Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

Unity. Anyone who is against unity in our day and age is suspect. Our culture loves the idea of unity. In fact, we all like the idea of unity.

However, we must be careful when we talk and think about unity in the church. I have had multiple conversations over the past few months about ecclesial unity. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have been in the context of ministry peers and dear friends leaving Reformed Christianity for Roman Catholicism. One of the points that consistently emerges in these conversations is that Protestants are divisive. We are a people who began with the banner of disunity and we continue to perpetuate it as we  divide among ourselves. This is one of the reasons given for joining the Roman Church. Other discussions have centered around denominations that have wandered theologically and the remaining conservative churches are charged with being divisive if they even hint at the idea of separating from what has become a wayward denomination.

This is an important conversation and is to be taken seriously. Unity is not just something we like. It is something our Lord desires and loves. It was the central theme of His high priestly prayer in John 17, so it is no small thing when we begin talking about disunity in the church.

As I think about ecclesial unity, there are two different types of unity we must acknowledge. And this is often missed. The first type is institutional unity. When converts to Roman Catholicism critique their former Protestant heritage for beginning with disunity and continuing to evidence it by the spawning of new denominations–they are speaking of institutional disunity. When theological liberals argue that conservative churches choosing to leave the denomination are disrupting unity–it is institutional unity they have in mind.

And yet, institutional unity can only be maintained if there is the second and more foundational kind of unity–theological. Theological unity is the ground for all institutional unity. No Theological unity, no institutional unity.

The individuals and churches that eventually became the Protestant churches of the Reformation were not sowing disunity. Conservative churches leaving denominations which have become theologically liberal are not sowing disunity. Is there division? Yes. Has institutional unity been disrupted? Yes. But the house could not stand, because the foundation had disappeared.

The disunity was caused by the abandonment of the historical-theological-biblical unity of these entities. The Medieval Roman Catholic Church went “off the reservation” theologically and by so doing it sowed disunity with those who preceded it, some within it, and those who dared to follow and hold to historical-theological-biblical Christianity. This is Calvin’s very point in the Institutes. In his prefatory letter to King Francis he rightfully asserts that Protestant theology is nothing new. Rather, it is what the church fathers taught. He says in the prefatory address, “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of the victory–to put it modestly–would turn to our side.” And so it is Protestant theology that is maintaining unity. It is maintaining the unity of the Church, because it is continuing the teaching of the Scriptures as understood historically by the Church. The institutional disunity that Protestants were being accused of emerged in the Reformation not by their fault. Rather, the lack of theological unity the Medieval Roman Catholic church maintained with the early church and historical Christian teaching according to the Scriptures was the cause of institutional disunity.

In the same way, conservative churches that choose to depart from a denomination that has wandered away from its confessions or historical theological tenants are not causing disunity. The hen house has been disrupted, but the hens leaving the house are not the cause. It is the foreign fox that was let in, has been entertained, and has taken up residence in a place it did not belong. Disunity is not caused by leaving. Rather, it was precipitated by those who accepted an aberrant theology within its bounds.

Martin Luther was not the wild boar who disrupted the vineyard. Machen was not the culprit who caused the conflict that divided the northern Presbyterian church. The founding fathers of my own denomination, the PCA, did not sow the seeds of disunity that caused the division of the southern Presbyterian church. Did they each follow and choose a course that resulted in institutional disunity? Yes. But their course was not set by them, but by those who chose to change the teaching and theology of the Church. The seeds of disunity were sowed years before. Institutional unity is to be sought in the church, but always upon the foundation of truth. And it cannot be maintained any other way. Our theological unity must be preserved so that there is institutional unity. And unity is something to be desired and loved.

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29 thoughts on “Disunity, Liberals, & Roman Catholicism”

  1. God_Seeker says:

    I appreciate the recognition of the disunity issue in protestantism which leads many to the Roman Catholic Church. I myself am in the mix of this problematic character of protestantism.

    A couple of concerns which I would appreciate dialogue and correspondence are some issues listed below which I believe has been a great discouragement inside protestant circles.

    I really have an issue with Calvin and Luther believing the fathers believed what they believe. You have church fathers such as Ignatius who openly confesses that the Eucharist is the “flesh” of Jesus Christ and the cup of wine is the blood of Jesus, that is just one example. Consistently, the testimony of the fathers is that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ Jesus and that participating in the holy communion was essential for salvation. This is quite different than any modern protestant church.

    The consistent testimony of the fathers was that baptism was a sacrament of salvation, and that without baptism there was no salvation or regeneration. Of course this was the norm (there was always baptism of desire/blood). Unfortunately, The modern evangelical doctrines would have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church and would have been a fringe schismatic group on the side. Not many people realize that Lutherans believe in baptismal regeneration, despite their belief in sola fide. In fact the early Lutherans and Calvinists excommunicated each other in many places and times in the 16th century over issues of doctrine.

    Also, the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins being the authority of the Church. This was a unanimous assumption among st the fathers. The belief in purgatory, the veneration of the saints, the commemorative prayers for the dead during the Eucharistic celebration, etc,etc.

    However, one cannot say that the Catholic Church held much corruption and needed reform. I think that Catholics themselves know this. Consider the fact that many Catholics inside were seeking reform in Councils way before Luther and Calvin came along. And that there was actually counter-reformation accomplished by the Catholics in response to the reformation.

    Also, I think that Church Discipline is almost impossible in the protestant schema. I understand the modern Catholic norm does not even know of church discipline, but it has the essential ingredients which can practice the ancient methods of church discipline that were in practice through the early centuries and which brought many people back to a holy life in Christ.

    Nowadays, if you are excommunicated from a small fringe protestant church (let’s say baptist), you can simply go to another baptist church and tell the elders there that the discipline was wrong. And if the Elders of the newly visited church speak to the disciplining church and disagree, then all is well and ok and the person is not under the power of the keys. There is no union that exists between churches that is far enough in scope to handle a universal declaration of the keys and the power of binding and loosing. Historically, if someone is excommunicated, that person cannot just go to another church, they had to be restored. If someone just visited a church from another church, they needed letters of recommendation. If there was not letter, then the person was examined for holiness in the next three years prior to partaking of the Eucharist.

    Ultimately, sola scriptura has simply put all the authority in the interpreters. This has caused a huge schismatic dispersion across the whole world that has brought many people to blaspheme God. And therefore, I have an issue with saying the reformers went back to to the doctrine of the Church Fathers, for what Church Father believed what they believe?

  2. Ted Bigelow says:

    “Disunity is not caused by leaving. Rather, it was precipitated by those who accepted an aberrant theology within its bounds.”

    Perhaps. But until we change our churches to eldership, as taught in Titus 1:5-9, we only perpetuate systems that insure that unbelievers eventually rise into leadership. Every defective leader is a rejection of Titus 1:9: “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”

    Only eldership contains the power to remove such men so they no longer harm the sheep.

    So go ahead and blame the heretics for disunity all you want. The real blame is on those who created ecclesiastical systems that expose the sheep to unbelieving leadership.

  3. dat says:

    “What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense.

    “The ordinary sensible skeptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.”

    But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed?

    “To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.”
    -CHESTERTON

  4. Ted Bigelow says:

    “why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned?”

    Because, Mr. Chesterton, the man on the street would be delighted to learn that the scroll condemns the hocus pocus in an even worse way than he. He only deems it foolishness, but the scroll sees it for what it really is – idolatry:

    “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exo 20:4-6).

  5. others says:

    This is similar to a female reporter interviewing your pastor, picking up his Bible and pointing to a verse which indicates that if a man rapes a woman, she must marry him. Would he call that verse bosh or provide some tail-foremost argument to say it doesn’t say what it says?

  6. Ted Bigelow says:

    Dear others,

    You should heed the Apostle Peter and stop distorting Scripture:

    “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).

  7. others says:

    She finds this in an NIV Bible on his shelf:

    Deut 22-28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

    While the video was running, he would tell the reporter this passage doesn’t mean what it says after she just read it to him?

  8. Ted Bigelow says:

    “While the video was running, he would tell the reporter this passage doesn’t mean what it says after she just read it to him?”

    Dear others, the context is legal code for a nation just being formed, and hopefully the text is explained in context – something that you probably don’t want to hear about.

    The text is a text of mercy, for rather than Israel allowing “honor killings” of raped daughters (as is still prevalent even today) God ordains that a family gain a son rather than lose a daughter over the sin of rape.

    You see, the two “were discovered,” she was not engaged, there had been penetration, and she had not cried out (it is a converse case from 28:27). Thus God in mercy allows the woman to be married, the man to grow up and, and 2 families to come together.

    Do you think the reporter would be attracted to this wonderful God who brings mercy out of sin, or just look around for another reason to hate Him?

  9. others says:

    For her segment, the reporter then interviews 4 other pastors around town in light of this same passage asking them, “How would you biblically counsel a raped woman?” Would they all tell the victim to read her own Bible and follow this precept: Marry your rapist until death parts you with no hope of divorce?

    If they don’t all provide this biblical advice, where would they derive a unified plan for the victim?

  10. Ted Bigelow says:

    Looking around aren’t you? “Surely there is some other reason to hate the God of Scripture?”

  11. others says:

    When you read your Bible — your subset of the Bible was the Catholic Church’s first — and finger the Church for the crime of “idolatry,” is society also correct today when, after reading your Bible, they label you a misogynist?

  12. John Metz says:

    I do appreciate and agree with your main point as I understand it, that is, that the RCC was already removed from any legitimate ground of oneness since before Luther’s time. It was already a division and already separated from other parts of the church universal such as the various orthodox groups (who were in the same boat as the RCC as far as division and oneness). The RCC claim to unity is spurious.

    But, I hardly think this is a defense of today’s divided Protestantism. In saying this, I do have empathy for the faithful in some of the “wayward denominations” as you aptly describe them. What are they to do? Do they bear the brunt of the claim of division? Should they be forced to go along with, dare I say the word, apostasy?

    Further, is there an “institutional unity” in the Bible? That argument may hold water if one assumes that today’s situation somehow represents the norm. However, is today’s situation really normal? I doubt it. Would it not be better to start your post at the unity of the Spirit, which is found in the New Testament and which we are charged to keep? Without going into detail, I submit that this, although problematic, is a more legitimate issue.

  13. Physicality says:

    Only Gnostics could know and point to the global “spiritual unity” within the 41,000 divisions/denominations. Rather, the world will know that Jesus was sent by the Father via the Church’s physical unity similar to how the Gentiles could know that the Father sent the Nation of Israel and the Father established physical Christian marriage. The world can’t see the invisible and neither can most of us.

  14. bob in In says:

    Jason,
    Very good. Excellent clarification. We cannot hold hands without holding the same theology. Thanks.

  15. Kevin says:

    By the way, unity in the Catholic Church isn’t only institutional unity. One cannot join the Church unless he affirms that he believes all that the Holy Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God. In Catholicism, you can have both institutional unity and theological unity (not that all Catholics believe what the Church teaches, but there is a clear standard of theological unity that demands uniformity in essentials and freedom in areas that have not been formally defined). In mainline Protestantism, you have merely institutional unity. In evangelical Protestant communities, you might be lucky to have theological unity if you belong to one of the relatively tiny groups that require everyone to believe the same confession. But even then, you might find members who are surprisingly tolerant of the opposite view of baptism or communion (which indicate that these doctrines aren’t thought to be very important), divorce/remarriage, contraception, church government, royal supremacy, iconography, etc. It seems that it’s difficult for modern evangelicals to hold any of these positions tightly and exclude others from communion etc. who hold the opposite views. This seems to be an indication that they’re not really sure that they’re right about these issues, so they must think that ultimately they can’t be settled by any final authority here on earth, and they must accept that modern evangelical Protestants must remain divided since there’s no way to resolve these tricky but supposedly important issues. It seems to me like broad church Protestants may have a point when they encourage institutional unity. Since most evangelical Protestants already act like their peculiar denominational beliefs aren’t very important and can’t finally be known with any degree of authoritative certainty, it seems plausible that they should throw up their hands and join up with those who disagree with them on baptism, for instance, since there’s no way to finally resolve the dispute between them.

  16. Megan says:

    “The ordinary sensible skeptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.”

    I appreciate this Chesterton quote. But I thnk today’s “ordinary skeptic and pagan” would look on both Catholic and conservative Protestant churches via the mass media and conclude their object of worship is the fetus. The perception of this skeptic wouldn’t be one of disunity, but unity. He’d see Christians as monolithic in their fetus worship. He may wonder about this singular unity that seems to better resemble a modern-day fertility cult than his childhood recollections of mainline Christianity, Charlie Brown Christmas specials or the few things he’s happened to read in his Bible. He might then conclude that all religion was bosh, a flock of sheep easily deceived and led astray by authoritarian shepherds.

    I think we could learn something from this skeptic. It’s a bit too easy to justify breaking off from a denomination you deem as no longer orthodox, or judging those who reject your orthodoxy, while not realizing to an outsider, you are the one who looks unorthodox.

  17. A. Amos Love says:

    Jason

    You write…
    “Unity is not just something we like. It is something our Lord desires and loves. It was the central theme of His high priestly prayer in John 17,…”

    Don’t know if you noticed or NOT but – “Unity” is NOT mentioned in John 17.

    “that they may be “ONE”, as we are.”

    “That they all may be “ONE”; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee,
    that they also may be “ONE” in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

    “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them;
    that they may be “ONE”, even as we are “ONE:”
    I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in “ONE”;
    and that the world may know that thou hast sent me,
    and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”

  18. A. Amos Love says:

    Jason

    Unity. Hmmm? Sometimes good and some times, er, not so good?

    Just wondering…
    What if God is the author of our disagreements and separations?
    “And all things are of God…” 2 Cor 5:18, Rom 11:36, Col 1:16-17, etc.
    Are we working for “Unity?” And NOW working against God?

    Didn’t God confuse man’s language once before?
    Aren’t those things that happened to others, written for us to learn from?
    1 Cor 10:11, Rom 15:4.

    Didn’t God intervene when “man was in unity ” with their own devices, their own plans,
    trying to build something themselves, to reach heaven and “make a name for themselves?”

    Could that be the ekklesia’s problem today also?
    Doing their own thing – NOT God’s thing? For their own glory – NOT for God’s Glory?

    **Man trying to build something?
    (Movements? Denominations? Church Planting? Titles? Reputations? Power? Profit? Prestige?)
    **And make a name for themselves?
    (“Titles” on buildings, schools, websites, books, diplomas, etc.)
    **Being in unity they could accomplish anything?

    wikipedia lists many, Nay – 1,000’s, of Denominations. Everyone with a “Name”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations

    …let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven;
    and let us make us a “Name”…
    Gen 11:4

    Gen 11:6-8
    …let us go down, and there **confound their language,**
    that they may**not understand one another’s speech…**
    (Hmmm? Sound familiar?)
    (Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, Calvinist, Egalitarian, Mercy Lord… )

    Hmmm? Just wondering…
    What if God is the author of these disagreements and separations?

    Then what…???

    Are we working for Unity? And NOW – working against God?

  19. Mel says:

    This is a silly argument. I have several friends that are Catholic and every single one of them believes something different even within the same family. What is more I don’t think any of them agree with the church on everything, even the most conservative ones. Let’s not even get into the topic of the liberal ones. Especially the ones in the political sphere that proudly declare they Catholic while voting for the most heinous abortion laws. Nothing happens to them.

  20. John Metz says:

    Let’s see if I have it right. If you refer to the Bible as a starting point (Eph. 4:1-4 — we are told to be diligent to keep the oneness of the Spirit) in a discussion of church unity and state that the unity of the Spirit might be a better starting point than institutional unity, you are a Gnostic, as in only a gnostic could believe that. But, it is better to forget about what is in the Bible and strive for physical, organizational unity. Something seem wrong here.

  21. Ted Bigelow says:

    John,

    I think I track with you here, but let me ask you a question.

    Doesn’t maintaining the unity of the Spirit necessitate ecclesiastical unity? 2 Reasons:

    1) We don’t maintain the Spirit’s unity with the Father and the Son;

    2) We don’t maintain the spiritual unity of all believers since that was accomplished on the cross.

    So if Paul isn’t speaking of unity in the Spirit in those 2 areas, isn’t all that left is ecclesiastical unity?

    Or, what other kind of unity could he be referring to?

  22. John Metz says:

    Ted,
    Thanks for your reply. Uncharacteristically, I was trying to be fairly simple. My point was that any discussion about oneness should start from a biblical perspective, that is, being diligent to keep the oneness of the Spirit, something we are charge to do. I am not for a mere spiritual unity and I am passionately for the unity of the Body of Christ (if this is what you mean by ecclesiastical unity) worked out and expressed in a practical way.

    However, as so many comments above illustrate, it is at the practical points that the ‘rubber meets the road.’ There is too much to say here. Again, I was simply pointing out what I consider to be a better starting point for a discussion about oneness or unity.

    Thanks to Jason for the post and thanks again to Ted for the reply.

  23. Ted Bigelow says:

    John, let me try and tease out your thoughts. How would the unity of the body of Christ be worked out and expressed in a practical way?

  24. John Metz says:

    No teasing, Ted!

    Well, it certainly cannot be by finding the most correct denomination out of the myriad of denominations and independent groups out there. Wouldn’t that be the logical end of “theological unity”? Seems that may run the danger of “they’re all wrong but thou and I, and sometimes I wonder about thou.”

    Do you agree that division is not something to be desired? As I stated earlier, I have a lot of sympathy for so many of our brothers and sisters caught in “wayward denominations,” as described in the posts. But, that only justifies their choice if we consider today’s situation as the norm. Would you agree that the situation today is far from a biblical norm?

    As I stated above, there is too much to say about oneness for a blog comment. Suffice it to say that if division is wrong, and I believe it is, then our Lord must provide us a way to avoid being divisive, a way which is extremely practical and honors Paul’s word to us to be diligent to keep the oneness of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace.

    Perhaps we should consider this matter in another forum rather than Kevin’s blog. I will try to contact you, if you are amenable.

  25. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi John,

    Didn’t see your response til after i responded to your personal email – quick answers:

    “Would you agree that the situation today is far from a biblical norm?”

    Today’s ecclesiastical landscape make obedience to Ephesians 4:3 in any practical way impossible. There was only one church in Ephesus, though it is likely ex-leaders like Hymenaus, Alexander, Philetus had church(es) that had split off from the church Paul planted.

    So yes, i agree!

  26. John Metz says:

    Thanks, Ted — very helpful.

  27. Howie says:

    What do you mean by, “The Medieval Roman Catholic Church went ‘off the reservation’ theologically…”?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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