The Glory of the Nations and the Challenge of Church Unity
by Tim Castner
January 23, 2018

Tim Castner

“Complete truth when it comes to our world is fragmented into contradictory parts and we see only this fragmented world, but somewhere in a higher dimension all these paradoxical, disunited and antinomic fragments are united in one. That’s the mystery of life. . . The variety and even the contradictions within the Christian church, and even more, the contradictions between the different Christian denominations – Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox – are not a sign of decay and breakdown but rather manifestations of parts of the whole, the united whole which we have to reach at greater depth.” 

Father Alexander Men’

In a lecture in early 1989, one year before being assassinated, the Russian Orthodox priest and theologian, Alexander Men’, argued that the apparent disunity of the church masked a deeper unity. Men’s perspective resolves a fundamental tension between the historical record and the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17. Jesus had prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” 

Jesus’ prayer appears futile, after nearly 2,000 years of church history and in the wake of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Forces of tribalism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, arrogance, self-righteousness, and aggression have overridden humility, grace, and love. The gift of glory (δοξα, or doxa, in the Greek) described in the passage, though, raises an intriguing possibility. Earlier, Jesus prayed for reciprocal glorification between the Father and the Son: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Mysteriously, Jesus is transmitting the glory he received from the father to his disciples.

The image of glory returns in the Book of Revelation. John of Patmos’ vision of the heavenly throne room describes the living creatures and elders giving glory, honor, thanks, and praise to the Lord God. Later in his description of the New Jerusalem, John proclaims, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.  People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” Jesus gave his glory to the believers in John 17 and instructed them to “make disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28. Here, at the end, having walked in the light of the holy city, the Nations bring their glory back. The glory now reflects the full diversity of human culture and the image of God in every people group.

A brief catalog of churches from Lowell, Massachusetts, illustrates how different human cultures divided instead of uniting the church. Pawtucket Congregational Church was established in 1797 as a further opportunity for the Yankee farmers in Chelmsford to practice their traditional faith. As the Boston Associates built their textile empire, they established St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in 1824 to care for the spiritual lives of the mill girls. The young women, though, preferred Baptist or Methodist churches such as the new First United Baptist Church established in 1826.  Within a generation a new wave of immigrants had arrived and began working in the mills. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, founded in 1853, met the spiritual needs of the Irish while sheltering their children from the prejudice and Protestant instruction in the public schools. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the city’s religious and ethnic diversity further expanded with the addition of St. Jean Baptiste Church in 1890 to serve the French Canadians; Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in 1908; and St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1919 for the growing Syrian population.

Such division of the Church into separate cultural and linguistic groups should not surprise us as the New Testament itself provides vivid testimony to tensions between Paul, James, Peter, John, and Matthew as they sought to define Jesus, the nature of Salvation, the believers’ relationship to Jewish dietary laws, and circumcision. The diversity of the church mushroomed as it spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, establishing congregations throughout the Mediterranean World and east into India. Each nation understood and responded to the message within their cultural context. Inevitably, differences arose between churches centered in Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and beyond.

When Constantine converted to Christianity and issued the edict of Milan, the diversity of the church became a pressing political challenge. If Christianity were to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, then doctrine would have to be defined and controlled more strictly. As Constantine expressed it, “My design then was, first to bring the diverse judgments found by all nations respecting the Deity to a condition, as it were, of settled uniformity; and second, to restore a healthy tone to the system of the world, then suffering under the power of a grievous disease.” Constantine got his desired Nicene Creed, later clarified at Chalcedon and other councils. Yet, cultural and geographic divisions remained. 

When Spanish theologians added the “filioque,” asserting that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, Eastern Orthodox bishops rejected it as destroying the delicate balance of the Trinity and bypassing the Councils, ultimately contributing to the Great Schism between the East and West in 1054. Egyptian Copts, likewise, adopted Monophysite theology after the Council of Chalcedon when they interpreted the new creed as claiming that Jesus had two distinct persons. When Martin Luther posted his famous thesis to the Wittenberg door in 1517, it unleashed a new round of cultural and political posturing and the radical splintering of Christianity. More recent trends such as the promotion of religious liberty and the separation of church and state only accelerated the trend. What had happened to the glory and the promise of unity?

Eliot Presbyterian Church in Lowell suggests and seeks a different path to bridge the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic divides.  Starting about twenty five years ago it began reaching out to and incorporating newer immigrant groups within their older church. Avoiding the error of their namesake, John Eliot, the apostle to Native Americans in New England who insisted on the full adoption of English culture as a condition of conversion, the Church offers a Cambodian Bible Study and worship in Khmer and has formed an African Fellowship Choir. The growing diversity has helped to revitalize a previously aging church and has challenged the privilege of majority culture members. The more energetic decision-making style of African members combined with the careful consensus building of Cambodians has motivated the traditionally staid Presbyterians to question their political traditions. 

By celebrating the Cambodian New Year, the church has learned from the Cambodians the traditions of honoring grandparents through gift- giving and foot washing. The vibrancy of African worship, coupled with mindfulness meditation introduced by members from Buddhist backgrounds, have further enriched the church. Debates over which cultural forms can be helpfully incorporated into the Presbyterian Church have provided opportunities for discussion and growth. This congregation has enjoyed a foretaste of the final banquet, when the glory of the nations will be brought into the New Jerusalem. May all of us learn from their example.

Tim Castner has been teaching US History at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, MA for over twenty years. He has taught many adult discipleship classes at Grace Chapel in Lexington on Church History and other topics.