Last summer I had a small group in my home that got together to study the history of Christianity. One of the most interesting sessions for me was the one where we focused on the Protestant Reformation. As someone who finds his theological identity rooted in various aspects of the Protestant movement, I made the comment that, despite Martin Luther’s faults, God has used him in great ways. Much to my surprise at the time (though, looking back, I am not sure why I did not expect this response), a number of people in my group who were Catholics, or at least had a Catholic background, asserted that Luther was wrong to persist in his rebellion against the Catholic Church, because he sacrificed the unity of the Christ’s body in order to advance his own theological ideals and reforms. Certainly Luther was not then, nor is he now, looked upon favourably by Catholics, who tend to view him as a schismatic who thought little of the unity of the faithful. In some ways, I understand and perhaps even sympathize with this position.
The Nicene Creed reminds us that, as orthodox Christians, we believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. My Catholic friends took the “one” part very seriously, and the need to remain as one can therefore conceivably trump other concerns. I, on the other hand, have been accustomed to take the “holy” part more seriously, and so would assert that where there is corruption or doctrinal error in the Church, sometimes the best thing to do is to break away from that. The “holy” part takes precedence, and this appears to be the historical stance of most Protestants, if the constant proliferation of Protestant splinter groups and church splits is any indication.
I do not believe that either Protestant or Catholic believers intend to elevate one of the Nicean adjectives over the other. We desire to be both “one” and “holy.” But when the rubber meets the road, which consideration takes precedence? I doubt we even think much about this, especially since most evangelical believers have never recited or perhaps even read the Nicene creed, though it is fairly firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness of many denominations.
Certainly there are problems with favouring “holy” over “one” or vice versa: to favour being one over being holy is to allow the possibility of serious corruption to destroy the witness and effectiveness of the church; but strangely enough, to sacrifice unity for the sake of purity does much the same thing — few people are kindly disposed to a Protestantism that is fractured into so many different denominations, each one being zealous to stake out its own territory. “If these people cannot love one another and get along (isn’t love what Jesus is all about?), then I don’t want anything to do with that,” some might say. On the other hand, a Church where people don’t live according to the command of God (not to say that the Catholic Church of the present is like this) and forsake convictions in order to appease everyone and make sure we all play nice, stands for little and is ultimately uninspiring and unhelpful.
Is there a middle road? Historically, we haven’t seen a lot of it, I will admit. Will we in the near future? I wish I knew. But for now, being aware of our own tendencies to move to one side or the other, to favour holiness over unity or unity over holiness, is the beginning of being more fair-handed and fair-minded.