Each year on Oct. 31, Protestant churches around the world remember a simple but revolutionary act: Martin Luther’s decision to nail what is now commonly known as the “Ninety-Five Theses” on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517.
Luther’s actions started a reformation that would eventually impact the entire Christian world. His work, together with that of many other reformers, revitalized the church. Christians began to read and understand Scripture in new and wonderful ways.
But the Protestant Reformation also produced a phenomenon that Luther and the other reformers could not have anticipated. In 1517 there was only one Western church. Luther had the courage to challenge its teachings, practice, and theology. Because the church was unwilling to hear his call to repentance and renewal, he was excommunicated and a new denomination was born.
That division in the church was repeated again and again, until today there are thousands of denominations and independent churches around the world. These churches, divided by language, culture, theology, worship styles, polity, and a multitude of other differences, make up about 40 percent of Christian churches worldwide.
The one church of Jesus Christ has become the church splintered, and the prayer of Jesus that “they may be one” has not yet been answered.
Such divisions are not what God intended. Scripture reminds us again and again that we are called to be one in Christ, yet we also are called to hold fast to the truth of the gospel. Sadly, in a sinful world, it is often difficult to maintain a balance between unity and truth.
Even within the Christian Reformed Church we experience this challenge. Throughout our history, the CRC has been divided over issues of theology and practice. In fact, the CRC separated from the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over issues that have, for the most part, now disappeared.
How then do we, as the church, express the unity of Christ and also maintain our different understandings and practices?
Might I offer one suggestion? Rather than focusing on what divides us, denominations can work together in the name of Jesus, even as we continue to discuss the issues that keep us apart.
A good example of this is our present relationship with the Reformed Church in America. Few people realize that the CRC and RCA are working more closely together today than at any time in the past 150 years. CRC churches may freely call RCA ministers, and RCA churches may call CRC ministers. A number of congregations are both RCA and CRC.
Faith Alive Christian Resources, formerly CRC Publications, is now a combined ministry of the CRC and RCA and is governed by a board made up of members from both denominations. Materials and curricula produced by Faith Alive have a broad appeal to churches beyond the RCA and CRC that seek to interpret and teach the Bible from a Reformed perspective.
Recently the RCA established an office to address disability concerns in partnership with the CRC’s Office of Disability Concerns. Our two denominations will work closely together to equip and encourage congregations to become hospitable, inclusive, healthy communities for people with disabilities and their families.
We also conduct church planting efforts together as we seek to reach more people by establishing new churches. There is a new level of cooperation in disaster response and community development.
In these and many other ways, the CRC and RCA are demonstrating the love of Christ and grace of God around the world. I am thankful that God has provided opportunities for us to engage with the RCA, and I hope that such efforts will continue as we engage with other churches and denominations around the world.
Together may we reflect the unified body of Christ, his church, where all parts form one body, proclaim one Lord, and work together in ministry.