Monday, April 02, 2007

United we stand? (2)

It occurs to me that I could write a lot - and I do mean a lot! - on this topic. I was thinking it would be nice to go right down to theological roots. We could think about how there was unity (or perhaps Unity) before the beginning in the Godhead. We could ponder the unity that there will be in the end - when everything is gathered up under one head, even Christ. We could devote considerable space to thinking about the character of this unity: we would probably arrive at the cliched but none the less apposite phrase "unity in diversity".

But that would take a long time.

So I thought I'd focus on one issue: what is it that unites Christians?

I think the answer can be given, and must be given, at two different levels. At the first, and deepest level, Christians are united to one another because they are united to Christ. Unity with Christ is in fact the reason that we are Christians at all. Because we are united to him, we have died with him and risen with him (Colossians 2:11-12, for example). Our unity with him is basic. And if I am united to Christ, and that guy over there is united to Christ, then I am united to him. That's just the way it works. That unity with Christ is brought about by faith in him. It follows that I am united to everyone who has faith in Christ.

But there is a problem. This vital unity with Christ is (to some extent at least) unseen and unexperienced (in a corporate sense: this is not to deny the very real and very precious experiences that the believer has of being united to Christ). Unity with Christ does mean unity with all of his people – with everyone else who is united to him. But this begs the question, how are we to recognise such people? Given that we are not able to discern directly a person’s status with regard to Christ, how are we to know with whom we are called to unite?

Scripture provides two main marks to help us in this regard. Firstly, unity is understood as resulting from a common experience of the Holy Spirit. This is manifestly so in Acts 10, for example. Seeing that the Gentiles of Cornelius’ household have received the same Spirit as the apostles, Peter does not hesitate to welcome them into visible unity through baptism. This understanding also lies behind Paul’s call to the Ephesians (4:3) to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Dunn’s comments are illuminating:

The practical theological corollary to this is that the community of the Spirit is in no sense a human creation. For Paul, we may fairly say, community grew out of the shared experience of the Spirit. Or, as we might say, fellowship… grew out of common participation in the one Spirit. Otherwise it was not the body of Christ.

Perhaps one of the greatest roadblocks on the way to true Christian unity at present is the debate over what this experience of the Spirit is. This certainly requires further investigation, but as a base camp for the expedition I would make the point that certainly none of the particular spiritual gifts can be intended, since the New Testament is clear that Christians are given diverse gifts. It may well be more useful to consider the role of the Spirit as described in John 16, testifying to Jesus and convicting people of sin, righteousness and judgement – in other words, precisely conversion. That this conversion is to be a manifest experience rather than a mere decision or assent is perhaps a challenge to contemporary thinking in some evangelical circles.

Alongside this mark of unity, Scripture presents a unity in the truth – an agreement on the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. This concern is manifested in the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John 17, a foundational text for any consideration of Christian unity. It is generally accepted that this prayer shows Jesus’ deep concern for the unity of his people, but less attention is paid to the description of that unity that the Lord gives. A close reading makes it clear that Jesus sees the “word” – in this context, the gospel message – as a prerequisite of his disciples’ unity: “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them” (v. 8); “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them” (v. 14); “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (v. 17); “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (v. 20). The unity that Jesus prays for is a product of the word. The gospel truth unites God’s people.

Paul underlines this in Ephesians 5:5 by listing “one faith” as one of the marks of the unity of the Spirit. In the context of the chapter, the reference is not to the subjective aspect of faith – not to the trust of the Christian – but to the objective content of the faith. This is that message described by Jude as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Where this faith is held in common, there is visible unity.

Yikes, this is getting long. Perhaps more tomorrow?

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