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.