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Is the Church divided?

05 January 2022

What Ephesians says about unity and division

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“Ahouse divided against itself cannot stand.” So began Abraham Lincoln’s nomination speech to become Illinois state senator. Lincoln’s prophetic point was that failure to agree on the matter of eradicating slavery would irrevocably dissolve hopes of a future continuing union of states.

Lincoln, of course, was paraphrasing the words of Jesus Christ, who declared, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand" (Matthew 12:25, KJV).

As we begin yet another calendar year in which Covid is still officially with us, we are aware of the ongoing strife and conflicts within the Canadian Church. A September 2021 EFC national poll sadly revealed that every sector of Canadian Christianity was deeply divided on how the pandemic was being handled in and outside the Church.

Those with even a smattering of Church history already know the Church has long experienced internal strife. The Great Schism of 1054 divided the Church in half, resulting in the formation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Some 500 years later the Protestant Reformation further splintered the Western Church.

Fast-forward 500 years to today and we know the splintering continues. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Free Church, Baptist, Holiness, Pentecostal, Charismatic – to name just a few – have fought their own ecclesiastical skirmishes. The theological craters left from our inter- and intradenominational shelling leaves us with a sinking feeling that the concept of a unified Church is a theological utopia void of any sense of practical reality.

Church, act like who you are – stop fighting your family!

So, is the Church of Jesus Christ actually divided?

This may seem an odd question, especially in light of the history I’ve recounted. Is there any meaningful way in which we can speak of a unified Church today? Is not the empirical evidence against the Church’s unity too substantial to ignore?

One of the greatest theologies of the Church ever written, the New Testament book of Ephesians, answers this question with careful nuance. Though Christ’s Body can’t be divided, its members can act as if they are.

In the opening verses of Ephesians 4, the apostle makes an urgent appeal: Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, who is Christ Himself (Ephesians 2:14). Does this imperative – to maintain unity – imply unity can be lost? Actually, no.

On the contrary, Paul’s appeal to maintain unity is based on his second assertion that the unity of the Church depends not on the effort of Christians, but on the very nature of God Himself.

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Here Paul declares there is only one Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father (Ephesians 4:4–6). He does not say there should only be one Body – as if that is ours to determine – but that there is only one Body, one God and one baptism, none of which have been created by human hands.

So then, is the Church divided? If we believe Paul’s declarations, the answer is an unqualified no!

Everything we see – the divisions, the fights, the conflicts and yes, even cases of Christians killing Christians repeated too often in history – does not negate the theological truth of the Church’s unity. Just as families often fight, isolate, abandon and even kill one another, no divisive evil can undo a family’s common ancestry. So too, there is only one family in Christ, our wars and conflicts notwithstanding.

So why does Paul call for making every effort to maintain unity? Not because mere human effort, however creative or heroic, can build or create the unity of the Body, but because Paul already knew how we so regularly act contrary to who we are.

Paul insists: Church, act like who you are! Or put another way – stop fighting your family!

Even after 2,000 years the Church has still not grown into the maturity envisioned by Paul, into the unity of the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians 4:13). We still do not really know who we are – the one Body of Christ that can’t be divided by human conflict, but whose gospel witness is marred as long as such needless conflict persists.

Is the Church divided? No, a thousand times no!

But perhaps we need to consider how very often we live as if we are. We behave, paradoxically, as if we are not one Body. Perhaps we need a good Holy Spirit reminder that a watching world may continue to wait to see the Church live together in harmony before it is ready to commit to join us in following our one Lord Jesus Christ.

david guretzki
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian. Photo-illustration: Janice Van Eck (Joshua Brown; James Pt)

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