I got two more emails, one yesterday and one today, from men who think that the only route to unity is joining the Roman Catholic Church. (I have to assume that they wouldn’t have a problem with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, either, since every one of their arguments would apply to them as well … only better.)
It’s apparently impossible for me to communicate the importance of the local church to people like that, and so I keep trying to find different words with which to do that.
What I’m about to say is as important for Protestants to consider as for those seeking unity by apostolic succession because so many of them seek unity by denomination, which is no different.
The only unity that matters is one that can express itself in visible love. Thus, the primary unity that matters is local unity.
God wants a unity that is real, not one that can be justified with words.
If Jesus wanted a unity that was based on agreement among all ecclesiastical leaders that is mandated to all members, without regard to whether that unity produces holiness among those who adhere to it, then why bother with Christianity? Why bother dying? The Pharisees already had that unity.
The unity desired by those who want it through apostolic succession and through all of us joining an organization that already has well over a billion members is what I just described. I’m sure they wish that unity produced holiness, but since it has a long history of mostly members whose religion only barely affected their daily lives, they have to hold to that unity even when it doesn’t produce holiness (which is always).
So, two issues:
Should the Christians in Selmer, Tennessee Become Members of the Church in Rome, Italy?
It seems bizarre to me that anyone would suggest in order to have unity, the Christians in Selmer, Tennessee—or any other place, of course—should officially become members of the church in Rome, Italy. Or, if the issue is the Eastern Orthodox apostolic succession, that they should members of the church in Istanbul, Turkey; Antioch, Greece; or Moscow, Russia.
Where’s that in Scripture? Where’s that in any apostolic tradition found in the early Christian writings?
Apostolic succession, according to those who wrote about it in the 2nd and 3rd century, was a way to preserve the truth unchanged. That works for a while, but as we all can see, after 2,000 years it’s pretty ineffective.
Those early churches consulted one another to help stick with what the apostles handed down. Thus, it would have been typical to consult important apostolic churches like Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi. Fortunately, we live in the information age. We can consult what the church in Rome handed down, and we can compare it to earlier writings of the church, and help sort what’s true and what’s been added or taken away over the last 2,000 years.
I recommend doing that. But I don’t recommend joining a church that’s 5,000 miles away. That’s certainly not apostolic.
Bad Fruit Is Only Produced by Bad Trees
The other fortunate thing is that unity by apostolic succession, agreed upon by everyone, has been tried by an entire continent for hundreds of years. The continent is Europe, the church it submitted to was the church in Rome, and the time period is known as "The Dark Ages."
According to Christ, bad fruit only comes from bad trees.
So, you tell me. Is this a good idea?