In 1966, a songwriter by the name of Peter Scholte wrote a song that quickly became a theme for Christian unity around the world. It was called “We are One in The Spirit.” Churches still sing it decades later. The lyrics include –
- “We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord.”
- “And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.”
- “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
- “We will work with each other, We will work side by side.”
- “We will walk with each other, We will walk hand in hand.”
- “And together we’ll spread the News that God is in our land.”
That is a wonderfully “idealistic” song. How great it would be if Christians were one in the Spirit and one in the Lord, working side by side, walking hand in hand, spreading the news that God is in our land.
Jesus Christ is the greatest Idealist I’ve ever known. Jesus told His disciples – “I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Just moments before Jesus was arrested and taken to the Cross, He prayed to His Father a beautifully idealistic prayer:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” John 17:20-23
Jesus included you and me in His prayer (“those who will believe in Me through their word”). Unity, being one even as Jesus is One with His Father, is our Lord’s desire for His Church. So, how are we doing with that unity thing?
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (2011) there are about 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. Given that there is some overlapping because of cultural distinctions in some countries, the number is probably closer to about 38,000; still a very big number and a long way from the Lord’s ideal of unity – “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
It’s easy to look back and point our collective fingers at the Christians who came before us. How did the Church of the 1st Century AD go from “one” group of redeemed people to tens of thousands of groups in just 2,000 years? Well, think about what happened during those 2,000 years – more than 100,000 Sundays and more than 700,000 total days.
Christianity is lived out by Christians daily and from Sunday to Sunday. Even if Christians don’t see each other during the week, they see each other every Sunday during fellowship, study and worship. That’s millions of sermons, Bible studies, hymns, handshakes and hugs over a period of two millennia. A lot can happen to a growing group of people during that time, especially when they have an enemy of their unity working day and night, week after week, month after month, year after year.
What happened to the Church, the Body of Christ, during the past 2,000 years is that we had two kinds of “unity issues.” One was “doctrinal” unity and the other was “practical” unity. What do you see when you read the sermons and letters of pastors and other Church leaders in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries? Powerful defenses against direct attacks on the “doctrinal unity” of the Church. They preached against doctrinal error, taught against doctrinal error and went head to head with the leaders of doctrinal error.
Those spiritual battles of the early centuries of the Church led to a number of excommunications that caused many teachers of error to begin their own groups. Many of those “error” groups disappeared after their founders and/or second generation leaders died.
Schisms within the “professing” Church during the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries eventually led to the “Great Schism” of the 11th Century that saw a deep divide between the Western Church headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Church headquartered in Constantinople. That division included many bloody battles with Christians killing Christians, each side believing it was the continuation of the original Christian Church begun by Jesus Christ and His apostles. The division between East and West, though friendlier today, is still a major division.
The 14th and 15th centuries saw a split within the Catholic Church known as the “Western Schism.” Two men claimed to be the true pope at the same time. The two papal groups were headquartered in Rome and Avignon. The schism was more political than theological and the Council of Constance helped to bring the Western Schism to an end by the close of the 15th Century.
However, the Western Church was not finished with its problems because of deep theological issues. A protest within the Western Church to reform Catholic theology and practice led eventually to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Some of the seeds of reformation were sowed as early as the 14th Century with leaders like John Wycliffe of England and Jan Hus of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
The Reformation gained great momentum under Martin Luther, a German monk and professor of theology during the 16th Century. He opposed the Catholic practice of selling indulgences stating that salvation was by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (sola fide – by faith alone), not by works. Luther posted his famous Nine-Five Theses in 1517 A. His refusal to retract what he wrote led to the Catholic Church excommunicating him and Emperor Charles V condemning him as an outlaw. Other reformers of the 16th Century included John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli.
The Reformation led to what is known as Protestantism and a large number of “denominations.” One aspect of theology that most Protestant groups agreed on was a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church claim to be the “true Church of Jesus Christ.” That’s where agreement ends for many Protestants. The fact that there are more than 33,000 Protestant denominations is evidence that they have many disagreements theologically and practically.
Will Christians ever be united again on earth? Most likely not. Will Christians ever be united again? Absolutely. In Heaven. I find no evidence in the Bible that there are thousands of divisions in Heaven based on earthly divisions among God’s people. Some of the last words of Revelation are insightful as to who we will be in Heaven.
“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.” Revelation 22:1-5
“His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads.”
What name will be on our heads? Baptist? Catholic? Presbyterian? Brethren? Apostolic? Methodist? Orthodox? Pentecostal? Lutheran? Anglican? Episcopal? Reformed? Covenant? Congregational? Mennonite? Missionary? Nazarene? Grace? Gospel? No. The Name on our heads will be His Name. We belong to the Lord God and we will carry His Name into eternity. Not the name of a human division of the Church Jesus is building.
The True Church of Jesus Christ (made up of true believers – those who are truly saved and members of the Body of Christ) is under pressure to do something today that it should not do. The Church is being asked to flip its Unity priorities from Doctrinal-Practical to Practical-Doctrinal. I’ll explain what that is and how dangerous it is to the health and mission of the Church next time.
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”