Results tagged “unity” from Reformation21 Blog

Pursuing True Unity


There is something transcendently unifying when a group is engaged together in a singular, heroic cause. For instance, historians have often highlighted the camaraderie and esprit de corps they have found among the members of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps embodies, perhaps more than anything else in American public life, a brotherhood--forged in the forest of Belleau Wood, on the sands of Iwo Jima, through the bitter cold of Chosin Reservoir, and in the streets of Fallujah. The Marine Corps represents an ethos which has gripped the American imagination since our nation's inception. And that ethos centers around the fact that Marines fight America's toughest battles. When I entered the Corps in 2007, it was at the height of our involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan War. As Marines we shared a common enemy and a common mission and our success depended on our unity as Marines. In this war-time environment, it was normal for Marines from every socio-economic background in America to forge close friendships with each other. I served with Marines who loved those of different ethnicities as much or even more than their own families, and they were willing to lay down their lives for each other. It really did not matter whether you were white, black, Asian, Republican, Democrat, poor, rich, or something in between (not that these identities and distinctions are unimportant), what mattered was that you were a Marine and that we needed each other to win the fight against a formidable enemy.

By way of contrast, our ethnically, politically and socio-economically diverse nation is currently rift with division. Rod Dreher and many others predicted that this is exactly where we would be, after President Trump was elected. It is also not surprising that the wider divisions in the culture have seeped down into the Church. What is surprising is that rather than seeking to maintain biblical unity by the means outlined in the New Testament, some in the Church are turning to secular social constructs and methods--advocating for their use in the Church. It seems that the sufficiency of Scripture is being compromised by many who continue to give lip service to its inerrancy and authority.

That being said, in the midst of all the political and ideological division in our nation, the Church has a golden opportunity to achieve and model true Christian unity. Our unity should be a central part of our prophetic witness to this culture. We need to turn back to the Scripture to discover how that unity was achieved and how it is to be nurtured and maintained among the members of Christ's body.

New Testament Unity in the Gospel

The New Testament emphasis, over and over again, is that true Christian unity is only built on a right understanding of the gospel. No matter our national allegiance, economic background, political party, or ethnicity, the gospel unites believers in one faith, one 'body' (1 Cor 12:12, 17). This is why Paul, a devout Jew, called Titus, a young Greek, "my true child" (Tit 1:4). To what does Paul attribute this close relationship (which, incidentally, contradicted the social boundaries of the ancient world)? He called it the "common faith" (Tit 1:4). It should not be lost on us that it is the gospel and a unity in orthodox doctrine which enables a once prejudiced Jew to call a former godless Greek his own legitimate son. It is also the gospel which enables Paul to write to the Romans, "For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you--that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mind" (Rom 1:11-12). Our common Christian faith is to bring us together above everything else and cause us to give encouragement to one another. The true gospel and the true gospel alone must be our primary focus--as Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasized so well at the height of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century.

It is our knowledge and love of God and the Lord Jesus Christ which transforms our relationships with one another. As Jesus taught, it is those who obey the gospel who are His true "mother and brothers" (Matt 12:49). The family of God outstrips all our other allegiances and affiliations. This includes our allegiance to a political party or ethnicity. Identity, and therefore unity, in the New Testament is almost always linked to the fact that we have been united to Christ in faith through the gospel. This is surely Paul's argument in Galatians 3:26-28, where the Apostle wrote,

"For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul was not insisting that these other identities do not matter (indeed he makes a great deal about Jewish identity in Romans 9-11 and male and female identity in Ephesians 5); rather, he is highlighting the fact that these identities are inconsequential when it comes to our standing in Christ. Nor should they be the primary emphasis in matters of Christian unity and fellowship with one another. This is also Paul's point in the second half of Ephesians 2, but I am not going to belabor the point.

On the flip-side, the gospel is also an equal-party offender. Paul's point in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians is crystal clear. Both Jews and Greeks were confronted by the message of the cross because it grated against their pre-conceived expectations of God--the Jews could not stand that their messiah could die the death of one cursed by God and the Greeks thought it foolishness that a powerful God would allow himself to be abused and killed. But the message of the gospel, "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks" is "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:24). This is why it is a travesty if our local church congregations do not reflect the ethnic diversity of our surrounding communities. For example, an ethnically monolithic church in a diverse geographical community is an affront to the unity the gospel produces among believers. For God is also an equal party elector and Savior. I could say a lot more here, but I think the point is made. The gospel is meant to break into diverse communities and bring a united people together who, by the world's standards, are not supposed to be united.

The New Testament Mission of God

The second principle of New Testament unity is a resolute focus on the mission of Christ. Christ charges us to "make disciples" through the proclamation of the gospel (Matt 28:19-20). Paul emphasized over and over again the necessity of gospel preaching in cultures, rife with issues of injustice (e.g. 2 Tim 4:2, Tit 1:3). It was this focus and the spiritual battle against the forces of darkness, which oppose this mission, which united the Church together.

In our day, many issues of justice such as abortion, slavery and human trafficking, or the treatment of refugees are important...very important. But they are not the primary mission of the Church. Nor are those issues what the Church is to be united around. Not that the Church cannot speak to those issues or that individual Christians cannot engage those issues of injustice with great success, but cultural transformation is not the primary mission of Christ's Church.

In the pages of the New Testament we discover that the early Church rallied around its primary mission, which was and is the proclamation of the gospel. As Christ's Church we have been commissioned with the most important mission in history. It is Christ's mission. And this mission demands all of our effort and energies as well as our unity in the gospel. We also have the most formidable enemy that has ever existed: Satan himself. Satan would love nothing more than for Christ's church to be divided against herself arguing about privilege, power, and political affiliation. Such discussions, in light of our daunting mission, are like stopping to debate about who is holding the fire hose and who is cranking the ladder in the midst of a five-alarm fire. We can be sure that when the Church leaves her primary mission behind and leaves her flank exposed in division that Satan is rejoicing.

When We Sin Against Each Other

Even when we are unified in our identity in the gospel and thoroughly engaged in Christ's mission, there will be times when we sin against one another. Christians will inevitably offend, and sadly sometimes grievously hurt, one another. Sometimes we offend even when we do not intend to do so. This leads to the third principle of Christian unity. Believers are called by God to relentlessly love one another. 1 Peter 4:8, Peter says, "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins." Our love for one another is an overflow of Christ's love for us (1 John 4:7). Our hearts are to overflow with love for one another inn such a way that our "love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). We are to think the best of one another and we are to be quick to extend forgiveness to one another (Col 3:13). This is key to our preserving the unity that we already have in our mutual union with Christ.

There is no room in the Church for harboring bitterness against a fellow Christian. There is no room for demanding that wrongs be repaid or 'reparations' be made--as some have recently been suggesting. There is no room for continually harboring doubt and distrust towards those who indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. Rather, we should be defined by a spirit of love and forgiveness. This love for one another, even when wronged, is what will stun our embittered culture.

In our divided culture, unity in the Church will be only nurtured and maintained, using the methods and principles that Jesus and the Apostles have outlined for us in the New Testament. If all of the members of our churches would commit to holding fast to our unifying identity in the gospel, relentlessly engaging in Christ's mission of gospel proclamation, and being clothed in Christian love for one another, our churches will be those that effectively maintain unity. These bodies of believers, from diverse backgrounds and idealogies, will serve as beacons of unity in a divided world. I'm hopeful that the Holy Spirit will do a great work among us to this end. This is our time and our opportunity to maintain and model unity God's way.

Is the PCA Becoming More Unified?


Some years ago, our friend Terry Johnson (senior pastor of Savannah's Independent Presbyterian Church) wrote an article suggesting an opportunity for constructive dialogue in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Terry classified the two main PCA camps in positive terms, seeing some brothers as more evangelistic (ME's) and others as more Reformed (MR's). Not that neither camp was evangelistic or Reformed; these labels could be given to both sides. Rather, the two camps could be distinguished as being more of one than the other. Terry argued that if we learn to trust one another, the ME's could be restrained from unbiblical innovations by the MR's and the MR's could be stimulated towards a Reformed piety that more greatly emphasized gospel outreach by the ME's.

At no time since Terry's article have I thought such a positive scenario to be more plausible than after this year's 2018 PCA general assembly. Recent history has conditioned us to expect combat between the two main camps, widely understood as progressives1 and confessionalists (or conservatives). Going into this year's assembly, however, the absence of highly contentious overtures was noticeable. Moreover, the most likely candidates for assembly warfare proved to be sources of cooperation and widely-held agreement. First was our unanimous affirmation of the Racial Reconciliation Study Committee report. Next came substantial agreement that the Bible's teaching of male-only eldership effectively bars women from serving as voting members of GA committees. Perhaps most notable was the nearly unanimous vote to grant full constitutional authority to the Book of Church Order language limiting marriage to only the union of a man and woman. Moreover, both in committee meeting rooms and the hotel lobbies, would-be progressives and confessionalists were seen conversing as friends and even forging agreements that would produce a greater consensus.

All of this is to ask, "What is happening to our beloved PCA?" Hopefully, I would suggest, something very good. Might this year's GA signal that we are moving close(r) to a new and functioning unity? As one who has often departed from the PCA general assembly in near despair, I must confess that I returned this year with hope that, Yes, perhaps we are closer to unity that I earlier had thought.

Even as I write these words, the groaning from supposed enemies and (even more so) from loyal friends rings loud in my ears. So let me be clear that I have not yielded to sentimental fantasies. I know quite well the significant number of matters on which unity does not exist in the PCA. Why, even the GA worship services are usually divisive (especially to oft-horrified confessionalists like me), replete with ruthless virtue signalling and finger-pointing sermonic warfare. Meanwhile, the fringes of both main camps regularly speak and act in such a way as to prompt spontaneous combustion on the other side. Yet it still seems that the PCA middle is growing larger in number and clearer in its commitments, and with more participation from partisan players (like myself). Therefore, in the spirit of Ephesians 4:3, which urges us to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," let me explore two key avenues for the PCA to move forward in a new functional and spiritual unity.

First, unity in the PCA will require a clear doctrinal consensus on contested matters. It speaks to our times that PCA members are divided not so much on matters of confessional theology but on contested cultural hot spots. I would identify three main topics in which a future unity in the PCA will require a strong consensus: women's ministry, creation v. evolution, and homosexuality. So what would a ME-MR constructive unity look like when it comes to these subjects? Let me offer the following, not in terms of demands from one side or the other but simply my own view of what unity would require:

  • Women's Ministry. In order for the PCA to have unity, it will be necessary for ME's to accept our denomination's historical commitment to the Bible's teaching of male-only elders and deacons, involving not only ordination but also the functions of those offices. Meanwhile, MR's will need to show a broad embrace, within the above bounds, of women exercising their gifts and partnering with men in the work of the gospel. Given the clear stance of the 2017 Women's Ministry Study Committee report in agreement with both of these sides - against ordination to elder and deacon and for wide-ranging ministry - there is reason to be optimistic. This year's denial of the overture to admit women as voting members of general assembly committees is even more encouraging to those concerned about a liberal drift. Still, the coming years will tell the tale, and if progressives become resolved to achieve women's ordination then all hopes of unity in the PCA will be dashed.
  • Creation v. Evolution. PCA unity on this topic requires MR's to accept that not all of our brothers are going to hold a strict 24-7 view of Genesis 1. But it will also require ME's clearly to accept that evolution has no place in our denomination, including end-run theories like old earth progressive creationism. If we can continue to agree on the biblical portrait of a historical Adam, clearly exclude evolution, and accept diversity within those bounds, the PCA can maintain our functional unity. Conversely, attempts to foster acceptance of evolution or to impose a 24-7 creation view on the denomination will lead to further division.
  • Homosexuality. At the heart of our division on this subject is whether or not to define same-sex attraction (SSA) as a morally neutral status that does not require repentance. PCA progressives seem to have asserted such a sub-category beneath sinful desire (essentially adopting the pre-Reformation concept of concupiscence).  PCA conservatives hold with the Reformers against concupiscence, urging that the Bible does not meaningfully distinguish between "orientation" and "desire" (see James 1:13-14). Can we come to an ME-MR agreement on this topic? I was encouraged in this regard by comments made during the general assembly by Mark Dalbey, president of Covenant Theological Seminary. While conservatives may quarrel with details of Dalbey's configuration, his statement that "attraction to the same sex must be mortified by the means of grace and the support of the people of God,"2 is at least close to the conservative view regarding same sex attraction. Moreover, MR's are convinced that expressions such as "gay Christian" are incompatible with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as a wholesome description of a believer. For their part, ME's are concerned for believers struggling with homosexual desire to be granted their full human dignity and embraced with loving gospel ministry in the church. Can we reach an agreement that brings both sides together? This remains to be seen, although I was encouraged in this hope by the experience of general assembly.

As I have indicated, I left this year's PCA general assembly with a strengthened hope that we may achieve a constructive doctrinal consensus on cultural hot topics. But, second, unity in the PCA will also require a renewal of trust between the long-contested parties. Can we move from progressive-confessional conflict to a constructive ME-MR dialogue? The answer will require us to think better of one another than our fears might counsel. It will mean seeking to understand as well as to be understood. Unity will require us to face the question as to where our actual aspirations lie: against one another or together in renewed unity? I do not deny that I, for one, have often despaired that the two sides of the PCA have enough agreement to ever really walk together again (Amos 3:3). Undoubtedly, the upcoming general assemblies will tell this tale. But 2018 suggests that maybe we do want to walk together and maybe we can. Perhaps the real question asks if we are willing to agree? To be sure, it will be through a shared commitment to truth that we will recover our trust. But the dynamic works both ways: if we are willing to trust one another, this will greatly aid our shared pursuit of truth.

The stakes are high. What a blessing it would be if our energies were no longer directed to inner-denominational conflict but together in a shared (or at least compatible) vision of Christ's reign through the gospel in our sin-scarred world. Truth first, then unity. But, for both, let this year's PCA general assembly prompt a renewal of trust, or at least in the hope of trust. For we are, both ME and MR, "his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (Ps. 100:3), and we both love and serve the same Good Shepherd whose "steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations" (Ps. 100:5).

1. So named by Bryan Chapell, "The State of the PCA," By Faith, 5/12/2015.

2. See the video recording of the Thursday PM session, starting at 2:09:05.

The Zwinglian Option


You will have heard of the "Benedict Option" for coping with the culture wars. I would like to propose to Reformed Protestants the "Zwinglian Option" for ending the worship wars: eliminate all music from our public services. Zwingli, the outstanding musician among the Reformers, removed all music from the church in Zurich. We wring our hands over our worship divisions. The two ends of liturgical spectrum endlessly annoy each other. Think about it. Take away the music and we have little left to fight about. No more arguments about instrumentation. No more fights about types of songs. No more conflicts about the amount of time spent singing. Take it all away. No more music. No more songs. No more singing. This would be a very painful option for me personally. I love metrical psalmody. What is better than worshipping with a congregation that knows the Trinity Hymnal version of Psalm 51 to Redhead ("God Be Merciful to Me") or Psalm 146 to Ripley ("Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah") or Psalm 23 to Crimond ("The Lord's My Shepherd")? It would be an equally painful option because I love classic hymnody. What is more moving than a full house of worshippers singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" to Nicea, or "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" to Hamburg.

The loss would be significant, yet the gains would be abundant. No more heartburn for traditionalists when the bongo drums and tamborines are unleashed. No more inward groans when we sing a mediocre modern tune with mediocre lyrics as led by unordained "worship leaders." For the other side of the spectrum, we'd have to give up today's favorite contemporary praise songs and modernized hymnody. But think of what we'd gain: no more dreary old hymn tunes to dampen the spirit. No more funeral dirges to inflict on otherwise celebratory services. Remove all music and nothing is left to distress anyone.

Unity in worship

What would be left? Only that upon which we can all agree. Reformed worship in all its beauty and simplicity would remain:

  • a full-diet of biblical prayer (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions, illumination, and benediction)
  • lectio continua readings of Scripture, or at least substantial readings
  • expository preaching, hopefully of sequential texts, taking congregations through books of the Bible, but at least of texts selected topically
  • regular administration of the sacraments

Who possibly could object to these slimmed down services? Can you not envision the happy result for those who move from one community to another, or those on vacation, as hither to unknown Reformed churches are visited, and nothing is found to complain about at the services?

Let's walk through such a service. A strong opening prayer of praise might be offered, followed by a chapter read from the Old Testament. A prayer of confession of sin with thanksgiving for pardon might come next. Perhaps a baptism might follow. Then the sermon text might be read followed by the sermon. Prayers of intercession followed by the benediction might end the service. What do we have? A simple, substantial, spiritual service. No one is jockeying for "their" music. No one is upset because the service is too light and frivolous or too heavy and serious. No one is uncomfortable because of the emotional restraint and staid postures of the old-schoolers or the emotional excesses and bodily movements of the new-schoolers. Our congregations are unified and at peace. Our denomination is unified at that most vital of times, the hour of worship. Everyone knows what to expect when he or she visits one of our Reformed churches. The solution to the worship wars easily is solved by the Zwinglian Option. No more music. No more singing. No more songs. Nothing remains to divide us. Music has become an idol that divides the church. Let us then smash it.

Genevan option

Is the "Zwinglian Option" too severe? I suspect many will consider it so. Let me then modify my solution to the worship wars by offering a second option, a tweaked version of the first: the "Genevan Option." The Genevan Option would be less stringent and more palatable for many. Let's restore the singing. However, we'll continue to eliminate the instrumentation as in the Zwinglian Option. No more musical instruments. All singing would be acapella. There, isn't that better? Don't for a moment think that this is unworkable. Reformed Protestants worshipped without instruments for nearly 300 years, which, by the way, is longer than we have worshipped with them. Our friends at the RPCNA will assure us that unaccompanied singing is the most beautiful of all church music. The human voice, after all, is the most beautiful of musical instruments. We'll get used to it, and for most people it will beat the Zwinglian Option. Unconvinced? You are thinking that we'll still fight over the types of songs that we'll sing? My answer is, yes and no. Without instruments to carry the song, the two extreme ends of the musical spectrum will quickly be eliminated. The contemporary music that is more suited to performers will prove unsingable for congregations without instrumental support, as will overly complicated classical music. This will push our song selection into the middle of the spectrum where consensus is more likely.

Or, we could go a step further with the Genevan Option and eliminate hymns along with instruments. This would not be my preference. Yet if we're going to argue about whose songs get sung, let's settle the issue by limiting our songs to the Psalms, metrical psalms. Again, this is not unprecedented. After all, this is all that Reformed Protestants sang in their public services until Isaac Watts and his contemporaries gained widespread acceptance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Surely it would not be onerous merely to return to the dominant practice of our forefathers for the better part of 300 years.

There. We've done it. We have a way forward. We can reunite our divided churches by one of two paths, the Zwinglian Option or the Genevan Option. Plenty of latitude remains: we may or may not utilize the Creeds and the Ten Commandments ("lawful oaths") in our orders of services; we may administer the Lord's Supper weekly, monthly, or quarterly; a wonderful variety continues in our prayers, readings, and preaching. Plenty remains in our services to thrill the heart and feed the soul. They will continue to be God-centered, gospel-structured, word-filled, church-aware, and Spirit-dependent. The path ahead for us is clear. All we need do to restore church unity is give up our songs or at least our instruments, or at least our instruments and hymns. Surprisingly easy, isn't it?

Unity in Multi-Categorical Diversity in the Church

Without in any way wishing to take away from the ongoing conversation about the dire need for the church in North America to focus on attaining unity among ethnic diversity by means of the Gospel, I have long felt the challenge of fostering Gospel-unity and fellowship among existing diverse categories of people groups in the local church. 

Having been in ministry now for nearly a decade, I have observed a series of what seem like insurmountable obstacles to uniting diverse members of the church in fellowship. It is incumbent on pastors and church members to pursue growth in specific areas where Scripture calls for spiritual growth and vitality in the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul had this in mind when he charged the members of the church in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus to use the diversity of gifts that God had given them for the building up of the body as a whole (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). As I survey the landscape of the church in our day, I see four categories--in addition to ethnicity and spiritual giftedness--where there is a need for greater unity among the diversity of members in the church: 

1. Socioeconomic. The Scriptures have much to say about the implications of the Gospel on financial diversity in the church. The early church modeled what it looks like for the Spirit of God to work among the people of God of differing socioeconomic standing (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32). One of the great pastoral problems with which the Apostle James dealt in his epistle was the issue of the rich in the church showing disdain for and partiality to the poor in the church (James 1:9-11; 2:1-13). The Apostle Paul also warned against the way in which the rich in the church of Corinth had begun to discriminate against the poor at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:21-22). 

The Gospel unites rich and poor when both groups recognize that they need the same atoning blood for the redemption of their souls. When we come to the law concerning ransom money in the book of Exodus, we read, "The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves" (Ex. 30:15). Both rich and poor need the precious blood of Jesus as the ransom price of their souls. The Law of God also revealed how showing partiality to the poor in his dispute (Ex. 23:3) or perverting the justice of the poor in his dispute was wicked in the sight of God (Ex. 23:6). The rich and the poor are to be dealt with by the same need for redemption and the same standard of justice. God shows no partiality in meting out justice to rich and poor. 

Unity of fellowship between the rich and the poor is not easily accomplished in the church. The poor of the church must not distance themselves from the rich in the church out of a sense of shame or pride; and, the rich of the church must not distance themselves from the poor in the church out of a sense of superiority or desire for status. In the church, the rich and the poor need one another. After all, the Scriptures reveal the following: "God has chosen the poor of the world to be in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love him" (James 2:5). The rich of the church often have much to glean from the spiritual-mindedness and example of faith from financially impoverished members of the body. By way of contrast, the poor in the church must allow themselves to be cared for by the generosity of the rich in the church. What a beautiful expression of Gospel unity when these things begin to take shape in a congregation of believers. 

2. Personality. There is a need for us to pursue unity among diversity of personalities in the church. Herman Banvick once made the astute observation about how God sanctifies and uses individual personalities in the body of Christ. He wrote:

Regeneration does not erase individuality, personality or character, but sanctifies it and puts it at the service of God's name. The community of believers is the new humanity that bears within itself a wide range of variety and distinction and manifests the richest diversity in unity.1 

It is far too easy for us to like those who are like us and to grow frustrated with those whose personalities are different than ours. 

Additionally, we must never confuse God's standard of holiness with our standard of personality. To do so is a sure recipe for divisive judgmentalism. We are called to love those whose personalities are different from ours--and to use our own personalities to benefit others. 

We see the way differing personalities worked to the benefit of the members of the apostolic band. The Apostle Peter and the Apostle John were two men with very different personalities; yet, they often spent time together for the sake of the advancement of the Kingdom of God. They ran together to the tomb (John 20:4). One almost gets the sense that they balanced each another out in ministry. No doubt, John admired Peter's boldness. Peter obviously looked on John's affectionate personality with admiration--and at times even sinful jealousy (John 21:20-21). 

Our Lord Jesus knit us together into a body of believers with all the strengths and weaknesses of our different personalities. While Jesus had a perfectly balanced personality and a personality that was perfectly sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit in His life and ministry, we--by way of contrast--will always have imbalanced and sin-tainted personalities. We need to learn to bear with one another and pray for one another (Eph. 4:2). I am sure that Simon Peter got a few eye rolls from members of the church, but when he was arrested "constant prayer was made for him by the church" (Acts 12:5). The church needs extroverts and introverts, those who have a natural boldness and those with a natural gentleness--all being sanctified by the word and Spirit of God. 

3. Personal Interest. In his masterful 1944 speech, "The Inner Ring," C.S. Lewis explained: "There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together." The same is true in the church. However, there tends to be a propensity for those in the church to form friendships exclusively on the basis of having similar interests with particular members of the church. When friendships in the church are formed predominantly on the basis of mutually benefiting one another socially--to the exclusion of forming spiritual friendships with others in the church--there is a unity problem that needs to be addressed. This is the essence of the problem of cliques forming in a church. 

Segregation in the body on account of interest can also happen when close-knit families choose to isolate themselves from the rest of the body. Members of the church need to intentionally invite into their homes members with whom they do not seem to have similar interests. When this happens, we will usually find that we have more in common with others in the body than we first thought. 

This problem can also manifest itself in church members of similar stage of life. The church is full of singles, widows, those married without children, those married with children and elderly. While there is value in churches seeking to create an atmosphere in which singles can spend time together in a focused way, or young married couples can get together and talk about unique aspects of their particular stage of life, church members at various stages of life shouldn't remain segregated because of lack of common "stage-of-life" interest. The members of the church should be reaching out to those in different stages of life than that in which they are at present. 

4. Generational. The Scriptures are clear that the fellowship among the members of the church is multi-generational in nature. The older men and older women are called to pour out their lives in service to the younger generation of believers. Paul charged the older men in the church to model godly live for the younger men of the church (Titus 2:2, 6). He then charged the older women to "admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed" (Titus 2:4-5). The younger members of the church need the example and wisdom of the older members and the older members need the zeal, excitement and care of the younger members of the church. 

As we work toward preserving unity in diversity (Eph. 4:1) in the church, we will start to see more of the beauty of the Gospel and of the Lord Jesus who has united us to Himself and to one another in His body. Christ is glorified by the realization of this loving unity in the church, and the entire body of believers is benefited by it.

1. Herman Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation (Grand Rapdis: Baker Academic, 2008) vol.4 p. 640

Nick Batzig is the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga and the editor of Reformation 21. Nick writes regularly for Tabletalk Magazine and blogs at Feeding on Christ and the Christward Collective. Nick is also the host of East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. You can friend him on Facebook or following him on Twitter at @nick_batzig.

In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation of 1520, Luther takes aim at the Roman Church's "flimsy and worthless" claim to possess the exclusive authority and ability (by virtue of some unique spiritual gift) to interpret Scripture. "It is a wickedly invented fable," the Reformer writes, "and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone." Against that "fable" Luther produces biblical texts that emphasize the distribution of spiritual gifts throughout Christ's entire body and equally emphasize every Christian's need to humbly submit himself to, and benefit from, insights into the meaning of God's Word that Christ's body collectively produce. He also notes how persons in Scripture occupying legitimately authoritative roles in the life of the church -- Peter, for instance -- occasionally required correction from others. So much, Luther puts it elsewhere, for the pope's claim to get wine from the same cask that gives everyone else water.

Upon the surface, it may seem curious that Luther chases these comments about Rome's presumptuous claim of some exclusive prerogative to discern Scripture's meaning with equally fervent comments denying Rome's exclusive right to convene ecumenical councils of the church. "They have no basis in Scripture for their contention that it belongs to the pope alone to call a council or confirm its actions." Against this further presumptuous claim on Rome's part Luther recalls that both the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) and the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) are generally regarded as "Christian" (i.e., legitimate and authoritative) despite their having been convened by persons other than Peter or pope respectively. Luther also employs some common sense, in the form of an analogy for the problems presently pressing upon the church, to suggest how absurd such a claim becomes when popes refuse to actually call councils (for fear, perhaps, that such councils might point a correcting finger at them): "Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and [let] it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority of the burgomaster, or because, perhaps, the fire broke [out] in the burgomaster's house?" Translation: If the building's on fire and there's buckets and water standing by, you don't wait for the fireman to show up and shout directions, you just get busy throwing water in the general direction of the flames.

Why, one might ask, the concern for a church council -- why, in other words, the concern to address the church's theological and moral failings -- once one has succeeded in stripping Rome of any exclusive right to interpret Scripture? Why not just wash one's hands of the whole Roman affair and commit oneself to doctrinal purity and proper charity with like-minded individuals who embrace Scripture as the only infallible source and norm of Christian beliefs and practices?

For one thing, because in wresting the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture from the papacy's grip, Luther didn't intend to turn it over to himself or any other individual. He intended, rather, to return that right and privilege of biblical interpretation to the church (properly defined). Luther by this point in his career freely admitted that church councils can get it wrong. But he believed they were far less likely to than any discrete individual, not just because there's safety in numbers, but because the church enjoys specific promises from God that inform (without making infallible) her efforts to understand and apply God's Word to her own corporate existence. Luther's desire for a church council stemmed, then, from his perception that the true catholic church might, in relation to his own difficulties, exercise her prerogative of biblical interpretation in such a venue and decide in his favor on the issues of authority and salvation that now separated him from Rome.

But also reflected in Luther's call for a church council -- beyond the hope that such a council might, on the basis of Scripture, decide in his favor on the controverted issues of the day -- is Luther's simple love for the church. Luther, quite simply, wasn't willing to give up on the church as a (western) whole, or to rest content in the knowledge that at least a large part of that church agreed with him. This was true even after his excommunication and the establishment of state endorsed evangelical churches throughout the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia. For years beyond Worms -- even when a peaceful resolution to the Reformation controversies no longer seemed possible -- Luther continued to call for a church council.

In recently re-reading and teaching on Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility, I began to wonder whether we as Protestant heirs of Luther today possess any part of his love and zeal for Christ's bride, or specifically for her catholicity and unity. I wonder, in other words, if we haven't grown too comfortable in our fragmented Protestant existence, and in the opportunity that our stretched-thin and mobile and consumeristic lifestyles present to walk away from problems in the church (at least as such problems present themselves to us in concrete congregations and denominations). To capitalize on Luther's analogy, it seems to me that the church -- no matter what form she takes in our particular lives -- is always on fire to some extent, or at least, there's almost always a fire brewing. How often are we waiting for someone to come and shout directions, or simply walking away entirely, instead of grabbing a bucket and getting to work? Is indifference our principal response to a burning church -- indifference rooted, perhaps, in the fact that in our day we think not in terms of church but of churches, and are fairly confident when fire breaks out that we can find a different congregation or denomination where things are less hot (at least for another five minutes)? As for the fires we've just walked away from when we move on -- well, as they say, someone else's problem.

We need more bucket grabbers in the church these days. And bucket grabbing, I think, looks like greater commitment to the church in its local expression and, simultaneously, commitment to the church on a much larger scale. We need less rhetoric of "service to the church" these days -- rhetoric that often masks rather blatant exploitation of the church by "Christian" organizations and individuals -- and more genuine service to the church; service, that is, driven by love; service that might leave us with singed eyelashes and splinters in our hands, but might equally save a few people from getting burned.


Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness of God

I've been slowly working my way through Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.  Released this year, it is the sort of book that pastor-theologians or theological students could make the focus of a reading group. It is beautifully written, fresh, biblical in method, and extremely stimulating. It is above all genuinely theological, and not as concerned with the political as much contemporary theological writing is. You can see some other comments I've made on Sonderegger here. This post represents the first of what might be called 'reading notes' on Sonderegger's text. 

'The Perfect Oneness of God' is the place that Sonderegger chooses to begin her doctrine of God. This is for a biblical reasons, she argues: the Shema is such a foundational truth for all of Scripture that it cannot be gainsaid. She notes that the New Testament is likewise insistent on the oneness of God as 'axiomatic', citing James 2:19: 'You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!'. For Jesus, the oneness of God is the theological principle from which he argues with the lawyer about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). 

So God is One. But what does that mean? Does it mean that God is to be worshipped alone among other gods? Or that in fact that there are no other gods? At this juncture, Sonderegger begins to address one of the concerns underlying her work: that the critique of a kind of theological conceptuality as being 'Greek metaphysics' in the name of a more 'biblical' or 'Hebraic' type of thinking has been a massive mistake in late twentieth century theology. For Robert Jenson, writing in the tradition of Karl Barth, the divine oneness needs to sweep away all thought of the 'one' of Greek metaphysics and instead consider the particular and distinctive contribution of the narrative of Holy Scripture, with its dramatic presentation of the threefold God. 

Sonderegger is not an anti-trinitarian! But she questions the almost universal trend to take the doctrine of the Trinity as the starting point for the doctrine of God. This was Aquinas's starting point, and that of many Reformed theologians, although not Peter Lombard's. Lombard began with the Three; Aquinas insisted on beginning with the One. 

So, what is Sonderegger's argument for beginning with the Oneness and not the Threeness? The Oneness of God is, she says, one of those principles so foundational that all other theological statements rest upon it. There are philosophical and traditional warrants for starting here, but most importantly: 'Divine Oneness is recommended principally by Holy Scripture itself' (p. 9). Sonderegger then argues that the principle form of the Old Testament is not narrative, but Torah. And the subject matter of Torah is the One God. In particular, we see the profound influence of the book of Deuteronomy in the gospels and in Paul. As Sonderegger says:
Indeed so central is Torah, and especially its representation in Deuteronomy to the authors of the New Testament, that we risk simply repeating these Gospels and Epistles when we set out the citations (p. 12). 
The law is framed in narrative, but it is after all not the narrative that Psalm 119 celebrates, but the 'precepts' 'commandments' 'laws' and 'statutes'. 

What this allows us to do is to go beyond God as an actor in a drama, as per Barth and Jenson, and to talk about metaphysics. The Oneness of God says something about his being. Even though Scripture is not a philosophical treatise, and it is certainly not a Greek philosophical treatise; but that is saying something about genre, not subject matter. This is an important principle to distinguish for a properly theological hermeneutics. The form of Holy Scripture is certainly not to be separated from its subject matter, but it surely can be distinguished from it, and definitely not reduced to it. 

In particular, the narratives and other literature of the Old Testament distinguish the One True God from the other gods by the fact of his invisibility. 'The nature of the One God is to have no image, form, or likeness' (p. 21). That is the opening principle for Israel's invitation to worship the One God. That is the tragic story of apostasy, as the chase after idols. The Oneness of God, and his Invisibility, are in opposition to the gods and idols of the nations that surround Israel. 

There are questions to ponder here. Is Sonderegger right in putting Torah in the central form of her reading of the Old Testament? Certainly, this move allows her to reintroduce the traditional metaphysical conceptuality of theology. The limp theism of a previous generation is now being seriously challenged (how did anyone ever think that Open Theism was a good idea?) But the warning, that a thicker version of metaphysics might do damage to the proper reading of Scripture, should be heeded, too. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

True unity requires common identity. For Christians, that one unifying factor that binds is the body of Christ, the Church.

The Church is a body that grows. Paul uses the term "body" to describe the unity of the Church. All the parts of the body have a relationship to other parts.

The Church is of one Spirit. While there are many differences within the Body, all are saved by faith through grace alone. No longer man or woman as before. It is the work of the Spirit that unites Christians in Christ.

The Church is the hope - the one hope to which believers are called. Unfortunately the word "hope" today often refers to something unknown or uncertain. It suggests nothing of stability or certainty. And, yet, that's exactly what is involved in the Biblical idea of hope.

And while the future of the Church has and continues to divide believers, Paul points to the one hope that unites. Jesus Christ is going to come back. There will be a resurrection of the body. Jesus is preparing a place in heaven for all who know Him so as to spend eternity with Him.

And this is what The Bible Study Hour share every day with tens of thousands across North American and the world. Alliance broadcasts bring the clear message of the Gospel to people who might never otherwise hear it.

By promoting the unifying truths of the Gospel, Alliance members like you encourage the Church to stand firm in faith. And you encourage us to continue the work. Thank you.

Your tax-deductible gift continues to encourage and equip those in your community and around the globe with the unifying hope of the Gospel.

Continue to praise God for the true unity only Christ Jesus gives! Remind others that our identity stands for all generations, not based on who you are or what you do but is found in your Savior, Jesus Christ. And allow the Alliance to serve you, as you serve the Church.

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Before we bid October 2014 adieu, and partly in recognition of today being "Reformation day," let me draw attention to the fact that this month marks the 485th anniversary of the Colloquy of Marburg -- that famous event in 1529 where Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met and agreed to disagree on the subject of the Lord's Supper.

The Marburg Colloquy is often viewed as a colossal failure. In one sense, perhaps it was. The Northern German princes who had committed themselves to Luther's Reformation were undoubtedly disappointed that Luther and his ilk couldn't reach a perfect consensus on matters of faith with reformers from the Swiss cantons and free imperial cities to the south. Such theological consensus might have paved the way to a political and military alliance between the Swiss cantons and the Lutheran princes, who had rendered themselves rather vulnerable in the empire by their support for reform. It might also have persuaded the emperor, Charles V, that there was actually something to the reformers' criticisms of the institutional church. Charles could hardly have been impressed when, at the Diet of Augsburg one year later, he received competing calls for reform from Wittenberg, the southern German cities, and Zurich. Such disunity hardly spoke well of the evangelicals and their cause.

In another sense, however, the Marburg Colloquy was a roaring success. Defending that claim requires paying some attention to the half-decade leading up to Marburg, during which Luther and Zwingli traded published jabs at one another regarding the Lord's Supper. Luther held that Christ is genuinely present in, with, and under the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine; Christ is there to be offered as a precious gift to God's people in confirmation of God's promise of forgiveness to them. Zwingli took the line that the Eucharistic elements are merely commemorative symbols of Christ's body and blood, intended to incite faith and gratitude in God's people as they eat and drink these elements in remembrance of their Savior.

Noteworthy for gauging the success/failure of Marburg is not so much the specifics of these reformers' Eucharistic views but the manner of their interaction regarding them. Luther was convinced that Zwingli's doctrine of the Supper sold the Reformation farm (as it were), converting the Supper back into a work of the people (as it had been construed in medieval practice) when he had struggled so hard to highlight the Supper as a work of God for his people. He proceeded to label Zwingli "completely perverted," "unchristian," and "seven times worse than... a papist," and urged his readers to shun Zwingli's writings "like the prince of Hell's poison." Zwingli was never as gifted as Luther in name-calling, but he responded more or less in kind.

Against this backdrop, the decidedly charitable and moderate tone in which these reformers officially expressed their continuing disagreement on the Supper at Marburg is extraordinary. The participants at Marburg expressed their agreement on 14 articles of faith before turning, in their final article, to the subject of the Supper. Even with regard to the Supper they were able to express substantial agreement on certain points which jointly distinguished their doctrine from Roman teaching. Regarding their disagreement, they confessed the following:

Although at present we are not agreed as to whether the true body and blood are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless each party should show Christian love to the other, so far as conscience can permit, and both should fervently pray Almighty God that he, by His Spirit, would confirm us in the right opinion.

Again, given the terms of abuse Luther and Zwingli had traded on the basis of their disagreement up until this point, the shared acknowledgement of the need to exercise "Christian love" towards one another, which was implicitly an acknowledgement of the genuine Christian status of the other, was remarkable. So also was the joint confession of the need to seek the leading of God's Spirit in continued efforts to arrive at a true (and mutual) understanding. That confession was an acknowledgement that they couldn't both be right about the Supper, and an implicit acknowledgement on the part of each reformer that he could at least in theory be wrong.

I suggest that Marburg opened the door to a Protestant re-conceptualization of what Christian unity actually entails. Until this point the reformers had been acting on, even if they did not explicitly adopt, the principle that genuine Christian unity must proceed upon a basis of complete uniformity in conviction. Perhaps in this regard they were a bit hung over from the intoxicating nature of pre-Reformation "unity," which was typically achieved -- when push came to shove -- by an authoritarian imposition of uniform doctrine from above. Such imposed "unity," of course, was no more genuine than is the "peace" a parent imposes on squabbling kids in the back seat of a car by forcing everyone to shut up.

From Marburg onward, Protestants increasingly realized that genuine Christian unity must proceed on a basis of genuine agreement regarding certain conviction, but that it can comprise real diversity of opinion on some (secondary or non-fundamental, albeit significant) matters. Such a re-conceptualization of what Christian unity actually is allowed for the emergence of properly confessional identities -- the emergence, that is, of persons holding strong beliefs on a number of points who were, nonetheless, capable of acknowledge persons of other convictions as legitimate Christians.

But Christian unity thus described -- premised on uniformity regarding core doctrines and charitable disagreement regarding secondary issues -- is no easy thing to bring about; indeed, it can only ultimately be a work of the Spirit. Christian unity thus described is, however, something we as Christians are very directly and explicitly commanded to pursue (Eph. 4.3). That, quite frankly, seems to be something that we in the Reformed world regularly forget. Luther and Zwingli might provide some inspiration for us in this regard, no matter the merits of their interactions before or after Marburg.

One can't help wondering, as a final point, whether the charity and moderation that marked these reformers' interaction at Marburg in comparison to their literary spats had something to do with the fact that at Marburg they encountered one another face to face. It's one thing to label your opponent, who is concretely present to you only as words on a page, as unchristian and perverted from the safe enclosure of your home or office. It's another thing to call him unchristian and perverted to his face.

If so, one way we might ourselves labor to fulfill the imperative of Eph. 4.3 is by striving to make our interactions with one another -- especially when those interactions involve (theological) disagreement -- as personal as possible. Perhaps one of the greatest factors currently working against unity in the evangelical world is the reality of how impersonal our interactions have become. It's as easy for us to heap scorn on those with whom we differ from behind the safe glow of our computer screens as it was for Luther to disparage Zwingli from the safety of his study in Wittenberg. Perhaps we should, whenever possible, seek to channel disagreement into more concretely personal venues, or at the very least we might start regularly asking ourselves how our tone and words might change if we were interacting with a living, breathing person on the other side of, say, a dinner table, instead of some nebulous internet persona.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

The idea of Christian unity has been so perverted over the years by liberal Christianity that there is considerable confusion about what it means, both inside and outside the church.

Another sad consequence is that those who are orthodox have overreacted to these abuses by rarely speaking about it, except to criticize it, and we even more rarely work for it. However, we must not let the precious vocabulary and principals of Christian unity fall into neglect or be stolen from us by those who have deliberately twisted and misused them.

A bright light in the midst of this confusion is the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals that runs this "ecumenical" blog, The Christward Collective, and strives to build wider Christian unity on a biblical basis.

I want to encourage more of this biblical ecumenicity; but to do so, we must first of all distinguish six different types of Christian unity. Continue reading on