Unity and purity, a la “truth in order to goodness” are two principles that are supposed to be part of a package deal. Yet, amidst our current crises of post-Christendom (or post- whatever the latest -ism is) , they often stand opposed. Depending on your particular Christian sub-culture, you likely either find yourself within a group of people who wants to celebrate “unity” no matter how much doctrinal impurity, moral compromise, open hostility, or willful (but seemingly blissful) ignorance there is, or you find yourself within a group that has excommunicated somewhere in the neighborhood of 98% of world Christendom in the name of “purity.”
It needs to be stated clearly that unity matters – a lot. It is, in my view, the fundamental principle of new creation, when God joins together heaven and earth by joining together his Son and his bride, the Church. This is why division is such a scandal in the New Testament; division within the body of Christ is essentially a rejection of God’s promises, God’s mission, and the eschatlogical reality that has burst into the present in Christ. This is why the major divisions across world Christendom are so heartbreaking; they suggest that Christ’s body can be divided. If unity and catholicity isn’t on your radar, and if it isn’t playing a formative role in your theology, doctrine, and ethics, you might want to make sure that the Bible and the teachings of Jesus are still a bleep on your radar.
But lest we forget, purity matters too. Settling for the lowest common denominator between equally weak divergent views doesn’t count for unity. In the Church, it counts for laziness and doctrinal apathy. If anything, the lowest common denominator should serve as a common ground from which two divergent groups can begin pursing true unity. I’ll never forget when a college student said to me, “My church is so inclusive that I don’t know what it is we’re including people in anymore.” This was a simple but indeed profound and rather damming observation. What a daunting prospect (and present reality), that the church would no longer offer any alternative to the latest cultural whim, the most popular versions of political correctness, or a watered down religious therapy.
Scripture as a whole, and indeed the history of redemption, does an incredible job of keeping unity and purity together. And no, I’m not going to list a bunch of bible verses. “Whole” is the operative word, and thats why I used it.
Ok, so lets look at two ends of a spectrum. And yes, there will be exceptions to the rule. Feel free to gripe about your “exception” in the comments section.
In most struggling mainline denominations, “unity” is the trump card thrown for the sake of every agenda imaginable. Unfortunately, folks throw this trump card without any regard for the rules of the game. Its like calling out “uno!” while playing Texas Hold’em. Sorry, in the words of Walter Sobchak, “This is not ‘Nam – There are rules.” The bottom line is that orthodoxy matters – doctrinal, theological, historical, and moral orthodoxy – and thus scripture, creeds, and confessions matter (I adhere to Robert Jenson’s argument that the Creed and Canon are basically symbiotic). As Christians, we do not have the luxury of standing over our sacred texts and making them say what we want them to say. Our task is to discern God’s will and authority in and through his word, not to make the text and thus our theology in our own image. We are not some sort of “enlightened” generation that has somehow figured it all out. We still need to know that a flush is better than two pair and that we’re not allowed to redefine things like the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to make it more palatable for “reasonable,” “enlightened” people of the 21st century.
It is of course a cruel and sad irony that most efforts for “unity” and acceptance across western mainline denominations (not least my own) have in fact resulted in a deeper fracturing of the body of Christ around the world. In the name of openness and progressivism, many maninline Protestant denominatoins have simply alienated themselves from the rest of world Christendom. In some cases, it results in quite bizarre behavior, such as the official reinstatement of 5th century heretics (as if to say, “see, we still care about theology!”). Such agendas and efforts constitute, oddly and ironically enough, a sort of fundamentalism that is just as sectarian and destructive as the fundamentalism that mainliners claim to reject. The aims, too, are strikingly similar to the therapeutic gospel of “God just wants everyone to be happy” that tends to pop up from the more conservative televangelism outlets. “Fundamentalism” thus knows no bounds. “Liberals” and “conservatives” are sometimes on opposite sides of the same fundamentalist coin.
Simply put, if your aims for “unity” are at risk of dismantling relationships with people who are serious about the Lordship of Christ and the basic tenets of Christian Orthodoxy, you probably need to seriously rethink your aims and your understanding of the Body of Christ.
Ah, but the “conservatives” (or whatever hip label you’re using in order to avoid generational faux pas), are in no way off the hook.
“Truth” (if you’re into that sort of thing) be told, I follow church politics in denominations other than my own, including more conservative denominations. It is deeply troubling to me that quite often these supposedly more “theologically responsible” communions do not appear to have unity on their radar. Some of these denominations will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on witch hunts (burn her anyway!!!) in order to root out the supposedly diseased %5 of a denomination which makes up less than %1 of world Christendom. Uh…. yeah. Do the math.
I’ve had conversations with folks in more conservative camps who are unable to distinguish between doctrinal essentials and non-essentials, between the Apostle’s/Nicene Creed and their respective confessional traditions (if in fact creeds and confessions matter to that tradition), and even between the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ (yes, there is a difference, actually). I am appalled and saddened by “conservatives” who would essentially excommunicate the rest of world Christendom. Reality check – if your “unity” is with less than %1 of world Christendom, its not unity, its sectarianism. If we (Protestants) aren’t grieving over disunity with other traditions, including Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, we’re not grasping the gospel. Are there reasons that I cannot find unity with Rome? Yes. With the Orthodox? Yes. But I am indeed grieved by this, and you should be too.
If you consider yourself more “conservative,” would you still be willing to take communion with a Nicene-affirming Christian who has a different view than you concerning women’s ordination? Baptism? Charismatic gifts? Justification by faith (calm down)? These are all important issues, and admittedly fun to discuss, but they’re not top tier.
I can work with anyone who can (1) affirm the basic tenets of the Nicene Creed (and I mean really affirm these tenets – literally and propositionally), and (2) sincerely seek to love their neighbor as themselves. That’s pretty much my criterion. While I am guided by a collection of Reformed confessions, this confessional tradition does not warrant a divide between me and others who can humbly – with faith, hope, and love – proclaim that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is God Incarnate, that he died for our sins, rose from the dead, and ascended at the right hand of the Father (but that doesn’t mean we should simply avoid discussing other theological, doctrinal, and moral issues!)
To paraphrase a friend of a friend, just as some of us are theologically diverse to the point of heresy, some of us are theologically narrow to the point of heresy. The slippery slope goes both ways, I’m afraid, and I’m guessing that none of us is perfectly perched at the top (except me of course).