Michael Jensen on the long search for Christian unity

Recently, I asked on my Facebook page what things made Christians most likely to feel like giving the faith away, and asked people to “private message” me.

There were quite a few things that came up, but one of the most common things that people said was that disunity and disagreement between Christian leaders and among Christian churches made them feel very discouraged.

If Christians can’t agree on their own faith, and are constantly at each other’s throats, then the Christian faith itself looks much less compelling.

This was, I think, increased for many people in recent years by the constant public wrangling that social media encourages (and of which I have myself been a part). While debates between Christians have, in my experience, nothing like the vitriol that you see in some other forums between (say) passionate followers of Star Trek or some sporting code, it is the case that the day-after-day barrage of back-and-forth argument is very wearing. It can make you think that Christians don’t agree about anything at all. In which case: can the faith they proclaim be true, really?

There is no question that unity among the people of God is something that is commanded in the whole Bible – not just once but multiple times. Whether it is Paul in 1 Corinthians urging the church to prize the spirituality of love above the spectacular gifts, or Jesus himself praying that “they may be one, as we are one” in John 17, or Paul again (this time in Ephesians) urging us to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, or John in his first letter, in his stark way, presenting us with the alternative of love for our fellow Christians or proving our faith to be false: loving unity between Christians is not just a peripheral thing but a deep manifestation of the gospel itself.

But we need to be careful about what we mean by “unity” here. Does unity mean “lack of conflict or disagreement”? Some of us are conflict-averse by disposition, and so we experience any disagreement as deeply upsetting. And it can be, of course.

The New Testament is certainly down on quarrelling. As Paul warns us, in a word for any social media addict: “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Tim 2:23)

But serious disagreement over the truth is not the antithesis of unity. It is actually an important ingredient of it. Paul himself models this, with his direct confrontation with Peter at Antioch over the circumcision of the Gentiles. And he is not opposed to using strong language to make his point!

So how are we to understand Christian unity?

There may be points at which we even say: ‘I cannot, in good conscience, see how what you are saying or doing is authentically Christian, and so I cannot stand alongside you on this.’ Perhaps we need to walk our separate ways.

First, the oneness of the people of God is intended to be a reflection of God’s own oneness. God is one: therefore, the people of God are one. That’s what we hear Jesus praying in John 17: that “they may be one, as we are one”. This is a very interesting prayer, the more you think about it. God is not simply a lonely, singular one. Rather, the Father, Son and Spirit form together the unity of God. God is a unity of three persons, which is why John will say that “God is love.”

The unity of Christians then is a reflection of the unity of the God in whom and by whom we are united. And this tells us a second crucial thing about this unity: it is something that is first and foremost a spiritual and heavenly reality, established by God, in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

It isn’t something that is built by human beings, like an empire, or a political party, or even like a family. It is a unity that comes down to us from above, as a work of the Holy Spirit in uniting people to Jesus. In the great psalm of unity, Psalm 133, the unity of God’s people comes down as a blessing from God like the dew on the mountains, or like the oil flowing down on Aaron’s beard.

This means, thirdly, that Christian unity is already the case. Those in Christ are gathered together in the heavenly realms, and made one in Christ. That’s the marvellous work of God! If we are in Christ, we already are at one with one another. We shouldn’t then confuse the unity of the institutional church for the actual unity that exists between Christians. Church organisations may exist in a variety of forms and in many places and still contain Christians who are united to one another across boundaries.

Fourth, Christian unity is not the unity created by an oppressive regime insisting on no diversity. Indeed, the genius of Christian unity in the Spirit, as 1 Corinthians 12-14 teaches, is that it is not a monochrome unity by authority, but unity of diversities in love.

Christian unity is, then, like the Christian life itself, not something to be achieved but a spiritual reality to be worked out by individual Christians and by churches – within congregations and among them. And like the other aspects of the Christian life, it is to be lived out in the midst of this present evil age, in expectation and hope of a final experience of Christian unity as we gather together around the throne of God singing the praises of the Lamb.

That means we should strive to express our unity with other Christians, but that we will always encounter moments of disagreement, tension and disappointment. There are a number of temptations that then appear. One is to create an artificial unity by getting bishops and moderators to have long committee meetings and issue joint statements. I guess it keeps them busy, but I am sceptical of these achieving anything of any substance.

Another is to sweep important differences in doctrine and ethics under the carpet as if these don’t matter. Can’t we all just get along? While it is true that some Christians will split over incredibly trivial doctrinal differences, it is also the case that Christians will care about the truth of their faith. They will want to avoid false teaching, because our faith is an expression of a truth that gives shape to love. It is loving to speak the truth to one another with all due humility but also with integrity and directness.

Another temptation is to do what some church leaders do, and enforce uniformity – making everyone behave and think exactly the same. But this notion of unity is un-Christian. The unity of the Christian church is not experienced in the adherence of believers to a church vision statement, or in the agreement of believers on every single issue.

But despairing of any unity between Christians would be another temptation to avoid. The Holy Spirit works to unify Christians, just as he does to make them more complete in Christ. He is a worker of miracles – including the miracle of Christian unity! We can be bold in seeking unity among Christians, because we are  simply expressing a reality already established in Christ by God.

What shou
ld we do, then?

We have to realise that Christian unity is not achieved by avoiding conflict. In fact, our determination to speak to one another seriously about our differences, even when they are unresolvable, is an expression of the spiritual unity we share. Orthodox doctrine will matter for Christians – the activity of opening the Scriptures and prayerfully and lovingly disagreeing is in itself an act of unity, not of disunity.

It may be that, as with Paul and Barnabas, a disagreement cannot be resolved and that there cannot be, this side of heaven, a full unity. There may be points at which we even say: “I cannot, in good conscience, see how what you are saying or doing is authentically Christian, and so I cannot stand alongside you on this.” Perhaps we need to walk our separate ways. When that happens it is sad, but because we have a hope that it is God himself who is at work, it is not hopeless.

However: churches and church leaders could be more conscious of the detrimental effect that their doctrinal confusion and bad behaviour have on other Christians. The great eras of mission – especially among evangelical Christians – were the eras in which there was a great common effort crossing boundaries of denomination and theological difference. Think of the Arminian John Wesley and  the Calvinist Charles Simeon, or the support of Methodist and Baptist missionaries by the first Anglican chaplains of NSW, or the amazing witness of the Billy Graham crusades.

Wouldn’t it be great to see that kind of united action among Christians again?