Every Sunday, Christians around the world confess their belief in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church” in the words of the Nicene Creed. The irony, of course, is that the church doesn’t look united, is often beset by scandal, seems ever fragmented into competing interest groups, and often rejects what the apostles explicitly commanded. How then can we confess this truth?
We do it by faith. Just as we acknowledge that Jesus speaks the truth when he says that we are holy in him (even though we continue to sin), we also say the same thing about the church. It is one, even though it is divided. It is holy, even though scandal and sin mar its life. It is catholic, even though we often intentionally segregate ourselves into smaller and smaller niche demographics. It is apostolic, even though we struggle like the apostles who were with Jesus to understand and implement all that Jesus taught.
We often use the phrase “already/not yet” to describe our Christian life; it’s also a good phrase to apply to the church. In fact, it’s at the heart of Jesus’ prayer for both the present and the future manifestations of unity, mission, and love of the church. The church Jesus loves will look more or less ideal through time. That’s one reason we don’t see any one church or denomination as the only true church. We believe that all churches are more or less pure. Even apostate churches contain true believers. So, our thoughts about the church need to reflect the Bible’s realism.
Now, just because we believe something by faith doesn’t make it any less true—nor does it mean that it is entirely in the future. Believing something by faith means that we take God’s word about the truth of something even if it doesn’t seem possible at the time. Believing is not pitted against “doing.” We believe that we are 100% righteous in the sight of God, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also strive to obey the commands of God. So it is with the church’s unity. We believe by faith that the church is one just as Jesus prays. But we also know that the church is divided, weak, and failing. We must therefore try to be in practice the one church that Jesus says we already are.
What stands in our way? Sometimes it’s pride and arrogance, which are sins. More often than not, however, the issue is truth: the word about Jesus that is supposed to unify actually divides believers. There have been plenty of unified communities throughout history, but unity by itself (political, special interest, or family) doesn’t testify to the world about Jesus. Only those communities grounded in the word and work of Jesus should seek unity with one another. Until then, the differences among us are necessary to prove genuine adherence to Jesus’ word and work (1 Cor 11:19). Our efforts toward formal, visible unity are not unification but reunion—returning to the reality that Jesus effected by his ministry here among us.
Adapted from Eric Landry “The Church,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2019. Used by permission.