We want to restore unity in the church today, but where do we even begin?
Perhaps it all begins with the uncomfortable realization that an area we thought we were getting right, we’re probably getting wrong. Dead wrong. Because the residue of sin still clouds our judgment, we need to be exposed. We are still full of all sorts of self-deception. We are far too easily satisfied assenting to the right cause than we are doing something about it.
There are places where we think we are a paragon of oneness, but are not, and places where we have no idea how much division we are nurturing. We must be open to the disturbing possibility that we are actually reinforcing the very division we proclaim has been abolished when we do Gospel-centered things.
Restoring unity in the body, I suggest, begins with creating space to discern the body.
Despite their better intentions, it turns out the fuzzy feelings at the church in Corinth around the Lord’s Table were a false positive. In their failure to notice the inherent schism nurtured during their worship gathering, they negated the substance of their practice. They were eating alright, Paul says; they just weren’t eating the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17ff).
The Table was all about proclaiming the Lord’s death, which destroys the dividing wall of enmity, into human neediness, but the Corinthian’s practice of feasting at this meal erected a wall between the haves and have-nots. What they thought was a holy moment actually reinforced class division. The Table had become a farce.
In order to move forward, Paul said, you must discern the body.
Likewise, we must discern what is going on among us. We must discern what Christ is doing in and through the Table – the reconciliation he is working. If we want to restore unity in the church today, it begins by opening space around the Table to be attentive to what we don’t know that we don’t know.
It is around the Table we remember that we are “one body and share one bread.” But when we do not discern the body, what was intended to be a source of our unity becomes the very cause of division. When this happens, we are not even eating the Lord’s Supper. We think we’re doing the Jesus thing, but we are just eating sandwiches.
What does it look like to discern the body?
The answer to that question, of course, depends on whose body we are discerning, the body of believers or Christ’s body as memorialized in the Supper. Historically the pendulum has swung both directions, but it seems to me that, recently, justice-oriented evangelicals have favored the former over the latter. Our corrective move toward the “least of these” has often meant the de-ecclesiologizing of the community, which has meant the de-Table-ing of worship, which has meant the disembodying of Christ’s (real) presence among the community.
But surely both are essential. Rightly naming and responding to the diversity of believers in the body has everything to do with the reconciliation effected in and through Jesus who offered his body on the cross. Only in and through Christ’s body do those incorporated into his body have any hope of unity amidst diversity.
Keeping both in view is critical because the threat to unity today is not necessarily the failure to function as a body at all, but rather the danger that we would function as a different type of body – that is, we would be in some other body than Christ’s.
The unity-in-diversity Paul proclaims is more particular than generic teamwork – as if getting along and working together itself is holy. The punch for Paul is not just the simple analogy of a body for human cooperation and interconnectedness. The point is how that interconnectedness – the unity amidst diversity – is transformed by our incorporation and participation in Christ.
We must come together to ask, therefore, Whose body are we participating in? When we examine the habits that characterize our communal gathering, whose body do we resemble?
Discerning the body has everything to do with recognizing and naming the diversity in our community and then exploring how that diversity holds together in Christ.
This looks like creating space to ask, “What are our blind spots? Where is Christ working reconciliation? Where do we think we’re doing spiritual stuff but actually just eating sandwiches made only for the privileged? Where do we need to repent?”
Committing to discern the body has (at least) two immediate implications for restoring unity.
Restoring unity is a bodily endeavor. In a world where it’s easier than ever to feel justified in supporting causes from a distance, we cannot overlook how essential bodily presence is to the first step in restoring unity in Christ. Unity that comes from discerning the body necessarily has to do with personal presence – being among and for one another – because that is what we acknowledge in Christ’s body around the table – his real presence as necessary for us and our salvation.
Restoring unity cannot be programmatic. At some point discerning the body might seem unreasonable because the body is too big to be discerned. And when it’s too big to discern the body, how can you know if your gathering is actually reinforcing structures that nurture division? Large-scale programs are often the “reasonable” means for managing and catalyzing change by centralized leadership in a community that’s too big to listen to itself. Because we cannot presume to know beforehand what it looks like, restoring unity by discerning the body is necessarily a slow process that gathers the community to be attuned to where God’s reconciliation is breaking forth on the ground.