening to a 1000 radios all tuned to different channels.
How do we get them all tuned to the same channel?

The three largest denominations of the Christian church are (in order of size): Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism (note: Oriental Orthodoxy does not adhere to the three central creeds so I will omit them here). Then there are the smallest denominations which can be incredibly small (sometimes to a few churches of less than a hundred people). Why are some denominations able to maintain large size and others not? I think that there are a couple of factors. First, the larger denominations have part of their ethos being a commitment to unity. Both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions believe that they are the “one true church” and therefore part of leaving would require leaving the one true church (or considering your own movement all that is left of the one true church). But another factor that is common among the largest denominations is a good system for accommodating reformers and sectarians within their ranks. We all remember Luther and the Protestant Reformation and therefore might think of the Catholic Church as not being open to criticism or reform but, in fact, there have been many many examples of reformers that have arisen within Catholicism that have been embraced. Many of the monastic orders were actually originally reform movements.  St. Francis of Assisi was in many ways Luther-esque and was challenging to the existing structure of the church. So the church said, ‘thank you,’ here is a monastical order and then the Franciscans had an outlet where they could live out their Christian faith in a way that was consistent with their conscience. This happened over and over with every reform movement either being embraced generally or given an order to live out their reforms in their own communities. Had the church been on its game when Luther expressed concern about the way indulgences were being sold in the 16th century, the church would have ignored him, thanked him for his ideas, or given him a monastical order. The Reforms he proposed would have been embraced by those who agreed and rejected by those that did not and everything would have gone on as it did. Unfortunately for the unity of the church, they did none of the above. They freaked out over Luther’s (very reasonable 95 Thesis), excommunicated him, and then had a Ecumenical Council (excluding the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Protestants) to declare everything Luther (and the other other Reformers) were teaching. This uncharacteristic response caused schism and broke the church of the West in two. 
But it was an uncharacteristic response.  In recent history, the church has allowed an Eastern Rite (allowing essentially Eastern Orthodox sentiments to be lived out under the communion of Rome), an Anglican rite (allowing essentially Anglican sentiments to be lived out under the communion of Rome) and Latin rite (allowing essentially pre-Vatican II sentiments to be lived out under the communion of Rome). These concessions, orders, and rites have allowed them to maintain their amazing size (half of Christendom).

I am part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). We are a break off from the liberal Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS) that later joined with the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA). The PCA was started primarily because the PCUS/PCUSA made it impossible for conservatives to stay in communion. It is one thing to allow member churches to do liberal crap, it is another thing to force the liberalism on others. As Bob Hope said in the 1970s, “California just legalized sodomy. I gotta get out of here before they make it mandatory.”  Most denominations make the mistake of forcing too much conformance from member churches.  As a result the Protestant denominations end up operating like Catholic rites and orders. The Protestant Church has a Methodist rite, a Presbyterian rite, a Baptist rite, and Charismatic rite. Only we don’t because we don’t allow rites. We split and have no ecclesiastical unity at all.

With the exception of Anglicans. Anglicans are the one Protestant group that appears to have the hang of allowing differences. The Anglican communion has very conservative churches and liberal ones. It has Reformed churches and Arminian churches. It has charismatic churches and non-charismatic churches. And as a result, the Anglican Communion is many times larger than the next Protestant denomination.

To be an identifiable group, you need to have sociological boundary markers. You have to have something that describes those that are in and those that are out. What are those boundary markers? In the Roman Catholic church, the primary boundary markers are the creeds, submission to the Ecumenical councils, and, most importantly, submission to papal authority. You can do almost anything in the catholic church (there are liberals, conservatives, Thomists, Molinists, evolutionists and creationists) but you have to at least give lip service to the pope, the creeds, and the councils. In the Orthodox church, the boundary markers are the Seven Eccumenical Councils, the Bishops, and the Creeds. The Anglican Church is starting to get harder to identify. Historically, they had the 39 Articles, the Bishops, and the Scriptures. But the 39 Articles have lost any significance for much of the communion, the bishops are excommunicating each other, and the scriptures are ignored by the significant liberal school of thought in the communion.  As a result they are fraying at the seams and divisions are growing.

So, what is the solution to ecclesiastical unity? The answer is not zero standards (witness Anglicanism’s recent problems or liberal denominations like Methodism). The answer is not unyielding strict standards (witness the micro denominations of the Baptists). The answer is a loose set of standards that bind a denomination together with a shared identity and then orders and rites within that broad set of standards that might be very strict indeed.

So… how might the church regain visible unity? What if all Christians considered themselves rites in the same church with the following unyielding standards: 

1) The scriptures (Old and New Testaments)
2) The three historic creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian)
3) And two sacraments (Lord’s super and Trinitarian baptism)

This standard would have the following strengths: The scriptures would provide a foundation for truth. The creeds define who God is and ensures that those affirming it have faith in the One True God. And the sacraments are a visible sign (a mark) that God puts on his people.

We could all then agree that every church that affirms these three markers is part of the visible church. 

We could debate from there and have separate rites (Methodist, Presbyterian, etc) but we would all acknowledge our unity in the one true church. And that unity would be expressed via the sacraments. No closed communion to those who are members of a church that affirms these three standards. A Roman Catholic’s baptism should be accepted by a Presbyterian. An Orthodox Church should allow a Methodist to take communion. 
Each rite could then send a certain number of representatives to councils to discuss other ways that the church can act as one. How the church can speak to the world as one. How our many channels can be slowly tuned toward truth. And then how that truth can be turned up so that the world can hear.  

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