Inconclusive Musings on Unity

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

  1. Pingback: Inconclusive Musings on Unity – Omnia Methodist

  2. The following is by no means a complete view of Unity, but rather my small thoughts that probably speak more about me than about Unity, catholicity or C(c)hurch.

    catholicity (small c) is the organic human experience of the Church universal through history, doctrine and even polity. The holy spirit of God is well beyond such a structure. Pentecost, by some called the birth of the Church, did not come with a creed, doctrine or set of beliefs, but a uniting spirit greater than human language, nationality, tribe.

    So, the “Church Universal “exists well beyond what we as Christians say in words or do in practice.
    It seems to me this view of the Church must also have a connection with the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus says resides, not in a physical kingdom, but in heart (soul, mind, strength) of each as we love God and our neighbor. Our practice flows from our connection to God not our creeds or orthodoxy, and the Church Community grows out of the Holy spirit, Jesus, God (unity of the trinity).
    Orthodoxy of beliefs, polity, creeds and history help each to live in God individually and collectively. And hopefully to see God’s spirit in others beyond how they “Practice” belief and faith.

    To me this helps to strengthen our connection beyond our differences and base our connection on Unity of the one God (Creator, Savior, Sustainer).

    Hope to hear from you David, since I deeply appreciate your insight and thoughtfulness.

    • Bob, great to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to read this post and for your response. I think I’m following you. My question, though, is whether or not there are beliefs that are prerequisites for unity. Can the rejection of certain claims put us outside the unity of the church? For example, if I deny the incarnation, am I diminishing my relationship to the body of Christ?

      • Yes, in my small singular human way here is the “list”.

        God as Creator of all including creation of all humans (Imago dei), God in human form as Jesus the Christ (Saviour), and God evident and present at all times (the holy spirit), these are for me the words (as best I understand them) upon which I stand, and I believe are the basis for unity in the earthly “Church” as we know it. I believe though that the spiritual Church is greater than the human construct we call the Ecclesia of believers here on earth.

        Can the “Church” on earth be in unity with those who stand differently than what “my” words may indicate, then hopefully the earthly “church” would love our neighbors as ourselves.

        Yet, the body of Christ the earthly “Church” may at times need to say to those who stand outside the Unity of these words, that we the earthly “Church” cannot stand with them. The “Church” may stand apart but still love the one(s) who have declared they stand outside the circle of belief. I would not take that stand as so much judgement, as a loving separation if that be possible.

        Personally, I would rather consider the possibility they may be a part of the Spiritual Church, but in that realm, I do leave it up to God.

        The older I get, David, the simpler are my beliefs, though complicated they may be.

  3. Pingback: UM Fallout: A Compendium – People Need Jesus

  4. It’s more than ironic that you are writing about unity at this fractious moment. The rules are being snubbed or broken, the garments of authority torn asunder or mixed with impieties, the evangelical moment wasted, and the ordinary felicity of Methodism made preposterous by quenching of the Spirit. The foolishness of trying to build Christ’s Church on something less than firm footing has been demonstrated. Unity (John 17:20-23) is not a work of human magic or mandate.

    • Gary S.n— Thank you for a moment of clarity! “ Methodism made preposterous by quenching of the Spirit.”
      It is truly ironic that at such a moment in the history of the “United “ Methodist Church, theologians are pontificating on the “Inconclusive Musings on Unity.” The Methodist Church has lost the moral high ground to do so and its relevance in today’s society is likened to “Inconclusive Musings on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” The “United” Methodist Church’s actions speak so loudly, few even listen to what you say or write.

      • I don’t get what you’re saying here. What is objectionable about writing out my thoughts on Christian unity, even if they are unfinished? And in what way is a reflection on church unity like the old “angels on the head of a pin” question?

  5. The verse that comes to mind for me is second Timothy 2:19:
    “Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
    The church catholic is determined by Christ, not by us. However, we do have some indications of who is included and who isn’t by those who choose to “turn away from wickedness”. I’m not sure exactly how to apply that to denominations, possibly because they didn’t exist as we know them when Paul wrote the letter, but it does seem to be a bad sign for denominations that lean toward antinomianism.

Comments are closed.