Throughout history there have been movements that have sought to bring the body of Christ together so that it might reflect the unity that is envisioned by this text. Sometimes these efforts have been imposed by governments who stand to benefit from such a unified religious body. Constantine sought this, as did Charlemagne, and many other rulers. The ecumenical movement that emerged in full force in the 20th century sought to overcome the theological and ecclesial differences that separate the various ecclesial bodies, but these efforts have never been totally successful because human beings seem to want their autonomy -- besides there are vested interests that make it difficult for even the best intentioned leaders to let go.
My own tradition, the Disciples of Christ, was born on the frontier as a movement to bring unity to the body of Christ. It resisted the creation of institutional structures, finally becoming a "denomination" at the very time being a "denomination" was going out of style! Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, which was issued in 1809, sought to offer a pathway to Christian unity that called for the adoption of simple Christianity. Things didn't prove as simple as our movement hoped, but we remain committed to the goal.
Because of my own commitment to ecumenism, I am always interested in efforts that seek to build bridges across theological, ideological, and institutional lines. Therefore, I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of a conference that begins today in Raleigh, North Carolina. The conference takes the name "Big Tent Christianity." It's being led by Philip Clayton, who also developed the Theology after Google conference that I participated in last March. It has a good roster of speakers, and at least one Disciple appears to be in the mix.
The premise underlying this conference is articulated by Philip in this way:
“[It is] urgent … to reclaim a Big Tent Christianity, a centrist return to ‘just Christian’ in word and action. The two poles are driving each other ever further apart, spawning ever deeper hostilities. The solution — in American society as in the church — certainly is not to let the other’s anger fuel my own. As leaders it’s our task to help break the cycle of anger, of rejection leading to rejection, and to foster a radically different understanding of the heart of Christian faith.”
I'm not at the conference, but I look forward to hearing what comes forth from it. I am hopeful that there is a way for us to come together and have conversations that are fruitful and lead to empowered action, even if we don't all agree on the particulars at every point. The issue we'll have to continue wrestling with concerns how we define what is essential. The premise that has often guided conversations like this is reputed to have been stated by a 16th century reformer named Rupert Meldinius. It goes like this: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity (love)." The struggle we've had all these years is determining what is essential and non-essential. Of course we've also struggled with the question of charity as well (on all sides of the debates).