I’ve been trying to write an essay on Christian unity for an ecumenical volume on this topic. I’m supposed to write from my own Methodist perspective. Since I’m a Protestant, I’ve had to think about unity apart from specific ecclesiastical communions (i.e., denominations). Part of what I’ve been kicking around in my head is the question of criteria: when does a person, congregation, or denomination remove itself from unity with the church catholic? Does unity depend upon the confessions of faith and ethical standards that have been accepted widely through the ages and across the globe? Put differently, if a church decides, say, to change the words of one of the major creeds, or simply not to center these as standards for proper belief and proclamation, has that church diminished its connection to the church catholic? If a church does not practice Holy Communion, does it to some extent diminish its own catholicity?
This brings up another question: is Christian unity the same as catholicity? Can we somehow be united in Christ, even if we are not united in our proclamation of his person and work and what he requires of us? I just read through Wesley’s sermon “The Catholic Spirit” pretty carefully. Wesley believes that to hold the catholic spirit is to love other Christians regardless of differences, to seek their wellbeing, and to work together to the greatest extent possible in service to the will of God. He does think that doctrine, modes of worship, and congregational ties matter, but he doesn’t tie the catholic spirit to these. I think Wesley is right that this is how we should regard Christians of traditions other than our own, but is this catholicity?
Let me frame the matter another way: if the four marks of the church are that she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, can a church be any of these without being all of them? If you diminish the connection to the apostolic witness, or the holiness of the church, can a church still be one and catholic? I don’t see how it can. Help me out if you have any thoughts on the matter.
I hope I’m not making an argument for Roman Catholicism here. Nothing against Roman Catholics. It’s just that I’m a Methodist in my bones, for better or worse. Sometimes I wonder…
12 thoughts on “Inconclusive Musings on Unity”
I am neither a theologian nor a Bible scholar. Even so, I have some thoughts on the subject of unity and I will share them here for whatever value doing so may have.
Being a United Methodist, and noticing the schism through which our denomination is going, I have noticed that many in our denomination seem to have become confused over what the word “United” is supposed to mean. We added that term to the name of our denomination back when several denominations merged into one in 1968.
As we have been discussing the issues causing the schism, many have tried to say that we should resolve our differences through “unity” implying this was the way to be consistent with the name of the denomination. That is clearly not what the name of the denomination implied, and that is an invalid argument.
The argument for “unity” was bandied about by those who supported a proposal that the denomination should organized under a “One Church Plan.” Briefly stated, this seemed to mean that we would all remain in a denomination named “The United Methodist Church” but individual churches could decide what they chose to believe. From my perspective, that concept was, and remains, ridiculous.
I might add that some local UMC churches I have belonged to have also participated in, what some have termed, the worship wars. These disputes mainly arose out of what worship styles to use as well as the types of music to be sung. The partisans in these disputes also wanted to beat up on each other with the term “unity.”
Most of these internal conflicts continue within the denomination, along with other issues that also touch on the many divisive political points of view at this point in history.
There are many references to unity in the Bible. I cannot cite all of them here. 2 Peter 1:38 reads: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here is an interesting piece entitled “Christ Calls All Christians to Unity” by Anjeanette Roberts. https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/theorems-theology/christ-calls-all-christians-to-unity#:~:text=The%20centrality%20and%20critical%20importance%20of%20unity%20based,unity%20and%20to%20our%20witness%20to%20the%20world.
Thank you for considering what I have had to say on this subject.
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