From The Rambles of a Wandering Priest
“Cursed be that love and unity for whose sake the Word of God must be put to the stake.” I wrote that quote from the Reformation down on the title page of my Bible as I took notes in class on day in Bible School. I hung on my professor’s every word as he taught. I thought the sentiment was so very right, and I thought the Reformer who spoke it divinely inspired. The Reformer in question meant, of course, that there can be no love and unity with people who didn’t subscribe to his interpretation of Holy Scripture. More literally, he also meant those who put the word of God to the stake by burning every vernacular (common language) translation of the Bible they could get their hands on in order to maintain power and control.
“I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” So says the Creed, agreed on by the whole church at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, which many if not most churches recite every Sunday. The word “catholic” simply means “universal” or “general,” and comes from the Greek word, “katholikos.” All of us profess, even if we are unfamiliar with the Creed itself, in one Universal Church of Jesus Christ, which is holy to God and a direct descendant of the work and teaching of the apostles.
We generally agree that this church consists of, at bare minimum, all those who have been baptized by faith into Jesus Christ. We also generally agree that all those within the church are in fact brothers and sisters. To a somewhat more strained degree we generally agree that all those saints who came before us are both our spiritual ancestors, and continuous brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of the worst fighting comes between brothers and sisters, doesn’t it? No one can hurt you more than members of your own family.
What creates the unity within a family are ties of kinship, and an understanding that those ties are more important than distance, culture, strong differences of opinion, or hurt feelings. A girl’s brother may tease her relentlessly at home, but Heaven help anyone else who dares to tease or hurt her at school. We understand, and we are brought up to understand, that we are to care about the members of our family and take care of them even if they are otherwise strangers to us. “Oh, by the way, your cousin Bob from Scotland, you know the one who was married to your second cousin Sally, three times removed on your great-grandmother’s side? Well he’s coming to stay with us for a few days.” Any protest to this is met with, “Well, he’s family and he needs a place to stay.” Nothing is more hurtful within a family than that family disowning one of its members. “You are no longer my son, and you are no longer welcome here.”
Within the Family of Jesus Christ there are strong differences of opinion. These differences are mostly about things that we can neither see nor touch, or about things we have only heard about but for which we weren’t there. Internal family squabbles have turned into blood feuds, similar to the Hatfields and the McCoys, that have gone on for so long that very few people even remember what we were feuding about. Those that do know what it’s about only know because they’ve studied for years in order to be able to take sides in an educated manner.
I used to think that the reunification of this family, the end of all this infighting, could come. Now, I’m not so sure any more. We’re all so concerned about being right, that we’ve forgotten that we’re family. We’ve forgotten the central tenet of that family, and that’s to love and care about one another.
Heresy quite literally means division. And a heretic, in the strictest sense of the word, is one who divides. The apostles and the clergy who came after them cracked down on heretics because they were people who out of pride, ambition, or desire for money divided the church, drawing people away in order to form their own congregations. This, first and foremost, was the unsound teaching they had to combat. They had to fight at all costs the breaking up of the family by selfish people. Somewhere along the line, this translated into an all-out war on anyone with a different experience or interpretation, and this sentiment was then passed down through the centuries. Denomination to denomination, church to church, we simply do not tolerate anybody else’s interpretation of theology. Except now, instead of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church being visibly one, holy catholic, and apostolic, it appears (though in reality One Church) to be many churches equally condemning each other as heretics.
Our unity will never come from theology. Theology literally means “the study of God.” And while conforming with the larger body of accepted Truth, one’s personal study of God will never be the same as the person next to him. One studies God by getting to know him through one’s personal experiences and deep prayer, as well as studying the experiences of others in the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers. God remains the same yesterday, today, and forever; but because we change and are different, our experiences of him will change and be different. Even if he is not in motion, we are. This is why we argue and fight over teachings that, if you really look into them, are really different facets of the same Truth expressed semantically in different ways.
The only way the church can be restored to visible unity is when we focus on the person, teaching, and practice of Jesus Christ, when we focus on Jesus himself, and not teachings about him. It can only be restored when we follow his teachings to love and care about everyone, including those who would be our enemies. The scripture plainly says he who does not love, does not know God because God is love (1 John 4:8). It also says in 1 John 4:20 that, if you cannot love your brother whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see? Jesus taught us to love God, one’s brother, one’s neighbor, and one’s enemies. Where then is there room to hate anyone for those of us who profess to follow him?
Finally, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, as family we must put the interests of that family over and above anything else. Blood is thicker than water it is said. No matter what happens with the government, or with politics, or with anything else, we can’t let those things divide us as more important than our family. I would also argue that the blood of Jesus Christ should be thicker than any other.
Our road to unity is through remembering that we are all family. It was because we forgot that one central fact that we became divided and disowned one another. The Word of God teaches that love and unity is more important than whether, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” The interpretation of the Word of God that teaches otherwise is cursed.