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Unity: The Elusive Hope
Introductory thoughts on the risks of conversation, and a hope that cannot quit.
“The incessant quarreling and cold indifference between God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians is scandalous to the secular world - as it should be scandalous to Christians.” - Roger Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, pg. 26
“Can the many faces of Christianity find a message which will remake religion for a society which has decided to do without it?” - Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, pg. 1016
“…our minds will begin again with the gospel proclamation of the death and resurrection of this Man, of the death and resurrection of all men in this Man, and of the communion realized among members of his body.” - Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, pg. 266
“We need to stop thinking that our primary duty toward our fellow believers is to critique them. It’s not. Our primary duty is to love them.” - Francis Chan, Until Unity, pg. 17
The nominal commitment of this podcast is that it will be a place where we can have friendly conversations about the issues that divide the church. Admittedly, from my perspective as a co-host, this is towards the view that this will promote unity within the body of Christ. Since beginning work on this podcast nine months ago, I often catch myself running hypothetical scenarios about how church unity might begin to happen or what it might look like. The problem is, I'm frankly not sure I would know how to recognize unity if I saw it. What exactly is unity anyway?
Generally when I start running these "unity scenarios" in my head - they revolve around some type of radical change at the hierarchical level (e.g. "I wonder what would happen if all non-Roman Catholic bishops suddenly agreed to submit to the Pope?") or they involve strict uniformity at a doctrinal level (e.g. I wonder what would happen if all catechisms were edited to embrace a uniform view of a particular doctrine, such as the atonement?). These are, of course, naively far-fetched, not in the sense that they couldn't happen, but in the sense that they most certainly won't happen.
But is a miracle at the hierarchical or doctrinal level really what it would take for believers to be "perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them" as Jesus prayed in John 17?
To be fair, "unity" is technically one step beyond the precise scope of "Stained Glass Theology". After all, it isn't until after a conversation that we can know whether unity is something we have - or would even want. Imagine the awkwardness of committing to unity, just before having a conversation with someone who turns out to be entrenched in the doctrines of Hitler's Mein Kampf. To take the issue further, some might warn that even a conversation itself can be dangerous - after all, what if through conversation with someone like Kim Jong Un one finds themselves in agreement with someone they previously denounced?
As believers, we find ourselves in the bewilderingly counterintuitive situation, given the current state of the union, of having already been unified upon our entrance into His body. We have ALL been baptized into Christ (Romans 6:1-14) and thus by consequence have been "by one Spirit...baptized into one body" (I Corinthians 12:12-13).
Like it or not - we're already "unified" on a certain theological level, although the exact shape of that unity in any tangible ecclesiological level is hard to figure.
Back to my "unity scenarios" - perhaps an unintended consequence of the logic employed in them is that they dangle the carrot of unity at the end of the stick of certain external factors being met. In other words, it's the illusion that I will change, just as soon as my circumstances change first. Does this not place the onus upon those outside of ourselves, and allow us to shirk our responsibility to love, understand, and unite with believers right now in whatever situation we find ourselves in?
That being said, I remain nervous that an "invisible" (spiritual/mystical) unity, boastfully claimed in theory yet decidedly absent in practice will vanish, not because the end of its brief time has come, but because it never actually existed in the first place. I recall one biblical scholar remarking that unity mostly exists across denominational barriers, and that as believers we might as well go ahead and "get on with it". This is an emotion I resonate strongly with, but if something is truly "real", shouldn't the word incarnate itself in the flesh? At some point, all the hype about Grandma's cooking has to materialize itself in an actual meal I can eat.
Regardless, the boots-on-the-ground reality remains. Christian unity, when it comes to fringe distinctives (though perhaps not when it comes to central commitments) and structural authority - is completely shattered. Rather than waiting for this bleak situation to resolve by some external miracle, does not the Jesus way demand that we take the first step of love? After all, it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. Can we not leave the existing boundary markers in place, while still engaging in the hard, tedious, and even painful work of understanding and encouraging one another in the midst of disagreement?
What would a conversation look like among believers who were absolutely convinced that we cannot say, "I have no need of you."?
A conviction that wherever we are going to go - we're going to have to go there together.
A conviction that is willing to spend however much time it takes - because unity could take an eternity.
A conviction that He has called our names, and - more importantly - His Name has been placed upon us. A reputation risk He does not take lightly.
You may be asking a question similar to the one that prompted the parable of the good Samaritan, "...and who is my neighbor?" - a question that I must remind you carried with it the parenthetical comment that it was asked by one "desiring to justify himself". May we instead ask the question, "...how may I prove myself a neighbor?" and, at the end, not be described as the one who passed by on the other side.
If even after conversation unity remains an elusive hope, perhaps we can still grow in love and respect for our interlocutors. I hope that through getting to know His people, we can come to a better knowledge not only of one another, but of God Himself.
Prayerfully, this will not be merely an intellectual hobby, or a greedy quest for an informational treasure chest to be found and hoarded - it is, I humbly pray, a broken way of clinging to life itself - "...and this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Whatever meager scraps of loaves and fishes we gather, may we eagerly offer to our Creator to be multiplied that we may see His strength made perfect in our weakness and believe that He, and He alone, is able to do what He has promised.
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