The Unity in Diversity of the Undivided Early Church
“By this all men will know that you are [Christians], if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus prayed to His Father “that all [Christians] may be one. . . so that the world may believe that You have sent me. . . May [Christians] be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.” (John 17:21-23)
All Christians agree that Jesus founded only one Church, His Body, and prayed for its unity. Thus, although many Christians have sadly given up hope on the reunification of today’s divided Christian Church, most Christians still agree that the (often unloving) divisions among Christians are a scandal, one which obviously mars the beauty of the Body of Christ the Church on Earth and one which in fact makes the Church as a whole much less effective at attracting people to Jesus whose Body we are. The world of people who need to know Jesus to be saved, the world which groans under the damage of human beings fighting with each other because they do not recognize each other as brothers created by one loving Father, is much less inclined to believe that the Christian Church has the answer to the world’s problems when Christians fight amongst themselves as we have for centuries. When Christians also do not recognize each other as brothers created (and redeemed) by one loving Father (and His Only Begotten Son) and so do not display that family love for each other for the world to see – the world understandably finds itself not motivated to believe.
The Undivided Early Christian Church was united in the following essential Christian Faith, which the Early Church from across the ancient world had gradually “hammered out” and clarified in detail through centuries of conflicts with heretics within the Church over Bible Canon and Bible interpretation, conflicts over interpretation which were settled through the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Ecumenical (worldwide) Councils and other undisputed major local Councils of ordained Christian leaders. This essential Christian Faith is still held in common today by the Catholic Church in its Western and Eastern Rites and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, all of which consider the Early Church Councils to have irrevocably identified and established the norms of Christian Faith. This essential Christian Faith is also still held by those Western, Protestant churches (including Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Fundamentalist churches) which are “doctrinally conservative,” conserving the essential Christian faith of the Early Church, though not necessarily (or not with absolute certainty) held by those Protestant churches which are “doctrinally liberal.” This means that today’s divided Catholic, Orthodox, and (conservative) Protestant churches already have a tremendous common ground from which to actively seek to gradually restore the lost unity of the one Body of Christ which Jesus prayed for “so that the world may believe” in Him when it sees the love of Christians for “one another.” This common faith is:
The Great Common Faith of Catholic, Orthodox, and Conservative/Evangelical Protestant Christianity Which is the Basis for Restored Christian Unity in Diversity
the One God, Creator of the Universe, who is Love, exists as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God the Son in Jesus Christ through Mary’s Virgin Birth, making Jesus fully God and fully man, able to make Atonement for the sins of all humanity, which He did by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead so that humanity can be forgiven and saved (and find human fulfillment) through Him; we acquire this forgiveness from sin and salvation unto eternal life through, drawn and empowered by God’s Grace, our turning away from sin (anti-love), accepting what Jesus has done for us and coming into loving, saving relationship with Him (and His Father and Holy Spirit) through belief and baptism, as He taught (Mark 16:16), which makes us members of the one Body of Christ the Church; Jesus’ literal Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven; Jesus’ future return in glory and judgement and the bodily resurrection of all the dead; the tenets of traditional Christian morality (described in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, among other passages of Scripture) as how to be loving and so how to please the God who is Love; the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures which testify to all these things.
The above common Christian beliefs are the wonderful, life-changing, saving truths of Christianity which “turned the world upside down” in barbaric times and transformed the ancient world with God’s Love, truths which still make Catholic, Orthodox, and Conservative/ Evangelical Protestant Christians brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus and instruments of God’s salvation in the world. (for more commentary on this Common Creed of Christianity, see the Creed Tab above the website header)
The Undivided Early Church Called Itself the Catholic Church Because it Was a Catholic (Greek for Universal) Communion of Orthodox Christian “Sister Churches” United Against the Unorthodox Heretics in Common Saving Christian Faith
It is common knowledge, even among most Protestant Christians, that the Undivided Early Church, that one Church founded by Jesus which initially lived the unity Jesus prayed for, called itself the Catholic Church. But unfortunately a great majority of the members of all the branches of divided Christianity, including most Roman Catholic Christians (though not minority Eastern Catholic Christians), eventually lost sight of what being a Catholic Church meant in the Undivided Early Church (the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council II, cited below, has officially restored the lost understanding to the Catholic Church, though the Council’s directives have not yet been fully implemented in the minds and hearts of all Roman Catholics, which will take time).
The Undivided Early Church was never a single, monolithic, uniform Church where all Christians expressed and practiced their above common saving Christian faith in exactly the same way. The Undivided Early Church was instead a Catholic (Greek for Universal) Communion of different Eastern and Western Rites or “Sister Churches” sharing common orthodox, saving Christian faith, which they each expressed in a great diversity of different doctrines and theologies and which they celebrated in practice according to different worship and devotional customs or rites which mutually enriched all the different Sister Churches within that one, united, Catholic (Universal) Church, God’s Family of different culturally-based Sister Churches wherein each member of the Family has something to contribute to the Family as a whole. The fundamental tenets of this one Christian Church’s faith came to be articulated in a more intellectually precise way which helped the Church as a whole to grow in its understanding of what it held in faith only through the pooling of the different theological insights of the different, united orthodox Christian Sister Churches at the Ecumenical (worldwide) Councils of the Undivided Early Catholic Church. These early Ecumenical Councils also formally recognized the complete Christian validity and legitimacy of the different worship and devotional and other practices and customs of the different culturally-based orthodox Sister Churches by declaring the ordained overseers (or bishops or eparchs)2 of the major center of each culture to be patriarchs, the whole Christian Church being organized into different Patriarchates or Sister Churches under each patriarch’s jurisdiction (the Patriarch keeping the Christians under him, and their particular cultural expressions of Christian faith and worship, which changed with time and circumstance, accountable to the orthodox Christian faith). So the Undivided Early Catholic Christian Church lived a mutually enriching unity in diversity wherein the entire Universal Church of Jesus Christ was united in common faith articulated in common dogma (fundamental doctrine) which was hammered out together in the Ecumenical Councils, a common faith expressed in a great diversity of different secondary doctrines and theological approaches and celebrated in a great diversity of different worship and devotional customs through which the infinite richness of God’s Revelation was better and more fully displayed than any one Sister Church could display alone. Only much later, with a distinct lack of Christian charity, would some of the Sister Churches start acting like their one cultural response to and expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was “better” than others, becoming the instruments of Satan (which literally means the Accuser) by accusing other Sister Churches of being wrong for being different – even over silly things like whether clergy were clean-shaven (the Western custom) or bearded (the Eastern custom), or just what kind of bread was used for Holy Communion/Eucharist. Some of the very same differences which were mutually enriching in the Undivided First Millennium Church were later ridiculously cited as errors and heresies and reasons to break the Christian Communion.
This kind of mutually enriching unity in diversity which actually existed in the Undivided Early Catholic (Universal) Church is what God intended to bring about from the very beginning when He commanded the descendants of Adam to “fill the Earth” and when He made sure they did so by scattering the nations of humanity from the Tower of Babel, ensuring that His human creation, separated by language and geography, would develop into different cultures which, when restored in Christ Jesus, would each have a different perspective upon the infinitely rich Divine Revelation of God in Jesus Christ the Living Word of God and upon the Written Word of God the Bible. These different perspectives upon Divine Revelation among those different “Sister Churches” of those adopted into God’s Family the Catholic Church, pooled together, would ensure the most complete understanding of and the most rich and full expression of God’ Revelation. And thus it was that the major centers of the first five cultures to be renewed in Jesus Christ and the territories they each influenced were declared at the Early Ecumenical Councils to be Patriarchates of the one Universal (Catholic) Church of Jesus Christ, the overseer (bishop or eparch) of each one called a patriarch, and these different Patriarchates (Rites or Sister Churches headed by a patriarch) would together hammer out in clear and concise manner the fundamental doctrines or dogmas of traditional, orthodox, supernaturally empowering Christianity3 which we know today, and they would for over a thousand years maintain a unity in this faith expressed in a great diversity of different and mutually enriching Eastern and Western culturally-based expressions of this one Christian faith.
The ancient “Pentarchy” of five major cultural centers renewed in Christ whose patriarchs each headed an orthodox Christian Sister Church in the Catholic Christian Communion were Jerusalem (center of the Jewish culture), Antioch (center of the Syrian culture), Alexandria (center of the Egyptian culture), Rome (center of the Roman culture), and Constantinople (or Byzantium, center of the Greek culture). These ancient Patriarchates, Sister Churches or “Mother Rites” of the Universal (Catholic) Church of Jesus Christ would have mission territories which eventually became their “daughter Rites” or “daughter Churches,” as the new cultures each ancient Patriarchate sent missionaries to came to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ and were also eventually renewed in Christ as a culture4, eventually forming their own distinct cultural response to and expression of the Gospel which still strongly reflected the ways of their “Mother Rite” through whom they had heard the Gospel.5 When these former mission territories of the older Sister Churches were mature enough in their organization and in their distinct orthodox cultural expression of the Gospel (or “Rite”) they became younger “Sister Churches” in their own right, and some of them eventually became also known as Patriarchates, a term which implies venerable age and historic contribution to the Universal (Catholic) Christian Church (the original Pentarchy of five Patriarchates, whose missionary activity birthed all others, remaining always honored as the oldest Sister Churches with the most foundational contribution to the Universal Christian Church).
The whole of this ancient Catholic Church made up of different Sister Churches was greater than the sum of its parts, and the ordained overseers (bishops or eparchs and patriarchs) of the different Sister Churches in the Catholic Communion of Orthodox Sister Churches (together with the pope as chief overseer who was also the Patriarch of the Roman Sister Church) pooled their different insights which came from their different cultural perspectives upon their commonly-held Divine Revelation in order to most clearly and concisely articulate the essentials of their common Christian faith in the above set of common irreformable fundamental doctrines or dogmas still held by the divided Catholic, Orthodox, and Conservative/ Evangelical Protestant churches of today. The different worship and devotional customs of each Sister Church emphasized different aspects of the commonly-held Divine Revelation, such that much more of God’s truth was more clearly expressed and displayed in all of the united Sister Churches taken together than in any one Rite or Sister Church alone.6 To see how the entire Bible actually deliberately leads up to the formation of this kind of Undivided Early Catholic Christian Church, see Volume I Chapters 3 and 4 of So That The World May Believe, and for much more information yet see my book The Bible’s “Big Picture”: Using “Family Theology” to Understand the Single Overarching Story Told Throughout the Scriptures, Which Makes the Bible Our Family History as Christians.
Although the clearly-expressed doctrine of the papacy developed over time, as did the clearly-expressed fundamental Christian doctrine of Jesus as “fully God and fully man,” since the Early Church’s faith was often initially more instinctive and implicit and only gradually became more articulate and explicit, from the beginning a key feature of the Undivided Early Church, that Universal or Catholic Communion of orthodox Eastern and Western Christian Sister Churches, was the papacy, which played an integral role in the Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Early Church.
© 2005, 2009 Peter William John Baptiste SFO
2All of these titles are translations of the New Testament Greek title of episkopos, given to those the Apostles ordained to lead the local churches after them.
3When I use the term “supernaturally empowering” to define traditional, orthodox Christianity, as I do occasionally, I primarily have in mind the fact that Christians through their relationship with Jesus Christ and His indwelling Holy Spirit by whom they are adopted by God the Father, have direct access to God the Holy Trinity of Love who is the Source of all love, life, and power in the universe, and drawing from this super-natural (“above nature”) Source gives Christians the power to live victorious and eminently meaningful lives on Earth. It is drawing from this infinite and super-natural Source of God who dwells with them that has given Christians the power to change both their own lives and even the course of human history for the better. This is the super-natural Source of the wonderful joy that Christians can have even in great adversity, this is the super-natural Source of the love that Christians display in and pour out upon the world, which transformed the brutal ancient world (before Christianity the “popular entertainment” or “television” of the civilized ancient world was torture and murder in the Roman arenas!) and which continues to change people’s hearts, conquer addictions, and bring peace to the troubled soul. However, although my primary meaning when I refer to the “supernaturally empowering” orthodox Christian faith is referring to that super-natural Presence of God which Christians live with which fills them with such love and courage for victorious living if they cooperate with it, I also have in mind the fact that this God who indwells Christians also gives them particular supernatural charisms or gifts described in the Bible (on a regular or occasional basis) and even occasionally uses them as His instruments in performing first-order miracles which temporarily bend or suspend the laws of nature He wrote.
4In Matthew 28 Jesus commanded His followers to “baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and in the ancient world the word nations meant civilizations, cultures. This is exactly what the early Christians did. Each nation, each culture, which had developed according to God’s plan of humanity filling the Earth and being scattered over it after Babel, was eventually “baptized” and became a distinct culturally-based Rite of the Christian Church, after enough of its members had converted to Christianity and gradually reformed their culture according to the norms of the Gospel of the Holy Trinity of Love.
5For example, the many daughter churches of the ancient Greek Byzantine Rite of Constantinople (originally Byzantium) still worship according to the ancient liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (before Constantinople was declared a Patriarchate and its bishop a patriarch), though they also each have distinctive Christian cultural practices and customs, such as the Byzantine Ukrainian Rite’s use of pussy willows instead of palms for Palm Sunday celebrations (which is called “Willow Sunday”), since genuine palms were not available in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Christians found the pussy willows particularly symbolic for the Paschal (Easter) season, since at about that time every year the apparently dead branches of the willow suddenly budded, bursting forth with new life, as the dead Christ in the tomb suddenly burst forth with new life on Easter Sunday.
In the West, the one Patriarchate of the Roman Rite tended not to form distinct new cultural daughter churches as much as the East, because Rome was a multi-cultural city in the first place and its Rite was much more flexible and changeable because of this. Also, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Roman missionaries had both Christianized and civilized the barbarians, meaning that all of Western Europe (and its later colonies around the world) had a common cultural baseline. It was more common in the West for distinct Roman daughter Rites which emerged to be absorbed into the mainstream Roman Rite, but leave their lasting impact upon it. In this way the Celtic and Gallican Rites never became distinct Sister Churches but did leave their lasting mark on the mainstream Roman Rite. Other distinct Roman daughter Rites which might have become formal Roman daughter churches were sadly lost to Catholic Communion. The distinct North African Church of Saint Augustine was completely destroyed by barbarian and then Muslim invasion, and the Church of England was effectively the Roman Anglican Rite of the Catholic Church, with the Archbishop of Canterbury functioning as its patriarch, before the schism of Henry VIII. Some tiny Roman daughter Rites do still exist, such as the Ambrosian, Mozaribic and Bragan Rites, and the newly recognized Zairean Rite in Africa.
6For one example, the Western, Roman Church generally emphasizes the Passion and Death of Jesus, while the Eastern, Byzantine Church generally emphasizes the Resurrection of Jesus and Eternal Life. Their worship spaces reflect these different emphases. Roman Catholic church sanctuaries emphasize the Passion and Death by having a crucifix, a cross with an icon of Jesus crucified, front and center, with the “Stations of the Cross,” pictures or relief sculptures detailing Jesus’ journey to the cross, on the sides of the sanctuary. Byzantine Catholic (and Orthodox) church sanctuaries typically have an icon (often a mosaic) of the resurrected Jesus front and center, and on the huge high dome of a traditional Byzantine Church, and the iconostas at the front which represents heaven, where the Saints dwell with God in Eternal Life. Both the Passion and Death of Jesus and the Resurrection and Eternal Life are important aspects of Christian faith, so the Christian faith is more fully expressed and celebrated by these different Sister Churches taken together than by either of them alone. Protestant Christian churches show their parentage in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church they left because the historical Protestant denominations typically have a cross (usually without the icon of Jesus suffering on it) front and center in their worship spaces – recalling Jesus’ death on the cross just like Roman Catholic churches do. In many other ways Protestants emphasize the same aspects of the Christian faith the Roman Catholic Church does while the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches emphasize different aspects, so Protestant churches are essentially Roman “daughter churches” which are no longer on good speaking terms with their Roman “Mother Rite,” though the family resemblance is unmistakable.