“Are we together?” | Courtesy Nicole Ault

“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.”