By Pete Coker
One of the more perplexing aspects of Christianity is the command to “love one another” and the seemingly divided nature of the body of Christ. Jesus said the greatest commandment is also the first commandment; “to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” He then continues to say the second command is like the first; “to love thy neighbor as thyself.” A quick look at the landscape of Christendom often times reveals a far different picture than what one may envision as a loving body in harmony with the Spirit of God.
The Apostle Paul tells us in the book of Ephesians to “walk in a manner
worthy of the calling…to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, (and) one God and Father of all,” (Eph.4:3-6). Psalm 133:1 says; “behold how good and how pleasant it is when the brothers dwell in unity.” Ephesians 4: 25 says; “we are members one of another.” In Romans 12: 4 we read; “as in one body we have many members, and the
members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (ESV).
These verses and many others speak of a unity in the body as an expression of the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit. This applies to individual believers, the local church, and the body of Christ in general. It is the body of Christ within Protestantism, though, that appears to have the greatest difficulty in achieving a spirit of overall unity. In other words, there often appears to be forms of religious or sectarian bigotry within the body. To illustrate, I’ll refer to the Buddhist parable of “The Blind men and the Elephant:”
“Once, it is said, a king in northern India had all the blind people in the city brought together in one place. Then he had an elephant led out in front of them all. Some of them he allowed to feel its head, saying: That is what an elephant is like. Others were allowed to feel the ear, or the tusk, the trunk, the hindquarters, the hair on the tip of the tail. Next, the king asked them one by one, what is an elephant like? And according to what part they felt, they answered: It is like a woven basket…It is like a pot…It is like a plow-handle… It is like a storeroom… It is like a pillar… It is like a mortar… It is like a broom. And then, so the parable says, they began to quarrel, and, crying “an elephant is like —,” and they fell upon one another and struck each other with their fists, to the great delight of the king.” *
In certain respects this seems to reflect the attitude among different denominations within Protestantism and among many individual believers as well. Although non-essential differences are understandable, they can become divisive, or at least appear as divisions. Some denominations and independent churches often act as though they are the only true believers. Each assumes their idea of Christian expression is more spiritual than the others. Each believe their motives, style of worship, and beliefs are more in line with true biblical Christianity than anybody elses. This is not a new phenomenon, but in reality, is the history of the Church; Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox.
For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Appollos,” are you not being merely human? (I Corinthians 3: 3-4) ESV.
The early years of Protestantism were marked with violence among certain sectarian protestant groups as well as with Catholics. This eventually culminated in the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics that lasted from 1618–1648. The Thirty Years War ended with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) whose terms of peace recognized Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Catholicism as legitimate expressions of the Christian faith. Thus, the idea and need for religious tolerance was recognized and implemented. In this same period, religious tolerance was advanced further by the idea of denominational theory, proposed by the Independents (Congregationalists) at the Westminster Assembly (1642–1649).
Denominational theory was advanced as a way to preserve Christian unity, within Protestantism, even though there were divisions in expressions of faith. Denominationalism was originally designed to be the opposite of sectarianism. Sectarianism is by definition exclusive and a sect believes it is the one true body of Christ. A “denomination” by contrast was intended to be inclusive. A denomination was the name of a particular Christian group that was a member of a larger group, the church. All denominations belong to “the church” and no denomination claims to be “the sole representative” of the whole body of Christ. Although diversity in outward expressions of faith was allowed, a shared common understanding of core Christian beliefs was expected as an inward religious experience.
In this same era, beginning in the early 1600’s, the colonization of North America also helped advance the idea of religious tolerance. Those weary of, and wanting to flee European strife and war, saw an opportunity to make a new start in the North American colonies. The diverse denominational colonization of such groups as: the Puritans in New England and Boston, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, Dutch Reformed in New York, Pilgrims in Massachusetts, Anglicans in Virginia, and others such as; Methodists, Swedish Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterians, French Huguenots (Calvinists), Congregationalists, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Moravians, Jewish settlers in New York and Rhode Island, and more, all contributed to the idea of denominational theory in the American colonies. It would be misleading to say this was completely harmonious, but, it was certainly a quantum leap for religious tolerance, from the earlier years of war and strife in Europe.
Later, in the American colonies, the Great Awakening (1730-1760) sparked spiritual revival in churches and launched the evangelical movement. The independence of denominations and the spiritual revival of the Great Awakening soon led to the idea of American independence. Christians of differing denominations had become united in the idea of breaking-away from Great Britain’s control. American colonists of different denominations, united in Christ, developed the vision and courage to break away from Great Britain’s control, the strongest nation on earth at that time. By being united against the oppressions of Great Britain, colonists achieved a great degree of unity and overall community in Christ.
The 1800’s saw Christian tolerance and unity take another step forward with the combined missionary efforts of denominations to other countries. Different denominations, first in England and then in America, allied and formed coalition missionary societies to evangelize foreign countries. In England, it was The London Missionary Society which formed in 1795. In America, the first foreign missionary society was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The American, Rufus Anderson wrote in 1834: “It was not until the present century that the evangelical churches of Christendom were ever really organized with a view to the conversion of the world.” The denominations within these societies agreed to preach a basic gospel message so as not to confuse those to whom they were delivering the message.
“I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you
agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement… what I mean is that each one of you says, I follow Paul, or I follow Appollos, or I follow Cephas, or I follow Christ, is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:10, 12). ESV.
The denominational differences that make up protestantism’s unique diversity in the body of Christ, has, over the years, often lost the spirit of unity which denominational theory had originally been intended. The Apostolic Creed States, “I believe in the communion of the saints,” and as history shows, the body of Christ can be extremely influential and future oriented when it is united in some sphere or capacity. The union of all saints as a universal Christian community is divinely ordained. Believers are united by the same indwelling spirit. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that divisions and disunity are the result of immaturity in the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:15 says; “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” ESV.
One of our goals as a body of believers can be to look for ways to unite and link together the body of Christ. Individually, just being mindful of the idea of overall unity can go a long way. Reaching out to other denominations and finding areas where we can support common interests in the faith, would also help maintain a spirit of unity. While contending for truth and expressions of worship and faith, we can also contend for unity in the body of Christ.
* Parable of the Blind Man and the Elephant is from “Truth and Tolerance,” Christian Belief and World Religions, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004. Pg. 162.