The Ground of Unity

Photo by Tim Green

A few days ago, I wrote about contextual, occasional, and provisional theology. An important element of that perspective is an openness to theological diversity. I suggested that instead of a “Constantinian obsession with uniformity” we should embrace the theological diversity of the church.

Jeff, a frequent commenter (and member of my congregation), took issue with my dig at Constantine. He made an interesting comparison to our contemporary Presbyterian situation, suggesting that what Constantine was interested in was the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church.

I think this is a good analogy, but my basic question is this: is theological conformity the only way to maintain the unity of the church? This seems to be a true point of division between conservatives and progressives. Progressives at least seem open to the idea of maintaining theological diversity—though I wonder how much we can really tolerate—while conservatives tend to view adherence to orthodoxy as necessary for the health of the church.

What I’d like to say—and I hear this all over the church—is that we ought to be able to rally around mission and turn down the volume on some of our theological debates. It seems to me that a robust commitment to shared mission can unite us better than theological uniformity.

But, the realist in me wonders how viable such a vision is. Here are some thoughts to consider.

Can we agree on what our mission is?
You would think that the church ought to be able to agree on what our mission in the world is, but I’m not so sure we do or can. For example, I have little or no interest in “saving souls” in the traditional sense of evangelism. In my understanding of Christianity, thinking about what happens after we die is a red herring that distracts us from service, justice, and meeting the needs of God’s children here and now. Will my conservative sisters and brothers rally around that? Will I rally around an understanding of mission that is primarily focused on getting people to believe in doctrines about Jesus? Is there a single articulation of mission that we can all endorse and live into?

Can we tolerate theological diversity when it shapes practice?
The ordination debate is a perfect example of this problem. Progressives are clearly not willing to let conservatives believe what they want to about sexuality if it means that LGBT people are excluded from ordained leadership. The same is true of conservatives, given the signals already coming from some churches threatening to leave if Amendment 10-A passes. There are evidently some things we cannot agree to disagree on. Of course, I think the so-called “local option” at least partially resolves this problem. I might be willing tolerate other churches and presbyteries being as exclusionary as they want to as long as my church and my presbytery can be as inclusive as we want to.

Still, can we ever keep silent about theologies we disagree with?
It is always tempting to articulate our own theologies and ways of being church by contrasting them to the “other” churches out there. Considering myself a “recovering evangelical”, I do this all the time, especially when it comes to theologies and practices that I consider harmful or misleading. I want people to know that there is an alternative way of being Christian. Is it possible for me to simply preach and live out my understanding of Christianity without setting it up as an alternative to conservative Christianity? Could conservatives do the same with respect to me?

This all seems more negative and pessimistic than I had hoped it would be. But, I wonder if thinking through these and other issues might lead to a more hopeful vision for a future church that holds together people of various theologies. As difficult as it is, it seems vitally important to me that our denomination not be an organization of single-minded people that all believe the same things. The kind of theological dynamism I long for is impossible without “thorns in our sides” to challenge us and keep us honest.

Comments

  1. Joshua Patty says:

    An interesting thought occurred to me toward the end of your entry: some of the most significant theological writing has been done by those articulating a position against another view. The Reformers did this (perhaps Luther most of all). But Augustine’s theology was driven by his arguments with Arianism and philosophy. Barth was refuting Schleiermacher; Tillich, perhaps, was arguing with them both, in some ways. Out of these arguments — perhaps sometimes out of arguments over red herrings — important constructive theology was written that has become influential.

    • Good point. But, how many of these were that concerned about the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church? I’ll give Augustine and the Reformers credit for wanting to maintain purity. But the Reformers–at least some of them–clearly didn’t mind dividing the church over theology. I’m not sure how to place Barth and Schleiermacher in this context, but Tillich had the luxury of doing theology in divinity schools. I doubt he gave much thought to how his theology impacted the church.

      I agree that arguing against other views is an important dynamic for constructive theology. But how can you do that without disrupting the unity of the church? Perhaps it’s possible if unity isn’t grounded in theological agreement, which I guess is my point.

      Another thought about Augustine: his wrangling with Arianism was still about rooting out heresies within the church. The whole dichotomy of orthodoxy and heresy presupposes both a theological consensus and a Christendom establishment that we no longer have, and many of us don’t desire.

      • Jeff Lipschultz says:

        Perhaps the balance between peace, unity, and purity is not absolute. Valuing peace and unity over purity is the particular sin of my wife’s mother, who allows her children to be subjected each day to horrific levels of psychological abuse because it “keeps the peace” and avoids causing trouble with her husband. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but maybe peace and unity are secondary to purity in the church as well.

        If theology doesn’t really matter, at least not anymore, and we don’t think anyone is wrong, why do we exist as Presbyterians per se?

        • I agree with you Jeff. The balance between peace, unity and purity might not be absolute and I guess this is the reason why some Christians, the ones I’ve known, created conflict in their relationship as Christian brothers and sisters.

          Leanna Decker

  2. John,
    You have been very honest about the tensions between evangelicals and progressives, more than most I think. On Barth and Schleiermacher, I think a great deal rested on Barth’s arguments against Schleiermacher. When he was complaining about what was happening to theology in Germany he said it they were simply dealing with “a small collection of odds and ends from the great theological dust-bins (this happy phrase is not mine; I’ve borrowed it ) of the despised eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” If Schleiemacher saw revelation as a feeling of dependence rather than Barth’s insistence on the One Word of God, that made all of the difference. To me it is in some ways what we are experiencing today. We are prone to listen for revelation in culture, or experience, etc.

  3. Jeff Lipschultz says:

    The challenge is that, collectively, our mission involves both spiritual and corporal ministries. Not everyone is cut out for being involved in all of them, such as evangelism, nor does everyone have the motivation for it. But it is important for the church as a whole to be involved in all of these efforts.

    As for theological diversity, I’d personally argue that the purity of the church presupposes a certain level of doctrinal consensus. Within that consensus, diversity is beautiful; outside it, you’re looking at a different kind of diversity with a different kind of beauty (ecumenical if we’re discussing a denomination, or interfaith if we’re looking at the universal Church). But we must clearly delineate what we believe that the truth is.

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