Christian Unity (or not): some personal reflections

I’m part of a group of Presbyterian pastors who get together periodically to see if we can survive together 4 churces on 1 corneras a denomination.   That sounds grandiose, but truly, some of the congregations we are serving have left the denomination between the start of our meetings and today, so it’s a real issue.  So, we discuss the issue of unity.  We have made some stabs at coming up with a list of “we all agree on this”.  But for me, the question of unity is a lot deeper than an agree list.  So here is my rant.  (warning: it starts pretty theoretical, but I promise, it gets personal, so wait for it).

Christian Unity (or not)

Our unity in Christ is a fact, based on God’s work in Christ.  There is only one body of Christ, and we are all members of Christ’s body, as Paul says, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  There is only one table around which we will all sit together in the kingdom, with people “from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29)   The basis of this established fact, this reality of our unity is not anything of human origin and is not threatened by anything humans can do.

We did not make it, we cannot destroy it.

And yet this invisible and indestructible truth of our unity may or may not be made visible by the ways we conduct ourselves.  Every breach of the visible unity of the body of Christ, the church, is an acted-contradiction to the truth of our unity.

Every dis-unity we display is a public “no” to our Lord’s prayer for us in John 17.  And our visible dis-unity makes true, albeit in reverse,  Jesus’ implication: the world knows the Father sent the Son because of the unity of his disciples (or, their disunity makes the claim hollow – as perhaps it is, for so many, today).

So what do we do when we disagree with one another?

There is “separation” language in scripture.  In 2 Corinthians believers are warned against union with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:17).  In I John 2:19 we read of people who separate themselves from the church, apparently in denial that the Father had sent the Son.  But the New Testament sets the bar of unity in Christ at the level of the Spirit-inspired affirmation that “Christ is Lord”  (1 Cor. 12:3).  In fact the stern warning Paul gives the Corinthians about “destroying” the church is precisely a danger created by disunity: some are of Paul, others of Apollos (1 Cor. 3)  The quarreling they were doing was labeled as “unspiritual” and a sign of their immature state, still in need of milk and not solid food.  Let us just at least pause to note that in almost none of our many splits have either side denied that Christ is Lord.

Not everything is allowable in the name of unity.  Paul is able to recommend at least temporary excommunication of an immoral man, involved in violating his own father’s marriage covenant by his affair with his mother in law.  Nevertheless, the hope he holds out, even for this one, is that his spirit is saved – a redemptive goal (1 Cor. 5:5).  We do not know the content of the  dispute between  Euodia and I urge Syntyche in Philippi, but they were urged to agree with each other, according to the model of Christ (4:2; 2:1-11).

It is so odd, the way we treat the church, the one entity that is divinely established as a unity, in contrast to the way we treat other groupings.  Lots of people these days bemoan the government but only a few at the fringes speak of breaking away to form a new country.  We pay taxes even though we could all come up with a long list of things we do not support.  We do not disown our parents or our children for contrary views (for some of us, we even stay married even though we have differing opinions).  A lot of us even hang in there with a political party that only represents our views incompletely.  We buy and use products and services from providers that do not necessarily line up with our cherished certainties.  But, historically speaking, we have felt free to break the visible unity of the body of Christ  into sacramental-sized tid bits.

Where does this go?  How far does it go?  I was a dutiful son, so fulfilling my parents’ expectations, I trundled off to the Moody Bible Institute, and three years later they gave me a diploma to prove it (back then, it was a 3 year, non-degree program) though they probably regret it now.  I had always read my bible and gone to church, so I knew a good bit when I started at Moody.  I knew a lot more theology when I came out.  But I was having trouble with some important parts of Moody theology by the time I graduated.  In the mean time, my home church in Ohio had gone through a departure from their parent denomination, making it necessary for them to come up with their own doctrinal statement.  Signing that new statement was a requirement for membership.   I had gone off to Moody, a member, but returned a non-member.  They gave me the pen and showed me where to sign.  But I couldn’t sign.  The statement had a paragraph about the return of Christ.  It was not only pre-millenial, it was pre-tribulational.  I could not sign that.  So, I was not welcome as a member in my parents’ church.

So how far does it go, when we make unity in the visible church contingent on agreement about issues of interpretation?   It could go all the way to the requirement that women wear hats in church, as Paul tells them to do (and it does go this far for some Christian groups – though the little things the ladies wear hardly fit my definition of a head-covering).   It is at least interesting, if not funny (or sad?) that my parents’ church, which was so doctrinally pure and biblically literal, had left their former denomination because they did not want to be bound to observing the literal washing of feet – in spite of the clear command from our Lord himself to do so (John 13:14-15).  For me, the timing and events of the return of Christ (pre-mil, pre-trib.) were a bit more vague than the language that Jesus used: “14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  But everybody picks and chooses.

Something else was going on in my personal life during my time at Moody in the mid-1970’s.  It was a school that still made the men cut their hair short, made women wear their skirts over the knee, and forbade attending movies at the theater and the public display of affection on campus.  And all this at the time when Nixon had just resigned, the civil rights movement was going on, the women’s movement was in full swing, we had just gotten out of Viet Nam with out tail between our legs, and large swaths of our inner cities were charred and boarded up.  I had just read “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” and woke up to poverty in America, hunger, at home and abroad, I had newly started reading Sojourners magazine – I felt like my conscience was waking up to the real world.  And my alma mater was worried about my hair length and my (former) church was worried about my eschatology.  There are so many ways to miss the boat it makes my head spin.  Talk about adventures in missing the point!

At this time I was exploring the Presbyterian Church, just as people in it were heading for the doors over the ordination of women.   Then the abortion issue started heating up, and “I just cannot support this” language was heard in the halls.   The Presbyterian church I joined after I finished my undergrad degree had a split.  The people who wanted a more pure church left to form it.  And it looked like it would have a chance of succeeding until the women in the group realized that their role in leadership was questioned (they had been leaders, but had left the Presbyterian Church over the abortion issue, only to find that the folks they left with were not happy with women leaders in the church – they had verses about it).   Again, it’s not so clear whether to laugh or cry.  Probably both are demanded.

Right now we are living at one of those massively huge times of transition.  Even if the language of “every 500 years the church holds a rummage sale” that Phyllis Tickle popularized in her book The Great Emergence is a bit too schematic, nevertheless, now, almost exactly 500 years after the 95 theses hit the Wittenberg door, we are in a sea-change.  We all can see it.  Where it will go, no one knows, but all of us are aware that the church of pretty-soon is not going to look like the church of up-until-just-recently.  There aren’t enough artery stents and bottles of Plavix to keep what we have going forever.

In the mean time, we cannot find reasons enough to stay together.  This is the post-Constantinian conundrum, finally bearing it’s bitter fruit.  The Emperor’s solution is to make a creed that defines orthodoxy, and call the dissenters heretics.  What happens?  In one day, Arius goes from bishop to bad-guy, and all the faithful in his flocks are damned heretics as well.  Was that the only way?  It was at Nicea.

I was in seminary at an Evangelical school (an inerrantist school) when the fight between Murray Harris and Norman Geisler over the nature of the resurrection body was in full bloom.  Geisler accused Harris of “neodocetism” for not believing “flesh” is raised (as Geisler does) when “the body” fit for eternity is resurrected (Harris’ view).  I kept wondering when the argument about the number of angels dancing on the pin’s head would commence.  I’ll say this: I think evangelicalism, in some forms, is its own brand of scholasticism.  I thought we had a Reformation about that.  How far does all this go?  When agreement about interpretation is the sine qua non of unity, it goes very far down a very dark path.  How many Protestant denominations are there?  Thousands.  And how many totally independent congregations?  And does this situation reflects adherence to our Lords words:

22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Here’s how I see it: In matters of theology and biblical interpretation, I know I’m right.  But of course, I knew that back before I changed my mind too.  In fact I’ve always had my reasons that were right, until I changed my mind.  But now, I must be right in some final sense.  This is how it feels.  And it’s self-evidently silly.  I heard that a professor told his class that 10% of what he was teaching was wrong, he just didn’t know which 10%.    For me it may be 11%.  OK, 12.   If you have a similar % difference, there could be up to a 24% space between us of error on both sides.  Now, that’s a scary thought.

The “correct” people in the church in the 4th century used to literally attack each other over the differences between homousious and homoiusios.  Today, I seriously wonder how many working preachers can speak coherently of substances and essences, or of the “absolute numerical identity” of God (Arius), versus a fully trinitarian mathematical mystery (Athanasius – Nicea)?   Or, how about the 16th century split-making question: in what way exactly is Christ present in the bread and cup at the Lord’s Supper?  When does “is” mean “is,” as in “this is my body” – (and this debate happened a long time before Clinton!)?  We are famous for what we are doing now.  It has a grand tradition.

But the world is sick to death of it, and it isn’t working anymore.

I hope we can do better on our watch.  But there isn’t much time left on the clock.  Can we at least agree that “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing”?  Christ is Lord.

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