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.
SANCTIFICATION: 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?