God has always had a single nation to call His own. Originally, that nation was Israel; but now the Gentiles have been brought in. “He has made the two groups one…” (Ephesians 2:14-16) He has not two people but one: one flock (John 10:16) and one olive tree (Romans 11:13-18).
“I pray… that all of them may be one” (John 17:20-23)
To Jesus, the unity of his Church was obviously very important – a demonstration to the world of the love of God – and yet our modern experience is that the Church is very far from united. Churches belonging to different denominations regard each other with mutual distrust, squabbles within the Anglican community are regularly reported in the media, and even individual congregations can be split into groups and factions that fight with one another. This latter problem was evident even in the first century! (I Corinthians 1:10-13)
Over the centuries, divisions have developed within the Church for a variety of reasons: doctrinal disagreements, personal rivalries, ethnic and cultural differences, alternative styles of worship and patterns of church government. Doctrinal splits occurred as early as the fifth century (when the Nestorian churches were expelled after the Council of Chalcedon). The first major schism happened in 1054 when the Eastern (Orthodox) churches separated from the Western (Roman Catholic) church. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century mean that the Church as a whole now has five distinct major strands (and, of course, many more smaller subdivisions).
The fragmentation of the Church is one of those realities that we have to live with – and we should not assume that it is contrary to God’s will. It was God who caused the kingdom of Israel to split in two after the death of Solomon, because of Solomon’s idolatry and pride (I Kings 11:29-39). In some ways a multi-denominational Church may even be a blessing in disguise: not only would a single monolithic (and now global) organisation be unwieldy to manage, but its leaders would have far too much power for their own (or the Church’s) good. If a single church were infected with false doctrine, that could be fatal; but with many different churches, only one at a time can be corrupted.
Denominations are not all bad; they can be a practical and helpful way of organising churches. But they must not be confused with THE Church. One helpful illustration is that of a tree: the twigs and leaves on one side of a large tree may seem to have little to do with those on the other side – yet they are all joined to the same trunk, and draw their life from the same root.
Unity and uniformity (Romans 14:1-6)
Although the nation of Israel were one people, within that nation there were twelve distinct tribes. They had much in common: a single ancestor (Jacob), a common language, the same covenant sign (circumcision), a shared history of deliverance (at the Passover) and one law governing their daily life and worship. And yet as time went on, especially after they were settled in different parts of the country, the various tribes inevitably developed different dialects and traditions.
Whether this was a good or bad thing depended not on the differences themselves, but on what they did with them. They could choose to act together, or to try to deal with their problems independently. When united, they could defend their borders against foreign invasion; but the book of Judges reveals that much of the time they were more concerned with furthering their own interests, or even fighting amongst themselves. And during the times of mutual hostility, harmless differences could be used as ‘labels’ to condemn those of the ‘wrong’ tribe (Judges 12:4-6).
The same could be said about many of the differences between Christian denominations today. Most of them do not matter – unless we insist on making them ‘articles of faith’.
The unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3-6)
In the eyes of God there is only one Church – the company of all those in every age who belong to Him through faith in Jesus. There can only be one Church, because there is only one God. Whatever our church background and tradition, we have much in common: we are all saved by faith in Jesus Christ, we are all sealed with the same Holy Spirit, we all have the same covenant sign (in our case, baptism), and we are all looking forward to the promise of eternal life. We are one – not because we always agree among ourselves, but because we all stand in the same relationship with God our Father.
The challenge for us is to put this truth into practice. It’s easy to be ‘one’ with people who share our background and opinions, and like to do things in the same way, but much harder to be ‘one’ with people from a different spiritual ‘culture’ who maybe speak a different theological ‘language’.
So the unity of the Spirit won’t happen automatically; it has to be worked at! “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3) We have to cultivate relationships with other Christian groups and churches, so that the outside world can see that there is only one Church.