As we’ve journeyed through the Gospel of John, the importance of unity within the body of Christ has been crystal clear. Its importance is highlighted in the fact that Jesus, in his final recorded prayer, prayed for it. Christian unity is not merely an ideal we must strive for—it is a hallmark of the Christian faith. When we look at the landscape of Christianity today we see myriad expressions of faith and an incredible diversity of views on things such as baptism and end times and officers in the church and the practice of the Lord’s Supper. If unity is what Christ demands of his church, are we failing utterly? As Protestants we must ask if the criticism of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox folk is true when they claim that the sheer number of Protestant denominations and/or schools of Protestant thought makes unity impossible for Protestants. In the year 434, Vincent of Lérins wrote a helpful rule:
Moreover, in the catholic church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.Vincent of Lérins, “The Commonitory II.6
Stated another way, we must hold the faith that the catholic, or universal church has always held. We must believe what all Christians in all places at all times have believed. If this is true, then what must we do about the sheer variety of beliefs, especially in Protestantism today? Is the criticism mentioned above a legitimate criticism? It is not. The reality is that while the early church held tightly to what all Christians in all places at all times believed, it is clear there was a variety of belief and practices on secondary matters. There are the core doctrines we must hold to, such as the deity of Christ and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and the Trinitarian nature of God who is—One Being in Three Persons. Then there are secondary issues that not all Christians have believed in all places and at all times.
One example of the room for disagreement on secondary issues is quite early and quite profound. Polycarp was the bishop, or lead elder, of the church in Smyrna. Polycarp was born in the year 69 and was martyred in the year 155. He was a disciple of the apostle John. Think of that! He was a member of the church where John served as lead elder! In the 150s a man named Anicetus was the lead elder of the church in Rome. In the second century the church was still forming its practices and customs, including the annual observance of Easter. There was a variety of practices surrounding this observance, including the timing. The Roman custom was to observe Easter on a specific date, much like we do Christmas, regardless of the day of the week. Polycarp’s custom was to observe Easter in connection with the date of the Jewish Passover. Early church historian Eusebius wrote about this controversy in the Fourth Century:
And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Eusebius Pamphilus: Church History, Life of Constantine, & Oration in Praise of Constantine (NPNF-2 I; Accordance electronic ed. 14 vols.; New York: Christian Literature Publishing, 1890), n.p.
But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.
Think of the outcome of this disagreement. Anicetus declared he would follow the customs of the elders in Rome who came before while acknowledging that Polycarp would follow the customs passed on to him by the apostles themselves! In other words, great freedom of conscience was allowed in the early church. Though the resurrection was believed by all Christians, the date of Easter was not a thing believed by all Christians in all places and at all times.
One more example will make the point. The Didache is a document written in the first century that provides instructions for various Christian practices such as communion, fasting, daily prayer, and baptism. What is striking is that when it comes to baptism, The Didache states that it must be done in the singular Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but offers three modes of baptism: immersion in flowing water (such as a stream or river); immersion into a still body of cold (preferable) or warm (allowable) water; and if sufficient water for immersion is not available, water may be poured on the head (surely those in desert communities were thrilled at this!). The apostle John was likely alive when this was written, yet it is clear that practices of baptism could vary.
What all this means is that there is a core theology that all Christians in all places at all times have believed. These center on the nature of God and of Christ, on the atonement and resurrection of the dead, and the coming of our Savior, and there was a wide latitude allowed in secondary practices. Early in the church a creed, or statement of belief, developed. This creed was confessed by those about to be baptized into the church. It became known as the “Apostles’ Creed”.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The catholic or universal church has believed these things—all Christians in all places at all times. These are what define us as the church of Jesus Christ. This is what unites us with our Reformed and Baptist and Pentecostal and Presbyterian and Wesleyan brothers and sisters, not our practice of baptism or of communion, not our church governance structure, not our order of worship in our gathered assemblies. Yes, there are distinctives of New City Church that set us apart, or better, that distinguish us from some of our brothers and sisters, yet the answer to the criticism that Protestantism cannot be united due to various positions held on secondary matters is simple: we are united in the core tenets of the faith once delivered, and, like the early church, we allow great latitude in secondary matters.
The Council of Elders has been praying about where God is leading us after the Gospel of John. It happens that in April New City Church will celebrate its tenth anniversary. We believe this is a great opportunity for us to take a look at who we are as a church. To that end we will have a topical series over the summer using the Apostles’ Creed as our guide, along with a look at some of the things that distinguish us from others whose practices may differ from ours. Why do we only baptize believers who confess publicly that Jesus is Lord? Why do we celebrate communion each week? Rather than doing these things (and others) simply because “we’ve always done it this way”, we’ve been very intentional in our practice of these secondary matters. We are rooted in the ancient church and we are rooted in the twenty-first century, and the decisions we make matter. So to emphasize our unity in Christ and to illustrate some of our distinctives, our next sermon series will focus on the faith once delivered and the practical distinctives the Lord has led us as a church to embrace.
So what’s next for New City? In many ways, the same: we will continue to worship our great God and Savior Jesus Christ as we celebrate all he has done and is doing at New City Church.