Melancholy Musings on Friendship: Striving for Unity & Opposing Sectarianism

Feast of the Veneration of the Apostle Peter's Chains

Fr_B__Jim_and_Christopher_Square.jpegI HAVE BEEN Catholic now for a bit more than thirteen years. The estrangement from old friends, church families, and institutions has been difficult for me. Some of those relationships are just now really beginning to show any sign of healing. Some of them, because of things like the pesky interference of the limits of mortal life, never will, at least on this side of eternity.

This is not an apologia. I don’t think I can really offer any satisfactory reasons for my family’s decision to join the Catholic Church. But I do want to share how God, after leading us through a long period in the wilderness, has proven faithful to us by restoring a robust experience of Christ’s Body at Eighth Day Institute.

I have always maintained that Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Restoration Movement that I grew up in, gave me the impetus to become Catholic. He was deeply disturbed by sectarianism. With his father and Barton W. Stone, he decided to try to “do church” without a denominational structure as a kind of antidote to the widespread hyper-denominationalism of that day and age. These words from his The Christian System are illustrative: “In what moral desolation is the kingdom of Jesus Christ! Was there at any time, or is there now, in all the earth, a kingdom more convulsed by internal broils and dissensions than what is commonly called the church of Jesus Christ?”

The slogan of the Christian Evangelist, an early Campbellite publication, was: “In faith, unity; in opinions and methods, liberty; in all things, charity.” The genius of the movement that I grew up in was the stubborn attempt to promote the unity of the Body of Christ by means of the revealed truth of God’s Word.

To be sure, there are whole gobs of Campbellite lessons that I came to deeply disagree with, but this intense desire for unity in the Body of Christ, and the horror inspired by the scandal of division, I still relate to on a visceral level. As I prepared to begin my own ministry, it seemed to me that above all else, this was our justification for the existence of our movement. And eventually, perhaps ironically, years later my wife and I came to believe that God was calling us to a radical expression of the Christian unity pursued by our spiritual forefathers by embracing full communion with the Catholic Church. After months of study about what the Catholic Church actually believed and practiced, we concluded that, although at that time there was a whole lot there that we personally didn’t want to participate in or even agree with, there wasn’t really enough to keep us separated.

When we made this decision, our purpose was originally to maintain fellowship in both spheres of our ecclesial experience. Looking back, I am fairly shocked by how naïve we were. We honestly thought that, since denominationalism was so anathema to the churches that we grew up in, it wouldn’t matter what church community we were fellowshipping with, as long as it was historically orthodox. In fact, we had actually been supported by these churches to minister in a congregation overseas that was not a part of our movement, based on the rationale that it seemed better to strengthen what had already been planted than to pour our energies into starting a rival faith community. Now we wanted to broaden our fellowship to include the Catholic Church. To us, this made sense, because we had become convinced that it had existed before the rise of Protestant denominations. It was, in a sense, the original non-denominational Church. In fact, that’s kind of what “Catholic” means. Surely we could explain this to old mentors, professors and friends in a way they could understand, if not fully endorse.

We were sadly mistaken. I had not anticipated that for our old friends, the Catholic Church would not be seen as another non-denominational fellowship; rather, it was the mother of denominations. While we thought we were pursuing Campbellite aspirations of unity, we were viewed as arrogant upstarts who had thrown our lot in with the very emblem of sectarianism.

A particularly important mentor of mine pulled me aside to warn me about the consequences of our decision. “You have to know, Matt,” he said, “that if you go through with this, it’s going to change everything. We’ll always care deeply for you. But you won’t be family anymore.”

This was about the same time that Revenge of the Sith came out, and someone actually cited Obi-Wan’s line to Anakin to me: “It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. You were to bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!” Yeah. It was that apocalyptic. We had gone and joined the Sith.

And that’s how it wound up that we really only had meaningful Christian fellowship with Catholics for the next ten years. It happened with a brutal suddenness. Now we were just Catholic. I actually avoided contact with non-Catholics. It was too complicated. My personal hope for unity in the Body of Christ faded and was eventually shelved.

And then, a few years ago, through the intervention of a Catholic friend, I wound up at a Hall of Men meeting. There happened to be a youth minister from my old Restoration Movement there. AND HE WAS DRINKING BEER!!! I made a crack about how that would have gotten me fired back when I was a minister. That naturally raised some questions, and before long we were having a beautiful discussion about all sorts of things related to the Christian faith. I didn’t feel like I was being put on the defensive once. And I was hooked.

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Eighth Day Institute is everything I had hoped for back when we became Catholic. It is a safe place for Christians from all sorts of different confessions to have real, honest discussions, not for the sake of proselytizing one another to their own particular sect, but to better understand their faith—both the parts that they share in common, as well as those bits that are more exotic or specific to their own communities. Together, we talk about what we have in common, and also what divides us, in hopes of furthering the unity of believers here in the Wichita area. But we also care deeply about objective truth and have together concluded that any unity that dismisses the central role of orthodoxy (however we understand that) is a counterfeit. We’re willing to do the hard work towards unity together. I often come away from these events feeling as though I have experienced spiritual friendship more profoundly than I often do in my own parish. This is a wonderful thing. Because of Eighth Day, I can sincerely claim to have dear brothers and sisters in my life who are Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Nazarene, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, and from my own non-denominational Christian Church. Through Eighth Day, God has proven faithful, and restored the years that the locusts had eaten.

Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University who specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.

Eighth Day Institute seeks to renew culture by promoting the common heritage of Nicene Christianity. We are committed to facilitating a dialogue of love and truth as a step in that direction. This means we gladly allow a broad range of perspectives. But it does not mean that we agree with everything presented or published.

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