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Awash in a Sea of Division

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This essay is excerpted from the introduction to Ruptured Bodies: A Theology of the Church Divided, and is posted by permission of Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media.

 

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

 — John 17:20–21

When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions [schismata] among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions [haireseis] among you…

— 1 Corinthians 11:18–19

Never has any organization been so content to act against the express wishes and instruction of its founder as the Christian church. Any number of books could be written about any number of failures of the Christian community to be what it says it is supposed to be. This book is focused on one, which, apparently, has beleaguered the church since its inception — the reality of divided Christians. If Jesus intends the church to be one, suggesting that upon this unity hinges the credibility of the Christian message, and if the churches are content to exist in anything less than full visible unity, then their very existence is a performative contradiction of the entire basis of the Christian faith.

This incongruity hardly seems to register within Christian consciousness, though. Our divisions are often acknowledged, even lamented, but they persist. Ecumenical dialogues, which aim at the proximate end of differentiated consensus in the service of the eventual end of reunion, continue, issuing joint documents and celebrating new convergences, but that reunion always eludes us, receding like the horizon. No matter what doctrinal issues are determined to be no longer church dividing, the churches remain divided. And despite this, the churches continue with business as usual. Division may be regrettable, but it hardly constitutes a crisis. Or so it would seem.

The problem, though, is that continuing with business as usual allows us to imagine the church as existing in some sort of integrity, when in reality, the churches are sick unto death.[1] The problem of division is not simply a failure to live up to our best ideals, nor a mere inconvenience or embarrassment, not a disjunction between theory and practice. It is, instead, existential, preventing Christian faithfulness in the world.

Sickness Unto Death, The Wounds of Division

That divided Christians cannot be faithful is a strident and likely stringent claim, no doubt calling for any number of qualifications about relative faithfulness, and the ambiguity of how best to proceed in an already-established state of division. In other words, even if the divisions we have inherited were inexcusable, is it not better to carry on with what faithfulness we can, rather than resign ourselves to abject infidelity? Yet here I resist those qualifications. Not because they are not valid, but because they are all-too-readily available, and because we can ill afford to blunt the force of squarely facing the wounds of our divisions. Christians are well aware of the relative fidelity they can enact. The problem is that its relative character is not clearly seen because the damage wrought by division is glossed over. More needs to be said than that division precludes fidelity, but not at the expense of saying less. The problem is that so often in our desire to say the more we do indeed say less: pointing to the favorable cholesterol levels in a body ravaged by cancer.

The Word Made Trivial

By their divided existence, the Christian churches trivialize the Christian faith. Several vectors of approach are available here, and we shall traverse a few. The entire witness of the New Testament assumes the unity of the church, where it does not command it. Paul exhorts the churches to unity (e.g., Rom. 12:3–21; 1 Cor. 1:10–17; 12:1–31; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 2:1–4; 4:1–3; Eph. 4:1–13). The other epistles and the Apocalypse presume such unity, with no imaginative space for division. This being the case, no Christian can claim fidelity to Scripture’s authority while they flout its call to unity. This is especially pertinent, given how not a few of the church’s divisions have been in the name of biblical fidelity. My own Anglican Communion is currently being rent by divisions, and while the presenting issue is the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and couples, schismatic Anglicans will insist that the true issue is not sexuality, but biblical authority. And yet by breaking away, they abandon the authority of Scripture, which proscribes division.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed stresses the unity of the church as an article of faith (along with its sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity). To confess the Nicene Creed in a state of division, then, is to contradict the creed. One cannot be doctrinally orthodox in a divided church, because one’s very existence-in-division is a denial of credal faith.

Of course, not all Christians accept the authority of Nicaea and its creed. (Some will affirm its trinitarian affirmations, but on a basis other than the authority of a general council, others would eschew credal formulae altogether.) Similarly, not all Christians understand Scripture or its authority in the same manner. But Jesus, in the words quoted in the epigraph of this introduction, indicates his desire that the church be one. Questions about the role of Scripture and creed in Christian life notwithstanding, can one plausibly claim to follow Jesus while ignoring, even flouting, his express wishes? What could it possibly mean to be his disciples, or to confess him as Lord when his desires mean so little?

The problem compounds, though, for its effects extend beyond individual or even corporate faithfulness. If the teachings of Scripture, creed, and Savior have become optional, then they are also trivial. What does it matter how the church preaches and teaches, or how Christian people order their lives, when so basic a matter is dispensable? The risen Christ commissions his apostles: “make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). On what basis can an invitation to become Jesus’s disciple be extended when following his commands is flagrantly rendered trivial?

In a state of division, the churches are reduced to one option among many. Would-be followers of Christ must then select among the offerings, leaving the churches to squabble over market share. Brand awareness and niche appeal come to overshadow the gospel message or conviction. Even in the emerging post-denominational Christianity, or in earlier eras of evangelistic cooperation or missionary comity agreements, the need to select one church among many perdures. And if one’s joining a church is a matter of selection among options, then the church itself is also reduced to one option among others: a matter of preference, rather than of principle…

Deadly Feasting

Jesus’s dying bequest to the church is the eucharistic banquet, which remains a feature of the common life of all mainstream Christians, though with differences in emphasis, frequency, understanding, and practice. Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy famously ends with a meditation on how faithfully Christian communities have carried out the injunction “Do this in remembrance of me.” Whatever else we might do, or neglect, we keep the eucharistic feast. Our divided state, though, risks transforming the medicine of immortality into deadly poison.

From Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum onward, it has been well-established that the primary referent of the eucharistic “body of Christ” is not the real presence but the church, and that this ecclesial dimension of the sacrament was occluded as debates over the manner in which Christ is present in the sacrament constricted theological focus to the elements. Though the meaning — or, in some quarters, the truth — of the real presence has been and remains a site of controversy, we need not delve into it here, for Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians, while compatible with — and gesturing towards and assuming — a theology of eucharistic presence, does not depend on one.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul laments that their eucharistic assemblies have nothing to commend, because they do more harm than good. Divided as the Corinthian church is by factions, they cannot even really be said to be eating the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:17–20). By celebrating the Eucharist in a state of mutual disregard, the Christians of Corinth eat and drink unworthily, and, so, are “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). To participate in the meal “without discerning the body,” is to “eat and drink judgment against” oneself and can lead to illness and death (1 Cor. 11:29–30). The context demands an ecclesial referent to the warning about discerning the body. A chapter earlier, Paul had written that the community is “one body” because all eat of the “one bread” (1 Cor 10:17), and, of course, the present instructions turn upon the problem of factional and exclusionary practices within the community’s celebration.

Christians divided among themselves court divine judgment when they celebrate the sacrament, and this for several related reasons. Such celebrations contradict the meaning of the meal, which is the unity of Christ’s body. The Eucharist is meant to effect ecclesial unity (1 Cor. 10:17), so a celebratory context of willful division falsifies and resists the divine initiative for it. Similarly, the Eucharist commemorates the death of Christ, by which he reconciled divided humanity to one another and to God (John 11:52; Eph. 2:11–22). A divided Eucharist, then, makes mockery of the death whereby humanity has been redeemed. How shall we escape the dread judgment when we are “crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:6)?

Once more, the dissonance barely seems to register, much less the grievous danger facing the church. Division is not merely embarrassing or inconvenient, but blasphemous and deadly. Perhaps in our division, fasting and lament ought to be the order of the day, though this seems to be a prospect no one can quite countenance. Similarly, churches will pronounce upon the validity of their separated siblings’ sacraments, but the possibility that none of our Eucharists are valid is too threatening to stomach. Yet, given the Pauline injunction, it might be better if our Eucharists were invalid, for at least then the deadly effect might be ameliorated.

But it is the position of this book that, for the most part at least, our Eucharists are valid, and that this ought to fill us with foreboding and dread. For in a divided church, it is impossible to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation without in that very act eating and drinking judgment upon oneself. And does not the sorry state of the church present its own empirical verification of the Pauline warning. We are sick unto death, and, in some quarters, nigh “falling asleep.”

For folks interested in more, I’ve posted a slightly longer, and different excerpt on my SubStack.


[1] This is compounded in ecumenical contexts where, rightly, the churches learn to recognize one another as church, and to celebrate the ways that God is at work in those communities with whom they are not in full communion. The ecumenical task could hardly proceed if our starting point were to note all the ways that our dialogue partners have gotten it wrong and are distorted. As chapter five will show, it was not until this lens was put away and replaced by one of mutual recognition that division could be seen as the problem that it is and reunion become a goal.

Copyright 2024 by Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Email copyright@1517.media or write to Permissions, Fortress Press, P.O. Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209.

1 COMMENT

  1. Such an important, nay, vitally essential message…yet, complacency and institutional survivalism prevail. Never mind our “sacred” callings and claims; even a most secular assessment renders “church as we now have it” a terrible and unsustainable “business model” – redundant and embroiled with internecine warfare, etc. Many ask, “Who would want to join such an organization? Many, many more are leaving.

    The level of commitment required would have to pre-empt all “business as usual” and prioritize an entirely new vision of what “ut unum sint” really means. If there is any ecclesiastical remedy, it must be based on what Jesus tells the disciples (John 13) after washing their feet.: “… follow the example I have left you; wash one another’s feet.” Surely he didn’t have an annual liturgical “one-off” on Holy Thursday in mind? The Eucharist can only “taste bitter in our mouths” (George Lindbeck) until there is a deeper “root cleansing” heretofore unprecedented, far exceeding “formal apologies” and “lifting ex-communications.”

    What better time than now for the church(es) to usher in a Season of Footwashing; taking repentance and forgiveness to a new depth, and reconciliation to more than a cliched buzz word? On a very practical level this will take enormous time and effort away from “institutional re-branding” and the next round of fund-raising. Imagine, for example, endowments being re-purposed (as many church buildings are and will yet be) for the sole/soul expression of reconciliation among divided believers?

    Were Christians to deploy the tools (“ways and means”) left to the Apostles (read the works of Roland Allen and Leslie Newbiggin), we might be worthy of the title “peacemakers!” We would, beginning among ourselves, demonstrate how שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם works, what وَعَلَيْكُمُ ٱلسَّلَامُ وَرَحْمَةُ ٱللَّٰهِ وَبَرَكَاتُهُ really means, and how the “peace that surpasses all understanding” is both promise and reality, when we deeply embrace it. Imagine, all three Abrahamic faiths being reconciled even as Christians become “One,” as Jesus prayed (John 17), “just as the Father and I are One!”

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