One is Not the Loneliest Number
One is not the loneliest number. Try 1,254. That's how many different Christian groups a senior Army chaplain told me are represented in the U.S. Army. I'd say worldwide there are over 2,000 Christian denominations. That's a sad number considering Jesus prayed that we might be one. 2,000 is not even close. How sad. How lonely.
Oneness among Christians is something to be prayed for. Already in the days of the apostles St. John could say, "many false prophets have gone out into the world." According to a German Lutheran scholar, there is no time in the early church when there were not several different Christian churches right next to each other much as we have today. Down Mabel there is a Baptist Church. Down 45th there is an Evangelical Free Church. Up Burnet there is a Catholic Church. No oneness here. How sad. How lonely.
We know oneness is a thing to be prayed for not just because there is none, but because Christ our Lord prays for it. In the upper room, on the night He was betrayed. Jesus is praying. We are told in the Gospels of many other times that Jesus prayed, but we only know what He prayed here. In this section of the prayer Jesus is specifically praying for us, those who will believe through the message of the apostles. And Jesus prays not that we might be united, there are degrees of being united, but that we might be one. There are no degrees of oneness. You either are or you are not, one.
But it seems impossible, doesn't it? It seems impossible that all the Christian Churches could believe and teach the same thing, so we probably don't pray for it, expect it, or even want it. But we are wrong. St. Paul doesn't see oneness as impossible at all. He writes to the Corinthians, who were torn by divisions, "I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same things, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgement."
The fact of the matter is we are sinning, we are calling God's judgment down upon ourselves if we don't pray for oneness among Christians. Likewise, we are sinning if we think diversity in Christian doctrine is a good thing. We are sinning if we think God wants the Church to be like Baskin Robbins ice cream having a variety of flavors of Christianity to suit any taste. Such a view, popular today, directly contradicts St. Paul's clear words that we are all to speak the same things and that are to be no divisions.
So the Lord of the Church wants His Church to be one. How is this oneness to be achieved? Not by force. This was tried in the early church. Those pastors who didn't agree with the Council of Chalcedon were brow beaten into finally going to the same altar with the opposition. As they did, however, they shouted curses on the Council of Chalcedon to prove they were only showing oneness because they felt they were forced to. Another bishop wanted to achieve oneness with those who disagreed with him and would not receive communion from him. When all ill-treatment proved fruitless, the bishop had their mouths propped open with a piece of wood and the elements were stuffed in.
Do note, everyone in the early church knew that oneness of doctrine was to be shown by receiving the Lord's Supper together, but they mistakenly thought you could force such oneness. Sophisticated, modern people know that oneness can't be forced, but we fall off the truth on the other side. We think that oneness can be achieved by being nice. We can love our way to oneness. We can simply for the sake of love agree that our differences really don't matter. So what if we baptize our babies and the Baptists don't? Love can cover our differences. So what if in the Evangelical Free Church you are free to believe anything you want as long as you show evidence of being converted? Love can look the other way. So what if the Roman Catholic Church still offers indulgences to get souls out of purgatory? Can't love just agree to disagree?
This is how mergers and agreements are taking place in Christianity today. You've heard how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now in full communion with the Episcopalian, Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. Well the Episcopalians didn't give up the teaching that to be a valid pastor you have to show you were ordained in the line of the apostles, and the Lutherans didn't give up the teaching that you don't have to show that. They just said they were one despite this difference. And the Reformed Church and the UCC didn't accept the real presence of Christ in Communion, nor did the Lutherans deny it. They just said they were one in this matter even though they weren't.
This is exactly how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church have been able to say they've achieved oneness in the article of justification, in the article that deals with how we are saved. Neither has changed their teachings. They have just agreed that they really do love each other, and that they can be one despite the differences. A curse on such love that gives up the Words of Jesus. Yes, you heard be right. Cursed be such a love that lets go of the words of Jesus.
I know what you're thinking because I've heard it enough times. You're thinking that this new way of being one makes a lot of sense. After all, isn't the whole disagreement just about words? You say po-tA-to, I say po-tat-o? You say katty corner; I say kitty corner. You say crawdad; I say crawfish? We're really talking about the same things. For the sake of love, which is what God is really all about anyway, we can share Communion, pulpits, and pastors even though we don't agree. We can't let a few pesky words get in the way!
My poor misguided friend, you're right! The differences among churches, the lack of oneness we see all about us IS just about words. All of the controversies in the Church have only and always been just about words. The differences between Catholics and Lutherans in the 16th century was over the meaning and definition of the words "grace," "justification," and "faith." And BOTH sides agreed that this was the problem. And neither side would compromise in the name of love. Why? Became each side believed sincerely that this battle over words was a battle for the true saving doctrine, and they both believed their own doctrine was based on words about God from God. Now, almost 500 years later both the Catholics and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have come together not because they share a common doctrine, not because they have agreed on the Words of God, but because they have a common faith in Jesus in their hearts.
O if only you could get this point. All of the merging and agreeing going on now is because we supposedly realize at last that we all believe, that we all are Christians. But friends, this is not something the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ever denied. An 1896 Lutheran Witness article said that we teach and confess that there is a church among the Protestants, that they have the ministry of Christ, and that we have no right to evangelize in their churches. In regards to the Catholic Church Luther said in 1528 and our Missouri Synod quoted approvingly in 1850, "We confess that the papacy [the Catholic Church] has the true Holy Bible, the true Baptism, the true Sacrament of the Altar, the true keys for the forgiveness of sins, [and] the true ministry..."
We have never denied that historic Catholicism or Protestantism shared our faith in Jesus. What we have said is that their denial of the Words of Jesus is not allowed by the Jesus who said "teach all things that I have commanded you," and we have said that denying the clear Words of Jesus leads away from Jesus and jeopardizes the faith in Jesus that they do have. We have said fellowship must be based on something God gives not what men feel or don't feel for each other. God gives us His Word. God says to mark those who teach contrary to His Word. God says those who depart from His Word are the ones who break the fellowship, cause divisions, and they cease to be His disciples to the extent that they depart from His Word. "If you continue in My Word, then you are My disciples," says Jesus in John 8. That means, "If you don't continue in My Word, then you are not My disciples."
It IS all about Words, friends. It's about Words because that is the only way we can know our risen and ascended Lord. He doesn't appear among us any longer except in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, but without God's Word we can't have these or even know what they are. The only way forgiveness, redemption, grace, and mercy comes to sinners is through the Word of God. To the extent that we don't confess all the Word of God, we are limiting the forgiveness, redemption, grace and mercy that comes to us. Friends, like the early church before us, and Christ Jesus before them, we are insistent on every jot and title of the Word of God because only by Word do the gracious gifts Jesus won for us on the cross reach us.
The only chance for oneness Christianity has is the Words of the One Jesus Christ, but what will happen if Christianity can never agree on the Words? In this fallen world, it is unlikely that there will ever be any visible oneness among Christians. Baptists aren't going to start baptizing their babies and Lutherans aren't going to stop. The Free Church isn't going to start caring for doctrine, and we're not going to stop. Catholics aren't going to stop giving indulgences and Lutherans aren't going to start. It is sad, but the clear Words of Jesus on these matters aren't going to be confessed by all. So we go on praying for oneness, but we don't despair because after all there is only One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church.
We confess to believe in the Nicene Creed that only one Church exists. The Lord, the Groom, only has one Bride, not many. Right now in this fallen world, where the Words of Christ, are ignored or compromised, the Church is splintered into thousands of pieces, but the Lord Jesus knows them that are His. He knows them in every Christian Church on earth. And while it is a sad state of affairs that where the Lord wishes oneness around His Word we have divisions, nevertheless, don't think for one minute that these divisions will cause the Lord to lose any of His people.
The divisions are not good. They are an offense in the world. People outside the Church point to these divisions and say, "You expect me to believe in Jesus when even you can't agree what He actually taught." This is sad, but don't think for a moment the Lord Jesus will fail to save one of His sheep. Those given to the Son by the Father in eternity will be gathered by means of the Word in time. This cannot fail to happen. Just as a shepherd knows his sheep even if they are scattered, just as his sheep will be gathered by means of his voice even if some of his words might be muffled, so the Lord Jesus will be able to call all His sheep out of this world despite them being scattered in places where His Words are muffled.
Friends, we pray for a oneness in Christ based on His Word, but we live and rejoice in our ONE Lord as members of His ONE holy Christian and apostolic Church. One is a great number! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter VII (5-27-01), John 17: 20-26