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The Never-Unity of the Church

I’m truly enjoying Graham Ward’s newest book, The Politics of the Discipleship, just out from Baker Academic. Here’s one quote from the early pages:

There has never been a time when the church was one. The centralizing of the church around Rome and the papacy was a historical move emerging between the third and fifth centuries in an already divided and contested Christendom. “Each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ,’” as Paul attests in one of his early epistles (1 Cor. 1:12). There has never been a Christendom in terms of a universal kingdom of Christ. While the Roman medieval church was extending both its powers and territorial domain from the eleventh century to the sixteenth, it became increasingly aware of its own smallness. . . . Even before the Reformation’s splintering, Christendom was an ideology only partly realized and internally contested. The church, then, is always to come. It is a promise that forms the horizon within which the churches seek to be and become more fully the church. (p. 25-26)


  1. Chris Donato wrote:

    Honestly wondering here: If the church has never been one (shelf for now that whole bit about Can Christ be divided?”), how can we know anything much about Christ and his gospel? Any sense of ecclesial authority thus collapses wholesale. Yet if the church isn’t ontologically separate from Christ (i.e., his body), then it cannot be that which Ward describes above.

    Now, personally, the only way I make sense of the church in the world is through the filter Ward proffers here, but I have a few dogmatically Catholic pals who simply will not (cannot) accept this premise. And they make a good case too.

    Moreover, why does Ward punt over the first 1000 years of the church. Up until the time of the East-West split (which includes the 7 ecumenical councils, of course), there seemed to be something akin to a “universal kingdom of Christ.” And maybe Ward is confused about what the church’s vocation is in this time between the times (2 kingdoms and all that)? If its cultural influence that’s the church’s aim (“Christendom was an ideology only partly realized and internally contested”), then yes, so much for the institution. But let’s assume cultural transformation is not part and parcel of the church’s calling, then what? Does that affect his description of the church as perpetually disunified?

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    Maybe another way of getting at your point in the second paragraph is that I think we can at least say that the church in… 600, for instance, was one in a material way in which it is not currently. I think Ward’s point is compelling, that a kind of monolithic homogeneous unity never existed, but I don’t think that render the question of relative union unintelligible.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I don’t think Ward intends to “render the question of relative union unintelligible” either.

    I think his point really goes to what sort of cultural transformation the church is supposed to be oriented towards. Whatever it is it shouldn’t be trying to create some sort of homogeneous cultural whole. Its never been able to do that, nor should it.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  4. Theophilus wrote:

    He may be leaving out 1000 years of church history, but it’s not like the church was united up to the East-West split, either. The church in the east splintered into several distinct churches not terribly long after Nicaea – the Assyrian Church of the East separated in 424, and the Oriental Orthodox in 451.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  5. Chris Donato wrote:

    Good point, Theophilus, at least for a non-Catholic to make. Of course, many Catholics would retort that those instances (like any other like it) are a matter of schism from the one, true church, i.e., the “universal kingdom of Christ.”

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Chris Donato wrote:

    I don’t know, Hill. Ward’s statements smacked a little more forcefully than that to me. That is, he seemed to be taking to task the very notion of a “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”—understood visibly—rather than simply stating the obvious, that a kind of monolithic homogeneous unity has never existed. Maybe not. I’ll stand corrected.

    @Halden, I did allude to what I thought he was getting at with respect to what you say: what sort of cultural transformation is the church to be oriented toward? And if Ward is saying what you’ve said (“Whatever it is…,” etc.), then I agree with him/you. But everywhere we look we see Christians trying to create some sort of homogeneous cultural whole. To my mind, if you ain’t got two kingdoms down, you’re gonna slip up on this score.

    Question for you: what would you say if somebody quipped that Anabapistic views on this point inevitably lead to Münster (and thus become the object of Ward’s derision)?

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I probably wouldn’t say anything to such a non-sensical and obviously false quip. Why engages something so clearly absurd?

    And to my mind it is getting “two kingdoms down” that is responsible for quite a bit of the slipping up we see in the church throughout history. And that’s not, despite your initial comment, due to a lack of understanding it, either on my part, or I expect, on Ward’s.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Chris Donato wrote:

    But of course, Halden. Yet did not the anabaptists of Münster attempt to do the very thing Ward decries? What was it about their views on this point that led to that calamity? Anything? Nothing?

    Also, it’s impossible to truly understand 2k and go on holding it responsible “for quite a bit of the slipping up we see in the church throughout history.” ;-)

    The Catholic doctrine of the “two swords” is not exactly 2k. The magisterial Reformers did not hold their teachings on this score consistently. What was practiced during the early to mid 20th cent. in Germany was not consistently 2k (note too that many of the leaders in the resistant, confessional church in Germany were adamantly 2k). What evangelicals practice in America today is diametrically opposed to 2k.

    From where I’m standing the closest thing to it can be seen in anabaptistic thought (Yoder, Hauerwas, et al.). But then they get all confused sounding when they start talking about the transforming of society, as if Christianity itself was primarily intended to serve that purpose. How does that not lead to Münster? Or the Moral Majority? The Christian Coalition? The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ? The Episcopal Church (USA) [taking shots at my own church here]?

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    There were no Anabaptists in Münster in any historically responsible sense of the term. There was a crazy guy who happened to rebaptize all of his followers.

    If you really think that Yoder and Hauerwas (even though there’s no such entity as “Yoder and Hauerwas” but that’s another matter) advocate Christianity as primarily intending to serve the purpose of transforming society, I’ve got to say that I think you haven’t really read them. That’s almost exactly the opposite of what argue for. I’m quite confused that you could really have that impression from any sustained reading of their work.

    In regard to your comments about the two kingdoms doctrine, I find these sorts of rhetorical ploys to be rather annoying. Do you actually want to claim that no one who actually understands it could ever disagree with it or have a legitimate critique of it? I’m pretty sure I understand it just fine, thanks. And I have good reasons for rejecting it. Can we talk to each other like adults here?

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    No dickishness was intended by this comment.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  11. Chris Donato wrote:

    No, I was just joking, dick. (again, with the jokes)

    And, yes, I don’t pick up such sentiments from what I’ve read from either Yoder or Hauerwas, but I feel it all the time from his so-called devotees.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Ok, cool. This at least has prompted me to reopen Luther’s treatise on secular authority. Maybe I’ll post on it soon.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

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