Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 25- Calvin and Christian Unity

I’m a bit behind (last week was to be the week of Prayer for Christian Unity), but thought this still is a great topic. Often I’m asked by unbelievers, “If your religion is about love, why are there so many denominations?”

Jesus: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20,21)
“I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (I Cor. 1:10).
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: …dissensions, factions… and the like.But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19-23)

That we are agreed, we can indeed on both sides truly and faithfully declare; but as I cannot persuade all of the fact as it really stands, it very much grieves me that some remain in anxiety and
suspense, for whose peace of mind I am desirous to consult. Hence, as I observed before, I think that I am not acting out of season in urging that there should be some public testimony of the agreement existing between us. (Calvin to Zurich ministers 1549)

Calvin worked hard to unite the Protestants in German speaking Switzerland (Zurich) with the French speaking Geneva, and he was successful. He worked to foster a relationship with the Lutherans through Melanchthon, but Melanchthon died. He fought hard against those who wanted to divide Lutherans from the Reformed (he wrote a tract against Westphal who called him a heretic for his ideas on the Lord’s Supper). He wrote letters to the English, the Scottish, the Huguenots in France, the Greek Orthodox, and many others trying to bring unity to their diversity. Calvin had originally wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church, but after death threats, excommunication, and open war against the Huguenot Protestants and Lutherans he saw the break as inevitable. He still worked to reform the church and to unite the Protestants.

Everywhere I have lived I have found a real spirit of Christian unity. I have found Presbyterians (PCUSA and some PCA, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, some Baptists, and many others) to want to work together for the good of the community. Food banks, utility help for the needy, housing help through Habitat and similar organizations, indigent healthcare, and even outreach to immigrants have been created by many different denominations working together. I think about the SouperBowl Offering coming up February 1 that goes toward local food banks. Sixty different denominations support this offering that helps the local needy. As our world in America has become more secular, the churches have become more cooperative. I know in my own church only 25% grew up in our denomination. In my parents’ day Methodists were to marry Methodists, Presbyterians married Presbyterians, Episcopalians married Episcopalians, Roman Catholics married Roman Catholics, etc. Today there is a sense that Christians should marry Christians (as it says in the scriptures). Calvin was not ready to sacrifice doctrine for unity. But he spoke a lot of “things indifferent” “Christian liberty” and his deep regret that Melanchthon died before he could make public his agreement with Calvin. Calvin said that the unity of the church is not about the liturgy or how the supper is served but in the concept that Christ is Lord of the church.

Why are there different denominations? First a denomination by definition is in some sense united. For example, a one dollar bill is a denomination, a five dollar bill is a denominatio, a twenty dollar bill is a denomination, but they are all money. Different Christian churches are branches leading into the same stream. Yet often language barriers, cultural barriers, backgrounds, theological differences, and yes the sins Calvin fought against- pride and divisiveness lead to differences. Love, grace, and a focus on our Lord can soften these differences. Christian monism is not the goal as much as Christian unity. We can be united yet different, with different tastes and emphases. At the same time, in the last twenty years, the old central denominational bureaucracy in the Protestant denominations of the U.S. is crumbling- with less missions, less resources, and less control. While this is happening, it is more important for individual churches and individual Christians to be working and praying in our communities and areas for Christian unity.
So, praying for Christian unity is a wonderful idea.

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