January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Churchgoers of all varieties get together to celebrate their unity. Did I say, all? Sorry about that. Let me rephrase, “Christians of many varieties.” Not all Christians get along with each other. It’s a shame. We are still too territorial and tribal. It’s not that we are intentionally mean-spirited about it; it’s that we have not tried hard enough to work together. We have not yet exhausted our options in interdenominational cooperation. Jesus expected something better of us.
The modern ecumenical movement had its roots in a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland 1910. It was initiated to promote a unified message of the gospel of Jesus Christ in foreign countries. A cooperative effort, it was thought, would be less confusing than every church marketing its own particular brand of Christianity. It was an admirable evangelical ideal.
As the, now, 100 year-old movement morphed into the World Council of Churches, its theological emphasis shifted more toward social action, humanitarian relief, and justice issues. While these are important dimensions of the Christian faith, evangelicals fear the adoption of liberal theology resulted in the neglect of the missional proclamation of the gospel. To protect the church from becoming merely another social agency, many groups of evangelicals withdrew from, or refused to join, the WCC. For some denominations the whole movement was an apocalyptic sign of the end times.
Christian Unity is not about morphing our denominations into a big super church. The week of Prayer for Christian Unity is not governed by past errors, ignorance or prejudice. The imagined hope for a Christian church organized into a single group is not the emphasis this week. It never was. Organizational ecumenism has been a dismal failure.
Christian Unity is not about trying to find the lowest common denominator of beliefs and throwing the rest away as irrelevant. But, not everything is on the same level. Whether or not one wears a clerical collar is not at the same level as whether or not one believes in the Holy Trinity or Jesus Christ as the Son of God, our Saviour and Lord of the Universe. Many things we do in 90 minutes on Sunday mornings can remain conversation topics as we make our way peacefully to heaven.
A case could be made that all that divides us is precisely what we do for 90 minutes on a Sunday and little else.
Christian unity is about affirming what unites us as people of God who sing praises to God, pray to God, listen to God’s Word, obey God’s will, serve God’s people, and care for God’s world. It is not about wearing our differences on our sleeves. It is not that differences are unimportant. It is that the differences are unimportant this week. All Christians affirm that the core issues of the faith are broadly structured in the ancient creeds. After that core, different groups design working regulations related to such things as the amount of water needed for baptism, the issue of prepared or free prayers, the length of sermons, types of clergy dress, etc. These things do not define who is and who is not a Christian.
Unity must relate to the core of the faith not periphery matters.
Vincent of Lerins, a fifth-century Christian, acknowledged the widely held consensus that unity existed around the convergence of that which was accepted everywhere, always, and by all. Ideas that conflicted with the generally received faith were not to be considered core issues. If the church confesses it worldwide, if the apostles taught it, if it has survived the test of time, then believe it and affirm it. Other stuff can be matters of conversation. As Thomas Oden once said, “Orthodoxy has a long memory.” We are not going to forfeit the faith if Christians from one church fellowships with Christians from another.
We are not compromising the faith by praying with and for each other this week. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” It’s a good rule of thumb. This week we will affirm our unity. “We are one in Christ,” Paul said in Galatians 3:28. It was not just his opinion. What Holy Scripture affirms, God affirms. Preach it. Teach it. Live like it’s true. It is. Get with the program!
About Dr. Garry Milley
Dr. Garry E. Milley is an ordained PAOC minister, author, and speaker. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org