Monday, November 3, 2014

Will Christian Denominations Ever Unite? (Was the Lord’s Prayer For Unity Ineffective?)

            Make no mistake; Christianity is not the only religion with divisions.

            Here is a cursory look at the denominations of the other three largest religions of the world. The Hindu denominations are Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Shaktas, Smartas etc. The Islamic denominations are Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ahmadiyya, Ibadi, Mahdavia, Quranists etc. The Buddhist denominations are Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana etc.1

            Although within the Christian perspective, the varied interpretation of the Bible contributes to these denominations, one cannot remain blind to the deeds of man’s pride and selfishness in the establishment and upkeep of these denominations.

            It’s not only about the differences between denominations. There are divisions within every church, or should I say most churches. Divisions within the churches largely explain the contemporary growth of churches.

            Sadly most new churches are born not as a result of new believers coming into the kingdom of God, but because those in the kingdom of God are unable to tolerate the ideas, practices or the doctrines of their fellow believers. Hence, they move out and start new churches.

            These divisions violate the Lord’s commandments, which is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and as Christ loved us (Mark 12: 31 & John 13: 34, 15: 12).

            Denominations existing to worship God in a variety of flavors are acceptable. These denominations would not contradict unity, for they would be united in their belief and theology.

            On the contrary, we observe denominations sharply divided on the basis of doctrines. Importantly, these denominations, while arguing for their own truthfulness demean the so-called errors of the other denominations (I am not referring to the heretics or the cults).

            Divisions are our focal point especially in the light of the high priestly prayer of our Lord where HE prays for the unity of Christians, “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. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 20b-23, NIV).

            So our dilemma is not merely if the Christian denominations would unite, but the efficacy of Christ’s prayer could be suspected as follows:

            1. The Lord Jesus prayed for the unity of Christians.

            2. Christian denominations are not a portrayal of unity in any sense of thought or imagination. (Some denominations consider others as abominations, and I am not even referring to those termed cults or heretics.)

            3. If Christ prayed for the unity, and if unity isn’t exactly portrayed either in the denominations or within every church, was the prayer of the Lord Jesus ineffective?

            Obviously, Christ foreknew the impending divisions/denominations; else HE would not have prayed. In other words, if Christ knew that Christians would stay united, HE obviously would not have prayed for the unity of the Christians. Therefore, we reasonably posit Christ’s foreknowledge about the impending divisions among Christians.

            Then we wonder the delay in God’s answer to Christ’s prayer for unity. The answer remains rather simple to comprehend – the freewill of man. God has given man freedom to operate. As good as a man can be, he uses this freedom to believe in God, but as bad as he can be, he gives into sin when he uses the very same freedom to create divisions in the church.

            Because God loves the man, HE respects man’s freedom. Hence, God would not ruthlessly stamp HIS sovereignty to eliminate man’s freedom to achieve HIS purpose. This implies that the loving God would allow a man to disobey HIM. Therefore man’s failure to love his neighbor, which is his disobedience to the Lord Jesus, brings about divisions within Christianity and in the world at large.

            These divisions do not help the Christian cause because Christians are the most visible and the most read gospel - the fifth gospel. When a non-Christian observes the extent of internal strife among the Christians, he does wonder the relevance of the Lord Jesus, especially in the context of the Lord’s prayer in John 17, the Lord’s command to love the neighbor and the contrasting existence of divisions/denominations within Christianity.

            These painful divisions exist because Christians do not remain in the Lord in a perfect sense. This is amply clear in the Lord’s prayer, May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17: 21b, NIV, Emphasis mine). The responsibility here, therefore, is on the believer and not on God.

            So the writing is large on the wall that these divisions are here to stay. As long as this world exists, sin will exist because of freewill. As long as sin exists, divisions will exist because man will not perfectly love his fellow man. 

            While we are on the subject, we could think of unifying situations that could motivate Christians to bury their differences and animosity towards each other. One such situation is persecution.

            In 2013 there was a meaningful endeavor by Christians in Egypt towards unity. In February 2013, the heads of the five largest denominations – Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican – united to create Egypt's first Council of Churches.2 From what I read on the internet this alliance seems to be doing well even to this day. This seems to be a legitimate first step towards unity.

            This unity endeavor was a consequence of the prominence gained by Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 as an elected political party in Egypt. Needless to say, Muslim Brotherhood is considered a terrorist outfit by Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Russia.

            Therefore persecution does play a vital role in uniting the otherwise battling Christian denominations. These persecutions are either ordained or allowed by the sovereign God. Hence it’s evident that God is active in bringing HIS people together even amidst the pain of persecution. If we don’t learn in good times, then it does seem that we learn well in bad times.

            Forming a council of churches a.k.a World Council of Churches with the active representation of denominations is merely the first step in ushering unity. Perfect unity will be achieved when individual denominations (such as Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, CSI, CNI etc) are invalidated and merged into one Christian entity. Forgive my pessimism, but this, I think, would never happen for the simple reasons of money and power.

            Some Christian denominations are so wealthy that they would render some secular businesses as insignificant. In this context, the poorer denominations may agree towards a merger but the wealthier denominations may think twice and negate any moves towards Christian unity.

            Moreover, those in the realms of power would refuse to quit their prominence to become an ordinary servant in the mold of the incarnate Lord Jesus. Therefore, I firmly believe that money and power would be the biggest impediments towards achieving Christian unity, although I wish and hope to be proven incorrect.

            God could still bring about the Christian unity through various forms of persecution such as a powerful government edict demanding merger of all individual denominations. But having said that, I believe the mainline denominations (and the sideline denominations too) would not think of a global merger during the peaceful era.  

            Therefore I conclude the following:

            First, the denominational differences and internal animosity will remain due to man’s freewill and until the Lord comes again.

            Second, the ecumenical movements such as the World Council of Churches is merely scratching the surface of unity, but are light-years away from achieving real unity. A merger of likeminded denominations is, according to my simple knowledge, the realistic method to achieve unity. This, I believe, will not happen because of Christians’ greed for money and power, but could happen because of persecutions.

            Last but not the least, the Lord’s prayer for Christian unity will not be rendered ineffective because of God’s ineffectiveness. The biggest impediment to that prayer is the Christian leaders, who refuse to humble themselves in the mold of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of God’s infinite love for man, HE allows a man to disobey HIM, and as a result, a perfect Christian unity remains far from fruition and that by the will of God. Amen. 



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