There is a difference between uniting saints and uniting sects. One task is possible, the other, not. Organizations are just that; organizations. They are not people. The objective of any organization, especially one incorporated as a legal entity, is to preserve itself, and any individual fighting against such an organization will die trying.
But people are a different matter altogether. People can be reformed, persuaded, encouraged, enlightened, motivated, and united with other people. Ecumenical attempts in the denominations fail because they are addressing unity from an organizational, top-down, perspective, rather than a grass roots, bottom-up perspective. I am not for ecumenical attempts to form organizational alliances between institutions whose very creeds, charters, and bylaws guarantee that there will be no unity. But I am very much in favor of saints reaching out to other saints within the sects to become more unified based solely on our common salvation. With that accomplished in the hearts and minds of the saints, whatever follows can only be a good thing.
The Anglican Church, and other Episcopalian churches in Europe, have been struggling for decades to retain any sense of relevance. There are actually cases of atheist “pastors” presiding over large churches there. The reason is that the organization is merely a shell that has been gradually infiltrated and filled by unbelievers over time.
Political parties provide similar examples. Contrary to popular thinking, they are not organizations that exist to promote a common platform. The most accurate way to think of a political party is that it is an organizational shell designed for the sole purpose of efficiently winning elections. People, over the course of generations, filter in and out of them bringing various ideological themes around which the current members can unite. As the people change, so does the agenda du jour.
That is how it is with denominations, Church of Christ or otherwise; a single congregation or a chain of them. They exist for the sole purpose of preserving themselves as uniquely identified bodies. Within those bodies, there may be many good people, committed to the Lord and to advancing His cause in their community and the world. But the denomination itself is an organizational shell. As the social climate changes to be stronger on family values, so will the people in these organizations. If the seminaries and social climate here in America become more like Europe, the leaders filling these organizations will be more like the atheists seen there.
What is a good Christian within such an organization to do? Fight to change the agenda of seminaries? I think that’s a losing battle, since seminaries are generally tied through endowments and chartered connections to their affiliated denominations. They share the same organizational permanence of their sister organizations, and this is true in restoration and reformation churches.
Should good Christians fight to preserve or reform the organization of their sects? I think that is also the wrong battle, since that only furthers sectarianism. But neither should those outside the sects have the high goal of doing rhetorical battle with them. Both approaches only further sectarianism without ever dismantling the sect. While we always ought to denounce immorality, deviations from the gospel, and sectarianism, our goal in doing so should always be to persuade hearts and minds in the advancement of unity and the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. As hearts and minds change over time, the organizational shells of the places they worship will be either infiltrated by more committed believers, or abandoned to the atheists.
My guess is that the latter will gradually happen, but take heart, because this does not necessarily mean that atheists have invaded the Lord’s church, per se. Rather, it simply means that atheists, like hermit crabs, will have infiltrated the organization shells once occupied by believers. True believers, immersed into Christ and united in the common faith, will see it and increasingly seek out other believers in their communities to advance the mutual edification of themselves and their brethren.
Our goal as Christians ought to be to make citizens of the kingdom and train those citizens in a Christ-like lifestyle once they are made. In our effort to be non-sectarian and undenominational, it is hypocritical to then set out to form our own sect, or our own denomination. Let’s put our first century faith into practice and set out to unite the saints not the sects. A sect, by its very definition, is divided from the whole. A saint, by definition, is not. It’s time we start acting like it.