The Case Against Christian Unity

I really only have one simple thing that I want to say today. It’s an idea that’s been growing in me for some time now, and our text from Romans really spoke to me about it.

I’d like to present to you the case against Christian unity.

“Against Christian unity?” you might say. “But that’s one of the most basic Christian doctrines! Jesus prayed for us all to be one as he and the Father are one!”

That’s absolutely true. But Jesus didn’t specify how he wanted us to be one, and I think we may have gotten a wee bit off track there.

And I don’t so much want to get rid of the doctrine of Christian unity as to add to it.

Over the centuries, more blood has been spilled trying to achieve Christian unity than almost any other cause.

Generations of wars have been fought, Catholic against Protestant, Catholic against Catholic, Protestant against Protestant.

Tens of thousands dead, tens of thousands more injured or displaced, all so we might be united, all so we might believe the one, right way.

Then you have the wars of the powerful against their people, the Inquisitions both Catholic and Protestant that demanded doctrinal purity at the end of a sword, a stake, and a rack.

If that is the road to Christian unity, I’m not interested.

Today, we fight our wars for Christianity with words.

Schisms still happen every day. Little congregations break up, big denominations break up, over conflicts on women’s ordination or human sexuality or any other number of hot button issues.

People grieve deeply over others being “wrong” from their perspective, worrying that their salvation is in jeopardy while feeling heartbroken that they can no longer be in fellowship.

Once again, this can’t be what Jesus had in mind when he prayed that we all might be one.

I think the reason we have gotten into such a mess is that we are missing the other half of the doctrine of Christian unity.

Christianity is a religion of paradox.

We find deep spiritual harmony in seemingly contradictory ideas coexisting.

God is one and God is three. Death and resurrection. Sin and redemption.

Where would any of those ideas be without its partner?

Christian unity has been missing its partner all these years, its other half that gives it depth and meaning and roots it in God: Christian diversity.

Our lesson from Romans today points us directly to that conclusion, but we have traditionally not used it that way.

The idea of the diversity in the members of the Body of Christ is powerful and well-known in the church, but most of the time we have interpreted it only on the congregational level.

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

We have used that text to understand and to celebrate that some people are called to the altar guild and others are called to building and grounds work and others are called to lead our outreach efforts.

But what if it’s true on other levels as well?

What if along with the call to Christian unity there is also a call to Christian diversity?

The Baptists and the Methodists and the Roman Catholics and the Pentecostals—we all have something different to offer.

What if God is actually rejoicing over that instead of grieving it?

Surely our common aim is to bring more people into the loving embrace of God.

With the needs and perspectives of spiritually hungry people being so diverse, I can only see it as a tremendous strength and blessing that there are so many different types of churches out there to answer those needs.

There’s a church out there for everyone, and that would not be the case if we were all in lock-step, thinking and acting the same way all the time.

So rather than our differences causing us to fight each other and accuse each other of being wrong, I think we should utilize our differences to minister to different kinds of people.

“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” Paul says.

You notice the same principle in nature.

What is the unifying principle of the natural world?

Diversity.

Bio-diversity is a marker of the strength of an ecosystem.

Trying to force everything to be the same is a recipe for decay and death leading to extinction.

And so I think we need to hold Christian unity and Christian diversity as one of the great paradoxes of our faith, a both-and rather than an either-or.

In our gospel lesson today we learn that Jesus Christ is the rock on which we build our church. No matter what type of Christian we are, we are united in that.

But what type of church we build on that rock can be any number of things and still be valuable and authentic.

Whether it’s an igloo or a castle or a bungalow or a split-level two story, it’s going to be something unique and different, built on the same rock of Jesus Christ as our Christian neighbors.

Part of the reason this is so important is because learning to live in and celebrate Christian diversity, which is to say to quit using Christian unity as an excuse for violence in words or actions, is a witness desperately needed by our hurting world.

We need look no further than the current conflict in Iraq to realize that wars of religion are alive and well and killing real people every day. Our brothers and sisters in South Sudan are very aware of that.

When the Body of Christ tries to forces itself to be only one thing, it cannot survive.

The Body of Christ cannot be all noses or all pancreatic cells.

We actually have to be different to make a complete Body of Christ.

We need our differences because our differences bring gifts that make us flourish.

God has given each of our communities a little piece of the truth, but none of us has the whole truth.

We need each other, and we need to be different.

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

Where would we be without the Pentecostals’ exuberance in worship or the Baptists’ passion for evangelism or the Roman Catholics’ faithfulness in medicine and education or the United Church of Christ’s progressive social justice?

Much the poorer.

What do we as Episcopalians bring to the table?

Well, in addition to our three pillars of scripture, tradition and reason as a great organizing principle for a church, our Via Media (Middle Way), and our Book of Common Prayer, we also bring liturgical nerdiness and excellent wine and cheese parties.

One of our own leaders and theologians might have agreed with me on this whole idea.

As she struggled to help her people, so divided between Protestant and Catholic ideas, learn to live together as one nation no matter what their theology, Elizabeth I said, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.”

So I would submit to you that there are a lot of things in this world worth grieving over, but the lack of Christian unity is not one of them.

It would be like grieving that God had not made each one of us as individuals exactly the same thinking the same thoughts as one another all the time.

We need to live into our unique identities as churches as fully as possible, recognizing that it is those very differences that make the Body of Christ living and vibrant.

Christian unity and Christian diversity are two sides of the same coin, just like every other great Christian paradox.

Each makes the other possible, and each is much the weaker without the other.

Christian diversity would be a hollow doctrine without the simultaneous call to Christian unity, and the reverse is true as well.

I think God looks down on the Earth and see how much we all care about finding a path to God, and how creative and frankly bizarre some of those paths are, and takes delight in that.

Diversity on a foundation of unity is what makes the Body of Christ possible, and we are called to live out our own unique witness with all of our strength.

To have someone stand up and say that being Christian doesn’t mean being a clone might make all the difference for someone out there who has been longing for a spiritual home but has wondered if he or she would fit in.

And then the Body of Christ might be able to celebrate a new member.

 

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