Episcopal bishop, Peter James Lee once said “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy.” Sadly, this has become the battle cry of large swaths of the church, Episcopal and otherwise, from the mid-20th century until today. I’ve seen echoes of this mindset recently as I’ve followed the coverage of the church trial of United Methodist minister Frank Schaefer over his support for same sex marriage. Unity at all costs. But is that as it should be?
Unity is certainly important because unity is biblical.
In Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17, He prays for all those who will ever believe in Him and what He prays is that His church will have unity:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. – John 17:20-23
But again, is it a unity at all costs?
I don’t believe Christ is elevating unity to a position of prominence above all other things. When unity becomes an end unto itself it gets treated as a stand-alone concept similarly to the way faith is often viewed today. You sometimes hear people say things like “I’m a person of faith,” as if that was a complete statement. Often the person making such a statement wants to sound spiritual without actually making any truth claims. However, faith must always be in someone or something. Faith is only as good as its object. The same is true for unity. Unity must be around someone or something. It is only as good as the thing around which we’re called to unify.
For the church that thing must be the Word of God alone, Sola Scriptura as the reformers said. To think about why that is, let’s consider some other options, here are two leading contenders:
- Love. That certainly sounds good. We should be unified around our love for one another. After all, one of the marks of a Christian is that we love the brethren. (I John 2:9). This is the argument used by many in support of accepting homosexual behavior or same sex marriage. Love should trump everything else. But that begs the question what is love? For that we must turn to the scriptures. Jesus the Word made flesh says in the Word recorded by John if we love Him, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). So love, according to the scriptures is evidenced by operating within the boundaries set by Christ as recorded in scripture, and calling those we love to do so as well. As Randy Alcorn says “It’s never loving to mislead people into thinking God approves of what He does not.”
- The church. Some say we should maintain unity with and within our local church or denomination at all costs. Again, this sounds good. Who wants to cause a church split, right? But is the church the final authority around which we should rally? This takes us back to a discussion prominent at the time of the Reformation. What is the ultimate source of authority? Did the church create the scriptures or did the scriptures create the church? Protestants contended then and continue to do so today that the church is an outgrowth of God’s Word. She does not stand above it, nor did she create it. The church is subject to the word, not the other way round. Given that, unity with my local church or denomination can be maintained only so far as it is in harmony with God’s word. Traditions, books of church order, teachings of church leaders, decisions of church deliberation bodies, etc. are all important and can be helpful, but only so far as they are in harmony with the scriptures. I’m not saying, by the way, that one must leave their church if they are not in 100% agreement with everything taught there. There are scriptural teachings on which believers may disagree and remain in fellowship with one another. However, what is and is not in that category is another topic for another day. Nevertheless, in the end, the authority for the believer and for the church is the Word of God.
So back to Christ’s prayer for unity; how will that unity come to these future Christians? Looking at the passage again, we see it is through the preaching of the Word begun by the Apostles “…those who will believe in me through their word “- John 17:20. Biblical unity is a result of the Word rightly preached resulting in belief in Christ. We see this same dynamic in the Great Commission. We’re not only told to go and make disciples but we’re told what making disciples looks like. It is…
“…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20
And how do we know what Christ commanded? Again, the scriptures.
No matter how we slice it, true, Christian unity always comes back to the Word of God. Scripture is the fire around which the church is to warm herself and the divinely inspired tool she is to use to call others out of darkness and into light. Nothing else can be substituted for the unchanging Word of God as the ultimate authority both for the individual believer and the church.