Thursday, January 23, 2014

Denominations and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  The event involves Christians from around the world praying for the unity of the body of Christ.  This event is a very long-standing one.  The missionaries I studied for my dissertation participated in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity over 100 years ago.  This year's theme is "Has Christ been divided?"

This blog is focused on a particular denominational tradition: United Methodism.  Often, denominationalism can seem like the opposite of Christian unity.  According to the latest figures from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are 45,000 denominations in the world, likely to rise to 55,000 in the next decade.  Many, Christian and non-Christian, look at that figure and shake their heads at the sad state of Christian unity.  Yet the number of denominations has only proliferated over the years, and it is probably unrealistic to expect it to start going down any time soon.

Perhaps one thing to pray for this week, then, is to see how our denominational traditions can contribute to rather than detract from Christian unity.  We don't see a large number of individuals as taking away from Christian unity, even if they have different gifts and graces.  A church with 45,000 member is not necessarily a worse example of Christian unity than a church with 300 members, though it may embody Christian unity in a different way.  It may not be unified in terms of personal relationships between all of the members, but there may still be a unity of purpose, of calling, of vision - in short, a spiritual unity.

Can we think of denominations in a similar way?  Can we conceive of Christian unity in spiritual rather than organizational terms?  The body of Christ is ultimately a spiritual reality, not a reality that is constituted in terms of formal administrative relationships or human power structures.  Such denominations are not (we hope) separate from the body of Christ, but we must not mistake the one for the other.  Denominations are not what destroy Christian unity - it's confusing human organizational structures with the divine body of Christ.  Once we can understand our own ecclesiastical traditions as a part of and not the entirety of the body of Christ, then it is easier to experience Christian unity with fellow Christians from other denominations.

Once we have made that distinction, we can begin to see denominations as endowed with different gifts and graces for the work of Christ, yet still part of some larger form of Christian unity.  Indeed, we need different gifts and graces to carry out the work of Christ.  Paul makes it clear in Romans 12 that these differences are a blessed, not a curse.  We often exegete that passage by applying it to individuals, but might it be possible to apply it to denominations as well?  If so, then denominations can, at their best, be a way of organizing and carrying out complimentary parts of the work of the Christ, a work that is large enough to incorporate all who earnestly seek to be a part of it within its unity.  May our prayers lead us to better understanding of the nature of that unity this week.

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