This is the second part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda.
At this moment the disunity of the Church in North America is ever increasing. There are more than 22,000 Protestant denominations on the continent, and the Presbyterian denominations alone must number in the dozens. At the same time the urban areas that serve as fountainheads of culture and leadership are overwhelmingly non-Evangelical. By some estimates, unchurched Americans comprise one of the largest mission fields in the world, and the single largest English-speaking mission field. As English missionary and writer Lesslie Newbigin pointed out, mission is the mother of church union. With radical fragmentation in the church comes a tremendous hindrance to her witness.
Jesus prayed that his disciples “may be one, even as You and I, Father, are one.” I have never met a Christian who disavowed the Lord’s request or said it was unimportant. But I have met many, not least within the RPCNA, who become uncomfortable at the thought of pursuing visible unity, demurring that the unity of God’s house is “spiritual” though not necessarily “organizational”. Protestant denominations, they reason, may operate separately but those that are orthodox are bound together in the same Spirit. Besides, they point out, look at the mess of the “ecumenical movement”, and look at its participants: theologically liberal mainliners and Roman Catholics. And look at the terms to which they will agree: joint statements that simultaneously gut doctrinal commitments and do nothing to help individual Christians live faithful lives!
This discomfort is not baseless. But is it a good enough excuse for disunity? Think of the fellowship of believers in Christ in terms of a marriage relationship. If a man says that he has spiritual unity with his wife, and generally speaks well of her, but is never seen in her company, doesn’t live with her, and doesn’t share a bed with her, what would you think of that “unity”? If he admits that his marriage is unwell but makes no serious effort to mend it, what would you say about his commitment to wife or marriage? The label “Gnosticism” has been overused by Reformed writers in recent years, but if if ever applies then it applies here. Claiming spiritual unity and refusing to seriously pursue visible unity in ministry and worship is inconsistent at best and false at worst. A person in a broken relationship with someone he loves doesn’t rest until it’s fixed.
Are we taking this seriously? We cannot believably profess unity with other believers and maintain separation from them over non-essential issues.