Lately, I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as part of a book club. This, along with other recent events and discussions, has caused me to think more about unity within the Church.
First, some context. Lewis states in the preface to his book that his intent is not to discuss Christian denominations or differences among the denominations. Instead, he seeks to provide an explanation of what he calls “mere” Christianity; that is, the things held in common among all Christians. (G. K. Chesterton has a similar aim in his Orthodoxy, using the Apostles’ Creed as his baseline). Certain Christian groups and denominations may emphasize various parts of the Faith more than others, and may even disagree in certain areas, but there is a core set of beliefs which are held in common by Christians and which therefore mark them out as “Christian.”
Lewis’ point is that when we talk with non-believers, diving right into denominational differences or intra-Church or intra-denominational spats tends to drive them away. It’s much better, in his mind, to discuss the “mere” Christianity of the Creed first. He compares the experience of coming to faith to being brought into a hall with many doors. Once you’ve entered into the hall (i.e. the Faith confessed by the Creed), then you can explore the various rooms (i.e. denominations) to determine which possesses the teachings which you think are most true. The point is that you can’t bring someone into a room if you haven’t first brought them into the hall. So, to dive right into finer points of doctrine when we’re evangelizing someone is not helpful. Another point which Lewis makes is that we’re meant to leave the hall to enter a room, not linger there forever; thus, we can’t remain at the beginning stage forever. Once we are believers we are expected to grow in the Faith.
I find Lewis’ argument and analogy very helpful. As Christians, we often focus great amounts of time and effort on differences among our denominations. Sometimes this manifests itself in the false belief that only my denomination is “the Church.” Other times it manifests itself as a desire to be “non-denominational.” (I would argue, though, that even “non-denominational” churches constitute a denomination of sorts. That is to say, they provide their own unique emphasis on the Faith, even if there is no formal organization linking the “non-demonational” churches together.)
As a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), of course I prefer the “door” in the hall of Faith labeled “LCMS.” Others prefer the door that says “Baptist,” others “Roman Catholic,” others “Methodist,” others “Presbyterian,” etc… And that’s ok. Each denomination provides its own peculiar emphasis to the Faith which adds to the tapestry of the wider Church. We can all learn from each other, have discussions with one another, and debate one another in a spirit of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood.
Sometimes we, as the Church, seem so focused on maintaining our doctrinal purity (or other forms of purity) that we needlessly create or fester further divisions within the Church to the point that it can seem that we’re closer to non-believers than to fellow believers. I see so many Christians being downright un-Christian towards those with whom they disagree on some social or theological issue. It’s ok to disagree, but perhaps we can do so respectfully?
In addition, it would be helpful to listen clearly to what the other “side” really believes, rather than attacking a straw man. I have found myself recently, for example, in the odd position of trying to explain and, in a sense, defend Roman Catholic belief in certain areas to non-Catholics, because they attack a belief which Catholics do not actually hold. If we are going to debate one another, we need to at least debate the actual beliefs we have, not the beliefs we think the other side has. I also contend that we should learn to value the diversity within the Church and work better with one another within the orthodox Faith, recognizing that we are all rooms attached to the same hall.
I am also wondering if these sorts of intra-Church arguments are the luxury of a Church which is not being persecuted. Will increased persecution cause the Church to see herself as One? Or, will some within the Church work with secular authority to punish those within the Church with whom they disagree?
I reflect on World War II and the years prior to and after it. Before the war, the Christian ecumenical movement started to gain steam. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked with those within many other denominations to try to emphasize Christian unity to combat a common evil. After the war, the Church continued its efforts at achieving unity.
Often, though, the emphasis is on achieving doctrinal unity or on “papering over” doctrinal differences to pretend that there is unity in doctrine. This can cause consternation among those who recognize that there is no real unity in doctrine among those who claim there is. And it can cause the denominations to lose their special emphasis, uniqueness, and gifts to the wider Church.
But, what if we look at unity in a different way? What if we accept the fact that there will be differences in doctrine within the body of Christ and agree to love one another and work with one another in spite of those differences? What if we focus on learning from one another, rather than having our first point of conversation being an attempt to convince each other of the correctness of our own positions? What if we take as our first assumption that other Christians are also part of the one, holy, apostolic Church and that, though, we may ere in certain matters, we are part of the body of Christ and will all together stand before Him at the resurrection? Could we then focus on evangelizing those outside the Church and bringing them into this body?
Maybe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a good time to start having these discussions. Throughout the Church, people are celebrating the Reformation, even Roman Catholics, since there is the recognition that Luther helped reform many false beliefs and practices of the Church. Thus, the irony is that while the Reformation which Martin Luther sparked caused the emergence of a great many of these Christian denominations, the celebration of its 500th anniversary is causing Christians to appreciate just how much we all have in common.
(Image: The Adoration of the Lamb, circa 870 AD. From the Beringarius Codex. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=147874 ).