Continuing from the past few days, I’ll add a few more points and will soon leave this matter of Christian unity.
Unity based on single doctrinal points (or families of related points) may be difficult to achieve, if not completely fallacious. Water unity isn’t even attainable within the circles of the Baptist denomination(s) or the Church of Christ, for instance.¹ Calvinistic unity, too, is elusive, as may be observed in a casual glance at the Presbyterian Church (either of them), the Christian Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church (either of them).
Head unity is based on reasoned understandings and was stressed by Alexander Campbell and Disciples of Christ in the 19C,² but it depends on conformity of human brain activity and is not likely to occur. Still, it probably does us good to narrow the sense of core Christian doctrine down to the facts upon which more/most of us may unite. Many of us can agree on such facts as Jesus’ birth to the virgin Mary, His atoning, sacrificial death, His miraculous resurrection, etc. Opinions about the facts are other matters altogether. Never can two thinking Christians unite on every peripheral opinion, induction, or deduction about a biblical fact, but the facts themselves deserve much consideration in this arena.
False unity results when a charismatic leader describes unity and asserts it where it does not exist. Gregarious pastor-types may seek popularity by means of downplaying differences and making things appear more unified than they are. Glistening or syrupy sermons do not create unity.
Leroy Garrett highlights what Barton Stone called fire unity–the gift of the Holy Spirit. Inasmuch as this means the unity given by the Spirit that we are merely to maintain (Eph. 4), it warrants attention. It’s not a goal so much as it is a reality: we don’t need to achieve it; it’s already achieved. But if “fire unity” means some supra-natural manifestation of the Holy Spirit–or even vaguely refers to something like “the Pentecostal fire of Christ’s presence”–as a marker of unity, it’s clearly not very unifying and is bound to fail.
Sunday-only unity can be more difficult for some, and less difficult for others. Whether it works depends, in part, on one’s ecclesiology in terms of the assembly–how prominently corporate Sunday activities figure into the scheme or worldview.
- If one thinks that what is done on Sundays is central and non-negotiable, agreement on those things is necessary for peace, as it were. By conscience, some insist on conformity in all things observable during the Christian assembly.³ This scenario may be difficult to imagine in reality (or it may almost be assumed by those who by personality or conviction are bandwagon believers), but I have found it to exist commonly in the churches of the ARM. It may be experienced rather shallowly in suburban and urban areas, but it is experienced nonetheless, and a measure of conformist peace may be reassuring. On the other hand, this kind of unity is at once elusive and illusive. A false “blueprint” conception of the New Covenant writings may be at the foundation. The scriptures were not written to provide a precise pattern for church behaviors, although they do provide many guiding principles — and certain specifics — for all aspects of living.
- If one thinks more relationally, i.e., how I believe in relation to the sister or brother sitting in front of me or beside me, then corporate activities take a back seat. Large-scale aspects may be agreed on, or not, and the relationships will continue to be primary. As the ultra-rightist, Reaganite, Commie-hating character Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Family Ties) once articulated it when considering a Russian chess opponent, “It’s easier to hate a country than a person.” Stated in the positive, it’s also easier to love and accept a sincere, individual believer, than an entire, off-base denomination or a large-scale corporate practice not based in scripture.
Perhaps a blend of extroversion and introversion is in order here: thinking soberly and biblically about what is done when Christians gather together, yes, but also emphasizing individual relationships and the discipleship of individual souls alongside the large-scale stuff.
One more installment, tomorrow: Unity and Restoration–a plea
¹ I understand that a Baptist forbear, John Smyth, immersed himself. If he did that for the sake of church membership, as many Baptists today call for it, I’d be shocked.
² The Barton W. Stone “side” of the ARM does not seem to have emphasized rationalism as much as the Campbell side.
³ Further in the Sunday-unity model, there may be implications for discussions in lobbies and in Bible classes: agreement on a list of items is either assumed or inflicted. Dissent is either absent or kept under wraps.