A personal appeal for Christian unity in diversity

Some questions floating around this post are:

What, for you, is the minimum basis for Christian unity and working together?

How would you say Christians have done on dealing with differences among themselves and with others?

If the answer to the last question is mixed at best, why are Christians often not very good at dealing with difference?

What is a biblical and theological way of looking at Christian unity in diversity?

Exclusion and EmbraceHeads up 1: this is a topic I feel strongly about and which turned out to be a much longer than originally intended! Further down is a discussion of an article on evangelical unity by Larry Hurtado.  So if you want to skip my musings, go on down the page!

Heads up 2: I’m not assuming evangelicals are the only Christians, but my specific focus here is on evangelical unity. What Hurtado says obviously has implications beyond evangelicalism.

Evangelical Christians have a reputation for being strong on truth. They are, after all, at heart ‘Bible people’. At best this flows out of a love for God’s Word and a sincere desire to honour and obey the author of the Word.

But, as has been discussed here a fair bit, things aren’t always so straightforward. The reality of hermeneutical plurality poses a continual challenge of how to hold together a sense of pan-evangelical identity. Or, to put it another way, how to maintain unity in the midst of diversity.

I think it’s fair to say that evangelicals, and Protestants generally, focus on truth as a basis for unity. If it is judged that there is enough agreement on core issues then unity can follow. Where there isn’t, unity is unlikely to develop.

In this framework, unity primarily has a propositional basis. Once it is confirmed that we have enough agreement in common, unity follows. The crux here is, of course, what constitutes that common core.

The impulse of a generous evangelicalism has always been to try to identify the minimum common core so as to maximise the basis for unity. The inaugural 1846 Basis of Faith of the UK Evangelical Alliance was remarkably simple. The modern one is a bit more detailed but keeps the impulse of seeking to say only what is essential in order to maximise unity. The EA Ireland Basis of Faith does likewise.

I’ve always been committed to this sort of broad ecumenical evangelicalism. For me it goes to the heart of ‘being evangelical’ which is an attitude as a well as a theology. There is a unity around the trinity, the gospel, new life, the Word. It reflects a shared understanding but also a shared experience of grace and a living faith. And it results in a joyful willingness to work together in a host of pan-evangelical agencies and organisations (and I work in one).

However, the history of evangelicalism has always (it seems to me) reflected a tension between this impulse to breadth and co-operation and another impulse to draw the boundaries more tightly, usually out of fear or concern that doctrinal minimalism is, well, too minimal.

And the tighter the core is drawn, the more restrictive the basis for unity.

The history of evangelical Bases of Faith reflect this tension. There is a trajectory of longer and more complicated bases in the 20th century developing in tandem with the boundaries being pulled inwards – whether around infallibility / inerrancy, judgement, eschatology, atonement …

Another way the boundaries are drawn in is practice only working with those of your own affinity group (whether that be a denominational or ecclesiastical  identity – Pentecostal, Baptist, charismatic, Anglican, independent etc) or a ‘coalition’ of like-minded evangelicals (like The Gospel Coalition for example).  To stay in ‘your’ group and not seek to work with other evangelicals outside it is, in effect, a denial of the sort of generous spirit that characterised evangelicalism at its best historically.

The impulse to pull in  the boundaries of a generous evangelicalism is one that grieves me. It inevitably works against unity and leads towards a sort of tribalism. It bases unity on agreement on specific matters well beyond basic historic evangelical orthodoxy. And it really grieves me that the word ‘Gospel’ is used to define such narrower coalitions or partnerships. If there is anything evangelicals unite around it is the gospel. To use it as a way of defining ourselves separately from other Christians is a move that I just don’t get at all.

Which is all a way of introducing a pithy article by Larry Hurtado I came across recently called ‘You’ve Got to ‘Accentuate the Positive’: Thinking about Differences Biblically’ in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Vol 30, No 1, Spring 2012.

Hurtado is a NT scholar best known for seminal work on the origins of Christology (which we use quite a bit in my Christology class). He also has a blog on early Christianity here.

Anyway, here in some bullet points is what he says about Ephesians 4 and living with difference. I think what he is saying is simple, brilliant and important.

  • There have always been differences among Christians from the very start – the NT is full of examples. Paul has sharp differences with Peter and with Barnabas, as well as struggles against false teaching.
  • Diversity was accommodated from the earliest times. The most significant was the early church’s ability to maintain the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers within the one mission of God and how Paul and the Jerusalem apostles agreed to work together. Paul’s long prioritisation on the Jerusalem collection throughout his ministry reflects a deep and consistent desire to maintain fellowship and unity.

Hurtado says about this early emerging orthodoxy that it was

not a single Christian group or teaching but seems to represent a variety of emphases, the crucial factor being a readiness to accept one another as fellow-believers and treat their common ground as more important than the things that distinguished them from one another. (22)

  • You see this generous impulse in Peter’s recognition of Paul’s authoritative writings in 2 Peter 3:15-16. And in the relationship of Peter and Paul recorded by Luke in Acts.
  • You see it in the early church with Justin’s generous welcome of Torah-observant Jewish believers as long as they do not require Torah observance from Gentile believers.
  • You see it most graphically in the four-fold Gospel. Right from the beginning all four were regarded highly. The early Christians held onto this diversity in the face of problems raised by diverse accounts, and in the face of Marcion’s insistence that there is only one authentic gospel (for him, part of Luke). The shape of early Christianity is diversity within unity. Hurtado says,

Given the paradigmatic significance of the NT, we could say that this affirmation of diversity is written into the scriptural DNA of Christianity. (24)

  • But in the history of Christianity, and especially since the Reformation, diversity has tended to be seen as a problem, a threat or an obstacle to unity.
  • Behind this feeling is that Christian unity depends on full agreement.
  • Hurtado asks whether our anxiety about diversity actually leads us to become narrower than the NT itself. And he looks at Ephesians 4 as a test text. He argues that it challenges our ‘traditional fixation with doctrinal agreement as the key basis for Christian unity’

Ephesians 4

  • He focuses on 4:1-14, but an over-riding theme of the letter can be said to unity. The exhortation in 4:2-3 is especially important. Christians are to act

‘with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’.

  • Such an exhortation assumes the reality of disagreement, otherwise it would be unnecessary. Forbearance is needed when others (in their perversity and incomprehensible foolishness [my words 😉 ] do not agree with me.
  • Note that unity is NOT a bond of doctrinal agreement. Unity already exists. Unity is a gift, given by the Spirit.

As the following verses indicate, the bases of Christian unity lie in the unity of God and God’s actions. Believers are one (whether they act accordingly or not) because ‘there is one body, one Spirit… one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all’ (vv. 4–6). (25)

  • In other words, Christian unity is to act on something that is already there, given by God. Believers ARE one, the challenge is to act in ways that reflect that unity (and not in ways that deny that unity).
  • And the text celebrates diversity given by the Spirit (vv 7-12)
  • It’s vital to see unity of faith in eschatological terms – the goal of the Christian life is articulated in verse 13: “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
  • Note here how unity in the faith is only fully arrived in new creation. It is part of Christian hope. It is NOT something that can be fully arrived at here and now.
  • Unity of the Spirit, on the other hand, IS a present reality and can be maintained. Unity in the Spirit does NOT depend in full unity in faith.  Hurtado puts it like this,

In the history of Christianity, however, unity of doctrine has typically been seen as the requisite condition for ecclesial unity, for worshipping together, for truly recognizing one another fully as fellow Christians. That is, Christian unity has tended to be seen as ‘unity of the faith’, agreement in Christian teaching. And differences of doctrine have tended to be treated a justification for refusing in various ways to treat those with whom we differ as full siblings in God. We have, quite simply, tended to reverse the clear sequence of this passage. We have made agreement in doctrine a requirement for Christian unity, and we have used differences as a justification for disunity, an excuse to ignore the clear exhortation to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. But ‘unity of the Spirit’ is to be maintained ‘in the bond of peace’, which means choosing not to go to war over differences, not to attack and inflict the harm of denying Christian fellowship upon those with whom we differ.   (27) [my emphasis – and this is quite a stunning claim]

  • Yes the text warns against being ‘tossed around by every wind of doctrine’ , but what is mind here is heresy and a sectarian impulse to refusing to recognise other brothers and sisters as Christians.
  • The exhortation continues with an appeal to ‘grow up into him in all things, he who is the head, Christ’ (v. 15)  and to ‘speak the truth in love’. Unity is not at the expense of truth, but it is impossible without love.
  • A concern for truth is NOT an excuse for harshness, hatred or judgementalism! Such truth in love demands great effort and hard work and only emerges from a determination to be loving (I Cor 13).
  • Yes, Hurtado agrees that it is right and necessary to articulate Christian faith clearly and to explore and discuss differences together. But he closes with two points

First, the responsibility to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ does not await ‘unity of the faith’, and this responsibility is not lessened because of differences in faith. The ‘unity of the Spirit’ that requires ‘forbearing one another in love’ is obligatory precisely because there are differences among Christians, and is to be maintained precisely in the midst of these differences. ‘Unity of the Spirit’ is a present obligation. ‘Unity of the faith’ is an eschatological condition dependent upon God’s final consummation and revelation.

Second, our concern to articulate truth in words and practice must be exercised in Christian love. And this agape-love is not sentimental but a robust commitment to concern and care for others, including especially those with whom we differ. Agape does not mean approving the views of others or consenting to them, and it certainly does not involve an indifference to the concern for Christian truth. We are summoned to love those with whom we differ, and Christian agape is most fully expressed precisely by believers who care deeply about the matters over which they differ, but are also committed to finding what unites them as well as identifying their differences. (28-29)

Comments, as ever, welcome.


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