Reflections on Unity
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” –1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Coming to Christ is unquestionably the most wonderful event in my life. Being a young introvert who struggled with depression and self-image, the reality of the Son of God humbling Himself in order to rescue His wayward people transformed my entire perception of reality. Sin is defeated! Life had purpose! But one of the most powerful shifts in my perspective was that I was no longer an isolated individual; I became a part of something much greater than myself.
My first experience of Christianity was in a small town Southern Baptist church in Southeast Missouri, where I realized the truth and beauty of Christianity at the age of 15. The people there were, for the most part, wonderfully friendly and taught me valuable lessons on what it meant to love one’s neighbor. I will always remember my first visit to the youth group of the church when, as soon as we greeted one another in the Lord, someone climbed over the row of chairs behind me and gave me a massive hug. While an extremely awkward introduction, that was the moment I realized I was in the right place. That church was faithfully committed to teaching Scripture and vehement defenders of it. But many complications arose in the congregation and the church was split right down the middle, the two sides parting ways bitterly. I’m sure that many believed it was best for the two sides to separate into different churches and minister to their particular groups. Sadly, the ministries in both churches suffered greatly, and the two were never as effective as when they were as one. And to this day, many still bear those harsh feelings against the other side.
The tragedy that befell that church has continued to disturb me even a full decade after the fact. With all the division in the world already, why are the people of God contributing to it, especially for such a reason as “I don’t like this style of music/liturgy/speaking”? And worse, when the Lord says things like “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35), and we refuse to reach out to one another because “Well, they’re the ones at fault!”, are we really loving one another as the Lord commanded us? Paul tells the Colossian church this powerful—and applicable—piece of wisdom:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:12-16)
Unity is a critical aspect of the Christian life, and we can see its importance throughout the whole of theology. In both the intellectual and practical field, this concept has enormous reach, to the point that it would be quite impossible to explain everything in a single article; far greater authors have written volumes on this subject. Instead, I want to take one particular topic and show what unity—particularly ecclesial and ecumenical unity—reveals in it. Let us look at the nature of unity in salvation
Paul gives us an excellent overview of what salvation means in Romans 6, as he admonishes them for thinking that they could continue living in sin after they are saved:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. (Romans 6:5-10)
When we are baptized, we are joined with the death of Christ in order that we may be joined as well in His resurrection; what an amazing truth! Sin is not merely an unruly child’s outbursts of disobedience; it is a corruption and disease that must be annihilated. And through Jesus Christ’s incarnation and intervention, His light delivers the death blow against the darkness. With that, let’s discuss something that is easily missed: we are united with Him in death to be united with Him in resurrection.
What does it mean to be united in Christ’s death? Christ’s death functions as the atoning sacrifice necessary for the removal of sin. For our purposes, it gives an intriguing picture: “For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives for God.” (v. 10) Jesus did not die for each of us individually, but for all His people collectively. This is an element of His identity as the “Second Adam” and the Representative of the covenant between God and man. This is detailed by Paul in two places:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)
As covenant representative, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrifice impacts all of creation, just as Adam’s sin had corrupted it.1 And His actions work towards restoring the communion that was broken with the Fall, both between God and man and man and man. The unifying force of Christ’s incarnation fulfills the covenant that had been established by God throughout the history of His people, and in Him all nations are truly blessed as Abraham was promised over a thousand years prior.2 Our gender doesn’t matter. Our race doesn’t matter. Our upbringing doesn’t matter. All are invited into the community, and all come to Jesus on equal ground. And as we are united with Jesus in His death and through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, we are bound up into the identity of one another. Just as Paul calls the Corinthians to be, we become of one mind and heart, never seeking conflict with our brothers but rather reconciliation, peace, and communion.
T.F. Torrance has this to say about the work of Christ:
In the heart of that creation, God created man, made in the union of male and female as one flesh, to reflect the image of God within their relation of union with God. But that union between man and God was sundered… But the eternal purpose of God remained, and so at last in Jesus Christ… the mystery of God’s will became incarnate. It embodied itself in the midst of our humanity, begetting Jesus Christ the one in whom all mankind is gathered back into communion with God. By the atonement in the God-Man, through atonement and communion or koinōnia in him, humanity is restored to the lost relation with God, restored in Christ to union with God. The church is the sphere of koinōnia in history, Christ’s own body where that mystery of the kingdom is proclaimed, revealed and actualised, and there is created a new humanity through participation in Jesus Christ the first-born among many brethren, the first-born of all creation.3
This koinōnia—or “fellowship”—is a primary purpose of the Church in the world. Through peace, love, faithfulness, mercy, and community, we work towards piercing the veil and bringing the kingdom of God into this world. Think of the Incarnation and the Cross as an IV, puncturing through the divide between God and man while holiness and grace pour through. The Church works much like the treated blood, accepting the medicine and transferring it all throughout the body. But if the treated blood began to work against itself, it would lead to terrible complications in the body. It takes everything working together for the body to quickly be rid of its infection. In doing this, the unity of the Church works as a powerful witness for the world and even ancient wounds can be mended.
You have likely noticed that I am strongly convinced, through all my studies, that the unity of the Church, particularly in regards to ecumenical unity, is vitally important for the Church’s proper function. Scripture and church history clearly call for us to be of one heart and mind as the one people of God.4 I have met so many people who have rejected or departed from Christianity because of Christian pride and dissension, and I hate the fact that I cannot entirely dismiss their accusations, as these are serious issues that genuinely happen in our communities and must be answered. Every time I hear a new case of division because of issues like worship style or carpet color, I am reminded powerfully of a passage in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies:
He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.5
We cannot deny the massive repercussions of schism on the Church today. But what can be done about it now? It is all too easy to believe that there is no hope for a perfectly unified Church now that we have separated into so many denominations. And I must admit, the same unity that shaped the Church 1500 years ago is unlikely to return for a while. But this does not mean that we should give up. So how can we work to mend the broken bonds between us? But the real question should be: don’t we already know how to mend these bonds? “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23) “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) Love and reconciliation—the tools Christ Himself has given us—are our equipment to repair the divide. The first step is dialogues between local churches and realizing how the Lord is using each of us in our own contexts. Do any of us reject the Scriptures? The nature and reality of the Triune God? The Nicene Creed? Affirmation of our common faith opens the door to discussing the real points of conflict, and gives us a method to defeat them. With dialogue comes understanding, with understanding concurrence, with concurrence acknowledgment, and with acknowledgment peace. And with peace, the chains of discord and hatred can be broken, opening the way to the healing peace of the Lord. Is this not what we should strive for in all things, not the least our relationship with fellow believers?
I rejoice at hearing of the efforts of Christian leaders of all traditions throughout the world who are reaching out to one another and continuing ecumenical dialogue. And when I heard that one of my personal Christian heroes, T.F. Torrance, was a champion of ecumenical dialogues and pursued this very avenue of discussion. But I am equally saddened by those who continue the cycle of dissension and brush off any attempt to reconcile. I pray for the day when all believers of all traditions can come and share the same Eucharist, just as the Lord intended. This is not to say that it is an easy road by any stretch of the imagination. I know there are many critical issues that need to be talked through. But that is precisely what I call for us to do: to talk about these things, that we may be reconciled to one another and once again bring peace to the body of Christ.
(2) Cf. Genesis 12:1-3
(3) Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 165-166
(4) Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, just to reference one.
(5) St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, as translated in: Schaff, Phillip, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vi.xxxiv.html