Mary and the Problem of Christian Unity

Mary appears in Scripture to be intimately and inseparably bound to her Son Jesus Christ. She was more than just the human flesh through which the Divine Word entered the world. She was united to Christ in body and soul. And Jesus was also bound to her as her child, her Lord and the source of her life. She was the source of his human life and he was the source of the divine life that filled her life. This intimate union between Jesus and Mary is the foundation and basis of our hope that Christians can be unified. Unity is not an unfulfilled wish or an amorphous hope. Unity has both material and form, both substance and shape. Unity looks like a man and indeed is a man. Jesus alone is our unity, but Jesus is never alone. He is always with his mother.

The same Jesus that came from Mary’s womb also founded a church and promised that the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the kingdom of God (Mt. 18:18). The same Jesus that nursed at Mary’s breast prayed for the unity of his followers in the garden on the night before his death (Jn. 17). In this article we want to explore why Christians are not unified and how Scripture points us to a solution. We will see that unity among Christians cannot be achieved with means of our own contriving. Only by drawing deeply from the wellspring of Christ’s own person can we hope to find the unity that Christ desires.

Christians are divided and Christ cannot be pleased. Our Lord prayed for the unity of his followers on the last night of his earthly life, a fact that shows how deeply he cares about the unity of his disciples (Jn. 17:20ff). Why does Christ care if his people are one? The Old Testament promised the unity of God’s people when the Messiah came.

That alone suggests that Jesus’ ministry on earth had to fulfill one of the most important promises of the ancient Scriptures. If the people of God were not one, then Christ would have failed in his mission of salvation. Since there is only one Savior, there should be only one people who are saved. But why are Christians not one? If that was Jesus’ intention, what went wrong?

In the college town where I live, Christian students recently had a “Jesus Night.” This event was billed as an attempt for all the Christian groups on campus to lay down their differences and come together to worship Jesus. “Leave our differences at the door” was the cry. Apparently, the event was a big success because it met a felt need among the participants, the need to express our love for one another in Christ. This Jesus Nightarose from a God-given sentiment, that of being one in Christ. But it also illustrates one of the thorniest problems facing Christians who seek to be unified in Christ. Doctrinal differences have divided Christians for centuries. The desire to be one and the need to believe the truth that Christ taught are both genuine inspirations from the Holy Spirit. But how does one balance these two important truths? My own personal struggles in this matter illustrate the problem that is deep and wide among Christians.

The Dilemma of Truth Versus Unity: A Personal Struggle

In May of 1977, I graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I had spent three solid years in theological study that was intended to prepare me for the Presbyterian ministry. One of my professors was Rev. Edmund Clowney, the president of the seminary, who taught a class on the doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology). Professor Clowney spent a good amount of time addressing an urgent question he felt was being neglected by most evangelical Christians. From the Scriptures, Mr. Clowney urged on us the importance of the unity of the Church. He saw quite clearly how fragmented evangelical Christians were and how much this situation contradicted our Lord’s desire in John Chapter 17. His teaching sparked within me a desire for something I had seen in the Scriptures myself. During my college years, I had already been impressed with how Paul exhorted his readers in Corinth to be unified in doctrine and love (I Cor. 1:10ff). By the end of seminary, I had already concluded on the basis of the New Testament that many different denominations were not the intention of Jesus Christ nor of his apostles. But I was at a loss to know what to do about the problem of divisions among Christians.

In 1978, I preached a sermon from John Chapter 17 at an ordination service of a fellow Presbyterian minister. I urged the congregation that day to seek unity among themselves. As I reflected on the intensity of our Lord’s prayer recorded by John, I realized that Jesus would not be pleased with Christians who divided themselves from one another. I even went so far as to say that if the Roman Catholic Church ever came back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must go back to it. At that time, I sincerely believed that the Catholic Church was not teaching the real Gospel.

The problem of disunity among Christians continued to haunt me for years. In 1988, I began teaching at a Protestant seminary. Although I was teaching Biblical Studies, I spent a lot of time reading Church history, especially Protestant church history. I was working on a book on the history of science and religion in Protestant lands during the time of the Reformation. I had studied Church history in seminary, but this time my reading revealed facts that astounded me. I discovered that within one hundred fifty years after Martin Luther first posted his ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg church door, the Protestant movement was hopelessly fragmented. In England alone, there were literally hundreds of groups who claimed their interpretations of the Bible and Christian doctrines were the correct ones. Some Protestant groups, especially the more independent ones, developed the idea of the spiritual nature of the Church.

They claimed that the institutional church was relatively unimportant and that the only necessary thing was for an individual believer to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. No Christian body in history has ever denied that a living relationship with Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. The innovation of certain modern forms of Protestantism was that this was all that was important and that the institutional church must take a back seat. This same belief echoes down to our day: “It doesn’t matter what church you belong to as long as you know Jesus.” Whether they meant it or not, that was the message conveyed by the college students who held their Jesus Night.

As I studied my way through four hundred years of Protestant history, a pattern began to emerge that can be illustrated from twentieth-century Protestantism. In the early decades of this century, there arose the problem of liberalism or modernism, as some called it. Classic Protestant Liberalism said in essence that it was not important whether one believed in the historic doctrines of the Christian faith. In fact, one classic expression of this view reduced Christianity to three beliefs: (1) The fatherhood of God (2) the infinite value of the human soul and (3) the law of love to God and neighbor. Historic Christians—then called fundamentalists but with a different connotation than today—resisted this reductionism, and it led to serious splits among various Protestant denominations. In my own Presbyterian heritage alone, you can find dozens of splits and schisms among those who claim that others had left the faith.

I discovered that the problem facing the college students in my town has been repeated again and again throughout history. It is the problem of truth versus unity. This problem poses an unsolvable dilemma for Christians who buy into it. And I unknowingly bought into it for many years. The problem comes down to this. If Christians choose to emphasize some aspect of Christian teaching as essential, then they end up separating from those who do not hold that teaching. On the other hand, if Christians attempt to be one in Christ and follow Christ’s teaching on unity, then they must end up saying that certain teachings are not essential. The attempt is to include each group with different opinions while holding that those opinions are of little or no importance. This dilemma pits truth against unity, and requires us to choose either one or the other, but not both. The great challenge facing Christians today is how we can have both truth and unity.

For many years I could see no way out of this dilemma. The more specific some Christians become in their doctrines, the more other Christians had to be distanced from them in a visible manner. The only alternative was to de-emphasize doctrine and to embrace as wide a group of Christians as possible. For the first group, right doctrine is one of the controlling marks or features of the Church. If you don’t have right doctrine, they say, you don’t have a Church. The second group takes unity without doctrine as the defining characteristic (mark) of the Church. If you don’t have unity with love, they say, you don’t have a Church. But such unity was at a great price. It has unity only by downplaying the importance of the content of the faith. How could this dilemma be overcome? As I read and reread the New Testament, it becomes clear to me that the apostles made no choice between doctrinal truth and unity. If the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, then only apostolic doctrine will protect against seriously wrong beliefs (heresy). And only apostolic unity will protect Christians from seriously wrong division (schism). In short, if the apostles were here today, they would not choose truth or unity. They would embrace both truth and unity.

The Problem of Unity in Paul’s Letters

The dual problems of schism and heresy in the Church didn’t begin with Protestantism. Schism is the act of willfully separating from the Church. Heresy is teaching something that is contrary to the Gospel, the Scriptures and the teaching of Christ. Schism is a sin against love; heresy is a sin against truth. These problems began not more than twenty years after our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. The New Testament writers themselves attest to the presence of false teachers within the Church. They also speak of those who have cut themselves off from the fellowship of the Church through attempts to break up the body of Christ (schism). In fact, many of the letters in the New Testament were written to handle precisely these two reoccurring problems.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians indicate severe problems involving a party spirit in the Church and a denial of apostolic authority. In I Corinthians alone, Paul deals with schism (1:10-17), misunderstandings of his apostolic ministry (Chapters 3 and 4), problems of gross immorality (Chapters 5 and 6), marriage (Chapter 7), legalism (Chapter 8), liturgical abuses (Chapter 11), conflicts over spiritual gifts (Chapters 12-14), and denial of the resurrection (Chapter 15). This is a list that would keep a modern pastor busy for the rest of his life. What’s most important for our purposes is his opening section on divisions in the Church (I Cor 1:10-17).

We must place ourselves back into the position of Paul’s original readers, if we are to understand his teaching. When Paul’s letter arrived at Corinth, the people of the church there were divided along party lines that were identified by the names of various leaders.

Each one of you says, “I belong to Paul” another says, “I belong to Apollos” another says, “I belong to Cephas (Peter). Still another says, “I belong to Christ.” (I Cor 1:12)

The first three groups identified themselves with certain men as if their own leader had special access to the truth. For example, those who followed Paul denied that Apollos and Peter had the true Gospel. What about the last group, the Christ party?

Maybe they were tired of all the denominations and decided just to follow Jesus pure and simple. To anyone who knows the history of Western Christianity over the past four hundred years, this is exactly what has happened again and again. Various leaders arise who don’t intend to start a new denomination as such, but their followers begin to identify themselves almost completely with their leader. When these denominations fight with one another long enough, someone says, “Christ is lost in the confusion” and determines to get back to Jesus himself. These “Back to Jesus” movements inevitably distance themselves from other mere denominations with the confidence that they have some special access to the true Christ. The similarity between what happened in Corinth and modern Christianity is uncanny.

What is sadly striking is how modern Christians have completely ignored Paul’s solution to this problem. Paul did not accept a denial either of truth or unity. Any lack of commitment to apostolic witness is a denial of truth. Any lack of unity in the Church is a denial of the one body of Christ. Let’s look at Paul’s words more closely.