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24 February 2017

Theology: the limits of unity

Theology: the limits of unity

I was asked to preach recently at a wedding of two good friends of mine, and the theme that I was given was the bride of Christ. In terms of the wedding sermon, this involved some hurdles. For instance, the imagery in the Bible is looking to a future wedding. We remain in a state of betrothal – more committed than being engaged, but still not quite married. Writing this sermon forced me to look afresh at this image of the Church, alongside others.

We will look at some limits of the unity of the Church, but do need to start with a recognition of our fundamental identity: we are united whether we like it or – more likely it often seems – not. Two metaphors are particularly challenging in this regard as I look at the Church today and back through its history. We are the body of Christ, yet it seems that for much of the time that body is abusing itself, the various parts seeking to beat up other parts. This can't be healthy for the body. This has necessary effects on the bride that is being prepared for the marriage ceremony to come. One can't help but wonder how Christ would react were he to return and be faced with this damaged, bleeding and divided bride – something that is all too close to our minds as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a time of great spiritual renewal, butalso of fracturing both between Catholic and Protestant and between the various Protestant groups.

However, I have the chance in my teaching at LST to take groups of students to many different church contexts – Anglican cathedrals, Pentecostal gatherings, a Catholic monastery, a Greek Orthodox service – in addition to attending my home Baptist church, and in each I see and experience great strengths drawn from their traditions and practices – and always some things that don't resonate with me – and I'm amazed by the beautiful diversity of experience that I encounter.

On reflection, I see how an emphasis on different aspects of the nature of God, and therefore the posture of the believer, lead to this variety in the outworking of the faith. Depending on the weight given to the glory, holiness, relationality, love, life, light of God, the believer is called more to humility, devotion, worship, mission or prayer; none would deny the importance of other elements and each incorporates all aspects to some degree. In each case, a brief consideration is sufficient to see how important context is in the developing focus of belief and the nature of Christian practice. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of these cases of diversity – a church in rural China probably should look different from one serving the City of London.

The fact of unity doesn't imply that there should be homogeneity: that all churches should look the same, worship the same, pray the same. There is a great richness about the diversity that exists in the different forms of church, if the roots of this seem to have been more about division. At the centre is a shared belief in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, revealed in the person of the Son, in the work of the Holy Spirit, in the writings of scripture and in the nature of creation. The salvation won at the cross and made effective in us by the Spirit is held in common by the whole Church, but what this means for denominations, congregations and individuals is not the same everywhere and at all times.

One key characteristic of church life should be holiness, an aspect of which is being set apart from the surrounding culture. Depending on the virtues and vices of that culture, this will manifest in different ways, often working more closely with certain parts of scripture. This is one of the most glorious and difficult aspects of our common faith – the nature of our core revelation not in a systematic theology, but a collection of narratives, songs, stories, laws and letters. As new cultural challenges arise,new prophetic voices call the Church to different incarnations of the richness of the gospel and a greater diversity of Christian expression results. Too often this leads to condemnation by one Christian of another, without a desire to understand why the other worships or thinks or acts as they do. We react so quickly to surface features without any evidenced desire to understand and even learn from one another.

There was a conference held in Lausanne in 1927 for different groups to discuss the Lord's Supper, with the intention of holding a joint communion service at the end. The vastly different views clashed and there was a danger that the conference could end in chaos and lead to greater divisions until Bishop Charles Brent suggested that the delegates spend time together in prayer, closing by reciting the Lord's Prayer together. There was a recognition that being united in faith was more foundational than unity of practice. The unity that the church is called to is not one of Christian clones, but of brothers and sisters living and working in different cultures and conditions with one Lord and one Spirit.

Matt Knell will be leading a seminar stream at Spring Harvest Minehead weeks 1 & 2 this year.

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