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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Christian Unity is Inconceivable": I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

In just a few short years (2017) Lutherans and many other Protestants will be celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the start of the Reformation. And I will be joining them.

I couldn't have said that even a year ago, and I'm a little surprised to be saying it now. But I've realized "celebrating" is a loose term for something like this. Many Lutherans are wary of rubbing salt in an old Catholic wound. And many Catholics see Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses not as the splintering of a wooden door but as a sad splintering of the Church.

But there is something to celebrate in 500 years of progress and distance from such a chaotic time for Christianity. What literally resulted in countless deaths on both sides - Christian killing Christian - is now a vague memory for most though certainly not all. With the growth of tolerance, dialogue, and ecumenicism, such bitter differences are often forgotten. And for the Global South, the theological debates of 16th century Europe seem more a footnote than a present and divisive reality. These debates are by no means irrelevant but they can be subordinated to the gospel, which I truly believe spans denominations.

The Catholic Church had a schism with the East before all of this, of course. And Protestants have had splits numbering in the thousands since. Rome has made significant progress with the East and Lutherans and Anglicans but significant barriers still remain for all denominational relationships.

So how will Christian Unity be realized? Will it happen in our lifetime? How will Christians come back together after such theological differences? Simple: through you.

The gospel is never a message taught to other people, out there, nameless and faceless potential converts. It's a message for you. Christ's call is directly to you, to care for the poor and the helpless, to take up your cross daily and follow in his path.

There is a long history of seeing Christ's garment at the crucifixion, the one that had lots cast for it, as a symbol of the Christian Church; it can't be divided. In Catholicism we call the Eucharist the Corpus Verum - the Real/True Body of Christ and we call the Church the Corpus Mysticum - the Mystical Body of Christ. But in the Early Church it was exactly the opposite! The Eucharist was called the Mystical Body of Christ and the believers were the Real and True Body of Christ. Isn't that interesting?

Some Christians earnestly believe that in our lifetime Christian denominational differences will melt away or be reconciled. I was speaking with a friend about this recently and she and I both shared an attitude: more power to them! If you believe such unity is on it's way, that is wonderful. I'm afraid that I can hope for that kind of unity but I'm not confident in it. I don't know if it will ever happen.

But there is another church where Christian Unity can not only be realized but can flourish - in you, in your person and body as temple, in your home and community as the "domestic church."

I doubt unity will come through official denominational pronouncements and creeds. The split in churches came from the top down. It came from the clerics and the church hierarchy. I truly believe the healing for the wound will come from the laity.

How? By your life.

When I became Catholic my whole world was already Protestant. Apart from my godfather, I didn't know Catholics. Virtually all of my friends and family were Protestant and that was fine by me. Since moving away from college I have had the chance to determine what community I belong to and where I invest my time and being.

In moving to Wheaton and since I have made conscious choices to invest myself and live in community with people who don't believe the same theology as me. Full disclosure, this hasn't always been easy. But it's no more difficult than realizing that even people who agree with your particular view of Christianity will give you problems.

I am particularly committed to Ecumenicism. Completely. Even this blog doesn't have Catholics as its intended audience. I choose to live in community with great people, to break bread weekly with them, to engage in prayer together, to serve them, and all of this with believers who aren't Catholic.

If we believe Christian Unity is possible, are we waiting for Rome or our church leaders to tell us when we're united? Will your life change after hearing that? I doubt it would. Instead, we can realize such unity right now through our lives with one another.

We are called to image God, who is the diversity of the Trinity and yet the union of One. And we're called to image God with our very lives. Once you realize that, having "Christians not like you" as friends, as confidants, as family, isn't an issue at all. We say "brothers and sisters in Christ", so why not actually live as if that were true? To me that means sharing your life fully with others whether that's community or intimate friendship or even marriage. That would be the ultimate image of unity: the unity of a husband and wife (who are declared "one") who don't agree on theology but still agree on the gospel. I don't think anyone is condemned for not being willing to have a close relationship with a non-'whatever you are' Christian. But I do think if that is your choice, you can't claim that what unites all Christians is more important than denominational theology. What determines your choices is actually what is most important to you, and whatever that is you should be proud of that stance.

According to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, Catholics and Protestants “have come to acknowledge that more unites than divides them.” More unites us than divides us. That's really the very simple attitude that Christian unity requires.

I think unity means risking ourselves in these ways and it will take on different forms depending on who you are. But I think unity means relationship with one another. It means not saying, "you're the wrong kind of Christian for me to be in relationship with" to our brothers and sisters. And it means taking responsibility for actually living Christian Unity ourselves and not waiting for 'those other Christians' to come around to our own supposedly right way of thinking.


  1. This blog and its comment threads seem to achieve a measure of what you've talked about. If Christ is rightfully at the center of all these religious sects, there is no reason not to unite under that common banner as brothers and sisters. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and for being such an exemplary Christian :)

  2. I sincerely hope that kind of unity can be glimpsed on here. Thanks, Richelle!