A "Gathering Voices" Post by Don McKim
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this week. The “Steel City” is in the heartland of Presbyterianism and is home to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which traces its roots back to Service Seminary, founded in 1794. Pittsburgh was also the city in which the 1958 merger of the Presbyterian Church in North America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America took place. So it is a fitting setting for a PC(USA) General Assembly, the actions of which will be much-watched throughout the denomination and by the ecumenical church.
Presbyterian General Assemblies used to argue about Christian doctrine. Important social pronouncements have also been made by Assemblies. Not all have looked on Presbyterian Assemblies with benevolence. In the nineteenth-century, the disaffected revivalist, former Presbyterian Charles G. Finney, memorably stated, in relation to various heresy trials against New Side Presbyterian ministers: “These things in the Presbyterian church, their contentions and janglings are so ridiculous, so wicked, so outrageous, that no doubt there is a jubilee in hell every year about the time of the meeting of the General Assembly.” At least the Assemblies now meet only every other year!
But General Assemblies do serious business. They set directions, issue statements, and enact provisions that affect the lives of churches, clergy, and members. With a number of important issues on tap for this General Assembly, what happens in Pittsburgh will be significant.
What is also significant is that whatever happens in Pittsburgh, or doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh is an expression of the unity of the church that is essentially theological in nature.
The ecumenical church—the whole household of God—is united in Jesus Christ. Despite theological differences, we are “one church” when it comes to confessing our faith in the triune God who is known to us in Jesus Christ. “The church’s one foundation” is Jesus Christ and that is a foundation that cannot be shaken. It also provides a unity that cannot be broken.
Within a Christian denomination, there is also a theological unity—which should be honored and in front of us always. It is the bond that unites the church, even in the midst of the diversities and divisions which can arise. It is a unity which should be pursued as a focus since it is the basis on which all ecclesiology is built. There are times when this unity is subjugated to party interests and factionalism. There are those who do not follow the ordination vow to promote the peace and unity of the church. But through it all, the theological unity of the church stands. The broader unity of the Christian church prevails even when denominations themselves may fall into gross apostasy or heresy. Those who would fracture the body of Christ, within denominations, take on themselves the responsibility of answering for why they have not sought to maintain the unity of the church, in all situations.
A few years ago I wrote an essay, “Reformed Foundations for the Unity of the Church in the Contemporary World.” In it, I looked a lot at Calvin’s thought on the unity of the church. Among much else, Calvin emphasized that the unity of the church is a unity in faith. He wrote on Ephesians 4:5, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”:
Whenever you read this word ‘one’ here, understand it as emphatic, as if he said ‘Christ cannot be divided; faith cannot be rent; there are not various baptisms, but one common to all; God cannot be divided into parts.’ Therefore it behooves us to cultivate among ourselves a holy unity, composed of many bonds. Faith, and baptism, and God the Father, and Christ, ought to unite us, so that we coalesce, as it were, into one [person]….The unity of the faith, which is here mentioned, depends on the one eternal truth of God, on which it is founded.
On 1 Corinthians 1:13, “Has Christ been divided?” Calvin wrote: “We ought to be one body, if we split into different bodies we also break away from Him;” Christ “reigns in our midst, only when He is the means of binding us together in an inviolable union.” The “purpose of the Gospel,” after all, “is that we might be reconciled to God through Him.” This reconciliation demands “that we should all be bound together in Him.”
Hard decisions are made when theological issues are involved. As things continue to shake out in various denominations during these fractious times, let us keep in front of us this primary conviction about the unbreakable unity of the church. The church’s unity is a theological unity, grounded in Jesus Christ.
 Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 156.
 Donald K. McKim, “Reformed Foundations for the Unity of the Church in the Contemporary World,” Ecumenical and Eclectic: The Unity of the Church in the Contemporary World, Essays in Honour of Alan P.F. Sell, ed. Anna M. Robbins, Studies in Christian History and Thought (Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2007), 7-23.
 John Calvin, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T.H.L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 12 vols., rpt. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), Comm. On Ephesians 4:5, 11:172-173.