As of late, that millennial tension of the one true Church, salvation within and condemnation without, has only tightened its grip among laity and ecclesiastical orders. Prior to the Great Schism of 1054, and long before the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the vast majority of schisms were chiefly concerned with deep heresies over the supremacy and nature of God, the Trinity, the incarnation and humanity/divinity of Christ; albeit with peculiar exceptions. The same cannot be said now. It can be very difficult to dialogue with ‘other’ Christians of prominent sects, namely Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. We use the same words, but we have very different dictionaries, and at times, our doctrinal differences seem worlds apart with little to no common ground to make any sort of headway. That is, we can’t see eye-to-eye, yet we judge an eye for an eye. Be that as it may, when we engage others who claim to hold a Trinitarian faith, however carnal or self-deceived or presumptuous or misguided or lost or weak in faith or nominal we may assume them to be, it is best to know where God stands before we presume to know where we should.
When Christ asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” One should note that the title “Son of the living God” is no meagre quip, Peter is saying that he believes Christ is not just Messiah but divine–––God incarnate. Of equal importance is that Peter believed this before he denied Him and his fellow body of believers. And what did Christ say, full well knowing Peter would deny him? “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17)
Of course, this does not apply to faithless or nominal Christians. But does this not apply to all people who truly believe in the deity of Christ? Has not our heavenly Father revealed Christ’s true nature to those who believe in the Trinity? Why, then, do we find comfort in the broad-sweeping condemnation of those outside of our denomination, institution, jurisdiction, or sect who, at the very least, claim true belief, especially if the Father is willing to reveal Himself and, thus, work on their hearts? Do we not take credit away from God by presuming otherwise? As if the Christian world outside of institutional boundary lines is nominal by descent and God is incapable of refinement without our precedence? As if His word goes out in vain and returns empty handed? (Isaiah 55:11) God is working on, in, or through all repentant believers, no matter how wrong, carnal, or depraved (Psalm 145:9). That is the whole point of Jonah, after all, and Christ alludes to this principle for our betterment in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37); the Jews considered Samaritans heretics of theological, traditional, and hereditary descent, cast lower than the Gentiles.
“The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”
This is more than just charitable, it is consequential. Generations of laymen and clergymen were raised with a rigid conscience, handed theological spectacles, and taught rhetoric against other Christian sects. Yet, if God is revealing Himself, and ‘other’ Christians are willing to believe Jesus is the “Son of the Living God”, should we not, at the very least, treat others within Trinitarian sects like a weaker faith, not outside of it? Rather than blanket condemnation, assuming others are guilty until proven innocent, would it not be advantageous for Christ’s Church to seek out and encourage others who even appear weak in faith to proper worship and mutual edification, ensuring that no repentant believer stumbles inside or outside of the Church? Looking out for their best interest and wellbeing? Paul speaks of this ethic to believers of differing opinion and proportion of faith, many of whom were carnal believers living in the flesh and “infants in Christ”, yet Paul did not cast their weakness outside of the Church, but refers to them as “brothers”, even though some of them may very well have been nominal believers (1 Corinthians 1:10-11, 3:1-4). In Romans, he specifies how we all, weak and strong, ought to put the soteriological welfare of others first, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister….Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification….Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” (Romans 14:13,19,22) This calls for serious self-examination and reflection.
If unity is to be actualized among the Trinitarian Churches at large, strengthening the weak in faith who are sincerely seeking Christ is our chief concern today. In other words, if you consider, say, Catholicism to be, for the most part, dead wrong, then acknowledge that God may have, at the very least, revealed His Son to their hearts, respectively, giving each person the benefit of the doubt in their faith and obedience in Christ. If you think it is doctrinally corrosive or soteriologically disconcerting, as I do at times, even more reason to be charitable. That is not to suggest Protestantism, by and large, doesn’t have its own problems or dangers, either. The concern, here, is not bridging doctrines, merging right with wrong, dark with light, it is for the weak in faith, to soften our heart and sharpen our tongue toward those outside of our ecclesiastical and theological purview. Of course, it does not resolve the weight in our doctrinal differences or vindicate all sects/views as right or justified or salvific. There are clearly nominal believers. There are clearly false teachings. It’s just a starting point in the conversation. In all charity and in all concern, why don’t we assume God is at work, however subtle or subliminal, rather than assume the worst of “other” believers or presume condemnation–––false teachers, gospel mockers, Church forsakers, God-haters.
“Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens” by Raphael (c. 1515).
It would be deceptive, then, to deny my strong sense of urgency to unify the Church in a real way, not through institutional or sociopolitical means alone, but through genuine sanctification of the Spirit, even if that unity is not possible in my lifetime. That is not to temper the severity of institutional unity either, which is a vital sign and witness of Christ to the weak in faith and unbelievers, a fact lost on most Protestants denominations. That is also not to advocate ecumenism at the expense of truth, a Christian pluralism, if you will. Social unity alone is still disunity. I am just convinced that if the Trinitarian Churches even so much as desired to become of one heart and mind, with fire alarm urgency, no matter the long-term theological difficulty, heartache, vexation, or stress it may bring, our Christian witness would be unhindered, stumbling blocks would be dislodged.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
– John 17:20-23
Christ’s heart we cannot abandon, and we cannot do so under false pretences either. By seeking unity through Christ in all charity, in all concern, and in all togetherness, the truth will win out, since it is the truth that revealed Himself to us in the first place. As Paul says, “Let God be true though every one were a liar.” (Romans 3:4) Or do we assume the truth will fail without our endorsement, that the Church will crumble without our support? Could Christ not raise a new Church out of stones? (cf. Luke 19:40) The body does not animate the head, but the head animates the body.
We are the body and Christ is the head. The body has not rejected the head, but members of the body have rejected other members of the same body. Therefore, if the body has not rejected the head, or rather, if the head is not rejecting the body but willing to reveal and work with the members of the body, however lame, lost, or gangrene, then the healthy members ought to encourage the sick members to proper worship and mutual edification. In other words, if God is willing to work with anyone willing, however carnal or misguided or weak in faith, are you willing to do the same?
A house divided cannot stand (Mark 3:25). Yet, Trinitarian sects – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – are widely considered different houses. But to unbelievers and the weak in faith, it is not so. To them, it is perceptibly the same Christian religion that breeds divisiveness and dissension. We would do well to regard other Trinitarian sects as “separated brethren”, as a divided house, not different houses. In humility, regarding them innocent before proven guilty, but not truly innocent before God necessarily. Is that not God’s prerogative, after all? As for us, we ought to mutually strive for a Christlike unity in all things.
For this reason, the eternal value of sincere repentance cannot be overstated enough. We are all under sin, some suffering from it more than others, some aware of it more than others, each handed down a pair of theological spectacles to interpret Scripture. If God has revealed the solution, His Son, to the Trinitarian churches, to a denier of the body such as Peter, are you willing to discredit and work against God’s doing? God the Father has revealed to billions of people around the world – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – that His one and only begotten son, Jesus Christ, is divine, the “Son of the Living God”. Let’s not behead Christ. The body cannot live on its own.
A little about me…
Sadly, it is precisely the sin of “dissension” (Galatians 5:20) that hinders the gospel among the weak in faith and unbelievers. It doesn’t matter how right you are or how true your sect’s teachings are when everyone who claims to be an expert in the Bible is teaching different fundamentals and condemns the other. One of the main reasons I left Christianity as a teenager was due to this inner conflict and counter-interpretations that most, if not, all Christians held, laymen and leader alike. Pastors rejected priests, priests rejected presbyters, presbyters rejected pastors. And not just on the minute details, but on dogma–––incontrovertible truth. While one side claimed a doctrine was an absolute truth, the other sides contended its veracity, yet all sides taught Scripture for a living and claimed to be the true Church passed down from Christ to the Apostles, holding fast to the rightful interpretation and tradition of our spiritual forefathers. It really put into question everyone’s sense of discernment. Despite what they did agree upon, say, the bodily resurrection or deity of Christ, the fact remained that what qualified as an ‘absolute truth’ seemed questionable, contrived, or unwarranted at times, which, consequently, put Scripture into question later on. Scripture claims to be true – the Word of God, no less – but to what end? If no one could get the story straight, what use was this ‘truth’? And even more so, how could I, a kid not trained in Greek, Hebrew, or even Scripture, make sense of it or make the ‘right call’ on what is true in Scripture if these ‘experts’ couldn’t either? It was intuitive that truth was above opinion, more than just mere preference or platitude that a person could freely disagree with. Truth is obligatory. This tension was more than just pragmatic, it was compounded by its truth claim. If Scripture claims to be the truth of God, how could we have differing dogmatic views on what is incontrovertibly true? He is, after all, a personal God, no? A God who speaks to and through people. And yet, each Church claims to be the direct spiritual line of the Early Church, to possess the Holy Spirit and some degree of infallibility, to possess intimate experiential and intellectual knowledge of God in some way. Granted, I’m articulating a much clearer vision of the inner storm now than it was, but it was there, and it was a real concern. As a young man who was weak in faith, limited in understanding, and lacking articulation, Christianity, in broad-sweeping terms, just sounded confused. And so was I.
It wasn’t just the fact that Christianity appeared divided or confused, it was that my secular friends at school also appeared to possess a stronger desire and sense of unity than Christianity. While this was only a social unity, it was still some kind of unity the Christian world lacked. Social unity is contagious. Today, the same cannot be said. As the Western world keeps chopping itself into pieces in its hellbent goal for perceived political unity, the sheer desire for actual sincere unity and the act of charity will go a long way in drawing in unbelievers and strengthening the weak in faith. A unified Church would do the world well. Institutional unity is visceral. Spiritual unity is divine.
Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.