Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A second challenge of unity in the gospel: being Christ-centred

Notwithstanding centuries old divisions between Christian churches, to say nothing of millenium old divisions between churches (filioque clause, monophysitism ...), Christian unity in the gospel is possible because Christ prayed for unity among his followers. It is inconceivable that Christ would pray for something not possible to occur. Further, the mature Pauline theological vision of the great purpose of God for the world is summed up in one word: unity.

'according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plant for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.' (Ephesians 1:9-10)

On the one hand, Christians are divided unnecessarily by conceiving the gospel too narrowly. When the New Testament itself offers at least five versions of the one gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul), our talk of what the gospel is in respect of its content and meaning needs to allow for Holy Spirit-led 'diversity-in-unity.'

On the other hand, Christians are divided unnecessarily by insufficient patience in theological exploration. Many apparent divisions among us represent differences in presuppositions, or understanding of history which, with more care about the starting point for our discussions could lead (should lead) to converging unity in doctrine. To an extent, recent discussions in the past half century or so between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, and between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, along with some World Council of Churches work on 'faith and order' have demonstrated the possibility that with time and a fair wind of the Spirit, we could be one undivided church again. But it will not be in my lifetime!

I want to suggest here that we are also divided because we keep taking our eyes off Jesus Christ and lack focus on Christ as the centre of the gospel. It is a simple fact, for instance, that the church is the body of Christ. All of its ministry and mission flows from Christ. Any division among us over ministry order, sacrament, and the like, is misunderstanding about Christ in the life of the church: it is Christ's episcopacy, for example, and his sacrament. Not ours.

There is diversity in the body of Christ (as Paul teaches, 1 Corinthians 12), but no division, for Christ is not divided. Where there is division in the visible church then something is wrong. Responsible Christianity works to fix the wrong, not to tolerate it, nor to attempt to paper over the division.

(Incidentally, Preludium offers a very interesting post on a divisive issue of the day, women in episcopacy in the C of E. But both Mark Harris, and the men he takes to task, may be missing the point! The question is not whether democracy will prevail or should not prevail, but whether starting with Christ and remaining centred on Christ we discern in unity that his oversight of the church ('the great shepherd of the sheep') may be expressed on earth by any suitable person redeemed by Christ into his body). (Later: with a very good reply by Mark Harris to my point)!


liturgy said...

Is it just possible that it is the attempt to list off, in ever tighter "detail" "beliefs" rather than living the way Jesus lived that inevitably leads to ever greater division and has always done so? And that, hence, the search for lists of agreed beliefs is not going to lead to unity? And that if we take serious the Vincentian Canon as your last thread assumed, "we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all" - actually that is going to be a very, very short list!!! Have emergent, missional approaches got anything to teach us as they leap over these debates? The philosophical underpinning of many of the debates even here have long ago been abandoned IMO. I'm not sure. Just a suggestion...

Peter Carrell said...

A very quick response, Bosco, is that there is definitely something to think about in what you say ... so much that I might try a post and not a comment in reply!

Mark Harris said...

Hi Peter... posted a response over on Preludium. Look forward to your further work.

Howard Pilgrim said...

I am with Bosco on this one, Peter, when he places "living the way Jesus lived" at the heart of the gospel once delivered to the saints ... particularly when we make reference to Paul's strong language about the unchangeable nature of that gospel in the first two chapters of Galatians. There the central issue is encapsulated by Peter "not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel", when he withdrew from table-fellowship with Gentile converts. I expect that the exchange between the two apostles included plenty of discussion about the example of Jesus and his radically inclusive table-fellowship.
So yes, the faith once delivered, and truly taught, is above all a way of life, The Way in fact ... not that this will make Christian unity any easier to attain!

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,
I want to raise a question about the nature of the unity we should strive for in Christ's body. Your post suggests we should be making every effort to strive for organizational unity with other churches and denominations. Is unity and partnership in the gospel sufficent as our goal, or must we aim for organizational unity also? Is working together to advance God's kingdom sufficient, or must this be expressed in a single church body?
I remember John Stott recounting (perhaps in his biography, I can't remember) a conversation with Rev. Dr Martin Lloyd Jones, where the Doctor was trying to encourage evangelicals in the CofE to leave and join his independent movement. Not exact quotes, but the conversation was something like -
MLJ: "Why can't be united?"
JS: "But we already are."
Maybe it's my pragmatism overtaking Biblical teaching, I'm not sure. I can see value in the ecumencial dialogues we have, but I'm not sure any of them are anywhere near discussing more formalized, organizational unity. Where I see real value is in the inter-denominational mission teams, youth outreach, Religious Education in schools, etc. where we strive together to make disciples of Jesus. These seem to be a much better focus for our efforts than the painstaking work of the ecumenical dialgoues.
Like I said, this is a question, rather than a formed opinion, so I look forward to other's input here.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrew,
I see nothing in the New Testament which suggests the limit to unity would be 'partnership in the gospel', or 'organisational unity.' Rather the sense given is of complete deep unity of hearts and minds, mirroring the unity of Father and Son.

What I am dreaming here would take a century or two, or longer at current rate of progress. Though perhaps if massive worldwide persecution broke out we would find ourselves progressing more rapidly!

Howard Pilgrim said...

I like your goal, Peter:- "complete deep unity of hearts and minds, mirroring the unity of Father and Son". A question I have for you is whether such unity is helped or hindered by organisational structures, especially those designed to exert discipline, in in particular this Covenant for which you are an advocate.

We used to make much of our Communion's "bonds of affection" as the basis of the unity we valued. When the affection is diminished, we are left with the bonds. In this situation trying to replace affection with discipline feels more like bondage than the unity and freedom binding the Father and Son, in which we share by grace.

Maybe all further Covenant negotiations should be subject to a moratorium while we rediscover our "bonds of affection" in Christ.