Wrestling with Division: Historical Efforts at Christian Unity (Nov 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Douglas A. Foster
November, 1992

The union of Christians is the will of God, the prayer of Jesus, and the means of bringing the world to believe in Jesus, therefore it must be right. That man is then engaged in a righteous work, who labors to promote this union, by removing every obstruction to it … But the man who acts a contrary part must be wrong, and engaged in a work in opposition to the will of God, the prayer of Jesus, and the salvation of the world. (Barton W. Stone, Christian Messenger, 1827.)

7If Jesus’ words in John 17 are to be taken seriously, he considered the unity of his followers to be of greatest importance. It was the most pressing thing on Jesus’ mind as he was about to be crucified. From the factions in the Jerusalem and Corinthian churches to the fragmentation in the Christian world today, Christian women and men have struggled with how to fulfill that anguished prayer for oneness.

Every century has its own painful stories of division among those claiming to follow Christ. Yet perhaps no era is more filled with the agony of separation and bitterness than that of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Blathasar Hubmaier began to address legitimate grievances against established religious authority. Within a few decades Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anabaptists had forged their own enclaves, battling each other and refusing to recognize any but their own group as Christians.

Some religious leaders of the day, however, did try to eliminate the strife and division. The fragmentation that resulted from the Reformation especially disturbed Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right-hand man. Shortly after Luther’s death in 1546 a dispute arose concerning whether Lutherans could agree to a statement of belief “giving in” to Roman Catholic doctrines like the veneration of the stains, confirmation, and extreme unction (last rites).

Melancththon insisted that Christians must make a distinction between beliefs and practices essential to the gospel and those that were important but not part of the core. He called the second group adiaphora, a Greek word meaning non-essentials. In times of tension and division among Christians, he insisted, they could compromise on adiaphora for the sake of unity and for the opportunity to continue to preach the essentials.

Another Lutheran who worked to reconcile Reformation factions, this time in the seventeeth century, was Georg Calixtus. Though convinced that Lutheranism represented the best udnerstanding of Scripture, Calixtus insisted that such a view did not make all other Christians heretics or apostates. In language similar to Melanchthon’s, he distinguisehd between heresy and error. Heresy is the denial of something essential for salvation, he explained, while error is denial of a lesser part of revelation. Only heresy could rightly divide Christians.

The problem, of course, arises when one tries to specify the essentials. Calixtus contended that Scripture was the source of all true Christian belief, but tha the things belived “everywhere, always and by all” in the first five centuries of the church comprised the core doctrines and thus defined heresty. Surely everything essential to salvation would have been present in the first five centuries, he reasoned. Otherwise no one in the early period of the chuch could have been saved. Calixtus’ ideas were largely opposed in his day. Yet today many regard him as a forerunner of modern efforts at Christian unity.

In the eighteenth century another important voice for Christian unity was Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf. This extremely devout man was a “pietist,” part of a movement seekng to bring life to what many regarded as dead orthodoxy in the European churches. Zinzendorf defined the Christian essentials as believing in the power of Jesus’ blood and trusting in his merits. He became leader of a religious community which later became the Moravian Church or Church of the Brethren. Zinzendorf did not see the gorup as separate from other Christians. He devoted his life to bringing Christians together in the work of taking the gospel to the whole world.

Perhaps the most famous unit advocates of the nineteenth century were two Americans, Thomas Campbell of the seceder Church of Scotland, and Barton W. Stone of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. In 1809, after his denomination expelled him for serving communion to people in other groups and objecting to credal subscription, Campbell and several friends in western Pennsylvania formed a society they called the Christian Association. In Campbell’s booklet The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania, he explained the group’s purpose to the public – to promote Christian unity in this new land.

Campbell called for Christians in all denominations to unite with them “in the common cause of simple evangelical Christianity.” He went on to say that “nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith, nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly tuaght and enjoined upon them in the Word of God.” Furthermore, Campbell insisted, it was not necessary that persons have a knowledge of all divine truth to be entitled to a place in the church. All that was necessary was a knowledge of their sinful condition and the way of salvation through Christ. Anyone who made a profession of faith in Christ and showed the reality of his or her faith by appropriate actions should be considered a precious saint of God and loved as a child of the Father.

Barton W. Stone was so convinced of the necessity of Christian Unity that he and five other ministers dissolved their Presbyterian organization in 1804 to “sink into union with the body of Christ at large.”

Stone was totally devoted to the ideal of unity, but he was also a realist. He knew that even doctrinal agreement would not unite people who did not want unity. In August 1835 Stone published in his paper the Christian Messenger a short article which summed up his attitude.

The scriptures will never keep together in union and fellowship members not in the spirit of the scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, unity, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the BIble as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for union of all Christians; yet refuse fellowhsip with such as dissent from their notions … Such anti-sectarian-sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause, and advancement of truth, the unity of Christians, and the salvation of the world than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they create skeptics.

Many others in Christian history have seen the evils of division and struggled to bring the unity of Christ’s followers that would cause the world to believe. The work must continue, for so far we have failed.


For further reading:
Young, Charles Alexander, ed. Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union. Reprinted by College Press, 1985. (1-800-289-3300). Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” and Stone’s “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” among others.
Stone, Barton W. “To the editors of the Baptist Recorder.” Christian Messenger, 1827, pp. 221-225.
____. “Christian Union.” Christian Messenger, 1828, pp. 37-38.
____. “The Union of Christians.” Christian Messenger, 1841, p. 334.
____. “Friendly Hints.” Christian Messenger, 1844, pp. 281-287.
Material on Melanchthon, Calixtus, and Zinzendorf can be found in church histories such as Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. harper & Row, 1984.
Wineskins Magazine

Douglas A. Foster

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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