Understanding Christian Unity

By way of reminder, the point of this series is that Protestants have good reason to keep protesting. For instance, the doctrines of biblical authority and justification still separate us from Rome. And the Protestant doctrine of salvation and understanding of biblical authority make a big difference in the way Protestants regard and practice their faith, whether in worship, vocation, or morality.

If Protestants stand resolute on these issues, there is one issue where many are willing to cede ground to Roman Catholics. That is the matter of the unity of the church. Protestantism, it is claimed, destroyed this unity; where once there was one church there now are many churches. Did the Reformation let the genie out of the proverbial bottle? Did it unleash a monster that overwhelmed Christendom and set the West on its wayward course to secularism and relativism? In other words, once Christian unity has been shattered, is there any way to restore it, short of repenting and returning to Rome?

Sometimes the case is put more bluntly. Protestants, it is often remarked, removed the pope only to replace him with a million popes. Individualism, it seems, is part of the Protestant DNA. This is not fair to say of earliest Protestant churches or their leaders. One could argue that political developments, many of which owe to the unhealthy confusion created by ecclesiastical establishments, were as much responsible for modern individualism as Protestant teaching per se. Martin Luther’s “Here I stand,” for example, was not the boast of a defiant individual, but of one who stood with the voices of the ancient church. Still, the charge of disunity and disorder may apply to quarters of contemporary Protestantism, such as revivalism, which demands a private religious experience and thereby downplays the ministry of the church and her ordained officers.

As much as folk lament the fractured state of American Protestantism, the situation is not as bad as it once was. As we noted earlier, there are three major expressions of Lutheranism in America (the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Synod). This is far different from the late nineteenth century, when there were over seventy different Lutheran synods in America. That number reflected the ethnic and language diversity among Lutherans who were migrating to the new world. As those immigrants assimilated and adopted English, they found ways to join together in a common witness and ministry.

Language is not a problem for Rome, whose official language is still Latin. Protestants speak in many tongues, and this use of the vulgar, or the vernacular, is a good thing. The ethnic universality of the church will create linguistic diversity. We still live in an age when God’s design is for diversity through multiple languages. The spiritual division of Babel was overcome by Pentecost, but that was different from organizational division. The gift of the Spirit united the people of God but did not force Christians into a common tongue. Pentecost still acknowledged human and cultural diversity. Ethnic identity, cultural background, and historical circumstances all contribute to the diversity in the church today. Some of these differences contribute to the enrichment of the church’s witness to the world.

So what does unity mean? What does diversity mean? And what should unity in diversity look like? These questions are more complicated that we might at first imagine. Ecclesiastical union is often a thinly disguised form of assimilation that threatens to impoverish the church by robbing it of its diversity.

The Question of Roman Catholic Unity

The Roman Catholic Church is not the oldest Christian communion. Eastern Orthodox Churches are older and were more prominent in the earliest days of the church than Rome. The earliest Christian jurisdictions centered on Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Rome’s prominence came later (and developed with its claims to Peter and the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome as the vicar of Christ). It certainly helped Rome’s claims to supremacy that it had no rival cities in the western church.

Tensions between the Eastern and Latin churches developed over several issues. Language (Greek vs. Latin) was one. Another was icons: The East was more “iconodule” in its promoting the use of images and their veneration. Theological differences between east and west are invoked whenever we recite the Nicene Creed. While the Nicene Creed is shared by all historic churches of western Christianity, it separates them from eastern Christianity when it describes the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son (filioque), a phrase not confessed in the East. Eventually these differences would lead to a severing of fellowship in AD 1054, as Constantinople and Roman bishops excommunicated the other. And so the Nicene Creed is at once a statement of Christian unity and division.

“By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” The familiar hymn reminds us that Christian unity can be broken in two ways: schism and heresy. John Calvin claimed that Roman Catholics divided the church by breaking away from the truth of the gospel. And so, given its role in the disruptions of the eleventh and sixteen centuries, Rome does not seem to be in a position to claim the high ground of Christian unity. Another question worth raising is the present extent of Roman Catholic unity. Often overlooked is the significant diversity within the church today, from ultra-traditionalists to postmodern Catholics. A recent article by a Catholic author described the many recent changes in American Roman Catholicism. In “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America” (First Things, October 2006), J. Bottum described the growth of liberalism in American Catholicism in the days following the second Vatican Council. “Back then,” he writes, “nearly every element of Catholic doctrine appeared as tentative and changeable as figures in wet clay.” American Catholics were crossing the “crabgrass frontier,” joining the suburban Protestant melting pot through assimilation and intermarriage. Many remained merely “culturally Catholic” with little attention to Catholic practice and infrequent attendance at Mass. “It was the silly season,” he remembers, “and anything seemed possible,” from the popularity of the film, “The Exorcist,” to the thundering moralisms of the Jesuit congressman, Father Robert Drinan. Bottum notes that the U.S. Catholic Bishops advanced leftward on political and social issues even while the laity moved to the right, especially on abortion.

Conformity to the Bishop of Rome seems more attractive and binding in theory than in practice. It is one thing to be kindly disposed to the pope, but are bishops and dioceses submitting to the pope? There are national churches, different orders, different theological traditions—these expressions of diversity may be more Protestant than Roman Catholics care to admit.

The Problem of Protestant Unity

On the other side of Rome’s claims of unity masking great diversity is the Protestant problem of trying to make up for disunity through ecumenical cooperation and merger. Protestant ecumenism has largely been guilty of obliterating denominations and their theological traditions, and so illustrate the dangers of desires for unity—it often abets the rise of theological liberalism. American Protestants, especially in the north, embraced ecumenicity immediately after the Civil War in order to collaborate in restoring unity to America. The threats were manifold: materialism, agnosticism, and especially Roman Catholicism, with the rise in Catholic immigration to America. In response, Protestants established interdenominational agencies to form a united Protestant front against these threats to American culture. Suddenly, Protestant division on sacraments, polity, and soteriology paled in comparison to the deeper concern to keep America generically Protestantism.

The formation of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 furthered the aim for organic church union in the United States. Organic as opposed to federated unity was ultimately proposed in 1920, along the lines that resulted in the United Church of Canada in 1925, where Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists abandoned their denominational autonomy and joined a generic Protestant Church. Among the dissenters of American Presbyterian calls to union was J. Gresham Machen, the leader in the formation of Westminster Seminary (1929) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). Machen was not opposed to unity per se, but he objected to the reasons for union, which were political and social, not theological or churchly. Protestant ecumenism, in other words, was part of the social gospel. For Machen this was another gospel that substituted moralism for the gospel of redemption from sin through the righteousness of Christ. (Although the social gospel of the theological left does not animate conservative evangelical ecumenicity in our day, it is often promoted by the same theologically minimal basis that grieved Machen.)

Rethinking Unity

The history of Roman Catholic disunity and the often disastrous effects of Protestant efforts at unity force us to qualify our sense of the value of unity. While we cannot escape the “ecumenical imperative” of Scripture, Protestants need to consider other ways in which unity can be achieved. There are vital expressions of Christian unity other than organizational merger, and more modest versions are worth cultivating.



Subsidiarity, a teaching developed particularly well by Roman Catholics, is the principle that decentralizes the ordering and governing of institutions, public or private. Advocates of subsidiarity argue that corporate concerns should be handled by the smallest competent authority. A distant and complex bureaucracy should not handle what a simple and local organization can adjudicate. In civil government, subsidiarity supports limited government and opposes centralization of power in federal governments. (Welfare, for example, is better regulated on a local level.) In a sense, the Protestant Reformation introduced subsidiarity to western church polity. The Roman Catholic Church was and is a top-down, bureaucratic institution. Protestants invested more power in local and regional churches. Moreover pastors were treated equitably, without the vesting of greater powers in bishops. Protestants restored the pastoral responsibilities of local pastors in Geneva, France, Scotland, and the Netherlands. That national churches grew in the wake of the Reformation is another result of this principle of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity suggests another way of looking at unity. Churches are united at the local level, but not necessarily at the global level. Authority dispersed to local governors is a good thing. To put it all in the hands of one office or person leads to tyranny, to the tyrant thinking he is God’s vicar on earth.

Another way to consider unity in the context of diversity is conciliarism. Conciliarism was a reform movement in the Roman Catholic Church at the eve of the Reformation that held that final authority in spiritual matters resided with the church as a corporation of Christians. This came to expression in church councils, not through the authoritative pronouncements of the pope.

While conciliar impulses have waxed and waned in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (and especially Presbyterianism) is inherently conciliar. Wisdom is found in groups or committees, and power is delegated to a plurality of elders. Protestants rule by synod and councils where assemblies of commissioners deliberate in order to arrive at a consensus. This process, it must be readily acknowledged, is hardly time-efficient or exciting. But it is a more fitting way to govern the church in the light of what Scripture reveals about human sinfulness. This is the practice we find in Acts 15, with the gathering of the Jerusalem Council, which Presbyterians are fond of describing as the first “General Assembly” of the church.

Yet a third way of manifesting unity is denominationalism. This may seem counter-intuitive for some readers. Protestant denominationalism often smacks of pride and chauvinism that strike at the heart of unity. John Frame, for example, has argued that denominations are at best necessary evils because “all denominational division has been due to sin somewhere.” But this is an oddly tendentious dismissal. Denominations can just as easily be described as the result of church discipline. For example, in 1973 when Francis Schaeffer encouraged the PCA exodus from the liberal southern Presbyterian Church, he described it as a case of “discipline in reverse.” If discipline is the mark of a true church, then can not denominationalism be conceived as a good thing? Indeed, denominations often serve to preserve and promote the well-being of the church.

Councils of churches are ways of expressing unity among denominations. The worldwide Anglican Communion is an international association of national Anglican churches. Churches in this association are in communion with the Church of England; they are in mutual agreement on basic doctrines and they share sacramental fellowship, but each national church retains its judicial authority. Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary California has recently proposed a similar arrangement for churches belonging to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). The URCNA, OPC, PCA, and other members would all retain their own powers while also delegating commissioners to participate in a federated church body. This is one way to express Christian unity while retaining the autonomy of each denomination.

Unity must not be invoked simply as an effort to avoid problems. The united church that results from merger is often an undisciplined or a doctrinally indifferent church. It is a church beset by disunity that cannot be addressed. To have different denominations, to have disunity organizationally, is to maintain discipline of mutual accountability, assuming churches maintain active fellowship and correspondence with other communions.

Genuine unity is not a lowest common denominator of gospel minimalism. Rather, unity in the faith is attained by growing into spiritual maturity, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:13. The Westminster Confession acknowledges that particular churches are more or less pure, “according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely” (25.4). Denominationalism acknowledges the pluriformity of the church, and in the midst of this plurality, “we must aim and strive for the purest” of churches, as Herman Bavinck writes.

The Lord’s Supper and the Unity of the Church

Scripture reminds us that the greatest expression of unity takes place when saints gather at the Lord ’s Table. This is mystical communion that we enjoy because we are united to Christ. So frequent communion is a tangible way in which Protestants can participate in the unity of the church. Perhaps we must rest content in that unity, while serving in our communions as faithfully as we can. Let us not be tempted to imagine that this form of unity, ordained by our Lord, is any less significant than fellowship with the bishop of Rome.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul insists that discipline must accompany the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This serves to remind us that unity is not the only goal of the church, or even its main goal. Unity must serve the peace and purity of the church. Any bond without peace and purity is a counterfeit that does not deserve the label Christian unity.

Dr. D.G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Protestantism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.