The 7th Essential: The Unity of the Church

For almost 15 centuries, the church possessed a visible unity in the form of the Catholic Church. In 1457 the Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Church, became the first protestant church. Since that time 38,000 (FN1) other protestant churches have been formed. Today protestant churches are forming at the rate of 300 a year. These numbers do not include the many fiercely independent congregations that are scattered all over city and world.

You know the names of many denominations: Southern Baptist, United Methodist, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, various branches of the Presbyterian Church, etc. Bishop Wayne Burkette once told me that the most unusual denominational name he had ever encountered was that of the “Two Peas in a Pod, Double Predestination, Superlapsarian Primitive Baptist Church.” How would you like to try and fit that on a sign for Country Club Road?

All 38,000 of these churches call themselves churches, but most of them also refer to themselves as denominations, because they recognize that they are but a smaller part of a larger whole.

The American currency system furnishes us with a good example. Our money comes in various denominations. Today it is issued in six denominations: $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100 notes. At one time we had higher denominations. Woodrow Wilson’s portrait appeared on the $100,000 dollar bill. Bills come in various denominations, but it is all the same currency. Two $5’s spend as good as one $10. Five $1’s spend as good as one $5. Each bill is a part of the larger whole, and so it is with the denominations.

There are many denominations, but we Moravians have always insisted that there is just one Church, the One Church which worships the One God who has revealedGod’s Self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That church is Catholic and Protestant, Universal and Local, Liturgical and Free, Liberal and Conservative, Evangelical—in that it proclaims the good news, and Ecumenical in that it recognizes the desirability of Christian fellowship.
Perhaps you remember the name of Peter Cartwright the Methodist Circuit Rider who once ran against Abraham Lincoln for Congress. Cartwright founded a church on his circuit, then came back to find its people had taken a preacher to themselves who said that the only true church consisted of those persons who had been baptized by immersion. Cartwright asked for a debate. The church assembled, preachers to the fore. In debate, Cartwright did not address the other preacher, instead, he carried on an imaginary conversation with heaven.

“St. Peter,” he said, “those who are in heaven—by what name are the called? Are they called Baptists?”

“No!”

“Are they called Presbyterians?”

“No!”

“Episcopalians? Moravians?”

“No! No!”

“Well then, are they called Methodists?”

“No! No! A thousand times No! They are called Christians, and they have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives unto death.” Of course, St. Peter did not say that, but the man we call St. John did, in Revelation chapter 12 verse 11.

The One Church has congregations on every continent, and in virtually every country around the world. There are about 1.5 billion Christians in the world, including 800 million Protestants. There are 170 million Christians in North America, 160 million in Africa, 120 million in Europe, 70 million in Latin America, 60 million in Asia, and 10 million in Oceania. The church is a leaven spread throughout the world. The author of the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus wrote of Christians saying, “Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign country.” Why? Because “Our commonwealth is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20)

II

That leads us to another way of looking to the church. Theologians often speak of the Church Militant, meaning the Church in the World, and of the Church Triumphant, meaning the Church that stands in the more immediate presence of her Lord.
When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” This is an old church. There are almost as many New Philadelphians in God’s Acre as there are on our present role. Many of those whom we have loved best in life have been promoted into the higher service. We shall never see them again in this life. Yet we believe that they are never more than one person removed from us. They stand before Christ, and Christ stands among us, keeping his promise to be present through the power of the Holy Spirit when even two or three are gathered in his name. He is the tie that binds us. His love is stronger than death, and we live from the future that is coming to us in him.

That means that the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are in reality one church. According to the late C.S. Lewis, Screwtape describes this church as “spread throughout time and eternity, as terrible (and wonderful!) as an army with banners.” St. Paul speaks of it in Romans 14:8-9 saying:

Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lords, for to this end Christ died, and rose again, that he might be LORD of the living and of the dead. (Romans 14:8-9)

III

There is yet another way of referring to the church. Theologians also speak of the Church Visible and the Church Invisible. The Visible Church is the church that anyone can see. I am looking at it right now. Its members are male and female, young and old, tall and short, light and dark, fat and thin. Some of its members have a great sense of fashion. Others do not. There are members of the Church Visible sitting beside you, and behind you, and in front of you. They sing in the choir, usher, ring the bells, play in the band, and gather in the foyer. Some sing very well, and others sing like me. The Church Visible is the church that anyone can see. The Invisible Church is the church that only God can see. It consists of all the people who worship God in Spirit and in Truth. I trust that each of us who are gathered here in the Church Visible are also members of the Invisible Church. Only God knows. I believe that whereever we go, we are surrounded by the members of the Invisible Church. We live with them in our homes, and work with them in shops, and offices, and factories. We pass them on the highways, and sit with them in restaurants. Just last week I was passing out of the parking deck at Forsyth Memorial Hospital when the woman at the window said, “Have a blessed day!” It was her way of making the Invisible Church visible, at least for a moment, at least so I believe. Yet, only God knows the members of the Invisible Church.

Now one may ask how does the Church Invisible relate to the Church Visible?

That is always an interesting question. Fredrick Buechner, a popular Christian author, suggests the following answer. He says that both the Church Visible and the Church Invisible can be represented by two circles. The optimist says that the two circles are exactly concentric and exactly overlap. The pessimist says that the two circles barely touch, if at all. The realist says that the two circles always overlap, sometimes a little, and sometimes a lot. I would like to be an optimist, but I cannot. So I will settle for being a realist. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says:

21 Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ Matthew 7:21-23

IV

That raises the matter of the purity of the church, and its discipline. In 1st Corinthians 5:12 Paul wrote that we who belong to the church are to judge those inside the church. Paul wrote that in connection with a specific incident. He told the church in Corinth to expel a member who was living in a sexual relationship with his father’s wife, something he assured them that not even the heathen would tolerate. (1st Corinthians 5:1-13).

Every denomination including the Moravian Church has a provision relating to Church Discipline. The Catholic Church bans people from communion and eventually excommunicates them. The Moravian Church says that members should be dismissed when we fail to do three things: 1) take communion regularly, 2) give of our means as God prospers us, and 3) attend worship services regularly. We don’t dismiss people for falling into sin. When people fall into heinous and obvious sin, there is a process whereby we are to seek to restore them. First the pastor goes to see them. If that does not work, the pastor goes to see them with an elder as witness. We believe that “love covers a multitude of sins.” As a pastor for thirty years, I have had to exercise discipline only once, and that in an extraordinary circumstance. The truth is that most of people need no prompting. We know when we have done wrong.

Of course, we must be careful in our discipline. Jesus warns against premature judgment, pointing out that it can do harm. In Matthew 13:24-43 he tells the Parable of the Wheat and the weeds. He said:

24 The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ 28 He said to them, `An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, `No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says:

Judge not, that you be not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

He goes on to say that we must remove the log that is in our own eye before we can remove the speck of dust that is in the eye of our brother or sister.

V

There are certain marks of the true church. I would mention just the following.

Holiness: The church is already holy in Christ. In Christ God sees us without spot, or wrinkle or blemish. (Ephesians 5:27) Holiness also means to be “set apart.” As Christians we know that we do not belong to ourselves. We belong first to God who has set us apart; then we belong to one another. Only after we belong to God and to one another can we belong truly to our selves. Remember how Jesus said “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it..”(Luke 17:33 )

Apostolisticy: That means that we preach the same basic message that the apostles preached. This does not mean that we agree on the interpretation of every text of scripture. This does not mean that we are 100% correct in all our doctrine. It does mean that we are preaching the main thing, and the main thing is always that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” And that “if anyone is in Christ he (or she) is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.” (2nd Corinthians 5:14-21) The apostles preached Christ, simple and true, and so must we. One of the reasons I like the Eight Essentials is that they almost exactly parallel the kerygma or “preaching” of the New Testament.

Forgiveness: Where would any of us be without it? The late Bishop Herbert Spaugh was rushing into the Little Church on the Lane one Sunday when he met a woman coming out. He said, “Madam, where are you going? The service is about to start.” She responded, “I am leaving. I have been in there and that church is filled with nice people. I am not a nice person.” The Bishop responded, “Dear Madam, the church is not a showcase for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.”

Charity: The Early Church in Jerusalem sold everything and had all things in common. It was an experiment in communism. It failed. It was not long before the apostle Paul was taking up a collection for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem. (2nd Corinthians 8:4) Though the authorship of 2nd Thessalonians as a whole is often disputed, I believe it was certainly Paul who said, “if a person will not work; let him not eat.” It rings of his confidence. (2nd Thess. 3:10) Though communism failed, and a willingness to work is desirable, God still asks us to show charity. Charity is a mark of the true church, I expect, in these difficult times, the church will rediscover the importance of charity or it will fail to be the church. Dr. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision International, was want to pray, “O, Lord, break my heart for the things that break your heart!”

Hope: Many years ago I was asked to serve on the Character Education Task Force for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. We came up with a list that we thought we should teach, a list that transcends any faith and all faith. Our list consisted of: 1. Courage, 2. Good Judgment, 3. Integrity, 4. Kindness, 5. Perseverance, 6. Respect, 7. Responsibility, and 8. Self-Discipline. I thought something was missing and suggested we add “Hope.” I think most of the people in the room were suspicious of a preacher adding the word “Hope.” I suspect they thought it too religious. We voted it down. I did note that every African American in the room voted along with me in favor of Hope. I try not to be political. I am a registered Independent. I vote for Republicans and Democrats, and I have close friends in both parties. That said, without being in the least political, I will tell you that I believe that President Elect Barack Obama won the recent national election because he gave people in America, and in other nations of the world, a sense of hope. The church is in the hope business. The first hope we preach is the ultimate hope. As many people grow older, hope diminishes. It should not be so. As human beings we believe that at the end of each day we pitch our tents a days march closer to the grave. But as Christians we also believe that at the end of each day we pitch our tent a days march closer to God. In Romans 6:5 we read, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Paul is referring to Baptism, by which we symbolicly participate in the death of Christ, but also to death itself. Apart from Jesus Christ we human beings live in the anxious middle: We don’t know where we have come from or where we are going. In Christ, we know that we have come from God, and we are going to God. As members of the church, we know that we are going forward together to meet the Master. There is another dimension to the church’s proclamation of hope. The Late James S. Stewart said it best when he wrote:

The central business the church today is telling people that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to them today, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.

Inclusiveness: When the church fails to be inclusive it always learns to regret it. Let me give just one example: Gandhi. When he was a young man living in South Africa Gandhi decided to investigate Christianity. Upon presenting himself at the door of a prominent church he was met by an usher who said, ” I am sorry, sir, but we do not admit people of color.” I wonder where the church in India would be today had Gandhi had become a Christian? Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” That is the church. When people come to us, we must treat them as family, we must take them in. There are some who will contest this and argue for the purity of the church. There are always those who will point to others and say, “They are not worthy.” We sometimes side with them until they point to us and say, “You are not worthy.” The story goes that an old and well worn Christian pastor once looked at his wife and said, “Dear, sometimes I am not sure that anyone is a Christian but me and thee, and sometimes I am not sure about thee.” That kind of narrowness is a tragedy. How much better to be like Paul who said that he could wish that he himself were “…accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” (Romans 9:3) Which is the more Godlike attitude?

Sometimes we Moravians find ourselves in the awkward place of thinking well of others who do not think so well of us. People and whole churches have sometimes said to us that we are not the true church because we do not read the King James Bible, or because we do not interpret Scripture the way they do. Some have rejected us because we allow women to serve on our board of elders, and have women pastors, or because we remarry divorced people, or because we do this or do not do that. When others criticize us so, we are at our best when we respond in the spirit of Edwin Markham:

They drew a circle that shut us out-
Heretics, rebels, something to flout.
But Love and We had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took Them in!

In John 17:21 Jesus prayed that (we) who believe in him through the witness of the apostles (which we still receive through Scripture) might all be one, as he is in the father and the father in him. He prayed that we might be one in him, that world might see our unity and believe that God sent him. Only God can see the Church Invisible, but we find it impossible to ignore the Visible Church which reaches out in faith, not only to God, but also to God’s people. We want to be a part of the church that is reaching out to all the other parts of the church. Why? Because we believe that when Jesus prayed for our unity, he appealed to us for that Unity, too. We want to do our part.
Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.