The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Or so the song goes. We sing it often, and its theme is reflected in many places throughout the New Testament. So why must we be reminded of church unity so frequently? Are we such disparate people, so inclined to fragmentation, that unity goes against our very nature? Would the Church universal spin off into a thousand shards without our constant efforts to hold it together? Is church unity even a realistic hope, or just a lofty ideal that is ultimately unattainable?
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem serves as a metaphor for the problem of church unity. There at the traditional site of the death and burial of Jesus stands a huge and intricate structure that is the main tourist destination for every Christian who ventures to the Holy City. The building is jointly occupied and operated by several different Christian entities. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches occupy most of the space, with lesser space given to the Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Over the centuries, violent fights have erupted over the use of space. In 1852, someone put a small ladder on a ledge over the main entrance. The groups have not been able to agree on the removal of the ladder, so it remains there to this day. In July 2002, a Coptic monk stationed on the roof of the church moved his chair into the shade, violating pre-arranged agreements. A fight broke out between the Coptic monks and the Ethiopian monks, and eleven were hospitalized. I don’t know what a monk fight looks like, but if it is anything like some of our committee meetings, it is not pretty.
Yet despite its shameful history of discord and violence, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has one foundation. Although its interior walls and imaginary lines divide it into different sections, its entire structure stands on one continuous foundation of stone, which is Mt. Zion itself. No matter how the space is parceled out, no matter how its occupants may fight, no matter which government rules the land, the unity of the church’s foundation remains an unchallenged fact.
When Paul wrote to his beloved congregations about unity in Christ, he did not write as one who wished it to be so, but as one who saw unity as a present reality. Within his fledgling house churches, he saw disagreements, amnesia, hostile infiltration and even challenges to his authority. He saw discrimination by age, class, race, and gender. Yet he saw that the unity of the church depends not on its members but on its foundation, Jesus Christ. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1Cor 12:27). He wrote this in the midst of division, not because there was no division. His challenge for the Corinthians, as for us, is to live into the reality of the unity that Christ has created as founder and foundation of the church.
St. Augustine once wrote, "In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." It is reassuring to know that church unity is not up to us. If it were, I would truly worry about the Church universal spinning off into a thousand shards. But the glue which holds us together is not our flawless doctrine, nor our divinely-inspired polity, nor our saintly personalities. It is the chief cornerstone, rejected by others, yet chosen by God. This frees us to devote our energies to the mission of the church. It also allows us to tolerate differences within the Christian community, knowing that our divergent viewpoints will not tear us apart. Christ is big enough to handle our disagreements. Those who are intolerant of others lose sight of this important point. In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is still standing, because the foundation is solid rock.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.