An Inherent Problem?
"The Belhar Confession" portrays the unity of the church which it so rightly and highly advocates as an imperative:
"this unity must become visible," and
"this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active."
Surely such church unity is desirable. But also surely such unity is always a gift and never a human accomplishment or possibility. Does not portraying the unity of the church as an imperative, particularly a divine imperative, create numerous problems? Given a divine imperative for church unity, is not the implication that we can do no other? Is not the implication that we must stay together? Is not the implication that we must agree? Is not the implication that any and all costs for church unity are fully justified? Is not the implication that any division within or of the church is at best disobedient and at worst schismatic and demonic?
But the very emphasis upon church unity as a divine imperative threatens the continuing existence of the denomination within which we are discussing this. The insistence upon church unity as a divine imperative renders all denominationalism illegitimate. Some would readily admit and embrace that. If, however, all denominationalism were by definition illegitimate, we should quit worrying about the unity of and within the Presbyterian Church, abandon this splinter group altogether, and seek the larger unity of the whole church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we could do no other. The demise of the Presbyterian Church would be a necessary cost to be paid for the greater good.
If, however, there is any remaining legitimacy or appropriateness to denominationalism, to Protestantism, or to the Reformed heritage, any at all--and surely even those within the Presbyterian Church who emphasize unity as a divine imperative must place some such value on this branch of the church, or they would not be pushing so hard to maintain its unity--if there is any remaining legitimacy to Presbyterianism at all, then we should not pretend that church unity is an absolute value. It may be a very high value. But if it were an absolute value, if it were a divine imperative, then denominationalism would be forbidden and all efforts to maintain the existence of the Presbyterian Church, let alone its unity, would be inherently sinful. That is to say, absolute church unity and the Presbyterian Church are mutually exclusive.
Instead of insisting that the unity of the church is a divine imperative, perhaps we should understand the unity of the church as a divine gift. It is something wonderful which God gives to us. Yes, we should pray for it. We should seek it. We should receive it gladly when it comes. We should not stand in its way. We should not work against it. And yet, surely we must realize that the unity of the church is God's work, God's business, God's accomplishment, and God's gift to us. It is not something we can do ourselves. Let me put it this way: any church unity of which we are capable of accomplishing could not possibly satisfy the divine imperative for church unity if, in fact, there were one.
Even Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of the church, as recorded in John 17. We all know this. The point here is that he prayed for it! He did not command it. He did not demand it. He did not assume that his followers would be capable of it. In fact, the urgency of the prayer seems to assume that his followers would be lacking it. Jesus asked his Father to bestow unity upon us as a gift! Yes, of course, this means that church unity is in agreement with the heartfelt desire of our savior. But no, it does not mean that it is simply up to us to do it, to achieve it, to legislate it, to mandate it, or to accomplish it.
Those who push most urgently for the unity of the Presbyterian Church as a divine imperative to be sought at any cost may, in fact, be doing the most to undermine both the desired unity of the church and the church itself.
Please understand: I am in favor of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. And within that larger unity, I am in favor of maintaining the gifts that have been given to us in and through the Reformed heritage and Presbyterianism. I am simply saying that in order to maintain the unity of the Presbyterian Church as a viable part of the larger church, it is inherently, dare I say, "imperative" that we not undermine the legitimacy of the existence of the Presbyterian Church in the very process of seeking to maintain it.