One Faith for One Body: Theological aspects of unity and diversity

Yesterday, I explored how Paul urges the believers in the area of Ephesus to focus on Jesus and to put on the character of Christ. But Paul doesn’t stop there. Now he addresses our theology, urging the believers—and us—to keep first things first.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

There is a Trinitarian theme within these verses that reminds us that our unity—our oneness—is based first on the life of the Triune God in the life of the church. For more on that, you may want to return to a series I preached at Eastbrook in November 2020 entitled “One: The Being of God in the Life of the Church.”

Paul shows us here that, along with character, theological unity also upholds our unity as a church.

We hold together around the unity of our faith. Our understanding of God and right doctrine for the Christian is vitally important for the unity of the church. This is why when we approach the Lord’s table, we recount the essence of our faith in the Apostles Creed.

It is because of who God is and what He has done that the fundamental unity to the church can be described as “one body.”

Of course, there is a diversity within that body. So, let me tell you something that is going to be shocking. Brace yourself. “Not everyone in the church views life the same way you or I do.” I know. This is a groundbreaking insight here.

In all seriousness, as we walk in humility and gentleness, as we walk in love and patience, as we exert ourselves to uphold unity, we need to make space for others who are different than us. Unity does not mean uniformity.

There is a well-worn phrase in Christian theology that dates back at least to the 17th century that says:“In necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity.”

This phrase came to particular strength during the political and theological crises of the 30 Years’ War in Europe from 1618 to 1648. Theological differences led to political strife, resulting in one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. Estimates of military and civilian deaths range from 4.5 to 8 million.[1]  This does not mean that truth does not matter. But it does mean we should be wise about what is necessary belief and where there is space for diversity of belief. This requires discernment about what it means to keep first things first and second things second. It also means that we need to pay attention to when second things are trying to become first. Each local church or denomination has specific distinctives about them, such as baptismal practice, and that is just fine. But if we start to make baptismal practice necessary for salvation, then we may be getting off track. Let me put it another way. If we start to make certain approaches to health issues or certain political parties or agenda points first things, you can be assured that we are moving off course.

Theology is important. The Trinity and Unity are first things. But we need to give permission for people to be in a different place from us as we gather around Jesus. Our view on masks can be different, but loving our brothers and sisters is not optional. There is space for diversity on politics, but we cannot be diverse about our faith in the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can hold loosely to our understanding of the causes and best ways to deal with the pandemic, but we must hold firmly to the Holy Spirit and humility, gentleness, love, and patience if we want the unity of Christ’s church to be upheld.

And so, let’s pause here to consider a few questions about theological unity amidst our diversity:

  • are we holding to good theology rooted in the Holy Trinity or have we let that go?
  • is there any way in this past year or more that we have allowed secondary things to become primary things?
  • are we asking people to not only stand with us but be just like us to be our friends, our family, or part of our church community?

[1] “Thirty Years’ War,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War.

Putting on the Character of Christ in Divided Days

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)

In Ephesians 4:1, Paul urges the Ephesians—and us, through them—to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. The unity of the church in divided times is tied into putting on the character of Christ. The verb here is “to walk.” We need to walk worthy. We’re to walk it out. Live it out daily. What does that look like? Well, Paul tells us in verses 2-3.

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

We are to put on the character of Christ. What is that character? Well, let’s just walk through it slowly with some application to our current moment.

“Be completely humble”

Paul urges the believers toward complete humility and this is a very challenging word. Who has arrived at that? None of us. The sense of the phrase is that believers are to have a wholly humble opinion of themselves. And when we think about the way we live together in the church, we must remember that if we are quick toward a high opinion of ourselves and lack humility, unity will be destroyed.

“and gentle”

Gentleness is a strange word to us today. Who has ever heard a political leader or a CEO start their campaign or new job by saying their agenda would be gentleness? It would not usually be well received. Now there is a related word to gentleness, which we encounter in the Beatitudes, and that is “meekness.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Our experience tells us that is not true, but Jesus shows a different way. In fact, this first phrase of Paul in Ephesians 4:2, “Be completely humble and gentle,” may remind us of Jesus’ own description of Himself when He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…” (Matthew 11:28-29) If we forsake gentleness and meekness, we do not look like Jesus. If we forsake gentleness, the unity of Christ’s people will be destroyed.

“Be patient”

If the first two words didn’t get you, this one will. Patience means long-suffering. One additional shade of meaning on this word is that such a person is slow to take vengeance. This is good because the Lord has said that vengeance is His, not ours. But if you didn’t notice, we live in a vengeful culture. Be careful of what you say or what you do. It may come back to haunt you. In fact, you may be crucified by those who accuse you. But don’t worry, the accusers usually become the accused in a culture cycling through vengeance. But the body of Christ is to exhibit a different way. We are to be patient. If we forsake patience, if we are quick to anger and swift to revenge, then unity will be destroyed.

“Bearing with one another in love”

The image here is to hold something up as one stands erect, sustaining something or, here, sustaining one another. Believers are, in a sense, to stand shoulder to shoulder, upholding one another. How do we uphold one another? In love. I really appreciate how the New Living Translation renders this: “making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” Have you ever seen another person’s faults in the church? Have you ever seen your own? Make space…bear with one another. When we do, unity is sustained and upheld.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

And to cap it all off, Paul says that we have to exert ourselves to keep unity. Here is an important idea: unity does not happen by accident. The natural tendency of human existence is toward disunity and disorder. Just look at your apartment or house over the course of a week. It does not become cleaner on its own, but it does become dirtier. In like manner, the gravitational pull in human relationships is toward disunity and disorder. Unity happens only through focused exertion toward that end. But also notice how Paul emphasizes the exertion is partnered with the Holy Spirit. This is not merely a human work; it is a spiritual work of God within humanity. If we do not work at it, relying upon the Holy Spirit, unity will be destroyed

These days have been hard for everyone. Churches are feeling the tension during these days. But the church is supposed to be a diverse community, with young and old, local and international, rich and poor, many professions, many ethnicities, and many opinions. We must make space for one another around Jesus and the Cross, but also choose to put on the character of Christ in our relationships.

Please pause and consider some personal reflection questions about this in the midst of the divided days:

  • how does our character match up with Paul’s exhortation here?
  • how is our humility, gentleness, patience?
  • how well are we bearing with one another in love?
  • are we exerting ourselves toward unity…or are we hoping someone else will sustain it if we speak or act impatiently, live with pride, open our mouths in gossip, and generally lean into our flesh?

May God help us to walk with Christ and in Christ as one.

The Weekend Wanderer: 20 February 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


Multiethnic Church“The Multiethnic Church Movement Hasn’t Lived up to Its Promise” – Here is Korie Little Edwards, author of The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, writing in Christianity Today about the failings and the potential of the multi-ethnic church movement: “The number of multiracial churches has risen steadily in the US over the past two decades. A recent study reveals that in 2019, multiracial churches made up about 16 percent of all congregations in the US, compared to 6 percent in 1998. While Catholics have consistently had the largest percentage of multiracial churches—17 percent in 1998 and 23 percent in 2019—evangelical churches showed the greatest increase, moving from 7 percent in 1998 to 22 percent in 2019….Multiracial congregations have gained a greater share of American churches over the past 20 years, but as my colleagues and I have found, they are not delivering on what they promised.”


Ravi Zacharias“Ravi Zacharias Hid Hundreds of Pictures of Women, Abuse During Massages, and a Rape Allegation” – This past year has revealed a series of moral failures of Christian leaders, but perhaps none has sent as strong of shockwaves as the recent revelations about Ravi Zacharias. When Zacharias died in May 2020 after a relatively short battle with cancer, many Christians offered praise for his impact upon their life and ministry, me included. But now it has become clear Zacharias lived a double-life. He hid a series of shocking and inappropriate activities, which led RZIM into an independent investigation and his publisher to subsequently remove all his books from publication. You can read the RZIM International Board’s open letter on the investigation and their proposed next steps, plus the detailed and often stomach-turning 12-page independent report from Miller & Martin PLLC (“Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias”). Further reflections are David French’s personal and probing “‘You Are One Step Away from Complete and Total Insanity'”, James Emery White’s “The Crisis of Character,” as well as Christianity Today‘s reporting linked at the headline of this article. This highlights once again the urgency of a shift in the way we approach public ministry in North America, the importance of spiritual formation in leadership, and recapturing what it means to be the church.


Algeria“United Nations demands Algeria to explain its campaign against Protestant churches” – From Evangelical Focus – Europe: “The United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) has increased its pressure on Algeria, asking its government to clarify how it is treating the Protestant Christian minority. A letter signed by three UN HRC special rapporteurs (freedom of religion and belief, freedom of peaceful gathering and association, and of minorities) was sent in December 2020 to the President of the government of Algeria asking for ‘detailed information’ about the closing of Protestant worship places around the country. Now the United Nations has made the letter public. The 7-page long document summarises some of the latest developments that are a breaching of human rights in Algeria, especially those related to the ‘closing of worship places and churches affiliated with the Eglise Protestante d’Algérie (EPA) as well as the actions of discrimination against the members of the Protestant Christian minority’.”


Another Life is Possible“Review: A Deeper Way of Living” – Emily Esfahani Smith reviews a recent history of the Bruderhof movement for Comment: “In 1920, the German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Eberhard Arnold gave up his comfortable middle-class life in Berlin to launch an experiment in community living that has endured to this day….To mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Bruderhof, Plough, the community’s publishing house, has released a beautiful book that collects moving stories and luminous photographs of today’s Bruderhof members. Another Life Is Possible: Insights from 100 Years of Life Together is a snapshot of the Bruderhof community today—and the yearning for meaning that has led its nearly three thousand members to exchange the liberties and luxuries of modern life for a deeper way of living.”


practicing-church“The Practicing Church in Shoreline, Washington, seeks to live out its faith in the neighborhood” – From Yonat Shimron at Faith and Leadership: “The Rev. Jessica Ketola is an old hand at doing church. Her parents were pastors. She served as a worship leader for more than a decade. She recorded Christian praise songs. She ran a church nonprofit that tutored low-income neighborhood children. But in her mid-40s, the Vineyard-ordained pastor decided to change all the rules. In January 2017, after a season of upheaval at Vineyard Community Church, where she had been serving as an associate pastor, she relaunched the congregation in her Shoreline, Washington, living room. Ketola called it The Practicing Church and explained her vision to the 25 or so members that remained: it would be a neighborhood-based church that would serve the community out of a commitment to Jesus’ way of love and a desire for God’s shalom, or peace.”


Music: Maverick City & Upperroom, “Remember,” from You Hold It All Together

The Weekend Wanderer: 16 February 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

Jemar Tisby“This Black History Month, don’t pretend racism has disappeared from the church” – In the first of two articles on issues of race and the church in this week’s edition of “The Weekend Wanderer,” I’m sharing Jemar Tisby’s reflections on the ways in which the church often ignores current challenges around issues of ethnicity, racism, and inequality. Tisby is an important voice in Christianity on racial issues today, advocating for engagement with these challenging issues in his recent book, The Color of Compromise, and over at The Witness. Just before I published this edition of “The Weekend Wanderer,” Tisby was featured in an interview with Wesley Hill at Comment Magazine entitled “The Future of Church-Race Relations” that is well worth the read.

 

Roger E Olson.jpg“Is Evangelicalism White?” – The second article on this topic is by theologian and church historian, Roger E. Olson. In this essay, Olson makes a case that contemporary equation of evangelicalism with whiteness within news and sociology misses the point of a more nuanced discussion of evangelicalism from unique viewpoints of spiritual-theological ethos and sociological-religious movement.

 

Oneya Okuwobi“‘Everything that I’ve Done Has Always Been Multiethnic’: Biographical Work among Leaders of Multiracial Churches” – On a related theme, Oneya Okuwobi recently published a journal article on biographical work with pastors of multiethnic churches. She write: “I find that pastors of multiracial churches pattern their biographies after two predominant formula stories, laying claim to being people who are experienced with diversity and/or experienced with racial injustice. These formula stories reveal institutionalized understandings of biographies acceptable for pastors of multiracial churches that cut across denominational lines. The biographies of these leaders also reveal a shift toward diversity and away from recognition of racial injustice that has implications for the racial structure.”

 

89461“Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Gospel of Shame-Free Sexuality”Wesley Hill reviews Nadia Bolz-Weber’s latest book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Bolz-Weber is an iconoclastic Lutheran pastor who has been a spokesperson for progressive Christianity. While I’m sympathetic to some of her statements about fundamentalist Christianity, Hill’s even-handed and clear assessment of this book is worth reading. If you prefer a more blunt, but honest and accurate, assessment of Bolz-Weber, let me refer you to Rod Dreher’s “Sex & the Single Pastor.”

 

Barna_2019_RevivingEvangelism_charts_v1“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong” – A new study by the Barna Group and commissioned by Alpha USAReviving Evangelism, highlights some disappointing yet unsurprising trends in contemporary North American Christianity. The trend that has made the most headlines (see “Half of Millennial Christians Say It’s Wrong to Evangelize” in Christianity Today) is the identification that, while prepared to share their faith, most millennial Christians are unsure of whether evangelism is something they should do at all. The chart I post on the right highlights how this is a progression of something that has been developing in earlier generations as well.

 

Michael Green“Alister McGrath: Michael Green Taught Me the Importance of Evangelism” – Since we’re on the topic of evangelism, I hope you enjoy this personal reflection by Alister McGrath on the life and legacy of Michael Green, one of the greatest champions for evangelism in the late 20th century. I first encountered Green’s work through a class with one of my mentors, Dr. Lyle Dorsett, entitled “Jesus and Evangelism.” Green is perhaps best known for two of his books, Evangelism in the Early Church and I Believe in the Holy Spirit, although he wrote many more. You will not have wasted your time if you read those great books, and if you put them into practice in your own life.

 

tell-your-children“Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence”Alex Berenson, former New York Times reporter and author of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, summarizes some of the mains strands of his exploration within that book in this relatively brief essay. This is particularly relevant because as the rise in marijuana usage combines with efforts at legalization that do not always tell the whole story about the impact of marijuana on the human body and mind, let alone society as a whole.

 

endpapers“Hold the front pages: meet the endpaper enthusiasts” – Now for something a little lighter. Enjoy this article focusing on the beauty of endpapers in book publishing.  “In a small sanctuary from world events, book lovers gather to sigh over the most beautiful decorative pages and compare techniques.” [Thanks to Micah Mattix for sharing this in The Daily Prufrock.]

 

Music: “Everlasting God” by William Murphy.  [Thanks to Gabriel Douglas for sharing this link with me.]

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 3 November 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

181029081322-rabbi-myers-super-tease“A rabbi says he first thought gunfire was the sound of a fallen metal coat rack. Then he saw people running.” – Here are some comments from the rabbi at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I grieve with the victims of this attack, as well as for their families and all others affected. May God bring true shalom into the midst of this situation, as well as our nation, and may we join God in bringing it. This continues to raise questions about gun control in the US and how religious institutions should respond to violence.

 

_104109439_mediaitem104109431“Asia Bibi: Pakistan acquits Christian woman on death row” – The BBC reports on a case that is relevant for discussions of religious freedom. While religious freedom is not only relevant for Christians, this case is, as the article indicates, a landmark ruling in Pakistan. “A Pakistani court has overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, a case that has polarised the nation. Asia Bibi was convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with her neighbours. She always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement. The landmark ruling has already set off violent protests by hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws.”

 

Email_FRutledge_20160105MM_0207“Ruminations: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone” – Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book The Crucifixion may eventually become even better. How? By her promise to include reflections on James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree as an afterword if there is ever a second edition. “Indeed, had I read Cone’s book while I was still writing The Crucifixion, I would have given significant space to the similarities of lynching and crucifixion because they give emphasis to the argument I have made that shame, humiliation, degradation, obscenity, and dehumanizing were an essential aspect of the way Jesus died. Cone has produced a work that is suffused with a sense of the shame and humiliation of black life in America (‘abused and trampled down’), while yet remaining triumphant over it.”

 

merlin_145504593_9adb15b8-15bb-4d26-af07-ed6521876393-superJumbo“‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out” – This appeared in The New York Times on Thursday: “The role of evangelical Christianity in American politics has been a hotly discussed topic this year, intersecting with front-burner issues like immigration, the Supreme Court and social justice. Often the loudest evangelical voices are white, male and … not young. With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.”

 

84140“Jan Peterson: My Life as a Pastor’s Wife” – Eugene Peterson’s wife, Jan, reflects on what her life was like as a pastor’s wife. In the midst of her beautiful reflections, adapted from her new book Becoming Gertrude: How Our Friendships Shape Our Faith, she writes: ” I’m well aware that being a pastor’s wife brings with it a lot of demands and a lot of time spent serving others. But the amazing thing about service is that it rarely returns void, even if we don’t see the end results ourselves….May we all have the desire to serve God in that spirit. Fiat mihi—may it be unto me. Amen.”

 

84155“James MacDonald Sues Critics After 2,000 Leave Harvest Bible Chapel” – I’ve heard of church divisions getting bad, but this definitely takes it to a higher level than anything I’ve encountered before. “Pastor James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel filed a lawsuit this month against two ex-members and former Moody Radio host Julie Roys, accusing them of spreading false information about the Chicago-area megachurch’s financial health and leadership. The main targets of the church’s defamation complaint are Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant, who together run the blog The Elephant’s Debt. The site has culled stories of alleged mismanagement at Harvest since 2012, including claims of as much as $70 million in mortgage debt and a lack of accountability from its elder board.”

 

white-evangelicals“Most White Evangelicals Say Immigration, Increasing Racial Diversity, Harms America” – Can somebody help me understand this better? “A little over a week before the 2018 midterm elections, the Public Religion Research Institute on Monday released its 9th annual American Values Survey. The research shows that white evangelical Protestants are at odds with all other identified religious groups on many questions relating to immigration, race, the #MeToo movement and President Donald Trump.”

 

czesaw-miosz“An Approval of Being” – Here’s an old treasure of an article, as Robert Faggen interviews Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz in Books and Culture in 1997. Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, and was one of the outstanding literary voices of the 20th century. I couldn’t get over this statement: “I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century. To live through the Nazi and Communist regimes in Poland was quite a task. And, indeed, there is a whole literature of the twentieth century that is deeply apocalyptic. My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]