“For Paul the symbolic power of the unity of the church is grounded on the equally symbolic power of the oneness of God, not as a mere dogma to be learned or affirmed, but as the sustaining and stabilizing force for the life of the community.” – N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God
The church is divided. Shocker, right?
Since the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in the eleventh century and the exponentially-schismatic Protestant divide (which continues to divide), the prayer of Jesus for his disciples to be one has grown more and more faint. His prayer exists only as a whisper, or perhaps as a still small voice. Yet I hear his prayer and I have a suspicion others have too. I don’t have the imagination for a unified church where Protestants become Roman Catholic and Catholics become Orthodox, but I do have the imagination for local churches in particular cities, in specific towns and communities to find ways to walk together in authentic Christian unity. We can do it. Jesus prayed for it. Paul envisioned it. The church fathers laid the groundwork for it. We can live together in unity, but our biggest need is humility.
The flowering of Christian unity begins with the seeds of humility. It works like this: Unity requires understanding; understanding requires conversation; conversation requires love; love requires humility. Understanding one another and talking openly, honestly, and listening respectfully, are all key ingredients for Christian unity, but it begins with humility. We need to humble ourselves by seeing our need for one another in this post-Christian culture. We need to humble ourselves by esteeming ourselves less and admitting the truth that we can (and need to) learn something from our brothers and sisters of another denominations and theological traditions. In order to eschew the theoretical and offer livable suggestions, I humbly submit these seven things we can do to reclaim hope for Christian unity.
#1 Reject an “us vs. them” view of the body of Christ
We have drank the poison of hostility from our culture and it is time we admit it. We live in a world where the rant has been elevated to an ugly art form begging for imitation. Blame it on the entertainment industry. Blame it on Jerry Springer. Blame it on 24-hour cable news. Blame it on a polarized, power-hunger, partisan system of politics. Blame it on social media. Blame it on the devil. Or better yet, come to the place where you discover blame itself is the pawn in the “us vs. them” game. Do not call it “discernment.” Do not call it “persevering the faith once delivered to the saints.” My friend, you are not being prophetic. You are not Amos. We are not living in ancient Israel. You may not like their interpretation of scripture. You may not like their emphasis. You may not like their preaching style, the way they conduct their worship services, or the way they structure the leadership of their church, but if they are in Christ, they are not “them,” they are a part of the us. Their church may be the ears of the body of Christ and you, for whatever reason, may not like ears, but they are still a part of the body. If you feel the need to correct them, then correct them like you would your little brother who is getting out of line and not like the bully at the end of the block.
#2 Repent of the sectarian, elitist view of your tribe
Modern marketing is built around a tribal understanding of how consumerism works these days, if Seth Godin is right. Tribalism is alive and well in the modern church in the North America supplanting denominational affiliation. We seek our identity as Christians not because of a particular denomination (though denominational pride exists in some pockets of the church), but because of our theological tribe. The tribal lines have been drawn and they are numerous and interwoven. We have all sorts of tribal divides: Calvinist/Arminian; liturgical/contemporary; complementarian/egalitarian; charismatic/open-but-cautious; conservative/progressive; just war theorists/non violent; young earth creationists/theistic evolutionists; and on and on the tribes go. I know you like your tribe. I like my tribe too. We like our tribes because of the camaraderie and sense of community we feel. We love our tribe because this sense of belonging reminds us we are not crazy. But let’s be honest, our tribe is not as great as we think it is. We have our blind spots. We have our weaknesses. We do not see the kingdom of God as clearly as we think. Maybe we are getting some things wrong? We need to repent. We need to ditch our elitist attitude and begin to esteem the Jesus we see in those other tribes.
#3 Read outside of your tradition
Leaders are readers. We know that. We all have our favorite thinkers, teachers, writers, bloggers, theologians, authors, etc. I will go on record as confessing my full blown man-crush on N.T. Wright. He’s my guy. He’s my bishop. I admit it! I tend to read him a bit too uncritically. I need to work on changing that. If Wright is the chief of a tribe, then count me in! I love Wright, but I also read John Piper. The tribal lines between Wright and Piper have been drawn. While I find myself in Chief Wright’s tribe, I freely admit I have grown from reading not only Piper but others from the Reformed tribe. Speaking of that tribe, I am proud of my friend Trevin Wax who is currently blogging on New Testament ethics and he choose to read and blog on a book outside of his tribe. He chose The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays, explaining, “While it would be easier to blog through a classical evangelical treatment of ethics, I don’t think it would be nearly as fun, or fruitful.” Fruitful indeed! If we only read books from our tribe we fuel our sectarian and elitist tendencies. An honest reading of books outside our tradition help us see our blind spots and the value and contribution of other tribes, even we do not agree with everything. Remember this axiom from Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.“
#4 Refuse to make fun of other traditions
Am I the only one who can do a near spot-on a Joel Osteen impression? Yeah, I delivered my best Joel impression off the cuff during a sermon one time. I got a lot of laughs, but as the laughter subsided and I stared at my sermon notes and I knew I had sinned. I repented and have refused to do another Joel impression in public or in private. Joel does make it tempting however…the smile, the Southern ascent, the sermon content, so much of it begs for satire, but alas, he is my brother in Christ. I can’t do it. When we set up an “us vs. them” partition, we vilify our brothers and sisters. When we mock or make jokes, we turn our brothers and sisters into caricatures. Both actions rob the other of their true humanity. Don’t do it. Feel free to make jokes about your own tribe, but refuse to turn those of another tribe into cartoons characters.
#5 Replace agenda-driven prayer with contemplative prayer
In your life of prayer set aside the list of requests and learn to “sit with Jesus with stuff,” which is the phrase Brian Zahnd uses to describe contemplative prayer. The ancient Christian practice of contemplation is just that…it’s Christian! Those who criticize Christ-centered contemplation need to reread #1 and #2. In its most simple form, contemplation is a prayer where you center your mind, heart, focus, and attention on Jesus and you wait on him. This form of prayer is not demonic. It is not “new age.” It is not unhealthy or dangerous. It is Christian. Pray for the church…the whole church, especially pray for the tribes within the church with whom you disagree. Don’t ask God to change them. Ask God to change your heart regarding them. Better than that, present that tribe to Jesus and just sit in silence and wait. Perhaps Jesus will allow you to see things from their point of view.
#6 Restore confidence in the creeds and ecumenical councils of the church
I understand the desire for “doctrinal purity.” I share the conviction for the church to be driven by right-doctrine, by the historic, orthodox teachings of the church. We don’t determine orthodoxy from within our tribe; we define orthodoxy by the creeds and councils of the church, particularly the first seven ecumenical councils and the three historic creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and Chalcedonian Creed. Our tribal divides are almost always over non-credential matters. The creeds and councils unite us and comprise the essentials of the faith. They give us the guardrails in which we can explore the non-essential issue of the faith. For example, baptism is a credal essential of the faith (From the Nicene Creed: “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins”). When a person is baptized is a non-essential of the faith. Therefore I cannot say to a brother or sister who was baptized as an infant, “You are not a Christian, because you were not baptized like me.” I came to appreciate the practice of infant baptism from conversations with my friend Allan Purtill, Pastor of Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, North Carolina. Long conversations with him, helped me see the reasons for the practice of infant baptism. It is not my practice, but I have grown to respect it. In the end, we don’t get to determine the criteria for who is an orthodox Christian and who is a heretic, the creeds do this for us.
#7 Reaffirm the centrality of Jesus
Our unity as the body of Christ is found in Christ alone. Jesus is who binds us together and he is looking at us–his fractured and tribal church–and says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” This love is a love cultivated along the Jesus way where Jesus is first, preeminent, central, and reigning as Lord. We must strive to keep our attention on Jesus and elevate him and not…may I dare say it…the Bible. In once sense the Bible is part of the problem. Well, not so much the Bible itself, but the way we treat the Bible and the demands we place on it. The Bible is our text. It is the authoritative, inspired, sacred text of the church. It forms us and shapes us. It is the table where all of our theological inquiries and discussions take place, but in our inter-tribal debates we all have our list of verses and yet we don’t agree. Right? We all claim to be “biblical.” We all claim to have the Bible on our side. This use of the Bible is part of the problem. The Bible is the leading partner in our theological discussions, but the Bible ain’t Jesus. We are not followers of the Bible; we are followers of Jesus. We don’t worship the Bible; we worship Jesus. Our faith is not built on the word made text, but the word made flesh. Ultimately the Bible does not show us what God is like; Jesus shows us what God is like. The Bible reveals Jesus to us, making the Bible indispensable. We should read it, study it, memorize it, and teach it to the next generation. We should honor it, treasure it, respect it, and treat it as a gift from God, but it cannot never take the place of Jesus. The only real hope we have to experience Christian unity is in our self-emptying allegiance to Jesus. He is the head of the church. We will only be unified if we look to him.