High-Stakes Unity: Paul, Cyprian, Belhar

06 May

Unity starts with Jesus. 

[A Bonus Post for the Rally to Restore Unity]

bears for christian unity sign

This is completely unrelated to my post, but this is my favorite #restoreunity sign from the week thus far.  Originally from Bryan Dormaier (link to original post)

OH, I also REALLY liked the Bill and Ted sign… whoever did that one. 

Sure, unity is great. 

But is it vital?  Is it necessary?

After all, churches (in this country in particular) have been splitting and re-splitting like amoebas for decades…centuries, even!  We know, somehow, deep down, that it’s bad… but at the end of the day, what’s the big deal?

Well, either it truly isn’t a big deal…. or, we have grown so accustomed to division, to digging in our heels and standing up for what we believe to be the authentic Gospel, that we have become numb to the fact that, according to Jesus, the Gospel itself is at stake when we fail to unify. 

The stakes are too low in our minds.

Jesus Himself is what’s at stake.

Some examples— (following the jump):

Portion of the Western Wall in Jerusalem… the only remaining piece of the Herodian temple.

  • Regarding the original church division issue (Jew vs. Gentile), Paul (or his followers) said these words:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  (Eph 2:13-16 NRSV)

The word “dividing wall” most likely alludes to the wall (sorek) in the Herodian Temple that separated the outer court from the central area of the temple, where Jews would enter to offer their worship, closer to the Holy Place where God was said to reside. 

According to Paul/Paulinist, Jesus tore down that wall. 

As the son of David and son of Adam, he brought Jew and Gentile together, restoring the original intent of the covenant made to Abraham— that the entire world would be blessed.  No matter the ethnic or theological differences between the two; Jesus brought them together once and for all.

  • To the Galatian church riddled with divisive Jew/Gentile debates about the value of circumcision, Paul responds by saying, first, Christ has given you a new identity, one that supersedes all others:

…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.   (Gal 3:26-29 NRSV)

Second, he tells them:  “You’re missing the point!” 

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Gal 5:6)

Faith, meaning, following Jesus.  Love, being the primary means by which we follow. 

With ALL our doctrinal arguments in the church…at the end of the day, if we’re hitching our wagons to Jesus (following Him), and we’re holding our lives up to the light of His Spirit and His life, then HE is the source of our unity….

…and by failing to live in unity (our orthopraxis), we betray the very thing that our adherence to doctrine (our orthodoxy) seek to defend:  Christ Himself.  Are we possibly failing to be faithful to Jesus Himself, by getting it confused with a faithfulness to doctrine?  [That would certainly be easier.  Doctrines and laws are static; Jesus is, as William Willimon likes to say, “peripatetic,” i.e., mobile.  He is a person/being; not a state.  He’s a moving target, impossible to control.] Humans make laws, and laws divide human from human; when Jesus took the law upon Himself, He did away with the need to divide….how dare we make laws out of THIS good news????

  • Cyprian of Carthage ministered during one of the most difficult, but perhaps also the most inspiring, periods in the history of the church.  Christianity had survived wave after wave of persecution, which further spawned a number of theological conflicts as well, involving how Christians should live in such a world, and how to deal with those who “cave” to the Roman Empire in the face of persecution when they wish to rejoin the church after the political climate would settle.

Cyprian was a conservative on virtually all of these matters, and wrote fervent treatises arguing his positions.  But when push came to shove, Cyprian’s overarching concern was not doctrinal purity, but ecclesial UNITY:

The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 5)

Unity preserved despite diversity….because of Christ. 

Does that mean that churches can be permitted to divide in function, in order to prevent further discord, because their unity is mainly spiritual, not structural?

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother…He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, “I and the Father are one;” (St. John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “And these three are one.” (I St. John 5:7)…He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation. (On the Unity of the Church, 6)

Even the conservative Cyprian valued unity above all else.  And he proved it by refusing to disavow the church even though he vehemently disagreed with the Roman bishop (the Pope) on a particularly heated issue. 

Too much was at stake to split. 

  • Fast-forwarding 1800 years, and moving from one end of a continent to another…..

The people of the Reformed churches in South Africa understood what was at stake when in 1982 in a township called Belhar, the DRMC drafted a document stating plainly that the separation between people in the church, sanctioned and legislated by the perverse doctrine of apartheid, threatened the very Gospel itself:

  • Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
  • …(U)nity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
  • …(T)his unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23)…

(Belhar 2.1-3)

Unity is a “gift and an obligation”…for those who claim Christ.

It sounds pretty vital and necessary to me. 

Yet we seem pretty content with disunity, if you look around the church today. 

Just last night, I heard a man at our church wrestle with recent changes in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) church, the only way he being able to make sense of it all was to label those making the changes with words like “evil,” “unrighteous,” “manipulative.”  Is our church contemplating a split?  That certainly would be easier than staying in fellowship, and considering them “evil” makes that choice even more apparent.

Just yesterday, Amy and I learned that a dear friend of ours is being dismissed from this position as a pastor at their church, predominantly because he was a young adult pastor, who did things “differently,” for the sake of being open and available to this oft-neglected population.  This created too much cognitive dissonance for the head pastor, apparently. 

These are only drops in the ocean of examples of the increasing fragmentations of our communities. 

Unity is more than a nice idea.

It IS vital.  It IS necessary.

And as cliché and naïve as it sounds… it starts with a commitment to Jesus. 

Faithfulness to HIM (and thus His body)… and not to IDEAS about Him.  (Which isn’t easy— in fact it means we love the BODY as we love God Himself, even in its brokenness.)

Because if we humble ourselves and are faithful to Jesus, even in our mish-mash of interpretations and understandings (perhaps, actually, because of that diversity)…

we will actually look like His body. 

And our love that transcends our differences will testify.

And maybe then, we’ll have something vital to share with the world. 


Posted by on May 6, 2011 in bible, church



2 responses to “High-Stakes Unity: Paul, Cyprian, Belhar

  1. rey

    May 11, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    If there was ever a cause of disunity in Christianity, and there both was and is, it was and is Paul. Here’s a man who prides himself on some crazy notion that Jesus has appeared to him in a vision and that Jesus in this one apparition has given him everything he needs to know to preach the gospel and he doesn’t need to go and meet the real apostles and learn about what Jesus taught them–read Galatians 1-2. No, he’s Paul the uber apostle who can go off half-cocked and preach the gospel all over the place based on one lousy vision, and he can condemn the top 3 of Jesus’ actual apostles that he trained for 1-3 years in person in the flesh and say things like “they seemed to be pillars but whatever they really are makes no difference to me.” He can accuse Peter of hypocrisy not only to his face but in a letter which Peter has no opportunity to refute, and in which Peter will be slandered for the rest of time! And what are the facts of the case? That Peter was probably just following a teaching similar to Romans 14 that if eating meat (or a particular kind of meat) offends your brothers you shouldn’t eat it around them. Thus while the “certain men from James” were around Peter stopped eating non-kosher food (i.e. pork) with the Gentiles, not because he was a racist or that he though Gentiles were going to hell for eating non-kosher food, but because he was trying to not offend these guys from Jerusalem just as Paul teaches himself in Romans 14. But instead of being rational and seeing this, instead of saying “hmmm…if my bosom buddy Barnabbas is siding with Peter, then maybe Peter is right,” Paul gets in Peter’s face and slanders him to the Galatians! This is unity? This man is the destruction of Christianity.

    • jlundewhitler

      May 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm

      Rey– Good thoughts; I have one statement, and then a couple of questions for you–

      First: If what you’re responding to is Paul “as interpreted by 90% of evangelical Christians in the US and Europe,” then I very much understand your proclivity to think of Paul as a divisive character. But that’s more about how Paul as the means with which we interpret Christ, rather than using Christ to interpret Paul (which I think is Western evangelicalism’s folly). But even the most fundamentalist reading of Paul, if it is thorough, would have a hard time arguing that he was as arrogant and divisive in his day as you seem to make him to be. Paul’s insistence that our unity in Christ is foremost (Galatians 3:27-29; Ephesians 2:11-22) and our love as expressed in Christian fellowship is therefore paramount (1 Corinthians 12-14), are considered critical to his theology by most. Not only that, he routinely expressed his sense of humility, especially in the Corinthian letters–although the end of 2 Corinthians it appears he may indeed be wrestling with some arrogance!

      But that brings me to some questions: First, even if Paul was arrogant, does that automatically make him “the destruction of Christianity”? That seems like a bit of a leap. Further, does the fact that he believes that God met him in a vision automatically mean that he felt like he, at that point, knew all there was to know about God? We forget how much training Paul had as a Pharisee, so he wasn’t exactly flying off the cuff; while he may have had a dramatic conversion, he was drawing off the resources of faith that his Pharisaical training had given him as he developed his theology-something quite obvious from the reading of his letters. It sounds like you assume by that receiving a calling, he is arrogant— in which case, a whole lot of us pastors are arrogant to the point of destroying Christianity (which you may have a point there, but whatever… 🙂 )

      Second, you say that he “condemned” Peter and James and Barnabas–when really I don’t read Galatians 1-2 like that at all. There was a disagreement, to be sure, but it says that Peter stood “self-condemned”… Paul didn’t condemn him. But all of that is really besides the point: Is disagreement the same as disunity? There is never a hint in the New Testament that the early church even thought of becoming separate institutions, even though there were, as you noticed, some serious discrepancies between their understandings. I actually think it’s a demonstration of unity that imperfect people (because Paul, Peter, Barnabas and James were indeed, ALL, imperfect) remained in fellowship and dialogue, and continued to acknowledge each other’s authority. So my question to you is: Must we agree as Christians, in order to be unified? The church managed to remained unified despite its remarkable and under-appreciated regional diversity for the first 1000 years of its existence… and it is only the past 200 years that have seen the explosion of new denominations and splinter groups.


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