A Protestant Vision for Unity

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Dear Joel,

What I would like to do in this letter is sketch a Protestant vision for the unity of the Church. It is important to emphasize from the start that I am not addressed how unified the Church ought to be, but rather how unified the Church will be.

The vexed question of church unity is like the woman in the gospels—the more the physicians treat her, the worse she seems to get. In large measure, this is because church leaders (naturally enough) tend to place the locus of unity in government. But we need to reexamine this. Of course, governmental unity among all Christians is certainly to be desired, but is it the foundation of all unity or an instrument that will be used by God to advance that unity? Is governmental unity the foundation or the final fruit of a biblical striving toward unity? Fortunately, the Bible tells us where to look the answers to these questions.

The same Paul who tells us to labor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace also tells us the basis of that unity. He tells us that we as Christians are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling as Christians (Eph. 4:1). Our demeanor in this is to be one of humility and patience (v. 2). With this attitude, we are equipped to obey his next command, which is the command to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (v. 3). This unity is to be kept by us, not created by us. Armed with the right attitude, assigned the right task, what we now need is the right foundation. What foundation does Paul declare as the basis of this unity?

There is already one body because there is one Spirit. There is one hope of our calling. One Lord. There is only one faith. There is only one baptism. And above, through and in us, there is one God and Father (vv. 4-6). In heaven is the triune God, and on earth we find a common confessed faith and a common baptism—Word and sacrament. It is striking that there are no governmental bonds referred to here; the bonds are of another nature entirely. He does not list one holy Father in Rome. Nor does he say one ecumencial headquarters in New York. He does not refer to summit leadership conferences in Colorado Springs. When Paul is appealing to Christians to maintain the unity they already have, he appeals to them on this basis—one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Of course, this does not mean that government is irrelevant to this question of unity. In the next breath, Paul goes on to say that the one Lord ascended into heaven, and from that exalted place He gave the gift of godly ministry to men. “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). The reason He did this was so that these officers would labor in the perfecting of the saints, building up the body of Christ until we all come to the unity of the faith (vv. 12-13). The task before these officers is the presentation of a perfect man, a Church that has grown up into the measure of the fullness of Christ (v. 13).

This means the saints are exhorted to have an attitude of humility and patience as they endeavor to preserve that measure of unity they already have, a unity created by the Spirit of God. At the same time, they clearly do not yet have the full measure of the unity that God intends for His Church. Because of the unity we have, we are to strive for the unity we do not have. So Paul teaches first that we have a unity that must be preserved. He also teaches that we do not yet have full unity, for that is the pastoral and eschatological goal of those faithful officers, given by Christ, who labor in the Church. And the unity we already have is a unity based upon the unity of God, the unity declared in baptism in the triune Name.

Faithful pastors therefore advance the work of true unity. Unfaithful teachers disrupt that unity and so their lying ministries must themselves be disrupted. As unity grows under a faithful ministry, we are no longer children, tossed to and fro by televangelists, or carried about by every contradictory wind of doctrine to blow out of the magisterium. The work of true unity is not advanced by an irenicism that tolerates the “sleight of men.” A shepherd who tolerates wolves is a shepherd who hates his own sheep. A shepherd who loves his sheep is one who fights the wolves. And the wolves in sheeps’ clothing don’t like this, not at all, and so they always raise a great cry—unity!

In dealing with this threat, faithful pastors do not declaim from the pulpit about “wolves abstractly considered.” They name names, like Hymaneus and Alexander. And that is why it is treachery to the cause of true unity to refuse to point out obvious departures from the faith—regardless of the honored position of the one departing. “If we or an angel from heaven . . .” If there really were an unbroken magisterium, a united confession going back to the apostles, a unanimous consent of the fathers, no one would be more excited about it than I. But when such authority is claimed, and cannot be established from the Scriptures, and contradicts itself in a thousand ways even when evaluated in accordance with its own principles, a faithful minister can only label it as a deception.

But pastors are to labor to this end of unity by speaking the truth in love, in order that the already unified body might become unified. We are growing up into our head, the Lord Jesus Christ. From Him, the whole body is being joined together—and the picture here of being joined and compacted as every joint supplies is an image of being knit together in the womb (vv. 15-16). There is an essential unity in an embryo, but there is also a much higher unity toward which the embryo is growing. Many complaints about the “disunity” of the Church are actually complaints about how God knits in the darkness of the womb. We look over His shoulder and have the temerity to criticize what He is doing there. But we must go by what the Word says, and not by what we see.

So as we grow up toward this unity, to extend the metaphor, we necessarily fight false teachers who want to introduce their birth defects into the process. As we love one another in all humility and stand for the truth in love, we advance the cause of unity in truth. God directs how this process will finally culminate. Our task is not to oversee the whole process, but rather to be faithful and obedient in our small portion of it.

We therefore affirm a doctrine of apostolic succession, but this is not a succession of ordinations. That is not the basis of unity. Rather, it is a succession of baptisms, and all that those baptisms represent. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. There will be more on this in another letter. But we receive our inheritance from our Christian past, and we perpetuate it as we evangelize non-believers and bring up our children in the faith. We do so by means of Word and sacrament, preaching and baptism. This is the unity we have received from God. As we recognize that all covenant members have received this common inheritance, this gives us the foundation from which to work on improving that unity. We are an embryo in the womb. To look for full governmental unity now is to look for a kid in the second trimester to grow Aaron’s beard, so that the oil can run down it, to use a grotesque image.

This is why the postmillennial vision is so important. Postmillennialism argues (on exegetical grounds) that the Church will see days of glory in the future far surpassing anything we have seen up to this point. Postmillennialism argues that the Church is in fact still an embryo, and that we will one day be a perfect man. We are not yet that perfect man. Assuming that this is God’s decree (that will come to pass) means that I am obligated as a faithful servant to work and labor in the direction of that decree. I assume that you are postmillennial in your eschatology, but I want to show why this is so important for classical Protestants. Without it, there is no way to keep Protestant churches from disintegrating into a sect mentality. If God has no plan for the Church in history, then we need not have one. If there is no telos, toward which we are growing, then we do not have to have any regard for it. In another variation of this, if the “perfect man” that the Bible talks about is manifest only in heaven, then there is no pressing need to strive toward that perfect man on earth.

Consequently, in my view, the error of Protestant sects is that of assuming that God has no earthly plan for the history of the institutional Church—in short, that there is no embryo. What you see around you is what God wanted from the beginning, which is to say, a fragmented, scattered collection of churches. All things will be put right in heaven, they affirm, but in the meantime the earthly pandemonium is actually a design feature.

But the contrary error of Rome is that of assuming the embryo is already fully grown in all essential respects. But this means an a priori inability to see a new historic work of the Spirit. The historic Protestant looks at the current problems and affirms that God is sovereign over all such apparent impediments. The sin will be dealt with, and some things that looked like a bad business to us will actually be revealed as having a larger divine purpose. When God wants to knit a perfect man throughout the course of a sinful, fallen world, He does so. The fact that He knows what He is doing should be apparent to us by now. But we continue to write Him off, as though His prophecies on this subject will somehow fall to the ground.

This means that I believe in the eventual reunion of all covenantal communions. This extends even to the Jews, as Paul notes in Romans 11. If wild olive branches could be grafted into the cultivated tree and yet grow, what will happen when the natural branches are grafted back in? Life from the dead. The only communions that will not be grafted back into the one olive tree will be those communions that no longer exist. The church in Ephesus had her lampstand removed, and the church is no longer there at all. No one is there except for the tourists among the ruins.

Paul expressly warned the church at Rome that she was vulnerable to the same judgment that befell the Jews, and that she had to guard against the hubris that set the Jews up for their fall. I do not believe they heeded the warning, just as the Jews did not. But this does not slow God down any—let God be true and every man a liar. If Rome was cut out, she can be grafted back in. If Rome was not cut out, but only radically cut back, she will flourish and bear evangelical fruit once again.

So this is what I mean by eventual reunion: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one church.

Cordially in Christ,

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