Any biblically responsible pastor and church leader has to cringe at the second part of Paul’s statement about the purpose of church leaders in Ephesians 4: 12-13. The first part of his challenge is to “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
But I am embarrassed when Paul states what this work of building up is supposed to accomplish. Keep building “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” I don’t see much effort to reach such unity happening among traditional churches. However, there is progress among mission-oriented networks and movements of congregations.
The last major effort by traditional churches was in the Ecumenical Movement of the 1950s. Except for a merger in Canada, nothing else was accomplished. That’s because, I think, they were working with the wrong definition of church. They were attempting to merge institutional church bodies. Because these have such different histories, a complete merger of these traditional churches will never happen. Emil Brunner pointed this out in his book The Misunderstanding of the Church. The real church is made up of the informal fellowships gathered around God’s Word.
While reaching unity won’t happen through denominational structures, we can approach it through informal networks of churches that share similarities in church culture and ministry emphases. It won’t happen by seeking unity for the sake of unity. It will happen among congregations pursuing effective mission outreach. Denominations each have their own unique culture of beliefs, values, and behaviors. Mission-oriented churches are developing a shared culture of beliefs, values, and behaviors. That’s the way progress will happen.
My direct mission involvement in recent years has been helping the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti to start new churches, to build out their facilities and to expand their ministries. I was originally attracted to the New Testament flavor of their mission effort. A Haitian pastor was invited to attend seminary by its president, who arranged for his support through three years of study. That first pastor raised up ten young men who received American support to go to that seminary for three years. When they were done, they agreed on branching out and starting new churches in the bigger cities of Haiti.
Denominations tend to work from the top down. Networks develop from the bottom up. Because these Haitian pastors were trained in a denominational seminary, they tended to think in denominational terms. But with the decline of denominational dollars, there is almost no connection anymore with the larger withering church body, so these Haitian pastors are basically working out a network on their own.
There won’t a world-wide network of networks. Churches looking for help will be involved in a network only to the extent they get practical ideas and connections that advance their own ministry. These networks will approach unity in mission purpose.
Will there ever be unity in faith and knowledge among Christian denominational churches? Not in this world. But networks of mission-oriented churches will come closer to unity in the faith and knowledge of doing mission outreach effectively.
How important to you is Paul’s goal of Christian churches reaching unity of faith and knowledge? Will it ever happen in this world?