Pause for thought: Christian Unity
‘The week of Christians disagreeing well’ sounds a bit pathetic.
It is a little better, I suppose, than a week of Christians ‘othering’ one another, implying or whispering that ‘they’ are misguided, annoying, heretical, naïve, uncaring or subChristian. But that is a pretty low bar.
This coming Sunday is, instead, the beginning of the week for Christian Unity. Unity - it sounds like a word from a bygone age. But why? When did we lower our aspirations so much, and agree that ‘disagreeing well’ is the best we can achieve?
The New Testament locates our unity in something outside of ourselves. Jesus explains that others are our sisters and brothers because they do the will of the same heavenly Father. We have no choice about it. This last week many of us have been saddened by seeing parts of the Royal Family tear itself apart – a reminder if we needed one that parents and children, sisters and brothers, are not chosen because we appreciate each other, but are a given (or even the lack of them are a given) within which we have work navigate our lives. In the same way, Paul explains that we are children of God because Christ is in us, and we are led by God’s Spirit. If I am a child of God, and you are too, we have no choice but to be each other’s sister or brother.
Similarly, Paul writes to the Philippians that they should be ‘united with one purpose’. The unity arises out of something else – common purpose.
The picture above is a traditional icon of Peter and Paul, who are remembered in the days at the start and end of the week of prayer. They are often seen, together, as the foundation of the Church. It’s ironic since a lynch pin of scholarly New Testament Studies over the last two centuries has been the opposite – the presumption of a gulf between Peter’s and Paul’s versions of Christianity. The evidence? Well, in one chapter in Galatians we hear of a heated row they once had.
And there we have it. Heated disagreement, different approaches, non-trivial, values-driven but where does it go?
- The low-aspiration, broad and easy path, to ongoing mutual suspicion, managed division, disagreeing as best we can?
- Or the high-aspiration, narrow and difficult path, of working together for common purpose?
That strand of New Testament scholarship has presumed that because there was a heated row, driven by principle, it must have led to ongoing division, ‘disagreeing well’ being the best which humans can achieve.
But God calls us to something better - the challenge of Christian Unity. And the first step in that journey is remembering that ‘it’s not about me’. As in all journeys following Jesus, it will involve self-sacrifice, giving up something important to us, for the sake of something better. Our unity will not be found by looking at each other face-to-face and seeing our differences, but by standing side-by-side looking up to our common heavenly Father, and out to a common purpose in a hurting world.
What can we do, this week, to aid Christian Unity? If nothing else, let’s pray that God would kindle a burning love for all our sisters and brothers in our hearts.
Canon Professor Jeremy Duff