Ice cubes have come a long way. A century ago, they were delivered in one enormous block. During childhood, my family used ice cube trays. Today, it is even simpler. If you fill a beverage cooler before a picnic or ball game, you need not even touch a tray. Simply position your container before a refrigerator with an ice dispenser, push the button, and watch the cubes roll out the door.
As the ice cube has gone, so has the evangelical Protestant movement. At least in Western culture religious identity is no longer defined by the block (the Catholic Church) or the tray (a denomination in which there’s a shared ecclesial structure). Instead, evangelicals often operate as individuals who roll out the door with little-to-no commitment to church membership. Here is how pastor Josh Moody of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, describes the change:
We, in conservative Christian circles, have vigorously maintained the message of the gospel but, at least in some areas and among some movements, have begun to lose any profound grasp of the community of Christ. We have rightly said that a relationship with God is a personal matter. In our context, though, it has become but a step, and a step many of us have unthinkingly taken, to acquiesce that a relationship with God is a purely individual matter. This is practical heterodoxy. Jesus said you can identify his disciples by the kind of relationship they have with one another, by the “love” they have for one another.
The history of Christian thought leaves no place for unbridled individualism. The Nicene Creed declares that we are “one church” (unam ecclesiam), and according to the Westminster Confession, such oneness has implications for our corporate identity: “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (25:1). In other words, when God redeems us, he births us into his community. We are the bride of Christ. There is only one bride.
A robust ecclesiology recognizes that in uniting with other believers we constitute something greater than our individual selves, for in Christ we represent living stones that God joins to form a spiritual house (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-10), members who are organically connected to one another (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31). In the words of New Testament scholar Robert Banks, “Paul’s understanding of community is nothing less than the gospel in corporate form!” Insofar as our communities proclaim the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Banks is right.
Implications for Unity
There are a few outstanding implications of the church’s oneness. First, we should be leery of the kind of unity that lays claim to oneness at the expense of doctrinal substance. John Calvin said, “Those who wish to build the church by rejecting the doctrine of the Word build a pigpen and not the church of God.” Authentic unity is based on specific content. For evangelical Protestantism, it is the evangel: the good news of Jesus death and resurrection, resulting in new life for those who believe, informed and applied by the whole counsel of God. Dialogue with other Christian traditions is valuable only so long as we don’t forget that genuine unity is grounded in the gospel.
Second, the oneness of the church should help us to avoid the sort of provincialism and fragmentation that comes from exaggerating nonessential doctrines, personal preferences, and intramural debates. Such divisions often undermine the unity of the Spirit, which God intends for us to preserve. In Samuel Rutherford’s words, “It is a fearful sin to make a rent and a hole in Christ’s mystical body because there is a spot in it.” To avoid this error, the apostle Paul admonished his readers to be of one mind in the Spirit, joined and knit together (1 Cor. 3:1-17; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:1-16), avoiding the tendency of rallying behind religious rock stars (1 Cor. 1:10-17), as is the habit of some.
Finally, it is imperative that we preserve the unity that God has established (Eph. 4:3). It was for this unity that the Lord Jesus himself prayed when he asked the Father to make us “one,” just as the triune God is One (John 17:11). With this calling in view, John Murray wrote, “If we are once convinced of the evil of schism in the body of Christ: we shall then be constrained to preach the evil, to bring conviction to the hearts of others also, to implore God’s grace and wisdom in remedying the evil, and to devise ways and means of healing these ruptures.”
If Murray is right, pastors and church leaders should regularly consider how to heal church divisions and promote visible unity, that is, in our own congregations and across town with that other evangelical church. Anything less falls short of our calling.