"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Marriage and "spiritual unity"

Imagine that you were having serious marital troubles. Your spouse never came home, and when he did, he slept on the couch. He refused to touch you, to speak to you, or eat with you, or sleep with you. So, you decide to go to a marriage counselor. You tell the counselor your situation and the counselor's response is something like this:

I know it seems to you like you are divided, but actually you are perfectly united, because your union is spiritual. Your marriage is a spiritual thing, and spiritually you are in perfect unity, no matter what your physical bodies are doing.

How would you respond to this? I expect that most of us would find another marriage counselor. Even if we could not put our finger exactly on the problem, we would know that in some fundamental way, this counselor was deeply mistaken. (I discussed this in more detail in my post titled "Sex, Dualism and Ecclesial Unity".)

And yet, this marriage counselor's position, as applied to the state of Christian disunity, is a rather common position among Evangelicals. Here's what it looks like when applied to the state of Christian disunity:

I know it seems that Christians are divided, but actually Christians are all perfectly united, because our union is spiritual, in Christ. The Church is a spiritual thing, and spiritually we are in perfect unity, even if physically we are all divided into various denominations, and we cannot share the Lord's Supper together, and we disagree on all kinds of doctrines. It would be nice if we were all institutionally and doctrinally united, as an expression of that perfect spiritual unity we all already have. But the thing to keep in mind is that we are all one in Christ, no matter how divided we are in doctrine or worship or government; so long as we love Jesus, we are all perfectly united in Christ.

Call that the "spiritual unity" position. Although we would recognize the problem if it were applied to our marriage, no one bats an eye when it is applied to the divisions between Christians. Why?

I think I have an idea why. A few years ago, someone whom I know and love told me that the Pope is the Antichrist. I was not yet a Catholic but already in the process of becoming a Catholic. I already believed that Christ had given to St. Peter the keys of the kingdom, and that as the episcopal successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI had received those keys, and was therefore the visible head of Christ's Church. It was clear to me in that moment that one of us was *deeply* deceived. Either I had come to believe that someone [who was actually the Antichrist] was the visible head of the Church, or my interlocutor had come to believe that someone [who was actually the visible head of Christ's Church] was the Antichrist. (Logically there is a third option, but I'm speaking here from our two perspectives.)

If Pope Benedict XVI is not the visible head of the Church, then it is bad strategy on Satan's part to deceive people into following Pope Benedict, since Pope Benedict clearly loves Jesus, and is encouraging people everywhere to follow Christ and turn away from sin and the works of the devil. But if Pope Benedict XVI is the visible head of the Church, then what would be Satan's most masterful trick to keep Christians from following Pope Benedict? Obviously, to deceive people into believing that Pope Benedict is the Antichrist! The Jews accused Jesus of having a demon (John 10:20; cf. Luke 11:15), and since Jesus tells us that the servant is not greater than his master, in the same ways that they persecuted Jesus they will persecute the true shepherds of His Church (John 15:20). And so we should fully expect that the true shepherds of Christ's Church will be treated as either having a demon or being in the service of the devil. Satan's masterful deception is to trick Christians into turning against their own true shepherds, just as Satan deceived the Jews into turning against their own true Messiah.

With that in mind, consider again the "spiritual unity" position. If Satan wanted to divide Christians and prevent their reconciliation and reunion, what would be his most effective deception? It would be to divide Christians into all kinds of schisms and then to deceive them into believing that they are not divided, but perfectly united. "You are not really divided. You are spiritually united." They would forget the word 'schism', and lose any conception of what it would mean. Or they would treat it as something entirely spiritual (See my "Schism from a gnostic point of view".) They would use euphemisms like 'branches' to describe their schisms, but they would be unable to provide any principled distinction between a branch and a schism. When you asked them the following question: "If you *were* in schism, how would your situation be different than it is right now?", you would get puzzled looks, blank expressions, and silent responses.

We recognize the deception of the "spiritually united" position when it is applied to marriage. But Satan has worked so much deception among us that we're entranced, lulled into the numbness of ecumenical lethargy by the sweet thought that we are all already perfectly united in Christ. What trick does Satan use here? He uses one of the first tricks he used against the early Church: gnosticism. This gnosticism rejects and devalues the material, and treats salvation as something entirely spiritual, though conceding that the spiritual may have some material expressions. The antidote to gnosticism is the incarnation; our Savior is the God-man Christ Jesus. He is both spirit and matter. Thus our salvation is not merely spiritual, just as a marriage between a husband and wife is not merely a spiritual relationship. We are material beings, and thus to be truly one we must be united in some sense materially, and not just spiritually. That entails that to be truly one we need to be institutionally one. Furthermore, if we are divided about which doctrines are true and essential, then we are not perfectly *spiritually* united, for spiritual unity is not just about love. Love and truth go together, as intellect and will go together. We cannot have one without the other. And so we cannot have agreement in will (i.e. shared love) if we do not have agreement in intellect, about what is true.

Like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, let's stamp out the enchanting smoke, burning our feet in the process if necessary, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, wake up from this gnostic deception, and with hearts burning with love for Christ's precious Body let us vigorously pursue reconciliation and reunion, however difficult and time-consuming the process may be.

Now is the time. Do you sense it? Is it not the love of Christ compelling us to seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters long estranged from us? This is what the Holy Spirit is doing in our time, even as evil goes from bad to worse. (2 Tim 3:13) The Holy Spirit is placing in our hearts the same love that leaves its gift at the altar and first goes and is reconciled with our brother. (Matthew 5:24) The same love that seeks out the lost sheep (Luke 15:4) is the same love that does not rest while division and schism separate brother from brother, sister from sister. Let us prepare the way for the return of our King; let us labor to make His bride ready. (Revelation 19:7) The time for reconciliation is now, not for some heroic future generation of peacemakers. We can be that generation, with the help of God.


Kim said...

Bryan, I just want to let you know that I read every one of your posts, and they are having their effect. Thank you for working so hard for the reconciliation to unity of Christ's Body.

Todd Gwennap said...


Good post. Like Kim, I also read all of your posts and often find them challenging (and my own views lacking).

However, I think there is an aspect of unity here that you are missing. Truly the marriage counselor is incompetent, but equally as truly, the married couple is still married. Thus, there is a true unity that does bind them together, even if on the surface, unity is lacking.

I mean, I don't go to relationship counseling with my plumber, right? So this married couple does have a spiritual union, even if their visible union is lacking.

That being said, I am completely unsatisfied by what a lot of Evangelicals think unity is. We can't seem to talk about it without equivocating.

I hate to post comments and run, but my wife and I are leaving early tomorrow morning for vacation, so I may be able to respond to any counter-argument you can offer this evening.

Thanks again for the post.

Principium Unitatis said...

Thanks again Kim.

Todd, yes the married couple is still married. It is precisely because they are still married that we can say that they are (in the particular situation I described) divided. We don't say that two random persons (who are not married to each other, or friends with each other) are "divided", even though they never see each other, or talk to each other, or touch each other etc. So it is [in part] the married couple's continuing covenantal bond that makes it true in this case that the spouses are divided.

Likewise, through our baptism, we are all baptized "into Christ", and into His Body. That's exactly what makes schism possible, i.e. the underlying sacramental unity that remains through the act of schism.

So, as you notice, I'm agreeing with you about there being a remaining and underlying unity, in both the marriage case, and the schism case. I am arguing in my post that that underlying unity is not in itself perfect (complete) unity. It is incomplete, in itself. I'm arguing against the position of those who reduce complete unity to that underlying unity, as if that is the entirety of the unity referred to in the term 'unam' in the line of the Creed "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church", or as if that is the entirety of the unity Christ prays (in John 17) that His followers would have.

There's more to say here on this, but maybe I'll just leave at that for now. Don't sweat it about posting and running. I appreciate your thoughts.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan