Monday, April 12, 2010

Is Unity Realistic?

My good friend Derek recently made the comment on Facebook regarding the blog phenomenon in general: "your blog: nobody cares." In spite of the irony of his criticism being posted on a public forum, I think he has a point. A blog that seeks to address large, important questions - but that nobody reads - may be therapeutic for the writer, but in the end is kind of, well, pathetic.

That being said, I want to thank those of you who have been offering feedback and asking questions. While I am grateful for the chance to organize my thoughts on this subject and be able to refer back to them, my main purpose in writing is to encourage conversation and dialogue on the subject. So keep your comments coming! I will continue to develop my posts in ways that correspond with your questions/interests (you can also check out two polls listed on the right side of the page to help me with this).

In the past two posts, I have sought to convey why I think unity is essential to the Christian gospel (incarnation, reconciliation, evangelism) and therefore to the Christian understanding of "Church". For Protestants in particular, who are responsible for much of the Church's current visible disunity, ambivalence toward division is inexcusable. While most seem willing to acknowledge that unity is important for the Church's integrity (at least in theory), three very important questions are commonly raised.

1) Given the current state of the Church, is unity even realistic?
2) If we are to strive after unity, how might we envision a way forward?
3) What qualifies as "essential" versus "opinion" for Christians who seek to be united?

Obviously, these three questions are interrelated. In future posts, I'll be focusing almost exclusively on the second and third questions. But in this post, I want to briefly address the first question: is Christian unity realistic?

For me, the answer to this question is deeply embedded in the Christian understanding of how we, as human beings, are reconciled to God. Led by the Holy Spirit, Christians should seek to be reconciled to each other in the same way that we have been reconciled to God (see 2 Corinthians 5). In Christian theological lingo, this involves two important steps: justification and sanctification.

JUSTIFICATION: For Christians, the biblical story of God’s redemption of humanity reaches its climax in the cross of Christ. Through Christ’s atoning work on the cross, humanity is justified before God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. Yet despite their status as justified sinners by the grace of God, Christians continue to wrestle with the ever-present reality of sin until Christ returns in final victory. The Christian, then, is simultaneously sinner and saint.

Lesslie Newbigin, a bishop in the Church of South India and a leading 20th century evangelist and ecumenist, contends that the doctrine of justification by faith through grace provides the theological underpinning for the Church’s quest for unity. Like the individual believer, the community of faith is both grace-filled and sinful. While the Church is meant to be a place where God’s love is experienced through the fellowship of believers, its communion is disrupted and discredited by countless denominational divisions. The Church is simultaneously the Body of Christ and a squabbling bunch of sinners.

: Here's where the Wesleyan side of me kicks in. Absolutely central to a Wesleyan understanding of salvation is the conviction that we should not remain content in our current sinful state. Rather, the same Spirit who draws us into a restored relationship with God also empowers us to become holy - to love and serve God as we were intended. The Holy One’s call for us to “be holy” takes us by surprise. Incredibly, we discover that God has written us into the divine plan to save the world. Though our sin is great, God’s grace is infinitely greater. To deny this call to holiness is to “reject not human authority, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8).

Despite our present state of sin, God mercifully works within us, calling us forward to perfect love and participation in God’s Triune life. Likewise the Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God’s eschatological purpose, where “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). For too long, Newbigin says the churches have spent time and energy arguing over “what the churches are – surely it is time for us to meet one another in penitent acknowledgement of our common failure to be what the Church ought to be” (if you're interested, see Newbigin's work on ecclesiology: "The Household of God"). Instead of remaining content in its sinful sectarian state, the Church is called to embody in our institutional life the same unity with one another that has been given to us in Christ.

Viewed this way, the answer to the question - "is unity realistic" - is a resounding NO if the Church is relying on human strength alone. But if we are willing to humble ourselves and trust in the same Spirit who is able to graciously lead sinners toward holiness, we may begin to glimpse together what the Church "ought to be."

What are your thoughts? Can Christians hope for unity? Or is this hopelessly unrealistic?


  1. Just to clarify, I did not post that on Paul's wall specifically, as if nobody cared about his blog in particular. I was just commenting on the blog-phenomenon in general. =;o)

  2. Ha, thanks for the clarification, Derek. The post has been amended!

  3. @Derek - I love that you pointed that out.

    Paul, I finally got around to reading this post after our discussion last night. I understand that it's geared more toward Christians, but what (to you) is the difference between "human strength alone" vs. the help of the "spirit"?

    I never really got this; how do you *not* do things on your own? How can you *not* rely on yourself if you need to do something or work toward a goal? Is this the supplement of prayer or hoping for the best?

    Obviously this isn't the question of this post, but I'm not asking facetiously; I'm interested in your thoughts on the question.

  4. Two main things come to mind when I think about Christian unity. First, Paul's words in Romans 14 when he addresses the topic of eating meat (or not). Of course, it is ok to eat meat. Paul is clear about Christian freedom. BUT he instructs that our concern for our (weaker) Christian brothers overrules personal freedom, and says, "If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love....Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (vs.15a, 19). Paul addresses this issue again and again in his letters, highlighting the importance of unity--or, love. It seems that our love for each other is the priority, and that's where unity stems from. However, the frequency of Paul's comments on this topic do more than show its importance--they also shed some light on how difficult a practice it is. If Christians were loving each other and united all the time, he wouldn't have to mention it so often. They were fighting over vegetarianism, for goodness' sake!

    The second thing that comes to mind when I think about unity are some words from the Book of Common Prayer. The lines are from "A Prayer for all Conditions of Men," and read, "we pray for they holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith IN UNITY OF SPIRIT, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life." This prayer is from the daily morning and evening office, so obviously it was something considered important enough to pray for often.

    And so, as much of a cop-out as it is, part of the answer to unity is that we pray. We must make unity enough of a priority that we desire to take the time to pray for it.

  5. Your question is a big one, Jon, and I'm not sure I can do it justice outside of a longer conversation. But here are my thoughts:

    From a perspective outside the Christian community of faith, the distinction between "Spirit" and "human effort" doesn't make much sense. After all, the belief in the presence of God's Spirit is very much bound up in the life of the community.

    But from within a Christian narration of the world, the distinction between the Spirit and human effort is rooted in two key observations about the world:

    1) In spite of our ability to sense the good and how things "ought" to be, human beings (and the world) are helplessly mired in destructive cycles of violence and selfishness.

    2) God has intervened in human history (most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) in order to bring new life out of violence and love out of selfishness for humanity and the world.

    For Christians, then, it is God's Spirit who brings new life and enables human beings to love. It is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and brings new life to human beings. Certainly, human beings may participate in this "saving" work of God - but only as a response, not as an initiative. All efforts to work for the good that are grounded in human effort are destined for failure (see #1) because of human pride and selfishness. It is God's Spirit, working through the Christian community (and outside it?), who enables human beings to achieve the good, or how things ought to be.

    So (back to your question), how can human beings NOT rely on themselves, if in fact they are called to participate in God's work in the world? We embody a posture of humility that is open to receiving and responding to what God's Spirit is already doing. Within the Christian community, certain practices help to foster such a posture - prayer, Scripture, and sacrament (Morgan, this where I really appreciate your observation about the importance of prayer). It is in these places that Christians encounter God already present in our lives and in the world, and are empowered by the same Spirit to participate in God's work of love and new life.

    The distinction between human action on its own and Spirit filled human action makes all the difference for Christians. It is God working, not us. This is what makes new life possible - for suffering individuals, for the divided Church, and for a broken world.