On Malaysia’s national crest is the motto, “Bersekutu bertambah mutu”-roughly translated, “United we are better”. This is not an empty slogan. Unity is the central theme of Malaysia’s founding narrative. Malaysia is a federation of thirteen states, each with vastly different histories and demographics. Ours is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse nations on the planet.
Unlike many multi-ethnic postcolonial states, Malaysia has been largely successful at forming a stable, prosperous nation out of communities that do not have a lot in common. I am very grateful for the privilege of growing up here, and having to learn to love and respect my neighbor, even when that neighbor looks different, thinks different, and lives different.
There is a lot of fragmentation even in Malaysia’s small Christian minority. I was raised in the Anglican church, but I had a lot of extended family members who were Roman Catholic. My favorite ice cream shop was run by the Seventh Day Adventists. And there were churches around town belonging to every denomination imaginable.
Having grown up in this environment, I considered this state of affairs to be natural, even good. With this wide array of Christian churches, it was easy to find one that fit your particular worship style and theological inclination, and to be with people you liked and who made you comfortable.
Nevertheless, it was difficult to reconcile this reality with how strongly the Bible talks about the importance of church unity:
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
That last quote in particular- the prayer of Jesus for his followers in John 17:20-21, speaks of unity in the strongest terms. Many years ago Malaysian bar council member Andrew Khoo spoke to my church youth group about this passage, and he pointed out that the unity Jesus said he wanted between his followers was the same kind of unity that exists within the Holy Trinity. How then can our panoply of churches, each professing a different version of the Gospel, each completely unaccountable to the other, fulfill Christ’s desire for unity within the church?
The invisible church doctrine is a Protestant attempt to reconcile the contradictions between the scriptural teaching about church unity and the fact that Protestantism by definition divides the church. The invisible church supposedly consists of all “true” Christians, each worshiping in the various denominations. Membership of this invisible church is known only to God. Thus, despite the readily apparent divisions among Protestants, they could claim that within this “invisible church” they were united!
I used to ascribe to this doctrine, and its problems only slowly became apparent to me. Firstly, this unity within this invisible church did not mean anything in practice. My pastor could teach doctrine on Sundays completely independently and without accountability to the pastor across the street. The churches might emphasize such different parts of Christianity that they might seem to be of different religions. I did not have to submit to, sacrifice for, or even talk to members of these other churches. In fact the reason that I chose my church might be because I did not like people in that other church and wanted to avoid them.
At that time, I thought that a visible unity among Christians was an unachievable ideal, and that the abstract unity of the invisible church was the best we could do. I realized eventually that for the first thousand years of Christianity the church was concretely united, and that this united church still exists as the Eastern Orthodox Church. I can go to an Arab Orthodox church in Texas and a Russian church in Malaysia and while the music, language and iconography styles might differ according to the local culture, the liturgy and doctrine will be identical. I have to practice loving and to submitting to people I don’t like and whose opinions I find abhorrent, and in doing so I learn how to show mercy when others hurt me, and discover that I need mercy when I hurt them.
The unity within Orthodoxy is not perfect, of course. I have been in Orthodox churches that have been torn apart by vicious fighting, and even among the leadership of the church the Patriarchs and bishops occasionally disagree over various matters. Nevertheless, by the grace of God there is a tangible, beautiful unity here, where the leaders of the church are accountable to one another in concrete ways, and where we all have to try to love one another, to submit to one another, to suffer for one another out of reverence for Christ. Bersekutu bertambah mutu.