The Simplicity of Christian Unity

A few weeks ago I blogged some thoughts on Christian unity. I suggested that we need to have a centred approach to this unity. We need to think of Christian unity not like a fence that defines the outer limits of Christianity and protects “us” from “them,” but more like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing us toward it from all different directions, seeking out its warmth and light. I then suggested that, following the pervasive witness of the New Testament, this centre is Jesus himself, and Jesus’ way of love.

I’m well aware how problematic this might appear to be. It sounds awfully simplistic, terribly reductionistic. It seems so theologically naïve, even dangerous.

I hear my systematic theologian friends saying, “Wait a minute: where’s the triune God in all this?” I hear my historical theologian friends saying, “But you’ve forgotten the creeds!” My biblical theologian friends chime in: “Where’s the redemptive narrative of Scripture?” My New Testament scholar friends say, “But which Jesus? Mark’s, John’s, E. P. Sanders’, N. T. Wright’s?” My evangelical friends shake their heads: “The Bible must be at the centre, or we cannot know about Jesus!” My Mennonite friends smile and nod, but some think, “I’d like a little more emphasis on peace.”

PrintA few years ago I wrote a short book called From Resurrection to New Creation. I’ve always thought of it as a sort of mini-New Testament theology; it was billed in the subtitle as A First Journey in Christian Theology. In the book I describe concentric circles of Christian thought and practice, moving outward from first- to second- to third-order convictions (97-101).

At the very centre are those “core elements of the gospel, the ground and center of essential Christian faith and life: Jesus and his salvific [salvation-bringing] death and resurrection.” I go on to say:

This is the irreducible minimum of authentic Christian faith and life. That is, genuine Christianity is all about knowing and following the crucified and resurrected Jesus, living out his salvific death and resurrection in faith, love, and hope.

Notice the way I’ve framed this: authentic Christian faith is not about “right doctrine about Jesus,” a sound Christology; it’s about actually knowing and following Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Jesus who lived and taught and healed among us, who himself loved and trusted and hoped.

Beyond this inner circle is an outer one. This circle reflects Christian beliefs and practices that “directly grow out of the reality of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, even as they in turn impact one’s understanding and experience of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.” These include an understanding of the “tri-unity” of God, the Trinity; looking to the Scriptures as witness to Jesus; participating in the community of Jesus-followers, the Church; and anticipating the future presence of Jesus and fulfillment of the gospel. I then say this:

Together, these two circles are the absolute essentials of historically orthodox Christian theology and practice. That is, historically orthodox Christianity is focused on the salvific work of the triune God through the crucified and resurrected Jesus, as witnessed by the Scriptures, proclaimed and lived out by the church, and fulfilled in the future eschaton.

This is where the primary historic creeds come in, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, each with a Trinitarian structure centred on the gospel story of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and exaltation.

But notice again how I’ve framed this: there is a distinction to be made between “authentic Christian faith” and “historically orthodox Christianity.” One might be a genuine follower of Jesus and his way of love, yet question the inspiration of Scripture or be hazy on the doctrine of the Trinity. And one might have all their theological ducks in a row so as to be doctrinally orthodox, but if they are not following Jesus in love their doctrine is like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

Beyond these two circles are beliefs and practices that might be significant for particular communities, they may even be seen to have solid biblical and theological and historical support, but they are simply not central to authentic or orthodox Christianity. Here one finds the particular streams of Christian tradition, with differences over everything from baptism to Lord’s Supper, from justification to sanctification, from church polity to government policy, and so much more.

My call to a simple Christian unity focused on the Person of Jesus and the Way of Love, then, is not simplistic. It’s complex. When you look at Christianity in its most compact, most basic form, it’s all about Jesus, as if the crucified and resurrected Jesus is standing before each of us saying, “Who do you say that I am?” and “Come, follow me.” But as you follow Jesus you begin to realize there’s more to God, to God’s people, to Scripture, to life, to the future, to faith, to love—to everything!—then you first thought.

Yet even in that complexity, at its centre it’s still always about Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love.

If the centre becomes more than that, it becomes other than that.

And if it becomes other than that, then truly we have lost our Way.

For more on some of these thoughts, see my posts “On Bonfires, Love, and Jesus” and “When Everyone’s Biblical and We All Disagree.” For a different angle on these things, check out my piece called “Cling to Jesus.” Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.