There are many legitimate reasons to lament the divided state of the church. Fleshly pride, theological hubris, sectarian rivalries are each in their own ways modern versions of the Galatian heresy, refusing table fellowship with brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. And denominations have frequently played the same role as the names of Paul and Apollos in Corinth, for which we join in Paul’s manifesto to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.
Yet, as we pray for the unity of the Body of Christ, as we labor to be one as the Father, Son, and Spirit are one, there ought to be just as much concern over the dangers of certain forms of unity. It seems there’s a romantic demon lurking in all the sons of Adam, and I mean that in a rather wooden etymological sense: there’s an idolatrous love of Rome and her ways that seems often lurking in discussions of catholicity. And by that I do not merely mean the Roman Catholic Church, but rather something subtler, more ancient, more pervasive in human nature. We do well to remember that Rome was the last of the great beasts that Daniel saw coming up out of the sea, a certain way of power, a style of consolidation, a promise of unity going all the way back to Babel that Jesus came to shatter.
In fact, the Bible opens with the breathtaking poem of creation, and wound through it all is the goodness of division: God divided light from darkness, the waters above from the waters below, and the seas from dry land. This dividing is directly connected to God’s naming. He divides and names, divides and names. We might rightly say God denominates. God invented good denominations when He divided “light” and “darkness” and named them Day and Night and pronounced them good. Of course in this newborn world, these divisions were part of the glory, different parts that sung in harmony.
Finally, in that startling interruption to all that is “good,” God declares that this man all alone is “not good” and breaks him in half. He puts Adam into a death-like sleep and tears out one of his ribs. And this bone was built into the woman, the glory of man, and she was brought to the man and they became one flesh.
All of this is relevant to our ecclesiology. The Apostle Paul tells us that this pattern is essential to understanding what God is doing with the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Marriage is a profound mystery, but Paul was thinking primarily about Christ and the Church. Paul exhorts us to study the creation narrative in order to understand what Jesus is up to in the mystery of the Church. And what we find as we study the origin of the universe is how essential divisions are to the kind of unity God loves. Conversely, we also find that there is a certain kind of unity that God hates. And that kind of unity is almost always dressed up in a conservative bow tie. It’s almost always a reaction to sinful disunity.
We see this in the opening chapters of Genesis after the Fall. Following the exile of man from the garden, Cain murders his brother, and right on schedule unfaithful unity arrives on the scene when the sons of God start marrying the daughters of men (Genesis 6). The pinnacle of creation is the wedding of the first man and woman. This is the kind of unity that God is interested in, a unity that does not obliterate differences but in some way fundamentally rests upon good, God-given differences. It is the celebration of these differences in an ordered harmony.
When we come to these sinful marriages, we should assume that there is an ecclesiological lesson for us here as well. Unity is no automatic good, and Christians must be wary of the seduction of harmful unions. This is not merely a fairytale possibility. Unity is the name of one of the daughters of men, a loud and loose woman who leads many men to Hell.
Likewise, even after the flood, the impulse of sinful men is to build a city and a tower meant to create and preserve a certain kind of unity. This is the original Babylonian captivity of humanity – a captivity of unity. But God had called Adam and Eve and their descendants to fill the earth. He had established an order of a man “leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife.” God has filled this world with so many glories that it is essential that people spread out, move away, divide, leave – in order to explore, discover, and arrive at the kind of glory and unity that He has in mind.
We see something similar at the birth of the Church that is sung into existence by the same Spirit that hovered over the waters in the beginning. It’s striking that the Spirit is pleased to begin the remaking of the world through fierce divisions between the apostles and the religious leaders, through the murder of a brother (Stephen), and the scattering of the disciples all over the known world.
Many have noted that Pentecost is a reversal of Babel, but have we really reckoned with the ecclesiological ramifications of this reversal? Jesus is determined to scatter His disciples, and this scattering is a good thing. This could seem like a losing ecclesiology. How will they remain one as Jesus is one with His Father? They’ll end up in different places, speaking different languages, with varying liturgical practices and emphases and doctrinal statements. They might have misunderstandings. And as most honest patristic scholars will note, this is exactly what happened.
To be sure, there were sins of apostasy and heresy and pride and schism that did infect various portions of the Church at points. But what we find marching through the centuries is a growing and glorious catholicity. But this biblical catholicity is not a Babylonian unity. Given the explosion of monasticism, evangelism, and missions in many nations, the reality on the ground was much closer to a loose confederation, disciples scattered speaking different languages, but all driven and empowered and united by the same Holy Spirit, having one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one Table. Arguably, it is not until the twelfth and thirteenth century popes began insisting on a particular imperial style of unity that the ironic designation of “Roman” in Catholicism came into its own.
In Rodney Stark’s recent book How the West Won, he writes that the “Fall of Rome was, in fact, the most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization, precisely because it unleashed so many substantial and progressive changes” (p. 69). He continues with a brief paean to the blessings of disunity: “Disunity enabled extensive, small-scale social experimentation and unleashed creative competition among hundreds of independent political units, which, in turn resulted in rapid and profound progress” (p. 69).
Stark’s broad cultural analysis matches what the Christian instinct should be in the Church as well. In fact, part of the biblical lesson seems to suggest that in some ways Christians might be far more hopeful and optimistic about the proliferation of denominations. Certainly, we must deplore vicious, fleshly church splits full of the venom of demonic accusation, envy, greed, belligerence, and selfish ambitions and competition. But perhaps the kind of energetic progress of evangelism and doctrinal development and culture-building Jesus is most interested in comes through the blessings of a certain kind of disunity, minimizing central organization, bureaucracy, books of church order, while encouraging the kind of scrappy, creative ingenuity that grassroots diversity inspires. Perhaps it is precisely in our scattering and filling the earth that we become the most fruitful and unified.
As we pray for the Kingdom to come, as we pray that the Church may be one as the Father, Son, and Spirit are one, give more thought and prayer to how our current state may not be as far from the kind of unity Jesus is leading us to as we might think. Babel demands that we all speak the same language. Babel promises a humanistic glory that is threatened by differences. But this unity is often actually a return to the solitary, which is not good. But the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh in order to knit together a new humanity that speaks in many tongues. God has scattered His people throughout the earth, but God often scatters His people for their good.
Furthermore, while we may truly lament sins against brothers that have led to divisions, we should not forget the story of Joseph: What men meant for evil God was working for good. In this sense, we can give thanks for the downstream results of the Great Schism and the Reformation.
Unity is not primarily about organizational flow charts or bureaucracy. And institutional reunion is not always what repentance looks like. A son may leave home in rebellion and take a wife and start a family, and when he comes to his senses he certainly should go and be reconciled to his parents, but moving back in with his parents is not the solution either. Repentance means learning to love one another in new circumstances.
If we use denominations and institutional divisions to reinforce a sectarian spirit, as many have, we are no better than the Romans or Babylonians: we just have tiny, pathetic empires. But when different churches work together, when pastors from different denominations serve and pray for their city together, when we share the Lord’s Supper together, this is not necessarily a step toward the end of denominations but perhaps the beginning of a true harmony, a mature Christian unity that is only possible where our differences are simultaneously well defined. The unity Jesus is leading us toward has far less to do with hammering out a single organizational structure and far more to do with many different Christian tribes and tongues bringing their respective glories to the King.
Toby Sumpter is Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho.