Christian unity

For the Apostle Paul the life of the believer is both supported and guided by the will of God. Thus, says New Testament scholar V.P. Furnish, “the life yielded to God is the life dedicated to the discovery of God’s will (Rom. 12:1-2) and responsive to the divine “call” (cf. I Thess. 4:3, 7; 2:12),” (Theology and Ethics in Paul, 227-8). Since Paul does not think of God’s will in the sense of a list of duties or a systematic ethical program the important question becomes how is it to be discerned in particular instances.

How is one to discern God’s will in one’s own life? To be sure, for Paul, this is possible (and urgent!) because the Christian is a “new creature” whose life has been taken over by Christ (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:12). Life in Christ is life in the Spirit and thus life in the community of the Spirit, the church. The communal aspect here is key. For Paul, one cannot discern God’s will apart from the community of the Spirit. In the Christian community we speak the truth to one another in love and learn to hear the voice of the Spirit together. To quote Furnish at length,

“Paul never pictures the believer as confronting alone the bewildering complexity of various possible courses of action. The believer’s life and action are always in, with, and for “the brethren” in Christ. For him, moral action is never a matter of an isolated actor choosing from among a variety of abstract ideals on the basis of how inherently “good” or “evil” each may be. Instead, it is always a matter of choosing and doing what is good for the brother and what will upbuild the whole community of brethren,” (233).

In other words, discernment is not a matter that individuals engage in by themselves but rather a matter that requires the community of faith for whom we act in love. So, in Corinth when the matter of meat offered to idols surfaces what is important is not who is “strong” and who is “weak” but how this decision will effect one’s brother (1 Cor. 8:9, 11). “Build one another up!” says Paul in 1 Thess. 5:11. For Paul, mutual upbuilding is central to the life of the church: “Within this context and standing under this claim the Christian is called to discover and do the will of God,” (234).

Last week or so I posted on Facebook a question regarding whether or not one could simply be Christian apart from being rooted in a particular denomination/tradition.

It seemed to me that the overwhelming response was, “yes”. The general consensus was that there was some form of “Mere Christianity” that existed apart from denominational and traditional expressions. I understand the concern here but think it is ultimately misguided.

I would say instead, “no”, there is no “Mere Christianity” apart from particular denominations/traditions. The operative phrase here, I think, is “apart from”. To say one cannot be Christian apart from a particular tradition is not to say that there are not some Christian doctrines that we can all generally agree upon. It is simply to say that we do not nor can not believe in a vacuum. We all must believe “from somewhere”.

For starters, the Christian faith is Apostolic by nature. This means, basically, that our faith is passed on. We receive the faith and then pass it on to others. It does not simply drop out of the sky. If that were the case, the Christian faith would be ahistorical, but it is not. Instead, the Christian faith is rooted in human history, it depends upon human reception and passing on. So, if you are learning to be Christian then like it or not you are part of a tradition.

Because the Christian faith is rooted in human history and not ahistorical then it is impossible to imagine an expression of the Christian faith that is not embodied by real human communities. There is no such thing as a disembodied “Mere Christianity” that exists “out there”. All Christian expression is rooted in real flesh and blood human communities with real flesh and blood histories. This is undeniable.

If you are tracking with me thus far and are in agreement then it really is not that big of a jump to concede that there is no Christianity apart from particular denominations/traditions. I realize that it is the particularity of all of this that is what gets folks undergarments in a knot, but really think about it for a moment.

If Christianity is by nature Apostolic as I mentioned above then Christianity is by nature traditional. Just as there is no disembodied Christianity there is no disembodied tradition. There are only particular traditions. If you are a Christian, you are at least either Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. So, at the very least you must be able to say, “I am ______________” and fill in the blank with one of the options I have just mentioned. Then, of course, if you are Protestant you are not simply generally so, but particularly so. If you are Protestant you are a particular sort of Protestant, be it Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or even Non-Denominational (!).

I think one of the hinderances to people accepting this is the desire for Christian unity. This is good. Ecumenism is important. But Christian unity does not mean that Christians are simply one big indistinguishable monad. Christian unity does not require that we’re all the same. To think so would be to confuse “unity” with “identical”. Christian unity is a unity-in-distinction, a distinction-in-unity. Thus, any real ecumenical dialogue does not seek to do away with distinction but rather begins there.

I was reading some material lately (unrelated to this question) and came across the following:

“To be an Anglican, then, is not to embrace a distinct version of Christianity, but a distinct way of being a “Mere Christian,” at the same time evangelical, apostolic, catholic, reformed, and Spirit-filled.”

Feel free to replace “Anglican” with whatever tradition you are apart of. The point is that different denominations/traditions do not simply express “distinct versions of Christianity” (this would, admittedly be cause for concern) but rather “distinct ways of being a “Mere Christian”.

So, whatever your tradition is, embrace it. Be bold, Baptists. Be proud, Pentecostals. Be awesome, Anglicans. And, if you have never considered that our faith is traditioned and that you, by believing, are part of a particular tradition then I encourage you to enquire about that. Find out more about your tradition and what makes you, well, you.