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.

The Weekend Wanderer: 7 November 2020

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.


Brooks - happiness“Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?” – This article by Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic explores an important reality: “One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen….amid these advances in quality of life across the income scale, average happiness is decreasing in the U.S. The General Social Survey, which has been measuring social trends among Americans every one or two years since 1972, shows a long-term, gradual decline in happiness—and rise in unhappiness—from 1988 to the present. There are several possible explanations for this paradox: It could be that people are uninformed about all of this amazing progress, that we can’t perceive progress very well when it occurs over decades, or that we are measuring the wrong indicators of ‘quality of life.’ I suspect the answer is all three. The last idea, however, is especially important to understand in order to improve our own happiness.”


Li-Young LeeLi-Young Lee reads “Changing Places in the Fire” – I needed a break from politics this week, no matter how hard that was to find, so I turned to other things to fill my mind and heart, such as poeetry. Li-Young Lee is a powerful poet who I heard in person while I was an undergraduate student studying literature. This recent poem by Lee plays with the concept of the word/Word through a form of poetic conversation. “There are words, I say, / and there is The Word. / Every word is a fluctuating flame / to a wick that dies. / But The Word, The Word / is a ruling sum and drastic mean, / the standard that travels / without moving.”


iceberg“Spiritual Practices for Public Leadership”  – With his characteristic insight, Andy Crouch offers fine wisdom for spiritual leadership in the public sphere. “Being a public person—someone who is recognized by people who do not actually know us personally—can be a lot like being a cruise ship. We are rewarded for cultivating the parts of our lives that are visible: our talents, our opinions, our appearance. And while the most spectacular cruise ships on the public ocean may be the people we call celebrities, the unique reality of life in the age of social media is that we are almost all public now, publishing a version of our life to gain others’ attention and, we almost always hope, approval.  This kind of life carries with it grave threats to our health, and the safety of those around us. Without spiritual practices to guard against the unique temptations of public life, we will likely drift into narcissism and exploitation. Sooner or later we will hit an iceberg—and the testimony of maritime history is that when a cruise ship meets an iceberg, the iceberg wins.”


Jamie Smith - public art“Attention as Prayer: Public Art in the Pandemic” – “Simone Weil once said that ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.'” Building from this idea, James K. A. Smith takes us along on his morning jog through Grand Rapids to help us recover attention to the beauty around us, specifically in the form of public art in the beauty-drained times of the pandemic.


church-groningen“New Bible translation goes back to capital letters to refer to Him” – Most English Bible translations no longer use capitalized pronouns for God, a move which reflects changes in language over time and perhaps also translation or editing challenges. However, a new Dutch translation of the Bible, while not attempting to become archaic, has reintroduced the capitalization of pronouns referring to God. “The Bible translation most commonly used in Protestant churches in the Netherlands, has been modernised but capital letters have returned to refer to God. The NVB21, which stands for the new Bible translation for the 21st century, has been altered in 12,000 places making it ‘better, sharper and more powerful’, the Dutch Bible association NBG said.”


unlearning“On Unlearning” – Here’s Kirsten Sanders at the Mere Orthodoxy blog: “The problem with Theology done at a critical remove is that we can become untethered from love of God and so untethered from the Other. It is then that we begin talking mostly about ourselves. Even ‘transcendence,’ often referred to, longingly, can be misappropriated as the erotic longing of the soul. This happens slowly, but it begins when the initial orienting love of God is forgotten. Anselm’s ‘where can I find you?’ is based in trust, but it can become a cry of despair.”


Music: Chris Lizotte, “Peace Be With You,” from Long Time Comin’

[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: 31 October 2020

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.


Abood - Asher Imtiaz“Grace Under Pressure: A photo essay” – A friend, Asher Imtiaz, has a very special photo essay in Comment that I would encourage you to take a look at. Asher writes: “I have been doing documentary photography for almost a decade now. Very early I asked myself this question: Why do I take photographs? The answer was: to honour people living under pressure. To give those who we consider as other’ a voice and a story….So when in 2016 I finally decided to start a long-term, self-assigned project to collect stories and photographs of immigrants, I wanted to produce work that is not just a report. Work that would evoke enough feeling in people to change their attitudes about immigrants. In the process, I found myself changed.”


George Yancey“I see nothing, I know nothing!!!” – George Yancey writes an extended blog post jumping off from his observations of Professor Eddie Glaude in his encounter with Rod Dreher on the Morning Joe show. As a sociologist and conservative Christian, Yancey explores how bias against conservative Christians in academia parallels other biases we have. The post is wide-ranging but looks at the interplay between our blindspots, the evidence we need of wrong in differing domains, and how that shapes who we defend and who we do not.


public engagement“The Early Church Saw Itself as a Political Body. We Can Too.” John Piper’s article that I shared last week highlighted one of the weaknesses of 20th century Christianity: we do not have a very well-considered theology of public engagement that touches on the individual and the corporate aspects of what God’s kingdom looks like. This is at least part of what I was trying to get at in the five-week series we walked through on the kingdom of God recently at Eastbrook. Tish Harrison Warren looks at the issue from a different angle in this recent essay in Christianity Today: “We have an impoverished and inadequate political theology. It took us generations to get here, and this one election, regardless of the results, will not undo that. So before we know who wins or loses, we as a church must begin to reexamine how the good news of Jesus shapes us politically.”


Nice attack“Three dead as woman beheaded in attack in French church” – France has faced shocking events in the past weeks with religious-based extremist violence. Just a couple days ago, an attack at Notre Dame church in Nice left three people dead. This followed an earlier attack just  over a week ago where a schoolteacher was killed in a suburb of Paris after exhibiting satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in a lesson on free speech.  This is part of a long conflict around a series of depictions of the Prophet Muhammed that goes back to 2005. Let’s all pray for wisdom, peace, and healing in France and for an end to acts of terror, reprisals, or mistreatment in any direction.


Wilton Gregory“Wilton Gregory: Pope Francis names first African-American cardinal” – “Pope Francis has said he will appoint 13 new Roman Catholic cardinals, among them the first African-American clergyman. The Pope announced the 13 cardinals from eight nations in a surprise address from his window overlooking St Peter’s Square in Rome on Sunday. Wilton Daniel Gregory, the progressive 72-year-old Archbishop of Washington DC, will be one of them. The cardinals will be installed in a ceremony at the Vatican on 28 November. Cardinals are the most senior clergymen in the Roman Catholic Church below the pontiff.”


The_Temptation_of_Christ_by_the_Devil-768x402“Forget the Horns. Ditch the Pitchfork. What Do We Really Know about the Devil?” – One of the questions I often receive as a pastor is from folks wanting to know about this or that term or idea in the Scripture. One of the most frequent is related to the devil or to demons. I came across this simple summary of our understanding of the devil at the Lexham Press blog and thought I’d share it for those who are interested in the biblical backgrounds related to our understanding of the devil or Satan.


Music: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Killing the Blues,” from Raising Sand

[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: 12 September 2020

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.


Alan Jacobs Bread“Hate the Sin, Not the Book: Reading works from the past can offer perspective” – In this excerpt from his latest book, Alan Jacobs invites us to engage with writing from earlier times and with differing perspectives to help us gain sanity in our lives. Building off of two earlier books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed, Jacobs offers this latest book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, as a complementary work for our divided and confused time. In the midst of cancel culture’s dominance in the present moment, Jacobs brings wisdom for a reasoned understanding of why hearing voices unlike ours who we may not always agree with is more valuable than we know.


Kayla Stoecklein“I Was a Pastor’s Wife. Suicide Made Me a Pastor’s Widow.” – When Pastor Andrew Stoecklein took his own life in August 2018, it shocked many people and, unfortunately, became one more in a sad series of similar events. Stoecklein’s wife, Kayla, reflects on her life in the wake of her husband’s death. “Life as I knew it changed forever and I was handed a brand-new life as a widow and single mom to our three young boys. All of a sudden ours was the sad story on the internet. I watched as images of my life and pictures of my family made headlines all around the world. We were thrust into the spotlight in an instant. While the world was watching, leaning in, listening close, I chose to speak.” If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please talk with someone you know about this or reach out for help to the suicide prevention lifeline (1-800-273-8255). 


Lecrare Restoration“Why Lecrae’s ‘Restoration’ Should Still Be On Repeat” – From Cameron Friend at The Witness: “This album feels like a memoir as Lecrae is publicly inviting us to participate with him in his restoration while encouraging us to take our own honest plunge. While this project might not speak to the social inequities in the way we might expect, it still has its relevance amid the mental health trauma that Americans have been experiencing during the year 2020. ‘Restoration’ is a collaborative project that speaks to his personal journey towards the restoration he so desperately needed after losing hope, wrestling with his faith, and rediscovering himself as an artist.”


Mark Galli RC“Mark Galli, former Christianity Today editor and Trump critic, to be confirmed a Catholic” – This was not a headline that I expected to read, but it was not entirely surprising to me either. I find it unfortunate that Mark Galli has become chiefly known for his controversial editorial about President Trump since his writing work is much broader and meaningful than that. However, his decision to move beyond Anglicanism to “cross the Tiber” this year has precedent in evangelicalism, from the relatively recent conversion of Francis Beckwith (former President of the Evangelical Theological Society) or the likes of Thomas Howard (renowned evangelical author and brother to Elisabeth Elliot). About his conversion, Galli says, “I want to submit myself to something bigger than myself.”


God-Angel-Heaven-Concept-1536x1152“Unconscious Learning Underlies Belief in God – Stronger Beliefs in People Who Can Unconsciously Predict Complex Patterns” – “Individuals who can unconsciously predict complex patterns, an ability called implicit pattern learning, are likely to hold stronger beliefs that there is a god who creates patterns of events in the universe, according to neuroscientists at Georgetown University. Their research, reported in the journal, Nature Communications, is the first to use implicit pattern learning to investigate religious belief. The study spanned two very different cultural and religious groups, one in the U.S. and one in Afghanistan.”


Rowan Williams“Rowan Williams: Theological Education Is for Everyone” – Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wants everyone to know that theological education is for all of us. In this interview with Benjamin Wayman, Williams says, “theological education is learning more about the world that faith creates, or the world that faith trains you to inhabit….any Christian beginning to reflect on herself or himself within the body of Christ is in that act doing theology: making Christian sense of their lives. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised if people in all parts of the body of Christ show an appetite for doing this and learning about it.” Perhaps now as much as ever we as Christians need to make Christian sense of our lives and the world around us. So let’s continue to grow theologically!


Music: Lecrae (featuring John Legend), “Drown,” from Restoration.

[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.]

St. John the Theologian: a reflection by Eugene Peterson

Jan_Massijs_-_The_Apocalypse_of_Saint_John_the_Evangelist_(1563).jpg

In his exceptional essay, “Poetry from Patmos: St. John as Pastor, Poet, and Theologian” in Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson describes the Apostle John as the sort of theologian we most need and are most ready to hear. Theologians sometime receive a bad name because they seem removed from existence. But the best theologians step into the muddle of everyday life with a word about God that is life-giving and clarifying. May God give us more theologians like this.

St John is a theologian of a particularly attractive type: all his thinking about God took place under fire: ‘I was on the isle, called Patmos,’ a prison isle. He was a man thanking on his feet, running, or on his knees, praying, the postures characteristic of our best theologians. There have been times in history when theologians were supposed to inhabit ivory towers and devote themselves to writing impenetrable and ponderous books. But the important theologians have done their thinking and writing about God in the middle of the world, in the thick of the action: Paul urgently dictating letters from his prison cell; Athanasius contra mundum, five times hounded into exile by three different emperors; Augustine, pastor to people experiencing the chaotic breakup of Roman order and civitas; Thomas, using his mind to battle errors and heresies that, unchallenged, would have turned Europe into a spiritual and mental jungle; Calvin, tireless in developing a community of God’s people out of Geneva’s revolutionary rabble; Barth arbitrating labor disputes and preaching to prisoners; Bonhoeffer leading a fugitive existence in Nazi Germany; and St. John, exiled on the hard rock of Patmos prison while his friends in Christ were besieged by the terrible engines of a pagan assault: theologos.

The task of these theologians is to demonstrate a gospel order in the chaos of evil and arrange the elements of experience and reason so that they are perceived proportionately and coherently: sin, defeat, discouragement, prayer, suffering, persecution, praise, and politics are placed in relation to the realities of God and Christ, holiness and healing, heaven and hell, victory and judgment, beginning and ending. Their achievement is that the community of persons who live by faith in Christ continue to life with a reasonable hope and in intelligent love.

The Christian community needs theologians to keep us thinking about God and not just making random guesses. At the deepest levels of our lives we require a God whom we can worship with our whole mind and heart and strength. The taste for eternity can never be bred out of us by a secularizing genetics. Our existence is derived from God and destined for God. St. John stands in the front ranks of the great company of theologians who convince by their disciplined and rigorous thinking that Theos and logos belong together, that we live in a creation and not a madhouse.