Talking about unity is important because I believe it is essential for our nation’s current state. In order for unity to occur in the present, we all have to be willing to try to understand each other’s points of view. That has to start with us being open about how we feel about the issues we all face. As I began writing this article a few days before the election, I knew that our nation would be divided by the results—I assumed the church would be too. Today, the church is divided and this division weakens our witness to the world.
Several months ago, I wrote about the history of church conflict and division. It is important for us to understand the reason that conflict happens, but finding unity does not stop at simply understanding the sources of our conflict. Despite centuries of conflict and division having led to deep division in the global church, I remain hopeful that we can learn to love each other, even if we cannot unite.
Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees, accusing him of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Jesus responded carefully by creating a perplexing question for his accusers:
“But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.’ He knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” — Matthew 12:24–28, NRSV
How quick are we to accuse another brother or sister of a similar charge? We may never call another person a worker of Beelzebub, but we can say some other very hurtful things. Think about how often we say things like: “This group believes that, but we believe this. Our doctrine is directly from Scripture, unlike their doctrine.” We do need parameters for orthodoxy, but outside of the historic creeds, we often make stark distinctions between ourselves and other brothers and sisters.
I have grown increasingly interested in the Moravians, a Pietistic Christian group with its origins as far back as the 15th century. Count Nicolas von Zinzendorf, an 18th century Moravian leader who brought about significant renewal, had a beautiful vision of unity for the church. This vision was evident in the church’s original name, Unitas Fratrum, or the Unity of the Brethren. Zinzendorf wanted the Unity to be ecumenical and include all denominational backgrounds.
In 1742, Zinzendorf attempted an unheard of idea in Pennsylvania, trying to unite all of the German-speaking Christian sects in the province. Katherine Carte Engel writes:
“Zinzendorf believed that America, and particularly Pennsylvania, had a special religious future. In his eyes, its religious freedom and diverse population opened up possibilities for religious union that would have been difficult or even impossible to achieve in Europe… Zinzendorf hoped to spread evangelical awakening even inside the various churches already established in Pennsylvania, hoping eventually to build a kind of pan-denominational union of true ‘Children of God.’”
The Moravians came from a schismatic Europe where regents and their respective states all had different denominational affiliations. Due to religious persecutions, the Bohemian Brethren (an earlier name for the Moravians) fled throughout Europe, eventually coming to Zinzendorf’s estate called Hernnhut. The Moravians, like the Anabaptists and other persecuted Christian sects, eventually fled to North America seeking religious liberty. This new found freedom also provided an opportunity to truly embrace the doctrine of a church that was universal and separate from a state-controlled faith.
The solution to Zinzendorf’s vision began to take form in ecumenical synods held in Pennsylvania in 1742 called the “Community of God in the Spirit.” Initially, the synods were productive, but after the first two gatherings, it seemed as though division would continue to define Christianity in America. While discussing various theological perspectives, disagreement began mounting on the issues of marriage, infant baptism, and the Eucharist.
As the gatherings concluded, the synod made a less-than-unified statement about a formerly participating group from the Ephrata Cloister. The statement held that the Ephrata community was “founded only by the devil to hinder the approaching Kingdom of Jesus Christ… may the Lamb shortly trample this Satan underfoot.” How did an ecumenical synod that began with a goal of seeking unity result in such a hate-filled statement? There was a growing frustration and lack of understanding between both Zinzendorf and Beissel, the leader of the Ephrata community. While I respect many aspects of the Moravians, this is a sad chapter in their history.
A noble goal of trying to unite the church turned into a hotbed for divisive rhetoric and distrust. The final ecumenical synod had dwindled to mostly Moravian participants, making it clear that the goal of unity was not achievable. The church was not able to work together then—we still face the same challenge today. Doctrine, praxis, leadership, etc.—these issues divide us today like they did almost three hundred years ago.
We do not have to repeat the same events that happened in 1742. We need to not accuse those who disagree with us to be associated with Satan. We need to listen more than talk. We need to be unafraid to share respectful and honest opinions. We need to respect the respectful statements of our brothers and sisters. We need to speak out against injustice. We need to pray for unity. We need to love like Jesus. While we may not achieve unity, we can give grace and extend love to others. I leave you to ponder the words of the Moravian Church’s motto:
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”