The trouble is we’re all wrong while we’re also all right.
Jesus is quoted as saying in John 17:20-23 (NIV), regarding those who would be His disciples based on the message the apostles delivered:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Assuming “complete unity” is an accurate translation of the intention of the Greek in that statement, it’s safe to say that Christians have decidedly fallen short of Jesus’ intention in the 2,000 years since His ascension. We’re split along a myriad of doctrinal differences and denominational lines.
Though, to be sure, differences in some doctrine is to be expected and is acceptable. That’s nothing new and is chronicled in the New Testament and throughout Church history. Dealing with false teachers who pervert important aspects of the Christian message while claiming to represent it is likewise old hat as described in the same sources.
What is novel, relatively speaking, are the large number of denominational splits that have happened after the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Prior to the Reformation, the Church had experienced only a handful of schisms that resulted in separate Christian groups (the Nestorians and the large break between Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox being two examples). Thousands upon thousands of splits have happened since then.
Why does it matter? I think it grieves God’s heart or else He wouldn’t have mentioned its importance in scripture. If it’s important to God, it should be important to His followers. We need to be working towards unity, complete unity, far more urgently than most are.
We do live in an age in which ecumenism is bearing more fruit than it has in hundreds and hundreds of years, but I’d like to suggest we collectively push the envelope even further as laity and clergy.
I don’t think complete unity needs to look like all of us worshiping within the same denomination and accepting the same rules. I do, however, think it means we all need to realize how much of the universal Christian heritage we are missing out on if we limit ourselves to only our own small picture of Christianity within whatever tradition we associate with.
We also need to humble ourselves as Paul admonished, considering others as better than ourselves, something ironically we as Christians are loathe to do with our fellow Christians.
Because, as I stated at the beginning, the truth is we’re all wrong while we’re also all right. My tradition is within Protestantism, and I can tell you there is a ton that is horribly wrong inherent within the hodgepodge of ideologies that comprise the tradition, but there are also truths about Christianity within Protestantism that aren’t within Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The same can be said for those two venerable traditions.
I absolutely love both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. As a Christian who understands himself to be orthodox, I want to claim that the best of their traditions are my traditions. I don’t want to consider myself as “Protestant,” but as a Christian who belongs in the stream that is the best of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
I remain connected to a Protestant church both because of my love for the community I belong to and because I believe the Holy Spirit has validated legitimate Christian worship (via the celebration of Holy Communion and the consecrating of a priesthood) apart from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which recognize the validity of each others’ orders but not those of any Protestant group.
That, I think, is one key area that Protestantism is correct where the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not: the apostolic succession – as a direct and uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority – is not requisite for the legitimacy of the priesthood. It is unclear whether a purely uninterrupted transmission is even present within Catholicism itself. Surely the spirit of this belief is accurate – that wherever possible, succession is desired and encouraged – but the affirmation of the Holy Spirit in worship settings apart from Catholicism demonstrates in my mind that God isn’t hung up on the succession when it comes to showing up, moving and blessing people in worship and through the sacraments.
Protestantism goes dangerously off the rails in a number of other areas, though. Apostasy arises from Protestantism seemingly far more frequently than other versions of Christianity, and undeniably some real activity of a spirit of division is in the midst of many who identify as Protestant. There is no other way to explain the exponentially larger number of schisms and splits that occur within Protestantism than to acknowledge a very real spiritual problem.
What can unite those of us who consider ourselves orthodox across denominations is the recognition and acknowledgement of the shared history and tradition we all agree on which, I would wager, is actually the vast majority of our tradition (well over 95%): all the Church councils for nearly 1,000 years; the episcopal hierarchy of the Church; the Pope as first among equals of all bishops; and above all, the original Nicene Creed (I’ve never understood why Catholics and Protestants make a fuss about the Filioque – the Orthodox are correct; even if the theology is sound, the decision to include it was never made by the whole Church, so it should not have been included).
I do look to the Pope as the human face of the Church in most respects, as Christian tradition unquestioningly regards the Bishop of Rome as first in eminence among a college of equals dating back to at least the Second Century, if not earlier. Where Roman Catholicism has broken from tradition (and the reasons are imminently understandable given the context of history) is in making the Pope a monarchical-type of figure, but that is something I think recent Popes from John Paul II to Benedict and Francis have worked to lessen, making the Pope more of a servant in a Christ-like model.
The Orthodox, for their part, need to let go of the victim mentality I see inhabiting several of its well-spoken adherents. They seem to almost embody a spirit of Eeyore: “No one’s remained truthful to the Faith of the Fathers but us, whoa is me.” And, to some extent, true enough. But to be healthy, that spirit needs to be rebuked. And while Protestants and, to a lesser extent, Catholics are guilty in going overboard with their accommodations to Western Culture over the past 700 or 800 years, the Orthodox are guilty of perhaps (emphasis on that word) not acclimating the faith enough to a changing world.
As the world political situation is drastically different than it was 1700 years ago, there is no Emperor Constantine to convene a Great Council of the Church. I think it would be amazing for the Pope, as the first among many equal bishops, to call for a Council of all Christians who believe in the orthodox faith, with the purpose of uniting each of us in partaking of Holy Communion with each other.
To me, open communion among orthodox believers of all persuasions would be the true unity that Christ seeks: to be one as He and the Father are one is to be two distinct Persons who are nonetheless in complete communion with each other.
We would maintain the freedom to keep the small and (ultimately) insignificant differences that separate us while nonetheless sharing in what makes us distinct and is the focal point of liturgical worship: the blessing of communion. An open communion like this would free us to learn from each other more, to grow closer in understanding each other, to work more together.
Because I want the wall to be broken down that separates us. I want to say it and mean it when I say it that, yes, I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and yes, I believe in the Eastern Orthodox Church and yes, I believe in the Protestant Church. I want to commune with all of my brothers and sisters. I want to travel to Rome and feel fully like I belong there, not mostly like I do but still partially on the outside. I want to visit the monasteries of Mt. Athos and feel like it is part of my spiritual heritage, as well.
Because: it is! Whether denominations officially acknowledge it or not, we all as orthodox Christians know we all belong to each other and are one in Christ: our traditions belong to all of us, and we are made all the weaker because we are not openly sharing each of our unique traditions with each other.
We desperately need each other. May we be more open to admitting it and changing reality so it reflects our hearts.