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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[Ecumenical dialogue] serves to transform modes of
thought and behaviour and the daily lives of those [non-Catholic]
communities. In this way, it aims at preparing the way for their unity of
faith in the bosom of a Church one and visible: thus little by little, as
the obstacles to perfect ecclesial communion are overcome, all Christians
will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into that unity
of the one and only Church which Christ bestowed on his Church from the
beginning. This unity, we believe, dwells in the Catholic Church as
something she can never loose, and we hope that it will continue to increase
until the end of time. 
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
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.
 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.)