This is the second article in our Christian Unity Series.
Christian unity is foremost unity established through Christ. More specifically it is participation in the unity of the Trinity: “That they also may be one in Us.” Christ gives this to those believing in Him: “And the glory which You have given to Me, I have given to them, so that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; so that they may be perfected in unity.” So Christian unity is something received from Christ in union with the Trinity.
When we speak of union with the Trinity, this is effected through union with Christ and becoming members of the household of God, the Church, and forming one Body. They are built onto the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. So the unity of the those united to Christ is seen in the formation of one Body or one Church, which is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. Christian unity, then, is the the gathering of the faithful in one Body or Church.
The Church is manifest in each location as those gathered around the one bishop and presbyters in that location because, in gathering with the bishop and presbyters, one gathers with Christ and the Apostles as tangibly manifest in that location through the bishop and presbyters. So Christian unity is gathering with the bishop and presbyters of the Church in their particular location. Because there is only one Christ and one Church, there is only one such gathering in each place, and this gathering must then be of the whole catholic Church in that place, because there are no parts of the Church apart from this gathering.
The bishops in turn are united to each other through synods. Christian unity moving from the local level is expressed through the unity of the bishops with each other in synods in the region, and then the unity of those synods with key, central churches that became known as patriarchates, with a special place accorded to the See of Rome to cap off the unity. Apart from this union of bishops, each heading whole churches, there is said to be no Church, because there are is no Church beyond each bishop in each location, thus no Church beyond the gathering of all the bishops.
These bishops, being themselves built on the foundation of the Apostles, partake in Apostolic Succession, which affirms that they are bishops of the Church founded on the Apostles. From all this we get the name: “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
Unity is also expressed in unity of faith, one faith. Thus, Christian unity presupposes one faith, being of the same mind and same opinion without division. This unity of faith is also linked to truth, and the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Thus, the one faith has an accuracy to it in regard to the truth. There are not many truths because there is only one faith, so one truth also. This is grounded in one God through Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This then gives rise to the term orthodox for those holding this one faith, because truth affords a level of correctness to the faith held and practised.
Thus, we can also speak of the Orthodox Church to express being the Church holding the one faith in truth. So Christian unity is expressed as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, also known as the Orthodox Church or Catholic Church.
The unity of members to the Church being grounded in faith is also effected through baptism and Eucharist and maintained through the obedient following of the Christian way of life. Baptism and Eucharist are necessary with faith so that there is unity both in mind and body, because humans are of dual nature; there is a real physical sense of being one Body and not only a metaphorical sense.
There is also need for the Holy Spirit, which is received at baptism through Chrismation and maintained through prayer and living the Christian way of life. Thus, Christian unity is also seen as those faithful who are baptised, partaking of the Eucharist, having the Holy Spirit, and following the Christian way of life.
To summarise this brief outline, when one speaks of Christian unity, one is speaking of the Church. More specifically, one is speaking of the Orthodox Catholic Church. Apart from the Catholic Church there is no Christian unity, but only division and separation. So Christian Unity is only to be found in being part of the Orthodox Catholic Church. Even more, one can ask the question of what meaning is there to saying that one is Christian apart from the Catholic Church, and so apart from Christ. One cannot properly take the name of Christ if one is not united with Him. Hence, the name Christian, in its full sense, only belongs to those united to Christ in the Church.
So we cannot speak of uniting Christians, as if they can exist in various divided bodies or churches or even alone apart from a communion; being a Christian is already to be partaking in the unity of the Catholic Church. Those claiming to be Christians apart from the unity of the Church are rather mistaken in their self-identity. In seeking their union into Christ, one then needs to then ascertain the reason why they are not presently in communion with the Church and then to help them come into the Church, if they are willing to come into the unity of faith and to gather with the local bishop and live in obedience to the Christian way of life.
(Note: this does not exclude one from saying that those separated from the Church share a large portion of the Christian faith or way of life, or that in comparison to those who share little or nothing of this that it may be appropriate to apply the name Christian to them; but, in the context of Christian unity, the name Christian only properly applies to those already sharing this unity with the Church.)
Rev. Dr. John (Patrick) Ramsey holds a PhD from the University of Winchester. He is a hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia in the UK, and tutors for the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge.