The fractured nature of the Body of Christ should grieve us all. However, the pursuit of unity can lead to the downplaying of central truths. In theory, all Christians agree there are lines that cannot be crossed. But where exactly are those lines? Here is what those who are pursuing unity need to answer. Where are the brakes? What is out of bounds? What makes a church not a church? What makes a worship service out of bounds? Can I take the Roman Catholic Mass? Can I worship at an Eastern Orthodox Church? Can I worship with lesbian pastor? Why would a lesbian minister be worse than a celibate priest who thinks the bread is really, truly the Body of Christ? Why would Joel Osteen be worse than someone who believes that the Pope is the vicar of Christ? The drive for unity tends towards fuzzy lines. And of course, there are some fuzzy lines. But there are also some lines in bold.
By unity here, I mean at the very least, an agreement that we could worship at the other denomination’s service and that the doctrinal beliefs of a denomination are not an obstacle to me considering them brothers in Christ if that doctrine was held consistently. That last phrase is important. It is possible for someone to be part of a wayward church and yet not be apostate. How? They do not hold the church’s doctrines consistently. If we would not or should not worship with them, then there is not true Christian unity.
I am going to use Roman Catholicism’s view of Mary as a foil, but this can be applied to lots of different denominations, doctrines, and practices. Rome’s view of Mary is thoroughly woven into the Roman Catholic Catechism, university life, and into the life of the average Roman Catholic. The veneration of Mary is not a tangential doctrine in Roman Catholicism. There are three options for Protestants:
1. Rome is wrong, but it doesn’t matter. What Rome believes about Mary is not a threat to orthodoxy or an obstacle to unity. They may believe and live out that Mary was a perpetual virgin, was born sinless, pray to her, etc. and we can still be united to them. We can worship at a Roman Catholic church where they pray to Mary and not worry that we are compromising. We may not think it wise or best, but we would not condemn it.
2. Protestants are wrong about Mary and we need to adjust our view of her and those doctrines and practices which are affected by our view of her in order for there to be unity. In other words, we are wrong enough that we need to change.
3. Roman Catholics are wrong about Mary and need to adjust their view of her and those doctrines and practices which are affected by their view of her in order for there to be unity.
There is a fourth option for Roman Catholics, which is #1 in reverse. Protestants are wrong, but it doesn’t matter.
We could do the same thing with justification, the authority of the Bible, the Mass, the nature of baptism, the celibate priesthood, purgatory, the Pope, etc. In all these areas movement must happen for there to be meaningful unity. One group must either renounce their position or minimize it for there to be unity.
We could use this paradigm with other denominations as well. For example, we may agree in doctrine with a denomination, but they ordain women. There may a denomination that renounces God’s sovereignty, thinks the Bible is not infallible, believes in baptismal regeneration, or theistic evolution, as well as broad range of other issues that denominations disagree on. The above process would have to be used to determine whether the doctrine or practice was important enough to separate over.
Meaningful unity requires movement away from certain doctrines and practices and towards others. We are separate for a reason. Unity does not require agreement on every issue. But it does require agreement on what doctrines and practices are central, secondary, and which ones can be ignored. If one denomination considers a doctrine essential and another does not there cannot be unity. It is my impression that many young Christians are not sure where the lines are. In their longing to repair breaches they have forgotten that many (not all) breaches exist for a good reason.