“What unites us is a pursuit of deeply and fervently held end or aim, not uniformity or agreement about the means with which we reach that aim,” Assistant Professor of Religion Don Westblade said about Protestant unity.
Alitheia, a Christian apologetics group, hosted a panel last week to discuss the issue of Protestant unity through the lense of the question: Are we together? The panel featured Westblade, Assistant Professor of History Korey Maas, and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Ian Church.
All three professors answered in the affirmative, but agreed that the question was delicate. They questioned the nature of unity and disunity, sought to clarify the definition of “we,” and discussed the pros and cons of being completely united as a Christian body.
Church approached the question of unity from a personal perspective. He studied philosophy in a secular university, where he said most of his colleagues were atheists. He then went on to study in the United Kingdom where he said that the Christians he did encounter focused less on denomination.
“If you couple these two experiences, you can see why I want to give an affirmative answer to the target question,” Church said. “During my time at the University of St. Andrews, I went to church with Lutherans and Baptists. We took communion, prayed, and worshipped together. We were, in some significant sense, together. We prayed for other denominations, not to convert them, but to encourage them.”
Maas, though he agreed that “our lack of unity is reprehensible,” emphasized the dangers in overlooking the sources of denominational differences.
“However great a good unity might be, it is a ultimately a lesser good than truth,” Maas said. “In other words, a state of unity united in error is worse than a disunity in which some maintained the truth.”
He went on to explain that ignoring significant doctrinal differences for the sake of unity is equally as reprehensible as a break in fellowship. He cited as an example the Catholic Church’s hesitance to excommunicate members who do not adhere to accepted doctrinal and moral beliefs out of a desire to maintain unity.
Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the disunity so often alluded to in the Protestant community stems from a difference in name alone, whereas the unity of the Catholic Church comes from a common name alone.
“There is often real unity even where differences in name might suggest otherwise,” Maas said. “There is often real disunity even where a shared name might suggest otherwise.”
Westblade said that it is essential to embrace these differences both across denominational lines, and in relation to the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. He likened his understanding of unity to a university, where students and professors all have a common aim of seeking the truth, but they approach that goal from different perspectives. It is the variety of opinions, unified into one great pursuit, that gives it the name “University.”
“Our differences are providentially baked into God’s cake to help us learn from one another,” Westblade said. “If we didn’t disagree, we would have nothing to talk about. We all disagree because we all share an end for which those disagreements are aiming. Unity happens when we get together to come to the truth, and it means we need to stay engaged with each other.”
Westblade said that it is more important to recognize and discuss differences among Christians than it is to seek for an imposed uniformity among them.
“The unity that we think we don’t have is probably a mistaken term for uniformity or identity, which clearly we don’t have and actually I’m not sure I want,” Westblade said. “Scripture itself tells us about a metaphor of the Body of Christ. We are not all identical, not all uniform parts of that body. There are arms and legs and feet and hands, and they all have differences. We may lament that we don’t have uniformity. But we might be very unified, even though we are not uniform.”