Theological Purity or Visible Unity?

By Graham Glover

Like others, I long for the visible unity of the church. It is a sad and tragic reality that our Lord’s one holy catholic and apostolic church is as divided as it is. While not naïve to the consequences of our fallen sinful world and to the influence of the Evil One on preventing this unity, I wish that Christians across the spectrum would do more to end the countless schisms that divide us. I have expressed this longing in some of my previous posts, to include a few that rub some in my own denomination the wrong way. (I even tried to identify a particular office for such unity, but that argument didn’t seem to gain much traction on this website!)

In many respects, ecumenism and the visible unity of the church are not as theologically trendy as they once were. While talks and discussions between denominations continue, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that these dialogues will produce any significant fruit. Ironically, I think this is due to many within Christendom adopting a minimalist attitude toward theology. That is, Christians these days don’t seem as interested in that which divides our communions. Such distinctions, they proclaim, are the root of our perpetual divisions. We should only focus on the things that unite us and let doctrinal disputes fall to the wayside. With no disputes there is no need for talks, since unity is either implied or where division is still present, glossed over. I see this attitude often in the Chaplain Corps, especially among my peers whose theological training and parish experience are comparatively thin on substance.

This question is not unique to our time and place. Christians have long struggled over the issue of which is more important: theological purity or visible unity. This side of our Lord’s Second Advent I doubt we’ll ever fully answer the question. But that doesn’t mean students of theology should stop asking and grappling with it. In fact, I think we should ask it a lot more often than we currently do.


For those who think theological purity is of primary importance, what issues make one or a particular denomination, “theologically pure”? Is it all or nothing or is there room for disagreement?

For example, to be a confessional Lutheran must one accept all of the documents that are contained in the Book of Concord? To be a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in good standing must one support all of the Synod’s overtures? Is there any room for differences of opinion or practice? If so, on which issues and to what degree? This in turn begs the question, how many issues must one embrace to be theologically pure? If I support 85% of the Catechism of the Catholic Church am I a “good” Roman Catholic? Can I be a Baptist if I don’t believe in baptism by immersion? Or how about a Presbyterian if I don’t accept double-predestination? An Anglican if I don’t practice the Liturgy? Bottom line, which issues and how many of them make one a theologically pure member of a particular denomination. And ultimately, who or what decides the importance of these issues and how they should be interpreted? Why can’t acceptance of the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds be enough? If I believe in justification by grace through faith alone, but think the papacy is a divinely ordained office, am I bound to remain theologically impure? Although I am by confession inclined to think theological purity is critically important, the more I grapple with theology the more I wonder which issues and how many of them one must accept and embrace to become or remain theologically pure.

For those who think church unity is of primary importance, what are you willing to accept to achieve this unity? Is there no longer any room for theological integrity or distinction? Has adherence to any doctrine become completely insignificant?


For example, if I confess Jesus to be God, but not part of the Holy Trinity, can I still be properly part of the Christian church? If two denominations have fundamentally different means by which they interpret the Holy Scriptures, how can they ever possibly be expected to find union in the practice of the faith they claim they hold in common? If confessing Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior is all it truly means to be a Christian, why has the church never accepted such a minimalist definition? Bottom line, what, if any, beliefs must one have to be part of the church? Even if one acknowledges the fact that doctrinal disputes are sometimes petty and comparatively insignificant, is church unity that important that doctrine holds no importance?

Although I am by nature inclined to think church unity is equally important, the more I grapple with theological differences among Christians, the more I wonder if church unity will ever be possible.

Like I said, this question isn’t easy. But its unease doesn’t diminish its significance. For those of us who seek to be theologically pure and desire unity among the church, it is a question we must continue to ask, time and time again – as our doctrine and our union depend upon it.