Roundtable on Unity and Authority

OK folks, I have several different types of folk who post on this blog. We are [mostly] Christians who acknowledge the Lordship of the Risen Jesus Christ. I am an Evangelical-Charismatic-Anglican. I have a few sort of emergent Restoration Christians who post. Recently we have been joined in conversation with some fairly conservative Southern Baptists from Fide-O. There is at least one Pentecostal brother who joins in sometimes. And we get liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, catholics, protestants, and everyone in between.

There are five main methods of attaining Christian Unity I know of:

1. The method of shared action: Those who work together stay together
Recently, my buddy Brett wrote a comment that it is an "error" to seek unity on the basis of doctrine, but we should instead seek unity on the basis of ACTION, and specifically striving for the liberation of society in Christ's Name. He notes that historical attempts at unity based on doctrine have failed and resulted in bitter dogmatism and unconcern for the needy (whether the Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement of the 1800's or the World Council of Churches in the latter 20th century).

2. The method of shared doctrine: Those who agree with each other stay together
Others object (somewhat rightfully) that unity can only be sought on the basis of an agreed "Gospel". This is a unity based on shared or agreed DOCTRINE. They rightly note that when Christians try to be united merely as "do gooders" it quickly becomes a watered-down version of Christianity that no longer proclaims the Risen Christ. They note that unity without shared belief and shared vision becomes false tolerance. Just look at what happened to the Social Gospel movement of the early 1900's and the civil rights movement of the 1960's. Lots of Churches joined in both of those causes, but it did not result in long term unity, nor a common shared vision of Christ.

But, if we are talking about unity in the Gospel, who's Gospel are we talking about? Do you mean the Campus Crusade Gospel which gives us four spiritual laws? The New Testament Gospel which retells Christ's entire life? The Liberation Gospel of healing the sick and releasing the oppressed? Furthermore how much doctrinal agreement is necessary? For instance, all Christians agree that Christ's death atones for us. But do we have to also agree HOW He atones?

And one last comment: I do not think it is wise to make the statement that "Well, we just follow the Bible" or "No Creed but the Bible", because there are THOUSANDS of Churches and individual Christians who claim this, and yet STILL disagree over HOW to interpret the Bible. I think we can all agree (except perhaps Steve Rudd) that the Bible is FAR from self-interpreting, and that we interpret it in the context of our tradition. So, we must still determine what basic beliefs, derived from Scripture, are required for Church unity (if that project is even possible).

3. The method of shared worship: Those who pray to the same God stay together
Some say that those who worship in a shared way, especially by partaking communion with one another, make up true unity. If we can all just worship together, it does not matter how we believe, because we are all in the presence of the same God. Yet, if this is so uniting, why do we have such problems in the Episcopal Church right now?

4. The method of shared tradition: Those who come from the same source stay together
This is the basic theory for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches (some Anglicans, like myself, put some stock in this as well). They can trace their Churches and their ordinations backward in time to the Apostles themselves through the process of "apostolic succession". Thus, they are the fullest expression of the Church because they are the only ones that go back "all the way" to the Bible. But, if this is the key to unity, what about the disunity between Catholics and Orthodox? What about the problems in the Anglican Church (which also has apostolic succession). And then there is the Protestant objection: Just because you go back "all the way" doesn't mean you have it right.

5. The method of shared experience: Those who feel the same Spirit stay together
This is the basic method of Charismatic unity. They have all experienced the Holy Spirit in powerful signs and wonders. Therefore they feel immense unity as Charismatics (and Pentecostals). Yet, if this is true, then why are Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians some of the most arguing, church-splitting folks, in all of western Christendom?

All of these methods for Church unity have strengths and they have weaknesses. I do not believe any of them (at least on their own) make up a proper basis for Church unity. But, we are looking at 20,000+ different sects of Christians that argue and hate one another, and an unbelieving world is looking on and saying "What the $&^%? These guys are supposed to be serving the Prince of Peace? Whatever."

So, here is the Zillion dollar question: On what basis can Christians unite? What does Christian unity look like? What should be our common source of authority for unity?

OK... Now debate (and folks- look at my post on blogging etiquette and lets blog in a way that glorifies Christ!)...


DPLWrites2 said...

Just wanted to say I appreciate the depth of your blog and your genuine attempt at balance and multiple viewpoints. To address your topic rather superficially and I know that's not encouraged here, but I'm rather limited in time, I would refer everyone to a book called Love Covers. It was required reading for going on a summer tour with Operation Mobilization back in the 1980's where one would meet up with and be a part of evangelistic teams from not only different denominations, but also different cultures, and countries. The point of the book as I remember it, and it has been twenty some years since reading it, was based on the verse that "love covers a multitude of sins" --that love is the basis for unity--a sacrificial love, the sacrificial love Christ had for us all, that is willing to face the sins and/or different views, habits, and ways of doing things of others, and without forfeiting ones own integrity or beliefs, put other's value and dignity as a member of Christ's body (and I would add as a creation of the Creator) ahead of one's own needs by looking for ways to serve the other's needs.
I'm sure I'm not doing justice to the book as I'm going off the top from a twentyfive year old memory, but the kernal is there. Can someone else water it?

Clearly there needs to be some common ground in what it means to be a member of Christ's body, but I think when all is said and done, we probably agree on much more than we think.

Bret Wells said...

Good post Nate,

Phil 2 calls says, "If you have any ENCOURAGEMENT from being UNITED with CHRIST, if any COMFORT from his LOVE, if any FELLOWSHIP with the SPIRIT, if any TENDERNESS and COMPASSION, then make my JOY complete by being LIKE-MINDED, having the same LOVE being one in SPIRIT and in PURPOSE." (emphasis mine)

In this one passage I believe we can find an exhortation for each of the 5 approaches to Unity which you described. The power of a verse like Philippians 2 is that it highlights the complex, diverse and wonderous nature of God by emphasizing the complex way in which we approach Him.

Unity is something that no human group has ever been able to sustain for the long haul. It has been an issue on the table in all cultures throughout all periods of history. Sometimes unity has been sought with the sword and other times it has been sought be erasing anything about which can agree or disagree (the extreme relativism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries).

However as we continue discussing this on our blogs - it has also been the focus of several weeks of discussion in the Restoration History class that Matt and I are currently taking - I am beginning to believe that we were never intended to fully solve this issue.

If each generation does not have to wrestle with how to "be like-minded" and have "the same love being one in spirit and in purpose" then what they have will be stale rhetoric. They will become what Tim Woodroof describes as "a group of people who are imitating a group of people who imitated Christ." While that is preferable to being a group of people imitating the world, it still falls short of our goal of imitating Christ.

Nate, you have a way of being able to take an issue and break it down into camps, components and choices. Thanks for laying this out for us to grapple with. I would encourage each of us - especially those with strong convictions one way or another - to be intentional about considering the role that each of these 5 have played in our formation as well as the role which they should/should not play in our continued formation.

Anonymous said...

Wow! The simplicity and simultaneous depth of Scripture never ceases to amaze me.

In response to DPL (sorry, didn't catch your name), I truly believe that the Love of God, personified and made historical in the person of Christ, is the key to Christian Unity. We must always remember that the first and second commandments were not about believing the right things, or praying together, or having the same spiritual experiences. They were about Love. Now I will grant that you cannot love rightly if you do not have right beliefs about what Love is and Who Love comes from. And I will grant that the ability to truly Love requires a deep prayer life and the fullness of the Spirit. But beliefs, prayers, and experiences are MEANS, not ENDS. They are tools to help us attain Love of God and Love of neighbor, not to be substituted for Love of God and neighbor.

When we confuse means with ends, and elevate doctrine, liturgy, worship, tradition above the Love of God, we have immensely imbalanced Churches. Yet, Love pursued without reference to well thought out and well enacted doctrine, liturgy, worship, and tradition is blind and idolatrous and ultimately self-serving and not really loving at all.

All of this is to say that Love really is the goal of the Christian life, and thus is the key to Christian Unity.

This leads in to what Bret is saying. Dude, I am totally BLOWN AWAY by the Philippians 2 quote. Man, I teach and preach that Scripture all the time! The Christ-servant hymn of that passage is a keystone in my theology. I preach that passage especially in relation to unity on the local parish level, but it never explicitly clicked to use it on a macro-level for Christian unity in general.

Bret also rightly notes that I try to clarify issues and clearly define different approaches, but the net effect of this delineation of the issues is to set up different approaches against each other as if they were in competition. It is as if I am saying that to achieve Christian Unity one must either choose action OR doctrine OR worship OR tradition OR experience. But, that is not what I am saying. I actually believe it is not a either-or, but a both-and. Christian Unity must be ultimately oriented toward genuine Love, and must use the tools of action AND doctrine AND worship AND tradition AND experience as means to achieve Love.

But that's the trick: all these things should be used to serve Love, specifically Loving Christ and Loving others for Christ's sake. We cannot use these things for the sake of being right, because being right is very often used as an excuse to withhold God's Love from others (you are not as correct as I am, therefore I cannot share Love with you). Rather, we seek to be right so that we can love better, deeper, fuller, more holistically, more like Christ.

And before someone accuses me of driving the fluffy love truck off the cliff of tolerance, let me say that I fully acknowledge that real Love, Christ-Love, will get in your face, use a whip to drive out the money-changers, and push you to repent of your idolatries so that you can be filled with His Love.

So, back to the Philippians 2 passage: Bret is RIGHT. All of the approaches to Christian Unity (and more) that I listed in this blog are found explicitly and implicitly in this quote. Paul himself uses a both-and approach to Christian Unity (I knew I must have gotten that idea from someone smarter than me!). Let's look at that passage again:

Philippians 2:1-5 If you have any encouragement [an action] from being united with Christ, if any comfort [an experience] from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit [experience and action found in prayer and worship], if any tenderness and compassion [experience again], then make my joy complete by being like-minded [doctrinal, or belief based], having the same love [the goal of unity: love], being one in spirit and purpose [literally "thinking the one thing", a doctrinal basis]. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus...

Talking about Christian Unity is a bit like working on a car. It would be silly to sit and have a debate over what REALLY made the car work. Is it the engine? Is the key the transmission? Is it the wheels and the drive train? Perhaps it is really the steering wheel. The answer is both all and none of these things. All are required, but none can make the car work without the others working too. And it would be silly to become expert in how the engine works, just so that you could criticize those who work on the breaks or change the tires. And then, even if you got all of the various aspects of the car working properly, it would matter nought unless you actually put them together. And then, even a perfectly working, perfectly put together car is useless unless someone actually DRIVES the car to get people to their destination: because getting people to their destination is what the car was made for in the first place!!!

Therefore, fixing a car requires being able to break the car up into its constituent parts, diagnose the problem, fix the problem, and then put the car back together so that it can carry people to their destination safely and reliably. This completely applies to the Church Unity issue. We must be able to split up our dysfunction into constituent problems, diagnose the issues, and fix them, so that we can put the Church back together, and so that it can get us where the Church was designed to take us: to the eternal Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This all brings us back to the beginning: How correct does our action AND doctrine AND worship AND tradition AND experience have to be to be effective conveyers of Christ's Love?

How visibly unified does Christ want His Church? How much diversity does Christ want for His Church?

trent@ gracehead.com said...

Unity can be found in "Whom we trust."

Not in what we believe.

Anonymous said...


Point taken. We are the body of Christ, not the body of propositions about Christ. He IS our unity.


How do we identify Him if not by beliefs? St. Paul himself had problems with people preaching false Christs, and had to deal with that in no uncertain terms, by using language and declaring correct beliefs about the REAL Jesus. If the "in whom" we trust is not the real Christ, but a false substitute (Jesus lite, or Jesus the legalist, or Jesus the ideology), then we have no unity.

It is simple to say "in Whom we trust", but hard to implement.

Thus, back to the question: How do we identify the "Whom"? What part does language, propositions, prayers, beliefs, and actions have in identifying the "Whom"?

Professor Bruce Marshal wrote a pretty interesting take on this in a book called "Trinity and Truth". You oughta check it out.

trent@ gracehead.com said...

It isn't that hard to implement. Many Christians trust their church membership, or trust in what rituals they have performed. Others trust in their works to save them. But, in as many that trust Jesus and Jesus alone ... I have unity.

I don't need to know their beliefs (which are likely in flux or progressive) ... because we have one common bond in that we trust Jesus!

So, I have unity with many believers, who have radically different theology. How?
We all fully trust in Jesus!


Anonymous said...


I agree with your point so much that I hate to disagree with it. And I want to affirm that YES! OUR UNITY IS IN CHRIST, CHRIST ALONE, AND NOTHING BUT CHRIST. Amen!

But, I really Love Jesus and have to ask:

"Which Jesus?"

Mormon Jesus?
Bahai Jesus?
Hindu Guru Jesus?
Muslim Jesus?
Liberal Jesus?
Arian Jesus?
Republican Jesus?
Mythical Jesus?
Insert-your-ideology Jesus?
Lawhead Jesus?
Gracehead Jesus?

[Check out Trent's blog if you don't get the last two...]

If you say "Christian Jesus" or "Biblical Jesus", then you are automatically making a belief-statement.

If you say "Jesus as He really is in Himself" (which I agree with), then you still have to tell people how to identify Him... and then you are stuck telling them your beliefs and experiences of Jesus.

Ah heck... in the end I really agree with your sentiments, but I just am not ready for your level of simplicity (I mean that in the virtue sense, not in the sense of being simplistic). I guess I should pray more. Shouldn't we all...

Matt Tapie said...

To "trust" something implies that one knows what the object of trust is. How can I trust in a thing which I do not know of? So, trust and knowing are one in the same--beliefs about God and trust in God go hand and hand. What is at stake in these dicussions is "Who is God?" As Nate pointed out, at the end of the day, we have to decide which Jesus since there are many many options in a pluralistic world.

Human knowledge is finite and God is infinite. Our understanding is not only contingent and lowly since it is obviously not divine understanding (we are humans) but our understanding is utterly sinful.

So we find ourselves struggling to know God in a. a personal way (trust in hiim) and b. which implies we know who the person is (meaning we have beliefs about his identity and nature and how he acts) BUT our understanding of him is flawed and we cannot know him completely.

So now what? Many postmodern perceptions of the question of God, after seeing the diversity of beliefs or the disunity, scoff at any attempt to define God. They say there are no absolute definitions or "true" definitions. What exists are only human constructions of who we think God is. The only truth is that there are various forms of human language trying to describe God but there really is no true, absolute, definition of God. There are Christian forms of this position as well.

I write all this because I want us to take heart and know that unity is possible so long as God is real. And he is real and we can know who he is in incredible ways.
The problem with most critiques of truth (which I see as directly connected to the unity question) is that many of them assume that just because there are many views of God, this means there is really no God. The problem, though, in my eyes (and I would like to believe they are orthodox eyes) is that our understanding of God is a.finite and b.darkened by sin. We cannot see God perfectly but that does not mean that he is not there in absolute perfection. It is a lot like going into a dark room looking for your car keys and you can't see them. Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they are not there--you just don't have enough light to see them.

To take my analogy a step further and actually make a point relevant to the discussion, :) I think that we need more light to have more unity. I think that more light comes from being closer to the Christ of the Scriptures and the tradition handed down to us through the Catholics and the Orthodox Church. As Nate has already written in another post (I think it is the one in response to my question about Catholicism) these two tree branches are the strongest and closest to the center of the roots of Christianity.

In short, I believe that Christian unity is very present and real because God is very present and real. The degree to which we know him will determine the degree to which we can enjoy unity. The degree to which we know him is the degree to which we gather under the largest branches of his Church.

Okay now I am going to stop procrastinating and actually finish my homework. Dang.


Alan said...

Hello all,

New poster here. I just want to voice my appreciation for Nate's methodical articulation of the problem of pursuing unity. I am in the very early stages of a blog devoted entirely to the subject of Christian Unity. I'm from the restoration movement but I'm hoping to start a dialog with others of similar beliefs. I am approaching this from the perspective of unity on core beliefs (sort of like Nate's #2 but hopefully with some enlightenment from mistakes made in the past). I think a hybrid of several of Nate's approaches may have the most promise: Based on consensus on the core issues, build unity through serving together, worshipping together, sharing experiences together, and learning from each other.

My two-day-old blog currently has two short articles (with a short book review coming tomorrow). I am just beginning to let people know about the blog. I want to be selective in advertising the blog to avoid counterproductive arguments. I'm located in the Atlanta area and am hoping to identify church leaders in that area who will enter into the dialog, perhaps leading to offline relationships and collaboration, and the tearing down of walls between fellowships. At least I intend to make an effort.

Great to see others also in the good fight.


This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.