*To more fully understand the conclusions in this post, see my introductory post on Christian unity, followed by reflections on the meaning, visibility, priority, benefits, and basis of our unity in Jesus.
My modest aim here is to ramble off a few scattered, disjointed implications that flow out of my arguments about unity in previous posts. They seem to be logical inferences to me, granting of course the legitimacy of the trajectory of this series. Without further ado, here are some things that strike me as important—even crucial—for Christians to ponder who are interested in pursuing biblical unity.
1.) The Necessity Of Defining The Gospel Rightly
This flows directly out of what I argued about what constitutes the basis of Christian unity—namely, the gospel plus nothing. I do not mean to minimize or detract from the importance of other secondary theological convictions and disputes withinin the church of Jesus Christ. These are legitimate and not to be cheaply dismissed. All truth about God matters practically for the life of the people of God. Yet only the gospel is central. Only the gospel binds together sinners within the household of faith.
Therefore, we must be clear on what the gospel is. What must be held to affirm it, and what must not be rejected in order to possess it? Few questions, if any, matter more in reality than these if Christianity is true. Note: Not what must be held to grasp the ideal gospel, or the gospel in all its glorious fullness, but rather the core thrust of it. What divides Romans 14 and Galatians 1:6-9? Finally, we must be equally zealous to prevent both additions to and subtractions from the gospel. Both will soon suffocate the unity Jesus and his holy apostles call us to.
The gospel is the sole boundary marker of the people of God. Yet the protective spiritual fence it sets up—keeping out impostors and keeping in the faithful who differ from us in serious ways—is contingent on recognizing its true contours. If we do not know and love the gospel in all its simplicity and sufficiency, the unity of the body of Christ is doomed.
2.) There Are No Second-Class Christians.
This may seem an underwhelming thought to many—perhaps even ludicrously obvious—but this maturing conviction has impacted me the most over the past year. How simple the thought is, yet how profound and far-ranging in its consequences if taken even a little bit seriously.
This category simply does not exist. There is no gray area here. There are no “almost” Christians, or 78% Christians, or—most importantly—no “yes, but” Christians. You know what I mean here—that favored category of so many Western Christians today, referring to the type of professing believer who through gritted teeth we reluctantly admit are probably “in” and therefore our brothers and sisters in Christ, but are so different from us theologically and culturally and practically that we create this third category to place them comfortably in and thus keep them far from our actual lives. Here, as petty second-class Christians, they can bother and threaten us no longer. Relegating them to this category, we can rationalize our divisions from them and our lack of fellowship with them.
N. T. Wright has argued lucidly in his writings that justification by faith alone apart from works is the great Christian doctrine of unity. This truth declares that all those who by faith confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him from the dead—whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, Democrat or Republican, black or white—make up one new people in Christ, through Christ, and on the basis of Christ. They belong at the same table—the very mistake Peter condemned himself with at Antioch in Galatians 2. We are justified by believing in this Jesus alone, not by believing the exact right thing about justification by faith alone. All the difference in the world lay between those rival conceptions of fidelity to the gospel. When we construct extra conditions and barriers to sharing in the right hand of fellowship for other believers, we undermine the very gospel which announces that all Christians are saved by grace alone and by nothing else.
I encourage and challenge you to consider how many of your justifications for withholding fellowship and for prolonging our old, worn out schisms between various denominations are implicitly due to this fictional category being foisted illegitimately upon the New Testament. A person is either a Christian, or not. On the basis of the gospel, you are either to embrace them fully as a fellow brother and sister, or not at all. Let us repent of every other attitude in between, and the denial of the gospel such attitudes must always represent.
3.) We Must Be Balanced In Our Commitment To Both Truth And Unity, Not Resort to Playing Them Off Against One Another
One of the reasons pleas for unity can leave a bad taste in the mouths of orthodox Christians is because they so often see theological liberals parading an ecumenical banner that strongly downplays (if not outright distorting) the truth of the gospel. This “unity” is founded on something entirely other than Jesus and the gospel, and conservatives rightly reject it. However, conservative Christians can allow this travesty to send them hurtling in unwarranted reaction towards another false extreme—using love for the “truth” as a get-out-of-jail-free card from ever having to take the demands of our unity in Christ seriously. There is a way of being “gospel-centered” (to use currently popular terminology) that is actually parochial, sectarian and—in the end—undermining to the gospel itself.
Therefore, we must beware of these twin dangers and strive to steer along the faithful middle course. As Ben Witherington insightfully notes:
“There is always a tension in the church between unity among believers and truth as it is understood and held by believers. Protestantism has tended to hold up Truth, with a capital T, while intoning unity with a lowercase u, with the end result that Protestant churches and denominations have proved endlessly divisive and factious. On the other hand, Catholicism and Orthodoxy have held up Unity with a capital U, and at least from a Protestant viewpoint this has been at the expense of Truth. In other words, no part of the church has adequately gotten the balance between truth and unity right, it would seem.” (John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, p. 274)
So for the sake of the truth of the gospel, we must not minimize biblical doctrines on the basis of (merely) pragmatic concerns for superficial unity. The end game is not worth it, for it simply will not be Christian unity we arrive at. Yet for the sake of the unity of the body, we must not allow our theological “hobby horses,” focused as they are on secondary albeit important doctrines, to function as perpetual safeguards against actually obeying Jesus.
Practically, this means that we must not endlessly stall our efforts at reunification until we are all exactly on the same page on a thousand doctrinal points. Not only will this never happen in this age, but it is entirely misguided. Another way of saying this is that we must learn to appreciate the enormous difference between Luke 9:49-50 and Luke 11:23. That some followers of Jesus are not comprehensively aligned with other believers in their every sentiment and agenda is in no way equivalent to their being against Christ himself, nor is it validation for so treating them. Only a corrosive party spirit is capable of equating the two scenarios.
“Authentic commitment to unity is always commitment to unity in the truth of faith and doctrine. When truth and unity are played off against one another, both are misrepresented.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 44)
Pursue the unity of the church because you love the truth of the gospel.
4.) What Ought We To Do About Denominations?
This is the one “implication” I intentionally write out as a question rather than as an indicative statement, simply because I am not confident I have much to offer by way of answers or a proper perspective here. On the one hand, I feel the practical usefulness of denominations, and find it hard to disagree with those who contend that they are functionally necessary in the life of the church for doctrinal and practical reasons. What a grand mess we would be in if they disappeared tomorrow! Yet on the other hand, I don’t want what feels inevitable and necessary and—yes—even “normal” at this late stage of church history to dictate what the Scriptures can or cannot teach, or what God might be saying to the churches today through the Spirit.
Here are the two primary critiques of denominations I perceive to be unanswerable. First, they violate the New Testament framework of dividing Christians up into various communities of faith on the basis of only 1.) faith in Christ and 2.) geographical location. This pattern does not strike me as mere happenstance in the apostolic era, but rather as reflecting a deep and abiding conviction about the nature and spiritual makeup of God’s people. Yet today, geography plays at best a minor role in the minds of most Western Christians when deciding what community to belong to. Second, this leads unsurprisingly to the widespread mindset that there are many other matters besides the gospel that ought to divide and separate Christians from one another. Identifying second-class Christians and erecting new denominations are like fire and smoke. Given the one, the other can never be far behind. The willpower needed to keep these two separate eludes most mere mortals.
At the bare minimum, I think we should be able to affirm this conviction: “Whatever value Protestant denominationalism may have conserved, and whatever potency for good it may have had, it is in itself a deformed growth.” (J. I. Packer, “The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity,” p. 38). If the body of Christ had been faithful, this development would never have arisen.
The institutional structure of the church is a notoriously complicated thing. I freely confess that I have no expertise here, and even less certainty about what to actually do about it. Yet it seems to me that Christians must be ready to question their most cherished traditions and habits of thought in light of the gospel. Who among us has ever really taken seriously the idea that denominational divisions might be inherently sinful and opposed to the prayer of Jesus in John 17? Who among us would be willing to do what was necessary, no matter how difficult and costly, if that indeed turned out to be the case? Sometimes I muse, in my more idealistic moods, that the most appropriate strategy we could implement would be to insist that individual local churches be divided exclusively along geographical lines, rather than denominational, theological, racial or cultural ones. I wonder what would it look like if we insisted that all Christians were required to participate in the closest community of believers in their given neighborhoods, and then once gathered simply instructed with this exhortation: now deal with it, with the resources available to you in Christ and through the Spirit. It would certainly make the New Testament letters come more alive with their problems and promises.
5.) Strive To Balance Idealism With Realism (and vice versa!)
We grasp this principle—sometimes called “incrementalism”—in other spheres of life, such as in politics or economics. Many of us intuitively feel the tension between the high ideals of the New Testament vision for the people of God, and the counterbalancing reality of the remaining sin and social complexities of life in a fallen world. What we need is the freedom to hold our ideals without compromise, yet “settle” for making tiny differences one slow step at a time.
This balancing act is further necessitated by the recognition that–as inherently tortuous the actual implementation of Christian unity is in itself–it is that much harder for us today given the veritable mess of modern church history that stands behind us. The earliest Christians found unity difficult to carry out, in spite of the fact that they were starting from scratch. How much more so for us who stand on the far side of thousands of denominational rifts and bitter doctrinal controversies. A parallel (at least to my mind) that is perhaps appropriate to mention here is the Pauline contrast between Adam and Christ. This is not a proportional contrast, as N. T. Wright adeptly sees:
“Christ did not begin where Adam began…God’s action in the Messiah did not start where Adam’s started, and, as it were, merely get things right this time. God’s action in the Messiah began at the point where Adam’s ended—with many sins, and many sinners.” (N. T. Wright, Romans, p. 524, 28)
In the same vein, just as Jesus did not get to start with a clean slate but assumed responsibility for the mass sum of human sin in history, we must not only learn the rythms of unity afresh today, but simultaneously unlearn centuries of nasty, unbiblical habits and ways of thinking that have been ingrained in the collective consciousness of the Western church, and surreptitiously bequeathed to us. None of us are able—let alone in a position to be able to realistically try!—to reunite Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox tomorrow, merely by virtue of our sincere intentions. Let’s acknowledge that readily. Yet we can be satisfied with nothing short of that. Therefore, let’s get to work in our own local spheres of influence, and seek the unity of the body of Christ in our own local congregations and fellowships. That is where most of us can have the most long-term, significant influence.
6.) Above All Else, We Must Seek The Face Of The Lord
It is tempting to think that if we could muster up the cleverest techniques and strategies, and also at the same time possess the soundest, sanest theology in the world, unity would therefore automatically follow with ease. Reality has harshly disproved this sentiment time and time again. These things are necessary, but not sufficient. If they were, genuine unity would be possible without genuine followers of Jesus.
Chiefly, we must love Jesus more than anything else. Just as most of the divisions in the world between Christians arise not from the complexity of the issues (how many lay Christians in any given denomination actually know well, let alone zealously hold to, the doctrinal distinctives of their respective group?), nor legitimate theological differences, but rather from spiritual immaturity, selfishness and misguided priorities, so the opposite holds true. When Spirit-generated holiness and humility are once more the “normal” mark of Christians when they gather together to worship and serve, unity will be the inevitable byproduct. Until then, our divisions are symptoms alerting us to a much graver spiritual diagnosis. Medicate accordingly.
As the sum of the matter, this much is plain: loving God and obeying His commandments will exist together, or not at all. They are related to each other as the fruit and the root of all Christian living. If we are not obeying His clearest commands (such as the call for unity) but manufacturing myriad excuses for flagrantly violating them with a pristinely clear conscience, then the most obvious explanation is that we do not really love Him above all other things.. Similarly, if we hope to obey His commands, we must first love Him with all of our hearts. We cannot skip this step.
If you are one who desires to see the unity of the body of Christ arise with new power and a fresh appearance in this generation, then love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, and with all your soul. Nothing else will avail, and here there are no shortcuts.
 “…when the teaching or behavior of other Christians is so captive to worldly powers that the gospel is falsified, true unity demands rejection of such behavior, not accommodation.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 30)
 Here the wise words of C. S. Lewis ought to be heeded: “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.” (“The World’s Last Night”)
 “The gospel gift and promise of unity exclude both divisive sectarianism and liberal indifference.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 29)
 “John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”
 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
 “It is noticeable that the obstacles to which the New Testament constantly points are not institutional, but personal—lack of love, and care, and forbearance; pride and party spirit; unwillingness to maintain liberty for the other man’s conscience in secondary matters, even though you judge him to be in the wrong.” (J. I. Packer, “The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity,” p. 40)