Sunday, May 02, 2010

When did unity become a dirty word?

I have come across just a slew of blog posts lately that seem to almost decry the very concept of Christian unity. It seems as if the word "unity" is entering the theological lexicon as a heresy. I have written before on this but a couple of things I have read recently have spurred me into reiterating these comments.

Many of the posts make the common blog error of creating two mutually exclusive positions with no middle ground. As it applies to unity, there are apparently two and only two positions. Either we accept (as usual) the status quo of Western religion with orthodox Christianity splintered into thousands of divided and competing denominations and traditions or we chuck the whole thing in the name of unity and accept mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Roman Catholicism in the "Christian Big Tent". I reject this false dichotomy as not grounded in either fact or supported in Scripture.

The unity problem in the church is not that we have too much unity, it is that we have far too little even among those who proclaim themselves to be the most orthodox. We who agree on all of the basics of the Gospel still find ways to divide ourselves and in doing so weaken our witness. Far too many Christians are evangelists for their particular pet doctrines, whether reformed theology (which I subscribe to) or King James Onlyism (which I do not and I think is a dangerous teaching). Even the token gestures at unity we try are missing the point, whether in theology conferences or Good Friday community services where we knowingly and somewhat begrudgingly set aside our differences to get together for an hour or a couple of days.

This is not merely an ancillary doctrine, something that is elective in the church. Unity among the Body features frequently and prominently in the New Testament writings. Take for example Paul's words here:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Many of my Reformed brethren love to look at the first two chapters of Ephesians to support the doctrines of grace. Rightly so. But Paul has much to say about how we live after being born-again by regeneration. Paul here is urging us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. How are we to do this? By loving one another (all of us who are called, not just our local church). Bearing with one another (again, all of us and not just people who affirm the Westminster Confessio) and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit. When we have so many churches that exclude from full fellowship those who disagree on fine points of theology, churches who would deny one of the very symbols of our unity in Christ, the breaking of bread, to brothers and sisters, then let me say very bluntly that we profane the words that Paul wrote and a so-called church that denies full fellowship to another believer over secondary doctrines is not walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. I don't care how orthodox your statement of faith is, or how tightly you adhere to some centuries old confession or how rigidly you think you are following the "regulative principle" of worship. If you deny the unity of the Body of Christ in actions, even if affirming it in words, you deny the clear commandment of Scripture.

Again, let me be clear. When it comes to those who are clearly outside of the church, those who deny the Gospel and deny the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, they are to be viewed as any other unbeliever, someone who needs the witness of the Gospel. For those who are in Christ, there is no room in Scripture to create second-class Kingdom citizens. That doesn't mean we cannot disagree, but it does mean that if we deny the loving fellowship of Christian brotherhood to them, we deny what Christ has done to unify us as God's family. Instead of trying to twist the concept of unity to turn it into something dangerous, let's instead try to examine ourselves to see where we fail to exhibit a life worthy of our calling in Christ Jesus as it pertains to our relationship with others who have been called. Let's remember that those who disagree with us are not second-class citizens or people who need us to correct them on every point of doctrine but are rather our brothers and sisters, made that way and in that standing the same way we were. Let us discuss and debate, let iron sharpen iron by all means but lets not use that sharpened iron to carve other Christians out of our fellowship. That behavior does not honor God nor protect the Gospel, it tells God He might have made a mistake and that the fellowship created by salvation is subject to our approval. Is that the message we want to stand before God with?

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Alan Knox said...

When did unity become a dirty word? Probably about the same time that knowledge became the goal of Christianity.


Tim A said...

Well said. One of the key reasons the church does all it's shallow routines to put on a veneer of unity is because of institutionalism that grips so much of the church. There is lots of money and position and turf protection going on. This would all be denied because it is such a subtle reality, but it is a huge factor.