So the Pope recently said (I can’t find the reference; likely it was in Turkey) that the divisions in Christianity are a scandal. They are a scandal, but not in the sense usually assumed. People tend to think that the very fact that there are different denominations is scandalous, and must, therefore, be overcome in any way possible. Even when pure ecumenism is not the goal, and conditions are put on the (re)uniting of Christian denominations, the divisions among Christians are not discussed adequately.
In order to see my point, imagine having a discussion with an unbeliever who is critical of Christianity because Christians can’t even decide among themselves what is true or right. This discussion likely will lead to reddened faces and embarrassed stutters. But what is it that is so embarrassing about the divisions in Christianity, and if it is simple embarrassment, why has there been no solution? Instead, the divisions grow.
This comes out most disturbingly for some people with regard to Holy Communion. The embarrassment is so great that most Christians (at least with reference to percentages of denominations, not to percentages of Christians overall) find closed Communion a painful anachronism.
I think one way of understanding the divisions within Christianity is by way of analogy to an extended family. Within a given family, there can easily arise divisions that make it impossible even to eat at the same table together. To someone outside the family, these divisions may appear unnecessary, and even within the family some may be embarrassed when confronted with this fact by an outsider. Nonetheless, the outsider cannot begin to understand what led to the division. Similarly, it is irrelevant what unbelievers think about the state of Christianity.
It will be objected that it certainly is relevant when the offense of the unbeliever could prevent his salvation. But the offense is at the divisions themselves, without any understanding whatsoever of the cause of the divisions. Of course the divisions will appear unintelligible! On the other hand, perhaps the analogy of the family can provide an explanatory device for conversation with an unbeliever. Churches, like families (since they both consist of sinful, selfish people), are not perfect. Sometimes things happen in the family of God, as unfortunate as it is, that necessitate separation. This obviously does not begin to solve the problem of which side is right in a family dispute, but it does show that what might not be understandable to the outsider is nevertheless important.
What I am suggesting is that family divisions are inevitable (among sinful people) and the only way to resolve the difficulty is with conversation that does not paper over the real causes of the division. This conversation will sometimes be heated or even angry, but, as in the analogical family, the serious, hard conversation is absolutely necessary. Perhaps our Christian family will never be united this side of the One whose Body the Church is, but ultimately that Body cannot be but one, if she has one Head.
The scandal of division is not found in the embarrassment it brings because of outsider criticism; it is found in the Church’s neglect of the hard work of realistic conversation over her differences. We cannot be reduced to the level of the culture around us, fighting its battles with soundbites and baseless rhetoric. And so we pray both for unity and the coming of the Christ who will bring to light the unity we have in Him. A fitting thought for Advent, I think.