What is Church unity? Seriously, what does it mean for the Church to be united?
Later this afternoon, I’ll attend a Presbytery meeting where we’ll discuss the creation of a “gracious dismissal” policy for churches from our Presbytery who want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). To state it plainly, our denomination is dividing. The reasons are complex and more than I want to write about here, but across the country churches are leaving either for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church or for the newly created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). I attended part of the Fellowship of Presbyterians conference in Florida two weeks ago where ECO was unveiled in John Ortberg’s compelling vision-casting sermon. More than 10% of the congregations in the denomination were represented at the Fellowship’s two gatherings in the past year. Almost as many people attended each of those gatherings as attend the PC(USA)’s biennial General Assembly, our national governing meeting. These divisions can’t be ignored or dismissed. And I have very mixed feelings about all of this.
On the one hand, I grieve any division in the Church. Schism is never God’s intention for the Church. But on the other hand, the creation of a new denomination is really only giving concrete shape to an ideological schism which has been present for decades. In the New Testament, unity in the Church often means being of “one mind” (Acts 2:46, Philippians 2:1-2). But what does it really mean to be of “one mind?” There was room in the New Testament Church for ethnic and cultural diversity (Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 15, Galatians 3). And theological diversity was even present to an extent. The writers of the New Testament clearly emphasize different theological concepts and different aspects of the faith. But for the most part, these cultural and theological differences in the New Testament are harmonious. They’re different notes that still sound like they fit in a chord or scale together. Unfortunately, the PC(USA) is, and has long been, at the point where the different notes we hear aren’t even in the same key. The differences make a cacophony rather than music.
Ephesians 4 begins by calling the Church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (NASB). These verses are quoted in our Presbytery’s “Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement”, the intention being to emphasize tolerance. But I think we often ignore what Ephesians 4 goes on to say about Church unity. Paul says gifts were given to the Church to build up the Body of Christ . . .
until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness and deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fittted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:13-15 NASB)
Maturity in Christ, according to this passage, includes unity in doctrine. But the passage doesn’t speak about such maturity or unity as something which we’ve already attained. It’s a process. We’re growing together toward maturity in Christ, and as we become more mature in Christ individually, the more united we become in terms of our belief. We’re not there yet. We’re far from it, and it will take a lifetime to get there.
I personally have no intention of leaving the denomination. Neither does my church. But I can’t say I’m of one mind with everyone in the PC(USA). And yet I don’t want to invest my energy in division. I sympathize with those desiring “gracious dismissal”, but at this point I would rather spend my time and energy seeking maturity in Christ. I have close friends in this Church with whom I disagree on certain issues, but I’m confident we’re seeking maturity in Christ together. I want to trust that if we are each on the road to sanctification, each trusting that “He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), each striving to enter through the small gate and walk the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 6:14), God will lead us to such unity in faith and maturity in Christ.