Monday, April 5, 2010

Why is Unity Important?

Ideological disagreement appears to be an unavoidable part of the human experience. The bitter rhetoric in the US over health care reform is only the most recent high profile example of this truth. People look at the same thing, hear the same words - and come away with two completely different interpretations.

The centuries old hope (at least in the "West") that science, education, and technology would unite the world has collapsed in the wake of the unprecedented human strife throughout the twentieth century. Postmodern efforts to build unity center less around grand meta-narratives (science, religion) and focus more on respecting diversity and learning to live together without killing each other.

In light of these observations, I will offer two reasons why I think unity is important.

The first reason is functional and applies on a wider, sociological level. It is mutually beneficial for human beings to be united around particular principles that promote human dignity and life. People will continue to disagree with one another. But if people can agree on the fundamental need to protect human life/dignity, then all other disagreements no longer become a reason to kill one another. This is where I think interfaith and religious-nonreligious dialogue is so important. It is safe to assume both that the multitude of human religions are not going away tomorrow and that all nonreligious persons will not suddenly be convinced of the divine. In the meantime, then, it would be beneficial to work toward a set of agreed upon principles that promote and protect life.

The second reason is particular to the Christian narrative. The search for Christian unity is not an idealistic effort to sit around and sing Kumbaya. Neither is it an effort to throw away all the particulars of Christianity and settle on the lowest common denominator. I believe that unity is absolutely essential to the integrity of the Christian story - to the good news of Jesus Christ (incarnation and reconciliation) and the proclamation of that news to the world (evangelism). United by faith in the gospel, there is room for natural disagreements over what Wesley called "opinions" within the Church. We may not all think alike, but reconciled to God and to each other, we are called to love alike.

INCARNATION: "For just as the body is one and has many it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

Christians believe that the defining moment in human history is when God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not some invisible life force limited to the spiritual or intellectual realm. No, as Christians recite in the great Creeds of the Church, God became "truly human," embracing the messiness of physical human existence in order to restore our capacity to be in relationship with God. Christians celebrate this truth each year at Christmas and in the use of the physical elements of water, bread, and wine as a means of encountering God.

Why, then, is this central conviction suspended for Christians when it comes to the Church? The same loving God who entered into history and became truly human desires the Church to be the continuing embodiment of God’s love - "the Body of Christ" in the world. Christians' satisfaction with an "invisible" Church contradicts their belief in a God who became the visible Body of Christ.

RECONCILIATION: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

This gets to the central point of why God became human in the first place. Through Jesus' atoning work on the cross, humanity is reconciled to God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. The New Testament is clear that a loving relationship with God overflows with love for neighbor.

How, then, can the Church be faithful to the Scriptural witness of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross and yet remain unreconciled with one another? Instead of remaining content in its divided state, the Church is called to return to the foot of the cross and embody in its visible life the unity and reconciliation given to all people through Jesus.

EVANGELISM: "I ask on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21)

Finally, Christians believe that God's Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God's purpose for the world, where "all flesh will see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Christians are called to be agents of God's reconciling love to people in every nation and on every continent.

But how can the world be expected to believe in God's reconciliation when the Church remains an unreconciled fellowship? Thus, when the Church is actively engaged in proclaiming its Gospel, it is able to see Christian divisions for what they are: an intolerable scandal that contradicts the Church’s witness to God’s reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ.

What do you think? Is unity important to you? For similar or different reasons?
Can we agree on a common set of principles that promote human life? What qualifies as "opinion" within the Church?


  1. this was an extremely encouraging post to read. thanks, paul. your thoughts are always provoking, and helpful.

  2. Paul, you think big thoughts! I guess I've always believed that this kind of unity will only come in heaven, but maybe I'm just a pessimist. Love you.

  3. Paul, I've spent some time thinking about your posts on unity, and I think humility is essential to unity (from personal relationships all the way up to interdenominational unity). I spent some time looking at Philippians 2 where Paul discusses this. I believe that by practicing humility and placing others above yourself you learn to value the gifts of others. You spoke about how each tradition has gifts to offer to the church as a whole. In order to see the gifts in other traditions (and on a micro level other people) and encourage them to use them we must necessarily stop focusing on ourself all the time. It seems that there is a dual purpose of humility. We humble ourself and (in this macro discussion of Christian traditions) set aside our doctrinal pride, then we think of others above ourself which can lead to wisdom on how to best operate as the body of Christ. I think that this wisdom will give us insight into what role each "member" plays in the body of Christ.

  4. Griff and Julie, thank you for your comments. I hope you will continue reading, as I highly value your respective theological perspectives.

    Paul, I absolutely agree that humility is essential to any kind of unity. And for Christians, the Philippian Christ hymn is a perfect place to start since Paul explicitly makes the connection between unity ("being of one mind") and imitating Jesus' humility. Thanks for pointing us in that direction.

  5. Paul,

    What exactly do you envision when you talk about a united Church? I guess I'd like you to define your terms more specifically. (I know you are just starting this blog.)

    "Opinions" within the Church will always exist, so for that reason I see distinctions among Christians never completely disappearing in this world where we see through a glass dimly. But in what active way do you hope to see the Church unified? In outreach, in political presence,...?

    I understand your desire for unity, because if we Christians are indeed one in the Spirit we should act that way. And most of us definitely don't.

    Keep writing. I'll keep reading.

    Amy "H", now Clark

  6. Interesting post, Paul. My comment is really just for your two opening paragraphs, but I will say first that I think there's a difference between stylistic unity (the obviously-bad "let's all like chocolate" fallacy) and doctrinal unity, where there is (at least in theory) a right answer and many wrong answers about the way reality (and a god) actually is. And wouldn't it have been nice if God was more clear in his one revelation to humanity? ;)

    Regardless, I mainly wanted to agree with you that people look at the same data and come away with different conclusions. This is a phenomenon that's bothered me for quite some time. Often the disagreement is on issues that in principle must have right and wrong answers.

    On the plus side, however, I wouldn't be so quick to say that all of humanity's efforts at improving our situation are coming to naught. For example, check out this amazing video and feel your day get better:

  7. Well, Paul, it seems that my commenting problems are isolated to my own computer issues. I can comment just fine from school. Here is the comment you already read via email:

    Great blog, Paul! And on a much needed topic, as well.

    I have been haunted by Dr. Carter's words in Xian Theology last year when he said something to the effect of: To the extent that Israel disbelieves our Messiah is the extent to which we the Church have failed to reflect God's purpose in the world.

    I think schism within the church, both particularly and universally, is damning evidence against our witness as reconciled people of God. Our lack of emphasis on unity has been our achilles heel, I think

  8. Paul,

    I too appreciate your thoughts and understand the difficulties of this topic. Although I happen to be on a time budget at this very moment, I'd just like to point out John 17. Just prior to His crucifixion, Jesus Christ considered Christian unity highly important as He prayed specifically for the unity of believers in verses 20-26. Diehard traditionalists and doctrinal pride is a huge barrier to overcome. How do Christians establish unity without "officializing" the effort with some type of leadership? As you know, I'm not Catholic and don't necessarily agree with the idea of Papal authority. I'm pretty sure Jesus Christ is the only one who could accomplish this.

  9. Jon, Chad, Amy, and Andrea - thank you all for your observations. Across the theological spectrum, there appears to be a sense that unity is at least something we should be interested in pursuing. My argument is that it is essential to the Christian message. Whether or not it is realistic and how I might envision such unity is a topic I hope to address in future posts.
    I look forward to continuing the conversation together...