Oh That They Would Be One…
A Baptist and a Presbyterian were discussing the ever-controversial issue of baptism, and the validity of sprinkling versus immersion. After some fruitless debate the Presbyterian asked,
‘Tell me, if the water comes up to the waist is a person validly baptized?’
‘No,’ said the Baptist.
‘If it comes up to their shoulders are they baptized?’ he asked again.
‘No, they are not,’ replied the Baptist.
‘If the water comes up to their nostrils are they baptized,’ the Presbyterian came back with.
‘No,’ responded the Baptist, ‘unless the top of their head is covered in water, they are not baptized.’
‘Good,’ said the Presbyterian, ‘because that’s precisely where we baptize them.’
Baptism is only one of the many issues that have divided churches, ancient and modern.
Whether the Lord’s Supper or baptisms we share in, our debates are only the tip of the theological iceberg that has been afloat for centuries. Different opinions have led to different churches, and so today, at last count there were 20,000 different groups claiming to be Christian as churches and fellowships.
Will we ever become one? Can our divisions ever be healed? Can our differences ever be settled? Will we ever become united?
A teenager the other week was close to becoming a Christian, and then seeking a distraction said, ‘but there are so many divisions in the church, how would I know which church to go to if I became a Christian?’
I of course suggested this church as one that would meet her needs well, but it is interesting to note the perceptions of division that exist in the minds of ordinary people.
‘I’ll come to church when the churches unite,’ someone said to me.
It’s interesting how we don’t always think this way in other facets of life. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I’ll never be involved in Rotary, Provis or Lions until they all get together.’
We don’t really expect that to happen or see a need for it. They are all meeting human needs in some way through their diversity.
Can we say the same about our different churches?
The Pentecostals help people who want an especially strong emotional experiential dimension to their faith. Catholicism and Anglicanism (Pilgrim) meet the needs of those who like liturgy, stability and pageantry. Other distinct needs are met through the Baptists, the Church of Christ and so on.
The Uniting Church? What do we represent?
Our church came into existence with a strong ecumenical vision. That vision represented what is distinctive about us as a group. We modeled unity by coming together, most of us anyhow, and then invited others to think about what unity might mean for them.
But we have found largely that there is little interest in ecumenical visions for the future, and so our church has headed nationally in other directions.
In Australia and overseas communities ecumenism is either dead or at least malingering. Sure there are small local groups talking together, and in our local area one could be at a minster’s fraternal at least weekly if that was what one wanted, but these are largely pragmatic groups with very little theological biblical discussion.
One of the great hindrances to any further ecumenical progress concerns the ordination of women. That is not substantially an issue for us as a Uniting Church. We have long recognized that God distributes gifts irrespective of gender, and gifts given are expected to be used.
That theology of the Holy Spirit transcends the local limitations that Paul spoke of at Corinth and elsewhere that demanded the non-participation of women in those local circumstances. And yet even having embraced that theology as a church, there is still a lot of reluctance to actually call a woman.
Many say we think it is a great idea for women to be ministers, but don’t send one here. Or, we are not ready yet. We ask for more time to get used to the idea, and so we resist what God is doing in our church and age.
The church however always weakens itself to the extent that it fails to use the gifts God gives His people, it even weakens itself through disobedience in the face of God’s new work.
And where it is weak it will not fulfill Jesus’ call to unity, not that unity should necessarily be an organic one. That is, we could all be together under one denominational banner but be disunited in fellowship and theology.
The church was in fact largely united up until 1054 when the Great Schism took place and the Eastern Orthodox Church came into existence.
Yet even before then there were differences, divisions, disputes which led to the formulation of the creeds we have had handed down to us.
Even Peter and Paul had some major disagreements, as you read in Galatians.
It seems as though some division will always be with us until Christ is all in all forever. And yet this is not desirable, is it?
In John 17: 21, our Lord prayed that we who believed in later generations would all be one, as Christ and the Father are one in will and task and love.
Jesus says that our unity within the church is the most potent of all evangelists. As verse 21 continues, ‘through unity, the world will believe that You have sent me.’ And in verse 23, ‘through your unity they will know that you have sent me in healing forgiving love.’
The world is not used to seeing unity today, whether through political brawling, council rancor, division between labor and management, or divisions between races.
United Nations members, or even in our families at times, there are very few models of contemporary unity for people to see. We live in a highly stratified society divided in many ways. How powerful a witness can Christian unity be in such a time. And it need not necessarily be the kind of unity outside of our control, such as discussions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and the tensions that sometimes come up.
In an inter-faith service, an independent Methodist was assigned to read Scripture and then introduce and Anglican priest who would lead in prayer. Uncertain about being associated with this kind of gathering he struggled to get out the words of introduction after his reading.
‘I would like to present Fa… Fa… Father Smith,’ but then added, ‘And Father Smith will no doubt read one of those pre-written Anglican prayers.’
Father Smith stood up, approached the pulpit, turned and smiled at the United Methodist and said, ‘Would you join me? Our Father, who art in heaven…’
It is the positive interaction between members of different churches that will promote unity. Unity will not come from the top down, from agreed theological statements, but from Christian people uniting as Christians.
One example of this was in one community where the Jews offered to help the Christians. They offered to work for any Christians who would usually have to work on Christmas Day. And the substitutes would accept no pay. So 60 Jews – doctors, waitresses, nurses and truck drivers all moved in and took over. They also offered a large number of baby sitters so that Christian families might be freed to go to church. The director Herman Breitkopf said, ‘We plan to continue this annually. It is our hope that we can serve more and more of our Christian friends in the future.’
They may not accept the Messiah, but they may accept us, and we them. Perhaps we can make a gesture of welcome to our Jewish friends as they begin to worship in our area soon.
You may be able to think of other possibilities as you pray for Christian unity. Perfect unity will not come in this lifetime, but provisional unity can.
Let each of us work towards Christian unity with other believers, here and elsewhere so that we are unified with them in will, love and purpose.
By George Robert Iles