Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Can the Church Ever be United?

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at the Rosedale Congregational United Church of Christ (RCC) in Kansas City, Kansas. As RCC is currently without a pastor, I was asked to preach each Sunday this month, and I much appreciate their invitation. (It will be the first time for me to preach at the same church four Sundays in a row in 50 years.)
As you may know, the United Church of Christ (UCC) was formed in 1957. It was the result of a merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches. RCC was formerly a part of the latter.
The vision of the UCC is a great one—but one that is unlikely to be actualized anytime soon. Of course, this is not the first time an effort has been made to unite the Church, doing away with denominations.
In the 1830s the vision of Thomas Campbell, along with his son Alexander and others, led to the formation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But now that Church, as well as the UCC, is just another denomination.
The history of Christianity is a history replete with divisions, great and small. The first major division occurred in 1054 when the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople, separated from the western Church, centered in Rome.
The second great division took place with the Protestant reformations in the 16th century—and then very soon there were divisions among the Protestants. In January 1527 Felix Manz, whom I wrote about here, was martyred in Zurich, the first Protestant to be punitively killed by Protestants.
Since the beginning of the 20th century there have been attempts toward great unity among Christians. The 1910 World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh, was an important step in that direction.
Then after the disastrous divisions caused by two world wars, the World Council of Churches (WCC) was formed in 1948. And that ecumenical body, composed of Protestants only, has in recent years reached out to greater cooperation with the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
But, alas, the WCC has been largely rejected and is often criticized by conservative Protestants. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., has through the years remained aloof from the WCC.
Conservative Protestants formed the World Evangelical Fellowship in 1951, changing their name to the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) in 2001. While recently there has been some fruitful interaction between the WCC and the WEA, greater unity is highly unlikely.
The disunity of these two Protestant groups is largely between fundamentalist/conservative understandings of Christianity and moderate/liberal understandings, which differ seriously—and maybe irreconcilably.
Recently, referring to J. Greshem Machen who made a similar assertion in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, said, “Rather than representing two points on a spectrum of Christianity, evangelical Christianity and liberal Protestantism are different and competing religions” (see this article by Bob Allen).
As much as I hate to say so, I’m afraid he’s right.
While I hope and pray for Christians to move from the extremes (and errors) of both fundamentalism and liberalism and to the “radiant center,” as I propose in my book “The Limits of Liberalism,” I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
While in the years ahead there may be greater unity among conservative Christians and especially greater unity of moderate/liberal Christians, I think, sadly, there will be little movement toward or formation of a truly united Church of Christ.


  1. Your blog post is focused primarily on the divide between fundamentalist/conservative versus moderate/liberal. However there are social/political issues that occasionally arise that accentuate these religious divisions. A dramatic example from history is the division of church denominations during the American Civil War around the issue of slavery. I believe a similar sort of division is permeating religious circles these days regarding the issue of same sex marriage. It seems to be an issue that some believe is so important that they are unwilling to coexist in the same denomination with those with whom they do not agree.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Clif.

      It is particularly because of divisions regarding gay rights and same sex marriage that I think unity between conservative Christians and moderate/liberal Christians is well nigh impossible now. The former seem to think that opposition to homosexual activities is central to their faith and they are being discriminated against or persecuted it they cannot voice their opposition. On the other hand, the latter think that being for gay rights, including support of same sex marriage, is part of what it means to live and act in the spirit of Jesus.

      As long as views are that polarized, talk of unity is virtually meaningless.

  2. With so many splits and splinters after the Protestant Reformation, which continuing to explode in number, I doubt that there will be a unification of Christianity in all of its diversity on Earth. However, I do pray for a unity of the traditional, orthodox branches of the Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church. Were they to re-unite in communion, I would probably join them. But from what I can tell, there is still too much arrogance and bitterness between them for another ecumenical council. If they were to join in communion, it might then be possible for some of the traditional Anglicans and Lutherans to migrate back into communion (both the EOC and Rome have tentatively offered that).

  3. I've long thought that the Reformation should be called the Great Fragmentation.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson comments, "I’m afraid you are right, Leroy, and I’m saddened."

  5. Here are a few of the comments from a longer email received this morning from Thinking Friend George in Canada.

    "I would like to think that there will come a day when all of Christendom will be united BUT------

    "Never mind the big chasm that exists between conservatives and liberals, there are big chasms that exist within liberal Christians; for example, the issue of gay marriage; . . . the issue re role of male/female within the church (i.e. the appointment/election of a female to the office of bishop led many members to leave the church); et al. The current moderator of The United Church of Canada is gay and this caused some to leave the church.

    "The United Church of Canada since coming into existence in 1925 has lost a lot of members since 1988 as the church wrestled with a variety of social and justice issues. Somehow people cannot connect the Bible to the newspaper (this being symbolic of daily social and justice issues, etc.).
    . . . .
    "Of course there are a great deal of differences that exist among the conservative Christians too. . . .

    "Yes, we are a long ways off from working together as one."

  6. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard points out that "one branch of Christianity, the Eastern or non-Chalcedonian churches, broke away after the Council of Chalcedon in 451."

    Eric also writes, "Along with you, I do not see Christian unity in the foreseeable future."

    1. Certainly, there were splits in the Church long before 1054, and the splitting off of what now is often called the Oriental Orthodox Church in 451 was a significant division.

      Even before that was the splitting off and formation of the Assyrian Church, especially after 431.

      Divisions within the Church, sadly, are numerous from ancient times.

  7. The first comments received in an email this morning were from local Thinking Friend Thomas Howell, who has given me permission to post them here:

    "Unity among Christians? If it weren’t such a sad situation, that phrase would evoke a laugh. I believe the curve will be toward greater disunity.

    "For example, I think the issue of attitude toward and relationships with Muslims is further fragmenting Christians. The unspeakable brutality of ISIS, done in the name of Islam, provides more and more fodder for those who would regard it as a hateful religion, despite the fact that their actions grossly violate Islam’s own tenants.

    "Turn the other cheek toward them? I doubt many Christians, even strong ones, could see a way to do that, although I assume that committed pacifists, such as yourself, would maintain that position.

    "The problem comes in not allowing their evil to provoke a hostile reaction among Christians to all Muslims."

    1. Just as in the case of Hitler and the Nazis, how to combat the evil of ISIS is a major problem for us pacifists.

      I don't think "turning the other cheek" is what we would want to propose, if that means not doing anything and "condoning" further barbaric actions by that terrorist group.

      So, I think that making every effort to isolate or contain them is something that is certainly legitimate. I stick by what I wrote earlier at

    2. Points out the splits within Islam, from the early years to present. It is no monolith either. I have some wonderful Muslim friends for whom I would lay down my life or gladly go to bat to protect or defend.

  8. While unity seems desirable in the abstract, in actuality I think Al Mohler's statement about different versions of Christianity being "competing religions" has a lot of truth to it. At least on the East Coast, the term Christian is so commonly understood as meaning narrow-minded conservatives that it would be very helpful to not all be lumped together under that name. (I expect there are a lot of Muslims feeling very much that way these days, too.)

    1. Thanks for your comments, Keith. I think they are spot-on, as some would express it.

      What you expressed as your perception on the East Coast is also true, but perhaps to a lesser degree, here in the Heartland.

      In "Fed Up with Fundamentalism" I wrote about being an embarrassed Southern Baptist. Now in many ways I feel as if I am an embarrassed Christian.

      But I am not embarrassed by the church I am a member of. I can point to their beliefs and especially their practices without any embarrassment, so I am happy about that.

    2. I just now saw this article, which, I think, is germane to this discussion:

  9. I was happy to receive the following thoughtful from Dr. Will Adams, a Thinking Friend who is a retired political science professor at William Jewell College--and the son of one of my seminary professors.

    "Thanks for your thoughtful essay on Christian unity (or disunity). I think you are right that unity is highly unlikely any time soon, if ever.

    "I think the disunity among Christian groups, like that among religious faiths in general, or even among races, nationalities, ethnic groups and cultures, is based more on attitudes than on values. Whenever we encounter groups that differ from us in some way, we have two choices: Emphasize the differences, or emphasize what we have in common.

    "If we choose the first option, we begin by noticing that those people are different from us. Soon we begin to think that we are better, or more right, than they. If we proceed further in this direction, we may even arrive at the view that those people are our enemies.

    "But this is not the only option. We may choose to notice that despite differences, we have certain things in common with those people. This does not require us to agree on values, or to pretend that all people are alike. But we can learn that all of us are more likely to succeed in meeting the needs we have in common if we agree to live and let live, and to cooperate toward meeting our common needs and toward goals on which we can agree despite our differences.

    "Most if not all Christians can identify certain things on which we agree and goals which we would like to pursue. Indeed, most of the great religions of the world could find much to agree on. I've often wondered what good might be accomplished if a World Council of Faiths might undertake to tackle the issues of poverty, oppression, and hate, and other goals we could find that we share. But we're not likely to find out any time soon. Many leaders of these groups are more interested in preserving their own power than in promoting the goals which their faiths preach."

    1. Dr. Adams, thanks for taking time to share your helpful comments.

      I fully agree that there are many ways that not only Christians, but people of various religious faiths--and even non-religious people--can work together. There are many ways that such cooperation can be seen at present, and perhaps there will be even more of that in the future

      Still, conservative/fundamentalist Christians, as well as fundamentalists in other religions, are not likely to be willing to join in such efforts to any significant degree.

      So, again, while I think there is considerable likelihood that there will be further unity among moderate/liberal Christians, for the Church as a whole, I'm still afraid that hope for greater unity is rather futile.

  10. Jesus had to deal with Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and followers of John in his day. Has it not always been such? Paul lamented the early church divided into groups by baptism, such as those baptized by Apollo or himself. If we posit the unity of faith as something to be politically organized, such as the merger of all churches, it will never happen.

    The only unity I see is the spiritual unity of all people of good will who recognize that they have brothers and sisters all around them. A simple expression of this is the practice of open communion. Ecumenical and even inter-faith dialogue extends this concept. It is not new, long ago Socrates saw himself as a citizen of the cosmos. As Micah (6:8) instructs us, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" All our churches are partly human institutions, and as such we have many concerns beyond what God requires. We are humans, and there is no other way for us to do this. Still, we should not forget, God is not so divided.

  11. Thoughtful insights! I agree that unity seems to be impossible any more. Even in one's own church, splintering and factionalism seem to prevail. I had some contact with denominational leaders during the time when unification was a goal. The difficulty always seemed to be the problem deciding on the bare essentials so the trend was to try to find agreement on the lowest common denominator. Whatever success at that time always seemed to be returning to the Catholic Church or adopting some of its rituals and ceremonies. Also, a question, Leroy. Were the Brethren a part of the UCC or was that with United Methodists? Don

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  13. Unity is based on the truth as it is in Jesus! There cannot be differences on the Trinity, the nature of sin and its universal effects, the means of redemption and what true conversion really is just to name a few. We are to associate our selves with brothers and sisters of like mind! We are to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness etc. Be Holy for I am Holy is an express command. Who can be Holy without truth? Doctrine is what should separate us. If there are to be false teachers, false prophets, error, heresy and damnable doctrine then it necessarily follows that there must be division and so on. One cannot earnestly contend for an uncertain faith that is detached from "the whole truth"? We are told to obey the truth and that we would be sanctified by the truth. John 17. There is a general body of saving knowledge That defines us as the people of God.