In the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople (known as the Nicene Creed), the Christian Church is described as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” In the next few weeks, I would like reflect from an Eastern Orthodox angle on the meanings of these words, and what they tell us about the nature of the Church as a whole.
I will begin today with the first descriptor of the Church: that it is “one.”
It is no secret that the Christian communities are a divided bunch. The proverbial Martian descending on any town in North America for the first time would discover the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, Baptists, Lutherans, the United Church, Anglicans, and numerous evangelical Protestant denominations: Alliance, Foursquare Gospel, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, as well as various independent groups of different stripes.
After further inquiry, our Martian visitor would discover that the churches don’t have much to do with one another, other than a couple of joint yearly events. In short, the proverbial Martian, search as he might, would be hard put to see anything like “one” Church.
I will say it out loud: this situation is abhorrent, scandalous, and tragic. But what is the solution? What is the true basis of Christian unity?
The problem, I believe, is that different Christian communities use different criteria to define the meaning of unity. The Roman Catholic Church tends to define unity on the basis of communion with the authority of the Roman see expressed in the office of the Pope. It is an institutional unity in which doctrine and faith are defined from a central source.
Many Protestant denominations, by contrast, define unity on the basis of the Bible. For them, Christians are not “a people under the Pope,” but “a people under the Book.” As long as one holds to the inerrant authority of the Bible, one is united to others who believe likewise, thereby constituting the Church.
Still others take a more confession-based approach. They concede that not everyone interprets the Bible in the same way, but as long as you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are part of a vast, universal body of believers who confess the same thing. And, to take it one step further, there are some Christians who go even farther, defining unity on the basis of belief in God generally, whether He is manifested in Jesus or not.
Orthodox Christians are not immune from division. We manifest our own unique brand of disunity, not in doctrinal division, but in a phenomenon known as Phyletism, which associates Christianity with particular ethnic groups or cultures, such as Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, and Serbs. That little series of events in Serbia, for example, in which over a hundred thousand Bosnians were killed, was fuelled in part by the belief in a “Heavenly Serbia,” with a divine right to purify itself of unbelievers.
I hope, therefore, you can see the problem, and why I cannot offer anything like a comprehensive solution in the space of a short article. In fact, I have run out of space just taking account of the issues in basic (and perhaps even inaccurate) terms. In my next article, therefore, I will suggest that, in my view, Christians have lost focus on the real basis of their unity: the historical, eternal, living Person of Jesus Christ, incarnate of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised from the dead on the third day, who continues to be present in His Body, the Church, as a living and visible reality in today’s world.
More on that next time.