This papercut by Chinese artist Fan Pu makes me smile: Jesus strolling along cheerfully, wrapped in a cloak made up of Christian faithfuls of all colors. The artist said that when she created it, she had in mind the joyful uniting of the church with Christ when he returns: “When is Jesus full of joy? I believe it is only through the completing of the Church on Earth, when we become the bride of Christ, and Christ the joyous groom comes to receive the bride.” Isaiah 62:5 says, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” To me, this artwork doesn’t so much conjure up the image of Christ as bridegroom as it does the image of Christ as head of the church body. What makes Jesus happy? The unity of all people under his headship.
Paul says that the ultimate will, pleasure, and purpose of God is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Jesus echoes this same desire in John 17:20-23, when he prays “for those who will believe in me through their [the disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. … I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” The gospel message isn’t meant to tear apart; it is meant to bring together. Jesus died on the cross so that we could all be made one with God and with each other. So then why is Christian history filled with so much divisiveness? Why is it defined mostly by its schisms and breaks (called either “heresies” or “reforms,” depending on which side of the line you’re standing)?
These two charts from Wikipedia are just one of many possible ways to illustrate the various divisions (and subdivisions, and sub-subdivisions) of the Christian church. Depending on who you ask, there are three to nine main branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.), and then growing out from each of those branches are yet more branches, and then different twigs and buds grow from those branches. Beyond that, some people also insist on making even further distinctions by wing (conservative, mainline, liberal) and theological belief system (Calvinism, Arminianism, Dominionism, etc.). My question is: With so much variation, are we all still growing from the same root (namely, Jesus Christ)?
The official Seal of the United States reads E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”); Christianity might well adopt the opposite as its dictum—Out of one, many (Ex uno plures?). We’re heading in the opposite direction, guys—farther apart instead of closer together. And that’s not a good thing.
I’m all for diversity, as I hope this blog demonstrates. So when I say that all Christians should walk in unity, I’m not talking about uniformity—those are two entirely different things. It’s OK to disagree on minor theological points and to have varying styles of worship and such. Nor am I saying that the church has to be this static entity, locked in tradition and brooking no argument. Not only is it OK, it is vital that we continue to innovate and to challenge and to respond in a relevant way to the culture as it changes. But we must be united in the God we worship and the message we preach. How do we do that? By committing ourselves to attaining “the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13), who is indivisibly one. The more we see and learn of and embody the true nature of Christ, the more united we will become.
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. … From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:3-5, 16)
The human body has many parts, each with different functions but operating together as a singular organism, connected in an intricate and interdependent way. Similarly, every church in the world should play a functional role in the growing and building up of the universal body of believers, and this is the clincher: all parts working together under the headship of Jesus Christ. The church today seems sick and dysfunctional because we’re not sending signals to the same brain. That is, we have different ideas about who Jesus is, and that’s dangerous. I’m not talking about what color his hair was or whether he would approve of rock music; I’m talking about what his central message was, what he taught about salvation, and whether he really was the Son of God or no. Sadly, not all who sit under the umbrella term “Christian” agree on these points, and that keeps us from living in unity. Most of the disagreements arise from different interpretations of the same Scriptures (though some denominations ascribe like authority to other texts, or believe in ongoing revelation). So whose interpretation is right? Well, it’s hard to know, and perhaps we will never know until we stand before God. But we at least ought to dialogue productively with each other as we try to figure it all out, instead of drawing more lines and writing more labels. You may think that the universal unity of all Christians is an impossible ideal and a naïve one, but it’s not, because it was God’s intention from the beginning, and he will accomplish it in the end.
Notice how Paul says that we should strive to “keep” the unity rather than create it. That’s because the unity already exists; the church need only preserve it. All Christians are sealed, possessed, and indwelt by the same Spirit and look forward to the same hope. We worship the same Lord, with one faith. When we condemn other denominations and sects to hell and see our own as the only “right” one, the only one carrying on the true legacy of Christianity, we sadden and shame Jesus deeply. When Protestants dismiss Catholics as “not real Christians,” it’s like cutting off an arm of the body. And when Catholics say that Protestants don’t belong to the true church, they’re cutting off a leg.
I do realize, like I said before, that some of the divisions are there because of major doctrinal differences; this is a real problem, because how can we work for a common cause if we can’t even agree what that cause is? Other divisions exist to establish different governing structures, which is a practical concern and fine, I suppose. But a lot of things that divide Christians today, I feel, are simply a petty matter of semantics—for example, what does it matter if when a married couple first presents their newborn baby to God and publicly commits to rearing him or her under his teachings, it is called baptism or dedication? (In one, the pastor rubs water on the baby’s forehead; in the other, he does not. So what?) Or does it really matter whether I believe that the physical presence of Christ resides in the Eucharist, or only his spiritual presence? Many of these issues are, in my opinion, peripheral to the real issue at hand, which is how we can best glorify God, embody his love, and expand his kingdom. Before we can do any of that, though, we must first know Christ; that’s what all Christians should be trying to do, and most are. Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptist—doesn’t matter. We’re all just trying to grow in our knowledge of Jesus and to figure out what it means to live under his headship.
God, please grant us grace and understanding as we strive to know you more fully and share your message with others. And please grant us the strength and humility to come together in this endeavor instead of cutting ourselves off from those who interpret your Word differently than we do. Remind us once again of the common purpose to which you called us all. Help us to be the body that you died for—united with you, in you, and working together in love.