That They May Be One

March 2019 Credo 

In what is known as his high-priestly prayer, Jesus asked his Father not only to protect his disciples but to unite them as one: ‘Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one’ (John 17:11). Unity is so central to the being of the Church that the ancient Christian creeds present it as one of her essential attributes (the others being holiness, catholicity and apostolicity).

Yet, the fact that the empirical Church is not united but deeply divided and fragmented is evident to even the most casual observer. For a variety of reasons, the ancient Church split in the Great Schism in the eleventh century into what is now called the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. And in the sixteenth century, the churches of the Reformation broke away from the Roman Church of which they were once a part.

Since that time, the Protestant churches have splintered into many different denominations and groups. Depending on how one defines a denomination, there are now between 20,000 and 30,000 Protestant denominations, each with its own distinct theological hue and organisational structure.

Given this sorry state of affairs, can Christians still declare that we ‘believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ without a tinge of irresolution, not to mention despair? What does it mean to say that the Church of Jesus Christ is one?

The New Testament makes it very clear that the unity of the Church is not premised on the way in which she is organised, her hierarchy of leaders or even her mission in the world. Rather, ecclesial unity is theologically grounded – that is to say, it rests on the nature of God and the Church’s relationship to God.

Writing to a Church marred by schisms, Pauls reminds its members that they have all been baptised into the one body by the one Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:13). Expanding the same insight in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul writes: ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (4:4-6).

This had led theologians in the Patristic era like Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (200-258), to declare that the Church is ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.

This means that the unity of the Church is a gift: it is made possible and actual only by the grace of God. As the Russian Orthodox Church puts it in a document on ecumenical relations: ‘The unity of the Church is above every human and earthly union, for it has been given from above as a perfect and divine gift. The members of the Church are united in Christ like vines, rooted in him and gathered in one eternal and spiritual life’.

However, as Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner points out, ‘Unity, like all other attributes of the church, stands under the tensions that attend the discrepancy between what our faith tells us about the church and what we see actually embodied in its empirical life’.

This means that although Christian unity is a divine gift, it is also at the same time an urgent task. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul emphatically exhorts his readers to strive to guard the unity that they already enjoy by grace: ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (4:3).

But in order for the Church to obey this Pauline injunction she must constantly clarify what Christian unity entails. This is because erroneous or distorted visions of unity can only engender further fragmentations in the Church.

To start with, unity must not be confused with uniformity. Unlike the military, the members of the Church do not adopt the same hairstyle or wear a uniform. A united Church is not one in which all her members look, think and sound alike.

To be sure, the Church across the different denominations can be characterised by common core beliefs (articulated in the Nicene Creed, for example) and practises (prayer, baptism) that are deemed non-negotiable. But, as Everett Fergusson explains, ‘to expect a large degree of uniformity is to deny individuality and uniqueness of personality’.

Christian unity allows for difference and diversity because as the ‘new humanity’ the Church is multi-ethnic and multicultural, made up of people of ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Revelation 7:9). The Church must never see such diversity as reprehensible or as obstacles to Christian unity; rather she should celebrate it as a gift from God.

However, the Church should be acutely aware of the fact that this God-given diversity that could inject so much vitality and richness into ecclesial life could also be the source of divisions, schisms and fragmentation.

Such fractures, caused by what may be described as a toxic form of identity politics, are already evident in the early Church, leading Paul to stress that the Christian’s identity in Christ transcends his social and cultural ‘identities’ without nullifying them. This is what the Apostle tries to underscore when he insists that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ’ (Galatians 328).

Both uniformity and sectarianism are inimical to the nature of the Church. As Philip Hefner clearly and emphatically puts it: ‘A monolithic unity that suppresses or violates the life-giving multiplicities of humanity is as unsatisfactory in the church as the sectarianism that elevates natural interests in a manner blasphemous to the oneness of God’s nature and will’.

This brings me to the concept of ecumenic hospitality. The terms ‘ecumenism’ and ‘ecumenical’ come from the Greek oikoumene, which simply means ‘an inhabited region’. In ecclesiology, the term is used to refer to the whole body of different Christian churches.

Ecumenic hospitality is the attitude that urges us not just to acknowledge the fact that there are Christians belonging to other denominations, but also to embrace them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Ecumenic hospitality is based on the acknowledgement that Christians have much in common with each other because of their faith in the one God revealed in Scripture. Consequently, the differences that do exist among Christians should not be the cause of division in the household of God.

By extending such hospitality to Christians of different denominations and ecclesial traditions, we are not only striving to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). We are also allowing these Christians to challenge and enrich us by the ways in which they have appropriated and lived out the Gospel in their respective traditions, cultures and contexts.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.