The church in the West is in crisis as it declines in both numbers and influence at an ever‑increasing rate. The reasons for this are complex and deep-rooted, but in answer to the question of what the main problem is in the Western church, N.T. Wright’s response is startlingly simple: disunity.[i] Disunity is as old as the church itself, but Wright has in mind particularly Protestant disunity, and it is this that I want to focus on here.[ii]
If Wright’s assessment is accurate, it challenges many Protestant assumptions not only about questions of church structure and doctrine, but about the nature of the church itself. Put simply, what is the church? This, I suggest, is the foundational question that lies at the root of Protestant disunity. The tendency for Protestants to act apart from the wider church, manifested in such issues as doctrinal unilateralism and sectarian church planting, stems from a lack of a shared Protestant understanding of the church around which churches and individuals can coalesce.[iii] Addressing this issue is much more than can be done here, but I would like simply to offer two well-known motifs as a basis for further thought and discussion: the church as a people, and John Wesley’s description of ‘catholic spirit’.[iv]
The church as a people
The New Testament uses a variety of descriptions for the church. Arguably the most profound is found in the claim that, in Christ, God has now formed his eschatological people, that somehow ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no ‘male and female’; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28, New Testament for Everyone). Elsewhere Paul even seems to say that the church is a new kind of nationality, distinct form Jews or Greeks (1 Corinthians 10.32).
But it is in 1 Peter 2.9-10 where we find perhaps the most explicit expression of the peoplehood of the church, drawn from the deep well of Hebrew Scripture:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (NIV)
The eschatological nature of the people of God in Christ is apposite for Protestants. Just as we eschatologically already transcend old identities, so those old identities are not yet ended. Even as existing ethnicities, social statuses and genders all remain, so we have to live out what it means to be a single people. Conceptually, the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of new creation provides a framework within which it should be possible for different groupings to identify and act with a single purpose.
John Wesley’s ‘catholic spirit’
As the leader of a potentially schismatic movement, Wesley was clear in both his teaching and practice that disunity and separation were to be met head on and resisted. His famous sermon Catholic Spirit almost catechetically builds up his proposal for Christian unity point by point:
- Is thy heart right with God?
- Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘God over all, blessed for ever’?
- Is thy faith filled with the energy of love?
- Art thou employed in doing ‘not thy own will, but the will of him that sent thee’?
- Does the love of God constrain thee to ‘serve’ him ‘with fear’?
- Is thy heart right toward thy neighbour?
- Do you show your love by your works?[v]
Wesley’s concept of ‘catholic spirit’ is not indifferent to doctrine, denominations or opinions, but neither is it about these things. It is, rather, about the identification of the universal church in terms of faith and, above all, love: ‘love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is catholic spirit.’[vi] This catholic love is itself fourfold:
- It demands Christians love one another ‘with a very tender affection… as a brother in Christ, a fellow citizen of the New Jerusalem, a fellow soldier engaged in the same warfare, under the same Captain of our salvation.’[vii]
- It demands constant mutual intercession for ‘a fuller conviction of things not seen and a stronger view of the love of God in Christ Jesus.’[viii]
- It fosters mutual missional zeal, wrought in community and fellowship: ‘provoke me to love and good works … Quicken me in the work which God has given me to do, and instruct me how to do it more perfectly.’[ix]
- It results in action: ‘So far as in conscience thou canst (retaining still thy own opinions and thy own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God; and let us go on hand in hand.’[x]
‘Catholic spirit’ is therefore not a manifesto for abstract structural unity, or for vague sentiments of inclusivity. Rather it provides a paradigm in which embodied faith works by love: God’s grace is made known through the outward expression of love and unity of those who have experienced it inwardly in justification and new birth. Conceptually it provides a framework in which doctrine and ecclesial identities can find a coherent concrete expression that can transcend differences without denying them.
We know that the problem of Protestant disunity will not be solved quickly. But if it is possible for some to start to consider themselves within the broader conceptual frameworks set out here, then perhaps it may be possible to avoid some of the mistakes that have contributed to the decline of the church. This will not be easy and the results are likely to be patchy. But even faltering steps forward are better than collapse.
[i] For example see What is The Main Problem In The Western Church? | N.T. Wright (accessed 17/12/21). Wright has consistently made the same point elsewhere.
[ii] Throughout this piece I am using the term ‘Protestant’ in its broad sense to denote all ecclesial, doctrinal and theological commitments that trace their origins back to the Reformation.
[iii] For a helpful summary of approaches to and impacts of church planting, see Stefan Paas, 2016, Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co).
[iv] For a treatment of Protestant ecclesiology in relation to Wesley’s concept of catholic spirit, see Tom Greggs, “The Catholic Spirit of Protestantism: A Very Methodist take on the Third Article, Visible Unity and Ecumenism”, Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI No. 4, 353-372.
[v] John Wesley, Sermon 34 Catholic Spirit I.12-18, The Works of John Wesley Bicentennial Edition (BCE) 2:87-9.
[vi] Catholic Spirit III. 4, BCE 2:94.
[vii] Catholic Spirit II.3, BCE 2:90.
[viii] Catholic Spirit II.5, BCE 2:91.
[ix] Catholic Spirit II.6, BCE 2:91.
[x] Catholic Spirit II.7, BCE 2:92.
4 thoughts on “‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ – Thoughts upon Unity”
What is the cause of disunity within the church? It’s largely about disagreements over doctrine, and worship styles; and the way many declare that people are not acceptable unless they sign up to their particular set of beliefs or join their church. There are those who see their Christian mission as condemning all those who differ from them in any one belief as heretics; and you can readily find bloggers who use virulent terms to condemn people like Billy Graham, John Stott and Mother Teresa, let alone more radical thinkers. Yet the people who draw up these exclusive sets of beliefs – often beginning with “the supreme authority and accuracy of the bible” – ignore what the bible says both about God being far above our understanding and about God being far more concerned with how we respond to God, to others, and particularly to those in need than with religious ideas and practices. Otherwise, they wouldn’t dare claim to have all the answers. They end up with a very small God, who operates within a pre-scientific, 3-tier cosmos.
The decline in church numbers and influence is due in a large part to a clinging onto concepts which lack credibility in the 21st century, to continued use of a church language which is only comprehensible to insiders, and to social attitudes which discriminate against women and minorities. A sizeable and vociferous group within Christianity has been so intent and so loud in its defence of traditional interpretations of the bible that they have drowned out the message of love, hope, reconciliation, peace and social justice.
You have expressed succinctly what I felt as I read this reflection, summed up as ‘ The decline in church numbers and influence is due in a large part to a clinging onto concepts which lack credibility in the 21st century, to continued use of a church language which is only comprehensible to insiders, and to social attitudes which discriminate against women and minorities.’ Thank you
I want to add my thanks to Pavel and Andrew for their comments. I often feel disillusioned, offended and saddened by the condemnatory and discriminatory attitudes of some traditionalist preachers, so I find these comments encouraging. How can we have ended up with people in the pulpit preaching that the amazing love of God, the love we see in the life of Jesus, is conditional and proceed to justify an exclusivist, judgemental theology that drives people away from church.
At the last ecumenical service I attended before Covid, a vicar announced, “We belong together, because we all believe the same thing.” We were then asked to recite the Nicene Creed. Some no doubt recited it with their fingers crossed behind their backs, some interpreted it figuratively, and others understood it literally. But even those who understood it literally would each have had a different picture in their mind of what the words meant. If we really think that this sterile creed, which is the winning half of a 4th century theological argument, is the heart of Christianity, we have come a long way from Jesus’ teaching. I use the term ‘sterile’, because there is nothing in it to produce any fruit or to give any spiritual nourishment. There is no mention of the love that was central to Jesus’ teaching; no statement of hope; no suggestion of actually doing anything.
There is a (probably apocryphal) story about a highly acclaimed science professor, who, at the end of his final lecture before retirement, said to the packed lecture theatre: “Before I leave, I have two confessions to make. The first is that, over the next 50 years, half of what I have taught you will be proved to be incorrect. The second is that I have no idea what will be in that 50%.” The story highlights one of the major differences between science and Christianity. Scientists stand on the shoulders of the great scientists of the past but they stretch upwards to embrace innovative thinking and to re-evaluate previous theories as they explore new discoveries and fresh evidence. They are continually looking forward. In contrast, the message that is promulgated by orthodox Christian leaders is that they have the only truth and that this cannot possibly be changed, because there cannot be any updating of what is revealed in the bible or what was decided at church councils centuries ago. They are constantly harking back to the past; and in so doing are undermining the faith, because they are in fact asserting that God stopped revealing himself to us quite some time ago. They are very resistant to any changes in thinking that might be suggested by scientific discoveries or new insights.
Yet development is an integral part of a living faith. God’s Spirit is a creative power, whose dynamic presence is marked by excitement, growth and progress. We should expect a Spirit-led church to evolve to meet the spiritual needs of the day. We should not trap ourselves within first century or fourth century thinking but allow God to speak to us, whether through the bible or through other media, in terms that make sense in a 21st century world of quantum uncertainty, with an immensely diverse humanity, set in a universe (parallel universes?) of unfathomable size, and with rapidly advancing technological innovations and scientific discoveries. Where are the theologians who are prepared break out of the constraints of conventional credal thinking, live with the opprobrium traditionalists would heap on them, and provide a new vision of faith that would speak to the lost generations of the unchurched?