Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos
Unity. Anyone who is against unity in our day and age is suspect. Our culture loves the idea of unity. In fact, we all like the idea of unity.
However, we must be careful when we talk and think about unity in the church. I have had multiple conversations over the past few months about ecclesial unity. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have been in the context of ministry peers and dear friends leaving Reformed Christianity for Roman Catholicism. One of the points that consistently emerges in these conversations is that Protestants are divisive. We are a people who began with the banner of disunity and we continue to perpetuate it as we divide among ourselves. This is one of the reasons given for joining the Roman Church. Other discussions have centered around denominations that have wandered theologically and the remaining conservative churches are charged with being divisive if they even hint at the idea of separating from what has become a wayward denomination.
This is an important conversation and is to be taken seriously. Unity is not just something we like. It is something our Lord desires and loves. It was the central theme of His high priestly prayer in John 17, so it is no small thing when we begin talking about disunity in the church.
As I think about ecclesial unity, there are two different types of unity we must acknowledge. And this is often missed. The first type is institutional unity. When converts to Roman Catholicism critique their former Protestant heritage for beginning with disunity and continuing to evidence it by the spawning of new denominations–they are speaking of institutional disunity. When theological liberals argue that conservative churches choosing to leave the denomination are disrupting unity–it is institutional unity they have in mind.
And yet, institutional unity can only be maintained if there is the second and more foundational kind of unity–theological. Theological unity is the ground for all institutional unity. No Theological unity, no institutional unity.
The individuals and churches that eventually became the Protestant churches of the Reformation were not sowing disunity. Conservative churches leaving denominations which have become theologically liberal are not sowing disunity. Is there division? Yes. Has institutional unity been disrupted? Yes. But the house could not stand, because the foundation had disappeared.
The disunity was caused by the abandonment of the historical-theological-biblical unity of these entities. The Medieval Roman Catholic Church went “off the reservation” theologically and by so doing it sowed disunity with those who preceded it, some within it, and those who dared to follow and hold to historical-theological-biblical Christianity. This is Calvin’s very point in the Institutes. In his prefatory letter to King Francis he rightfully asserts that Protestant theology is nothing new. Rather, it is what the church fathers taught. He says in the prefatory address, “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of the victory–to put it modestly–would turn to our side.” And so it is Protestant theology that is maintaining unity. It is maintaining the unity of the Church, because it is continuing the teaching of the Scriptures as understood historically by the Church. The institutional disunity that Protestants were being accused of emerged in the Reformation not by their fault. Rather, the lack of theological unity the Medieval Roman Catholic church maintained with the early church and historical Christian teaching according to the Scriptures was the cause of institutional disunity.
In the same way, conservative churches that choose to depart from a denomination that has wandered away from its confessions or historical theological tenants are not causing disunity. The hen house has been disrupted, but the hens leaving the house are not the cause. It is the foreign fox that was let in, has been entertained, and has taken up residence in a place it did not belong. Disunity is not caused by leaving. Rather, it was precipitated by those who accepted an aberrant theology within its bounds.
Martin Luther was not the wild boar who disrupted the vineyard. Machen was not the culprit who caused the conflict that divided the northern Presbyterian church. The founding fathers of my own denomination, the PCA, did not sow the seeds of disunity that caused the division of the southern Presbyterian church. Did they each follow and choose a course that resulted in institutional disunity? Yes. But their course was not set by them, but by those who chose to change the teaching and theology of the Church. The seeds of disunity were sowed years before. Institutional unity is to be sought in the church, but always upon the foundation of truth. And it cannot be maintained any other way. Our theological unity must be preserved so that there is institutional unity. And unity is something to be desired and loved.