28 March 2013

The Basis of Christian Unity

cross1In Western culture, where the strength and influence of the church is declining, there is more need than ever for Christian unity. It’s a great sadness to actually see that whilst the church in Scotland faces challenges from without and within, unity seems to be somewhere near the bottom of the agenda. The moves in the Church of Scotland towards sanctioning the ordination of active homosexuals are testing our calling to unity as Scottish Christians. Some see schism as the answer (the antithesis of unity) and, sadly, some see the problems of others as an opportunity for growth.
Recently, I read again Professor Donald Macleod’s article ‘The Basis of Christian Unity’ published in Evangel in 1985. It is reproduced in the Christian Focus publication Priorities for the Church (which, if you haven’t got it, you should get). The opening of the article is striking:
It is very tempting to regard doctrinal agreement as the basis of Christian unity. We must resist the temptation, however. The basis lies much deeper. The real foundation of our oneness is our common membership of the body of Christ.
I would guess that after these opening four sentences, some readers would be dismissing the entire article. If that is true, it just illustrates how far we have drifted from the historic, Reformed understanding of the church and of Christian unity. Macleod quotes from Calvin, Owen and Hodge to back up his case. He summarises:
This is the clear New Testament position: we are one not because of a common polity or a common belief but because we are all Christians.
I’m glad Macleod puts it like that. The Reformed view of the church is not primarily political, or cultural, but is the most serious attempt to do justice to the New Testament scriptures themselves. For Presbyterians, their Reformed heritage provides an anchor to the NT whose chain runs through the Apostles, Church Fathers and the Reformers themselves.
Macleod continues:
Because we are united at this level, we owe one another, simply as Christians, recognition, love and co-operation. We have no right to insist on some other condition. We are one in Christ.
This unity operates on an objective level. We are so keen to turn to the idea of the ‘invisible’ church to justify our lack of unity, but as Macleod pointedly writes:
The believer is not an idea but flesh and blood. The Church is not an idea but flesh and blood. The unity of the church must have the same visible, concrete reality.
The unity of the church must be given practical, structural expression. In recognition, love and co-operation. It’s no good just to talk about it. And that’s why schism is not the answer. Schism disunites, and denies the unity of those who are Christians. And it’s also why inactivity in ecumenism, whether because of fear (usually of what others might think) or distrust, is inexcusable.