Earlier today Daniel James Levy posted on the divisions in the church of Corinth (see “The Issue of Division at the Church in Corinth”). For many of us evangelicals the fractions of that local church seem all too familiar. While Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans have placed a high priority on visible unity the rest of us squabble over our uniqueness. Obviously, as a small “e” evangelical I lean toward unity in the midst of diversity rather than unity established through hierarchy, even if that puts us at risk of allowing some devastating doctrines into the mix (partially because I don’t think Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans have avoided false or misleading doctrines either). There is no denial that we struggle with unity because we sense that there are some things that are not compatible with Christianity, yet we don’t agree on how to determine those things.
In addition to our differences in dogma we sometimes part way over race, ethnicity, language, and culture. This manifests itself in many ways including churches that are primarily one skin color or another (so-called “white” and “black” churches) in the United States, churches that have different tastes in music, those that function primarily in English or Spanish, and so forth and so on. While it may be pragmatic at times to establish churches around these differences (have you ever spent time listening to a bilingual sermon?) it is often the case that these divisions harden into serious contentions with one another.
Many good-hearts have sought ecumenism that is actually a form of hegemony. Some Caucasian pastor in California decides that he wants the church to reach Latinos but he leads his church to approach said partnerships in such a way that essentially ignores the unique contributions Latinos bring to Christianity. He may try to get them to use more English thinking he is doing them a favor without realizing that Spanish is a sense of identity. He may ask them to calm down their expressiveness in worship so that others don’t feel uncomfortable. It isn’t done to be hurtful, but it is controlling none-the-less.
Somehow unity must exist in the dynamic relationship between acceptance and critique. Often we think of unity or catholicity as everyone being the same, but this isn’t so (not even in doctrine). Sometimes we think unity is when people agree to disagree. This can be the case, but is it healthy for us to avoid challenging each other so that we can feel unified?
There is no denying that the early church sought visible unity. The Apostle Paul seems consumed by this subject sometimes. The early church fought and bickered over things in hopes of coming together as one (sometimes successfully and other times not so much). Yet I wonder if this side of the resurrection if we are hopelessly seeking something that we cannot achieve.
Even if we cannot achieve it here and now it seems we should pursue it. Much like we know there will be no final and lasting peace before the return of Christ yet we continue to pursue it as a witness to the Kingdom, so we know we will never be fully unified, but if we accept this as inevitable the chasm will widen and we will lose our testimony before a broken world. The world around us doesn’t need to see everyone thinking and acting the same. This seems quite cultic. They need to see us loving one another in spite of differences and through those differences. This is easier said than done.
So is genuine unity achievable? Unlikely, but our witness is not in achieving unity but in seeking it.
I can see unity happening on a micro scale, but less likely on a global scale. That said, the whole is affected by its parts.
Brian, I hope we see more unity soon! A dream I hope to see come to fruition is the gathering of all denominations (perhaps on the national day of prayer) to recite the prayer the Lord told us to pray. And after doing so serving the city we find ourselves in. If we as the body of Christ practice this, yes, it acknowledges we still have differences, but they pale in comparison to the fact that we are one Body, one Temple.
I know on a micro scale it’s beginning. My dad is social justice pastor down in South Florida. He’s currently working with Tullian Tchvidjian, his brother, and other big churches down there with what’s called “The Homeless Coalition of South Florida.” It’s a very inter-denominational organization, too.
I think it’s a good point to say that seeking unity is our witness but I agree that achieving real unity is unlikely unless we accept the unity exists within diversity and that will be acceptable for some Christians but not all. We are unified in my area around social and justice issues but as far as worship, ecclesiology etc is concerned we are a long way apart and I don’t think there is any way to reconcile those differences without a change of theology – which no one is prepared to do! So we will continue with different denominations but group together where we are able to.
In the UK where I live the decline in church attendance is forcing us band together to have an effect so is having a unifying effect which is a huge blessing to those of us who are involved but there are still some churches (very much in the minority now) who won’t touch anything that involves the Catholics.
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