Towards Unity – Stuart Johnson

Theology in reconI am sure there is a deep desire among the Christian community to be unified in the One faith.  However, there is the difficulty of laying aside our theological positions, personal and political ambitions, and ulterior motives that set out to try and get the best denominational advantage in the event such a goal could be achieved.  Yet in striving towards such a goal, can we dare to admit that it is not all about who has the best church or who is more closely aligned with the Bible or who has got it right?  It is and always will be all about Jesus Christ who is the Head and Source of it all.  It is about the Word who is of the same being with the Father making Himself one of us.  Jesus Christ came into our existence with the specific goal of bringing all things into unity and harmony with Himself.  We can all turn to Jesus Christ and trust that He actually does sit at the Father’s right hand, having achieved that end.  In Him there is unity.  In the universal church around us there is not.

There is the question that we should all ask ourselves.  What part are playing in thwarting the reality of the unity of all things in Christ being played out here on this earth?  Jesus Christ is Light from Light, God from true God of the one substance (being) with the Father.  Scripture says He is appointed heir of all things, who made the worlds and the point at which the world community will realise their destined fulness abides.  He sustains the whole universe and in Him it consists as well as Him being the exact representation of the Father’s being.  We regard Him so highly but we often fail to see the significance of the One in whom unity was brought about.  We say, “Yes! I am united to Christ!” but we question the unity of those around us to Him by the very way we treat each other.  Because we are united to Him, we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper.  However, on this earth we restrict that down to our own often elitist and exclusive communities.  The line we draw between truth and heresies are blurred for the sake of keeping right “denominational” doctrine that more often than not ignore the boundless freedom in Jesus Christ established by His own Hand.

This strive towards unity is not a new thing.  It has always been the endeavour in the ancient church to bring together all people into one house under the one statement of belief (οικουμενικός).  Of course we know this is not without its struggles.  Yet, we see the church were unified in their understanding of who Jesus Christ declared Himself to be.  In response to the Gnostics who had a distinctly elitist and exclusive spirituality, the universal church wanted to portray themselves as an all-embracing people of God.  So the ancient Christian community used the above word, οικουμενικός, to describe how their community of God functioned.  The english equivalent is ecumenical.  In the ancient community they had an agreed set of statements laid out in the form of the Nicene Creed for example upon which the universal church agreed and proclaimed.

In the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed there is a term that is used that often leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths.  In the Greek it was known as καθολικός.  The modern english equivalent is catholic.  We must not jump to conclusions and connect the ancient term with the wide use of this word in reference to the church in Rome.  In much the same way that Christian was used by the pagans as a derogatory term for the followers of the way, katholikos was also a derogatory term used by the Gnostics against the Christians.  In each case, the Christian community picked up on these terms and used them in the right context.  The divisive and dualist ways of the Gnostics who separated redemption from creation tried insults such as these to undermine the Apostolic tradition. Instead, the term καθολικός was transformed by the Christian community to take on the the definition of the fulness of the gospel according to what the apostles taught.  Therefore it was used in reference to show what was defective and heretical.

When we use these terms Ecumenical (οικουμενικός) and Catholic (katholikos) today, we need to keep the original intention for these terms in mind. There is no connection between the Catholic church today that comes under the authority of the Pope and the way it was first adopted in the late first and early second century.  Ecumenical (οικουμενικός) and Catholic (katholikos) are terms that were used interchangeably and complimented each other.  When we see the context of which they were used in the first and second century then we begin to see that the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox and the Evangelical Church are movements within the Universal Church.  Though we may see the visible signs of exclusiveness between these movements, this is not the reality within the universal body of Christ of which Jesus Christ is the Head and Source.

The essential nature of the church is catholic because it is the one Body of Christ, and the essential life of the church is ecumenical because it consists in the sanctification and gathering of mankind into a unity in Christ, the Head of creation.  The Church is intrinsically catholic and ecumenical because as the Body of Christ who reconciles and gathers up all things in Himself, the church is proleptically the whole human race already appropriated by Christ and existing in Him, and therefore the church whose life and mission are necessary for all men (Theology in Reconciliation p. 17).

Catholic and Ecumenism have taken on a wholly different meaning in modern Christianity.  When we think of Catholic, we assume it is in reference to the institution of Rome.  This is far removed from its intended original meaning that severs it from its overlap with Ecumenicism. Ecumenicism is altogether different again from its intended meaning.  It often sees a strive towards unity with a great deal of apprehension rather than resting on the unity established proleptically in Jesus Christ.  Having been involved in the movement here in Australia in the mid 1990’s, after a short while one could easily see a resistance to wholly embrace one another under the one Head of the church Jesus Christ.  There were centuries of transient traditional theological and ecclesiastical views by which many of the denominations involved found too difficult to let go for the sake of unity.  We find the ulterior motive of the Roman Catholic church is to try and bring all the denominations under the fold of the Papal authority of the mother church.  However, will the Roman Catholic church objectively critique itself according to the ancient tradition as all denominations should do?  Will the Evangelical, Anglican and Lutheran church do likewise?  Ecumenicism will never work if the denominations each try to lay down the rules for unity according to their own theological and ecclesiastical tradition.  The structures of modern churches have become so infested with worldly political, hierarchal, juridical, structures that anything that threatens them will be strongly resisted.  In the eyes of the secular community, elitism and exclusivism proposed by the Gnostics that threatened the ancient church is thriving in the modern church today.  More often than not, the true nature of the Incarnation is lost under the pile of transient doctrines, politics and ambitions.

T F Torrance and George Florovsky were both passionate about the quest for unity within the church.  In the end it had to be abandoned because of political turmoil it created.  The stress laid on the importance of reviewing modern doctrine with what was established in the ancient tradition was largely ignored.  Rather than look to the church as something that encompasses all denominations and established by Jesus Christ, there was the tendency for some denominations to put themselves forward as the model for which all others should follow.  Both Torrance as a representative of the Reformed church and George Florovsky as a representative of the Eastern Orthodox Church would not compromise on their commitment to be faithful to the ancient church built upon the Apostolic foundation.  They both regarded each other as movements within the universal church and had an enormous amount of mutual respect for each other.

Invariably we have the very same problem today.  People will tend to want to have their teachings vindicated rather than have their teachings properly critiqued in light of the ancient tradition.  All we can do is to point people to Jesus Christ through the teaching of this ancient era.  There are some that will rather minimise this ancient period for the sake of teachings that often only cause more divisions than a work towards unity under the Headship of Jesus Christ.  There are others who would want to disregard this period altogether.  Perichoresis and all those who have joined in partnership with her mission have a strong commitment to this ancient era with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed as our central interpretive rule of faith.  This is where much of what we take for granted in our modern way of Christian life were carefully and precisely worked out.  The way we understand terms in our statement of faith documents today are often so foreign to the intended meaning when it was properly laid out in our defence against the heretics.  Instead, what we endeavour to declare regarding this vital period in our Christian history is almost regarded as heresy by many people today.

There was tremendous unity by the katholikos and οικουμενικός church in the establishment of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.  Even though we find this document in many of the major denominations there is often little that can be agreed on in regard to the discussion that surrounded the development and explanation of the document.  Even within the community of the Trinitarian movement we find the same mixed feelings where some will entirely embrace this era while others will compromise to some degree or disregard it altogether.  This document is Trinitarian and was put together, expanded and confirmed  by the universal church in the 4th and 5th century by real people in a real community in a real church.  The writings associated with it are distinctly Trinitarian and lay out what it means to be in unity.  We start to ignore its implications then we lose sight of the Good News of God and have no gospel to speak of.

In closing, let us view churches in general as movements within the universal church.  As we know some movements are bigger than others ;-) . Seriously though, if we can accept the church is made of many movements, then we should regard all of them as our brothers and sisters.  If we agree with what the Creed above mentioned testifies we can then concern ourselves with the One universal church under Jesus Christ of which the whole of humanity have been unified in Him.  Then we know we are loved to the uttermost and should find that loving others even though they may disagree should be easier than we think.  Let’s move away from any form of Gnosticism with their exclusive and elitist structures and doctrines and declare the reality of this unity to all people who are willing to hear.  Let’s tell them all, they are included in what God has done.  Let’s tell them all the good news of the Gospel!