I’m a Catholic so before we go any further, please let me confess something. It’s just what we do.
For most of my Christian life I didn’t take unity seriously. Not at all.
Heck, I didn’t even think about Christian unity. It didn’t even cross my mind. And if I did, by some complete fluke, I’d shrug. Meh, someone else’s problem. Above my pay grade.
But I was wrong.
My journey through evangelical Protestantism and into the Catholic Church, more than anything else, highlighted for me the importance of Christians being united. It underscored the fundamental urgency of Christian unity, and it taught me a lot about the sordid reasons why we’re apart to begin with.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we, my Christian brothers and sisters, need to take our unity seriously, right now, or face the devastating consequences. This, folks, is important.
How We Fell Apart
Fundamentally, the Christian Church was whole for the first thousand years of its existence. If you find that hard to believe, like I once did, than you were probably tuned into the same history lessons that I was. Or wasn’t. But it’s true.
For a thousand years the Christian Church was united. It put the Bible together and it worked out complicated doctrinal issues like salvation, the trinity, and the nature of Jesus—stuff that my evangelical Protestant tradition inherited but more often than not didn’t properly acknowledge (because that same united Church ruled on other stuff we didn’t agree with).
Then, largely over issues of authority, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church split in the Great Schism. The West remained under the authority of the papacy, the Pope. The Eastern Churches like Russia and Greece did not. Still, the Eastern and Western churches remained nearly identical in their doctrine and, even today, actively work for unity on both sides.
Beginning in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation, however, individual movements began to splinter Christians away from the Roman Catholic Church to follow new interpretations of the Bible. Many of these teachers like Martin Luther and John Calvin professed a better understanding of Scripture—an understanding which condemned some of the practices of the present Christian Church, the Catholic Church.
Many of their points were truly great, as were many of their criticisms, but the resulting division of the Christian Church was devastating and lamented, strongly, by even Martin Luther himself.
Today, Protestantism boasts many tens of thousands of different denominations which splintered off from the original ideas of the Reformers and fine-tuned their own interpretations of Scripture. While all Protestant denominations rightly profess Jesus as their centre they differ on a wide variety of aspects from style of music, dress, and means of worship to the way we attain our salvation, justification, and the end of the world.
Why We Must Get Back Together
Christian unity should be one of the most fundamental, top-of-mind concerns for every single devout Christian around the world. If that sounds like a wild exaggeration, it’s not.
Our unity, as the Body of Christ, is of fundamental importance for two enormous reasons.
First, our unity is important because Jesus prayed for it. Because Jesus Christ whom all of us Christians profess to boldly follow, asked for us to be united in John 17:20-23,
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Jesus prays, “That they may be one.”
That’s us, folks.
But, God forbid, if Jesus asking us to be one isn’t a good enough reason for us to take Christian unity seriously then what about zeroing in why Jesus asks us to be united, “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Wait a second. Take a break, and contemplate, in all seriousness, what our Lord is praying.
In a prayer addressed to God the Father, Jesus prays for Christian unity so that the world may know Him and know that God loves them.
Brothers and sisters, God help us, but the reason why we need to take Christian unity seriously is because through our unity the world will know God and that God loves them.
And that’s the whole point of everything.
What are they getting a glimpse of through our division?
How to Get Back Together
As fundamental as Christian unity is—and I hope I’ve given you something to think about—it would be a fundamental mistake to think that the solution is simple.
Jesus Himself prayed for a united Church therefore it’s nothing short of sin itself that has split us apart.
Can we all agree on that?
It’s sin, plain and simple, and, as such, getting back together isn’t going to be a cakewalk but it isn’t impossible either. We know, from Jesus’s own words that Christian unity is paramount to God. We know it’s His desire that we be One, and there’s no expiry date on God’s patience. Heaven forbid.
We know sin split us apart, and we know God wants us back together. So how do we get there?
First, it isn’t an easy road. After all, sin broke us up, and Satan, you can bet, is doing everything he can to keep us that way. We’re fighting in a very real battle here. But the first thing, in my opinion, is to recognize the importance of the fight. This is exactly what I’m talking about: recognizing that Christian unity is of fundamental importance to God, and it should be to us, as Christians, as well.
Second, we need to pray.
Jesus, in John 17, taught us the importance of praying for our unity and we need to do likewise. Prayer can move mountains, we know, and it can also motivate hearts (something which, I’d argue, is far more difficult than moving a mountain). If we take Christian unity seriously then we need to pray for it and let the Holy Spirit, which first fell on the united Christian Church at Pentecost, to fall on us anew. I’m grateful that in my Catholic tradition we pray, in each and every Mass, for the unity of the Christian body. If that’s not something you have as part of your regular worship life incorporate it now. It’s important.
Finally, we need to act in concrete ways.
It’s simply not enough to give lip service to the importance of unity, to pray for it, and to take no real steps in its direction. We need to start walking, and it begins with each and every one of us.
Go meet someone from a different denomination. Reach out.
In my community alone there are the churches of a dozen different denominations. Go knock on a door. Or, in the least, send an e-mail.
Until I, as an evangelical Protestant, met some halfway decent Catholics I had no idea what they believed. Likewise, if it wasn’t for my Anglican friend I’d have no ideas how gosh darn similar we actually are.
It’s not until we actively begin to reach out and meet each other where we are that we can begin to take down these walls, brick by brick.
Take Unity Seriously, Because Everyone is Watching
It’s not as if there’s nothing tangible that divides us. I don’t pay much mind to the notion that we have enough in common to get along, because we don’t. We’re divided, as Christians, on issues as fundamental as what is life and how am I saved? These are fundamental, grassroots doctrine. They’re the building blocks of faith, and if we can’t agree on the building blocks the structure has no chance.
I’m not advocating, then, for cheap unity—for the easy route.
We can’t paper over the problems, but we can face them down.
We need to recognize that this is what we’re called to do, and as Christians we’re not called to anything easy. We need to pray for each other, and for our unity, and if that’s not something you’re used to then get used to it. Plain and simple. Then we need to perform concrete actions, take real steps in our own lives, to come together. Not to pretend to agree and get along, but do work it out. To sit down at the same table and dig in. To scrum over beers. To trade blows like boxers training for a fight so we can, one day, beat our swords into ploughshares and plough as one.
Why? Because Jesus asked us to.
And if that’s not good enough: Because the world world is watching, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.