E Unum Pluribus?

Michael Metzger

That’s a fitting question for the Advent season.

A friend and I recently learned we’ve been asking the same question: How will the church ever be one? In High Priestly Prayer Jesus prayed that we may be one so that the world may believe. For most of my adult life I haven’t given “oneness” much thought. I sort of assumed, yeah, sure, the church is one. But then I noticed a little verb Jesus used in his prayer.

He prayed that we may be one. May is a modal verb indicating something might possibly happen in the future, but it’s not guaranteed. Might not happen. For example, oneness might not happen in the Western segment of the church. A little church history might tell us why.

Irenaeus described the early church as “having a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth.” Oneness. The creeds solidified oneness, settling debates over Jesus’ nature for example so that Christians could confess there is “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” (catholic means universal, one). Oneness is why King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled in 644 that his church with its Irish monks would adopt the customs of Rome.

But we can’t overlook the Great Schism of 1054. The church split between the East (Constantinople) and the West (Rome). Both however strive for oneness, evident in efforts since 2004 to reconcile East and West so that (as Pope John Paul II put it) Christianity could once again “breathe with both lungs.” His image of two lungs reflects how both East and West hold to a sacramental view of reality based on the Word became flesh. God in the flesh means the heavens and earth are a “sacrament,” a revelation of the presence on God including the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine at the Eucharist.

Fast forward to 1517. Martin Luther posts his 95 theses. He seeks oneness with the Roman church (it’s why Lutheran services look like Catholic services). But Luther opened a Pandora’s box for while early church debates were over God’s nature, Luther raised a debate over human nature. He felt individuals can judge what’s right in their own cases.[1] He established that I can read scripture and judge for myself what I believe to be true.[2]

Kaboom! This set off a nova affect, an exploding star of individualized takes on what’s true.[3] This blew up oneness, leading one scholar to write that Western Christianity is “not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core.”[4] Another concludes: “the ‘Western’ segment of the church today lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel.”[5] This is particularly true of evangelicals. They score highest on “expressive individualism.”[6] How in heaven’s name will this yield oneness?

What it actually yields is E Unum Pluribus. You read that correctly. The Great Seal of the United States features the motto E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One. The motto of the Western segment of the church perhaps should be E Unum Pluribus—Out of One, Many.

I say this without malice. I love how evangelicals have great zeal for the entire world coming to believe that God sent Jesus. The irony is that Jesus prayed that we may be one so that the world may believe. We’re undermining the very way Jesus said the world might believe.

Which brings us to Advent. The word is from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” Advent is a season of preparing for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. Preparing involves repenting. Should we, the Western segment of the church, repent of undermining oneness?

I’m not suggesting two-thirds of the worldwide church has no flaws. In this Advent season, sacramental churches would do well to ask: where’s our zeal for seeing the world come to faith in Christ? The Western segment of the church on the other hand would do well to ask: how in heaven’s name will we ever be one with the rest of the worldwide church?

One scenario is we won’t. We’ll be Humpty-Dumpty. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put us back together again with the worldwide church.

A second scenario is a supernova. That could be a good thing. Tell you why next week.


[1] Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).

[2] Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford University Press, 2003), 5.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 299-313.

[4] Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, 18-20.

[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 214.

[6] c.f. Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985).


The Morning Mike Check

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  1. Mike, you know I love you, but this doesn’t fly. Being one means “loving one another” and not “doctine control” or “mind-control” in terms of every little thing being the same between those who love Jesus. When husband and wife become one they don’t give up their uniqueness, they join in being better off in supporting one another, even sacrificially at times.

    The only thing Jesus ever wanted from us as a body is love for one another (stated and demonstrated) and He never brought up “views on communion” for example. We are indeed “out of the many: one” when we disagree on any number of things but love one another.

    Now if for some reason you’ve meant this anyway but didn’t bring it up, would you mind clarifying yourself? Right now you risk the insanity of requiring every jot and tittle of every imaginable doctrine being defined down to where the commas go. Better that the creativity and thoughtfulness of the church in all her member body parts share what they think and believe and why and that we learn to respect and love each other even when we disagree. It doesn’t take long before someone accuses someone else of being a Nazi in politics because they don’t agree – don’t say you want so much alignment of every jot and tittle that you’re going to let the less mature among us start accusing others of being schismatics or even Nazis.

  2. I agree that we somehow need to do a better job of being “one.” I recently read John 17 and posted this blog: https://drbobewell.com/?p=5309. But I agree with the brother above that we will never be one by agreeing on every detail. My blog includes this paragraph from the movie Sheep Among Wolves, Volume 2, about the Iranian church: “Do you believe Jesus came once for sin? Do you believe he’s coming back for judgment? Then we are brothers.”

    I’m not a fan of Richard Rohr, and he’s said a lot of things with which I disagree. However, he said something interesting about the creeds. “[When Christianity became the official religion of the Empire] we needed to agree on its transcendent truth claims….it became theory over practice…We henceforth concentrated on how to worship Jesus as one united empire instead of following Jesus in any practical way.”

    I resonated with that concept, having grown up in a truth-oriented, Bible-teaching culture. For me, The Navigators were the first group I met that seemed to practice Christianity…in Rohr’s words, to follow Jesus in a practical way.

  3. The controversy here is over the meaning and nature of “oneness.” What is the expected “oneness” that we share with other believers. In this article and the response to it, three versions of oneness are put forward.

    1. Oneness as in cognitive doctrinal agreement.

    2. Oneness as relational action toward others.

    3. Oneness as the reality of God’s presence within us.

    Rather than getting into an historical debate about church history, a closer review of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 may help sort this out.

    Jesus begins his prayer with a discussion of “eternal life.” This is not something that happens when we die, but the reality and immediate experience of God’s presence. “Eternal life means to know and experience you as the only true God, and to know and experience Jesus Christ, as the Son whom you have sent” (John 17:3, The Passion Translation). Eternal life is experiencing the immediacy of divine presence.

    He then details what he has revealed. “Father, I have manifested who you really are and I have revealed you to the men and women that you gave me” (John 17:6). He specifically mentions the revelation of his Word. “They have fastened your Word firmly to their hearts…. They have received your words and carry them in their hearts” (John 6b, 7b). This mention of God’s Word may suggest a doctrinal or cognitive aspect of his revelation. However, this is belied by the very next sentence in which he emphasized the revelation of God’s word is evidence of God’s presence. “They are convinced that I have come from your presence, and they fully believed that you sent me to represent you” (John 17:8). His follow up is an affirmation that we belong to God as evidenced by a surrendered life (17:10).

    Jesus then prays that we will be united as one, reflecting of the unity of the Trinity. This is clearly a relational oneness, but not as evidenced by our love of others, but as a reflection of our identity being united to God. The move is not outward but inward. Our oneness is to be reflective of Trinitarian oneness captured in the repeated phrase “kept them in your name.” This is a oneness of identity, of belonging to God and not the world as he explains further (17:14).

    While we are “commissioned to represent” Jesus (v. 18), what we are to represent is an identity rooted in belonging to God. We do not belong to the world. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God and that is to be the representing fact of our lives.

    It is then in this context that Jesus turns to the controversial passage about oneness. “I pray for them all to be joined together as one even as you and I, Father, are joined together as one. I pray for them to become one with us so that the world will recognize that you sent me” (John 17:21). Unless there be confusion here, Jesus spells out what he means, “You live fully in me and now I live fully in them so that they will experience perfect unity and the world will be convinced that you have sent me, for they will see that you love each one of them with the same passionate love that you have for me” (John 17:23). It is quite clear here that the unity spoken of is the unity of God’s love for us, God’s indwelling presence in us that animates through us the fact of God’s resurrection living presence. If we are to live the life of Christ it is only by the indwelling presence of Christ in us. What emanates from our lives is not doctrinal affirmations or loving action, but real presence. Jesus is praying that we will in our lives be the continuation of his incarnation as his presence in our lives is made manifest to the lives of others. The focus is not on what we know, or whom we love, but to whom we belong. This is a unity stemming from the recognition of God’s ongoing real presence in our lives. Paul echoes this in Colossians 1:11, “We pray that you would be energized with all his explosive power from the realm of his magnificent glory, filling you with great hope.” Jesus is praying that believers everywhere from every Christian tradition will explode with magnificent glory because of his presence in our lives. Our lives then become not a theological encyclopedia, a social justice activist, but a mystical radiance of otherworldly presence. Then, for sure, the world will know that God came to earth, was risen, and now lives in each one of us in a manner that cannot be hidden. Our bodies then become a sacramental presence. Paul summarizes, “For he [Jesus] is the complete fullness of deity living in human form. And our own completeness is not found in him. We are completely filled with God as Christ’s fullness overflows within us.” (Colossians 2:9-10).

    To narrow the discussion of oneness to doctrinal agreement is to miss the point. To narrow the discussion of oneness to loving others is to get the cart before the horse. The point is a oneness because we belong to God, are indwell by him, and become the means of grace (a sacramental reality) through his presence in and through us. The emphasis is not on what we believe or what we do, but who he is now within us. We are the enactment of the Christmas story—God with us; God in us; God through us.

    1. Well said/typed John! If anything, as I like how Mike distinguishes the left hemisphere from the right, it’s “right hemisphere living” that lives in relationship in The Body of Christ. But just like you and me and Mike and brother Bob E, we’re stuck with “left hemisphere reading & writing” as we communicate these understandings. If only we had another way to communicate besides reading and writing ~ and it turns out that we do ~ living, loving, dying by faith. But oh we we love to type, don’t we?

    1. Again, well said John, in my opinion. Reading your concern to get Colossians right I did a quick read of it this morning and I’ll quote this part of chapter 3, vv. 12-17

      “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

      Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. (vv.14-15, isolated per my emphasis)

      Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

      With your emphasis, John, on Christ in us, it comes out in v.15. I wonder whether the putting on of love, in the verse before that, is between us and The Lord or between members of the church. Maybe it’s both. Of course I “fixed on” unity and oneness in vv.14-15. John, you and I could be proof that we’re two guys who would never run out of things to type or edit were we in a committee designed to examine or surrender to a single oneness in doctrinal unity. Mike’s podcast had to have some focus in its 30 minutes so with a focus on whether you pitch or keep left-over communion it’s still only 1% of the topics to be addressed in doctrinal oneness. My bet, given the odds of protestants coming up with something new every day, that there’s a “protestant” church keeping its communion because they’ve arrived at it being The Body & Blood of Christ like Mike’s church – and yet that’s just one mile in the 500 miles we’re all away from Mike’s preferences for complete oneness. With no offense intended, I just don’t think it’s the oneness Jesus meant. (see Col 3:12-17) Think about the spontenaity inherent in the canon – there’s no rhyme or reason to it at all – except in its adoption as canon. Proof-texting toward oneness in doctrine is built-in folly.

  4. Correction to a typo in my response: Paul summarizes, “For he [Jesus] is the complete fullness of deity living in human form. And our own completeness is now found in him. We are completely filled with God as Christ’s fullness overflows within us.” (Colossians 2:9-10).

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