In 1997-98 the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the Reformed Church (RCA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) all approved resolutions aimed at mutual recognition and unity.

When proposals of this importance are made, there are arguments on both sides, and a lively discussion results. Reading these discussions has reminded me of the distinction made in American courts between the standards of proof in civil and in criminal cases. In civil cases one must show a “preponderance of evidence” to prevail; that is, my evidence must be more compelling than yours. In a criminal case there is a higher standard of proof (proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”) because under the criminal law, everyone is presumed innocent.

In the case of church unity, the discussions I have seen seem to be carried out under the rule of “preponderance of evidence”. I have seen unity weighed against things like quality of organizational structure, or doctrinal purity. But I would suggest that the clear command of Christ for unity (reiterated in the rest of the New Testament) is a mandate so strong that it takes the status of presumption. To discard Christ’s own commands in a Christian argument should require an incredibly persuasive argument–an argument which must establish its point “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

If the pagans of the first century were amazed by the love which Christians bore one another, those of later centuries could have been equally astonished at the loathing and intolerance the upholders of loving God and their fellow-men displayed towards their associates whose formulae for defining the indefinable differed from their own. [David Christie-Murray]

Those holding unity as a lesser good argue that “purity is more important than unity” and then trot out the most outrageous heretical example in inventory. However, Catholic, Orthodox and mainstream Protestant denominations are not all that extremely different. When I hear “purity is more important than unity” what that says to me is that “Law is more important than Gospel” and that instead of just living as new creatures in Christ we are trying to save ourselves through the quality of our doctrine.

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