Christians are united and the church is one! Though it sounds incredible, that statement is gloriously true. We all have one God and Father, we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, and we are all indwelt by the Holy Spirit. All Christians are brothers and sisters in God’s family, members of Christ’s mystical body, living stones built up into God’s temple, the dwelling place of the Spirit.
This spiritual unity ought to be manifested in a common confession of faith and brotherly love. Thank God we do so, but only partially and imperfectly, given our many weaknesses and imperfections.
In the apostolic church, the apostle Paul complained about the divisions among the brethren in Corinth. In the early church, there was serious discord between the Catholics and the Donatists. Later on the tension and rivalry between the Greek and the Latin churches culminated in the great schism in 1054 that remains to this day. The sixteenth century saw the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed and Baptist churches. In subsequent centuries, Protestant churches fragmented into even smaller denominations.
Our Lord Jesus prayed to His Father for us all who believe in His name: “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21). My heart aches as I read Jesus’ prayer. His desire is our manifest unity; but alas, the world looks upon those who call on the name of Christ and, instead of unity, the world sees divisions, confusion and strife. How can outsiders believe in our Divine Messiah if they cannot see His supernatural work of love and peace among His people?
Concepts of Unity
Protestants as well as Catholics confess their belief in one church. But the two groups understand church unity differently.
According to a document published by the Vatican , the church of Jesus Christ is identified with the church “governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”. Christian unity is conceived as a world-wide organized society under the leadership of Catholic bishops and headed by the bishop of Rome.
According to this theory, the Orthodox and Protestant churches “suffer from defects”; the latter are merely “ecclesial Communities” and not “churches in the proper sense” -- primarily because they do not submit to the headship of the Pope, the bishop of Rome.
However there is no convincing biblical evidence that Peter was appointed supreme pastor and ruler of the whole church. We know from the New Testament that Peter was considered a pillar in the early church, but he shared this reputation with two other apostles. “James, Peter and John [were] reputed to be pillars” (Galatians 2:9). Peter had no supreme authority over the other apostles or the universal church.
Nor is there historical proof that the bishop of Rome ever exercised universal jurisdiction over the catholic church. For instance, the sixth canon of the Council of Nicea indicates the very opposite:
“The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome. Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved.”
The Council recognized the authority of the bishop of Alexandria over certain territories in North Africa, just as Rome and Antioch exercised similar power in their regions. By this time in church history, the bishops of important cities were ruling over the churches in their geographical areas. Rome’s authority, like Alexandria and Antioch, was regional and not universal.
The bishops of the Council of Nicea believed in one church, as the Nicean Creed asserts, but they did not recognize the bishop of Rome as supreme head over them.
Protestants regard the church as the spiritual body of Christ, made up of every true believer, born by the Spirit of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. Christians are united in Christ despite the diversity and differences between individual believers and their local congregations. Since we are spiritually united, Christians are called to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
We should pray and work towards the unity and peace of the church without compromising the truth of the Gospel. But we cannot accept the papal claim to universal jurisdiction. That claim is neither biblical nor historical; it is one of the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of unity.
Unity and Diversity
How can the church manifest its spiritual unity? Well, let us state plainly that there is a form of unity that has nothing to do with the Spirit of God. It is a carnal unity, akin to the unity brought about by dictators, coercing people into submission and uniformity. This was the pathetic ideal of the Holy Roman Empire. The popes of Rome claimed supreme authority over all Christians and their governments, and subdued nonconformists by an iron fist. A similar approach was adopted for some decades after the Reformation. The people in a given region were forced to become either Catholics or Protestants according to the convictions of their Prince. The result was a form of unity; the price, bitter persecution of all who dared to differ.
Who is willing to pay for such unity by forfeiting his liberty? Who is willing to worship God contrary to his conscience? Why can’t Christains group in different denominations according to their convictions and live in harmony with each other? This seems to be the lesser of two evils; denominations imply certain divisions, but they allow all Christian to practice their faith freely according to the dictates of their conscience.
We rejoice that there is substantial doctrinal unity among different denominations. All Christians agree on the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, the virgin birth, His atoning death and bodily resurrection. Christians believe in salvation by grace through faith in Christ, emphasizing the necessity of godly living and brotherly love. Christians also believe in the resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell.
Moreover there is a genuine sense of respect and love among Christians, no matter what our denominational label might be. We are Christians before we are Baptists, Presbyterians, Brethren, Methodists and so on, and we enjoy an immediate and spiritual sense of brotherhood.
The distinctives of the various denominations relate mainly to the following theological areas: the doctrines of grace, church government, the administration of the sacraments, the charismatic gifts, and eschatology (prophecy). We cannot minimize the importance of these doctrines or their significant practical and spiritual implications. However, the belief or otherwise in an earthly millennial kingdom does not exclude anyone from the universal church of Jesus Christ. After all both views were prevalent in the early church too.
Quite frankly we should add that many divisions among Christians have little or nothing to do with doctrine. Divisions between members of local churches, and between different churches, arise from sinful pique, rebellion and a fighting spirit. James asks, “Where do wars and fights come from among you?” We have to admit that disagreements and schisms often arise from our sinful lusts, carnal envying and strife rather than for our zeal for the truth of the Gospel. This is a sad reality and there is no excuse for it. In such situations, Christians show themselves to be genuine or hypocrites if and when they forgive one another from the heart.
Catholic apologists often write about the thousands of Protestant denominations; the number varies from 20,000 to 30,000 and more! This assertion is simply untrue. The original source of these figures is the World Christian Encyclopaedia (David A. Barrett, Oxford University Press, 1982). Barrett cites a figure of 20,780 “denominations”. However not all of them are Protestants. According to Barrett, Protestants account for 8,196 (incidentally, Roman Catholics account for 223).
However, even this figure of eight thousand Protestant denominations is misleading, for Barrett defines "distinct denominations" as any group that might have a slightly different emphasis than another group. The distinction is made on the basis of jurisdiction, rather than differing beliefs and practices. Barrett breaks down the Protestant bloc into twenty-one major "traditions" which are much closer to what we usually mean by the word "denominations". It is interesting that Roman Catholics are subdivided into sixteen such "traditions."
Sadly some irresponsible authors continue to propagate gross exaggerations and untruths about the number of Christian denominations.
Apparent Catholic Unity
At first glance the Roman Catholic Church seems to be united under the leadership of the Pope and the Vatican. There are official doctrines and positions on various issues, and uniformity in the liturgy in the Catholic churches worldwide. Is Rome the solution to the heterogeneity and doctrinal error in Christendom? Should all Christians submit to the authority of the Roman pontiff?
Most definitely not! For the hierarchical government of the Roman church, and the claim of universal jurisdiction of its bishop on all the churches, is not biblical; Roman Catholicism is contaminated with false human traditions that distort the Gospel of Christ; and finally, judging the system by its fruit, the Roman Church is no more united in faith and love than the rest of Christendom.
Needless to say there are factions, fighting, envy and strife among Catholics just as there are in Christian churches. Can you imagine a parish divided in two rival groups, one faction under the patronage of St Mary and the other under the patronage of St Joseph? Well, that is the kind of “unity” I observe among Catholics in a particular town in my own country.
Christian denominations do not even begin to rival the diversity between the various groups, movements, societies and orders within the Catholic Church. The spectrum ranges from the cloister nuns and Trappist monks (who spend all their time in silence), through the Masonic-like Catenians and Opus Dei, Traditional Catholics, Liberal Catholics, the Neocatechumens, Catholic Charismatics, Evangelical Catholics and so on. They all fall under the wide umbrella of Catholicism, of course, but the differences between them are just as real, and even wider than between Christian denominations. Someone will protest that this is "diversity within unity” and that all these groups are Catholics and united under the leadership of the Pope. Well then, by the same token, why can’t we say that despite their diversity, the many Protestant denominations are all Christian and united under the headship of Christ?
The situation is not any better in the doctrinal area. Take the charismatic movement for an example. In Protestant circles, Charismatics form separate denominations (and so the distinction from other denominations is obvious), whereas in the Catholic Church, the charismatic groups remain under the Roman umbrella. Their differences from non-charismatic Catholics are hidden though they are just as real as in Evangelical churches.
Individual Catholics often do not know or believe what the Catholic Church officially teaches. Many Catholics flatly deny Catholic dogma. There are significant differences between Catholic groups, especially between the conservative and modernist factions. Catholics disagree among themselves on such issues as the material sufficiency of Scripture, creation/evolution, the charismatic phenomena, Mary as a co-redemptrix, whether they worship the same God as Muslims or not, and so on.
The teaching of the Roman magisterium has changed on certain doctrines. For instance, the Roman Church previously taught dogmatically that salvation is limited to Catholics whereas Vatican II teaches that people in other Christian denominations and other religions can also be saved. The Council of Florence solemnly proclaimed: "It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" (Dezinger, page 230). Compare that statement with the teaching of the modern Catholic Church: "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation" (Lumen Gentium, 16).
This is a classical doctrinal U-turn in a church that is supposedly always the same (semper eadem). If Rome was previously correct, she is now in error. But if the modern Roman church is right, she was wrong in the past. At any rate, this shows that the Catholic magisterium cannot be infallible, as it is claimed, because it has frequently contradicted itself.
The slavish submission to the teaching of the Vatican may produce a measure of uniformity among Catholics, but it is certainly not a guarantee that they are holding to the truth of the Gospel. Faithful Catholics may believe the same things. The only problem is the "same things" they uphold may be erroneous. Uniformity is not equivalent to truth or to the unity of the Spirit. All Jehovah Witnesses deny the deity of Christ; that does not make their belief any less heretical. There is no virtue in being united under the banner of a false gospel.
Relations with Apostates
Divisions are always painful, but they are sometimes necessary. “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19). We are not called to maintain unity at any cost. The church is the pillar and ground of truth, and when false prophets and teachers bring in their damnable heresies, the Christian church is called to oppose error and take a stand for God’s truth. The apostle Paul was not afraid to expose some as "false brethren" since they were distorting the Gospel message (Galatians 2:4). Similarly, he calls on all Christians: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). False doctrines cause divisions, and the faithful are called to avoid those who claim to be Christians but deny the apostolic faith.
It is perfectly right therefore for conservative Christians to disassociate themselves from the liberal Protestant churches and other apostates. The renegades deceptively call themselves Christian, Protestant and Evangelical, but they are illegitimate heirs of the historic Protestant faith as defined by the standards of faith (such as the Westminster, Belgic and Augsburg confessions). More importantly, they deny and distort the Gospel message. The liberals deny the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, thereby robbing people of any hope of eternal life. Others openly promote immorality such as homosexuality and abortion. And yet others preach a "health, wealth and prosperity" gospel, which naturally appeals to the masses, and sadly thousands are deceived by charlatans posing as ministers of Christ. There is an urgent need in the modern Church for faithful pastors to speak out and warn against the false teachers and movements in our day.
What about the relation between Catholics and Protestants? Is it not high time for them to heal the wound in the body of Christ caused by the Reformation?
Well, what caused the division in the first place? Though there were political and other factors involved, the primary cause of the division was doctrinal. The Reformers had no intention to cause a split; they wanted to reform the church by calling her back to the simplicity of the Gospel. But Rome did not budge. And since they considered the doctrinal differences to be so crucial (especially the doctrine of justification), they were compelled to disassociate themselves from the Roman institution and form separate churches. Rome responded by the calling a general council held in Trent, Italy (1545 – 1563). The council defined the Catholic Church’s doctrinal position and condemned Protestant teaching. Scores of anathemas (curses) were directed towards Protestants for their understanding of the Gospel.
Though our forefathers disagreed on many issues, they were in agreement on this one: the Catholic and Protestant doctrinal positions are so divergent that they are irreconcilable. If Catholics were right, the Protestants’ contrasting position must be wrong, and vice versa. If sola fide is the true Gospel, then Rome’s works-merit message is a false gospel!
Over the past fifty years or so, massive efforts were made to re-unite Catholics and Protestants. Sadly, the doctrinal differences remain exactly the same as they were in the sixteenth century. Rome’s teaching on justification has not changed. Should Protestants return to Rome for the sake of ecumenical unity, they would have to discard “Justification by Faith Alone” - the very same Gospel that gives them life and liberty.
The Second Vatican Council changed nothing except for the packaging. In the opening speech of the council, Pope John XXIII reaffirmed their "adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council." Their purpose was a new presentation of the same teaching. "The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another," he said.
Furthermore, the Pope admitted that "The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity." In other words, the tactics are changed to reach the same goal. Forget the anathemas; call the schismatics and heretics "separated brethren"; hide away the instruments of torture and let Rome present herself as "loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness."
Evangelical Christians should realize that the purpose of the modern ecumenical movement is not the unity of Christians based on a shared faith in the Gospel of Christ. Ecumenism is Rome’s tool to absorb all Christian denominations under papal domination.
Rome's stated purpose for ecumenism is to conform non-Catholic Christians to "the faith" -- evidently the Vatican's teaching -- so that non-Catholics would be absorbed into the Roman Church, "the one and only Church."
Faithful to the Gospel
Christians who are evangelical at heart - who truly cherish the evangel as the most precious gift of God, the very life of the church - must strive to maintain the purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must separate from those who preach "another gospel." The Gospel is the banner under which all believers unite in a spiritual family to serve and worship God through Jesus Christ. We are responsible to proclaim the Gospel to all the world, including nominal Christians, for it is the only hope of reconciliation with God and spiritual unity of all people in the body of Christ.
 Congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church. Link
 Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, "Reflections and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue," in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P.)
© Dr Joseph Mizzi