But What About Unity?
Written by Lora A. Copley
“Personally, Lora, I agree with the HSR, but I’m uncomfortable that it draws a line in the sand. Far better for us to agree to disagree.”
“Shouldn’t the church err on the side of mercy, generosity, and everyone at the table?”
“Jesus prayed for His church to be one. John 17, right? May they be one as we are one. Our greatest need right now is to stay together. Unity first.”
I understand these appeals. There was a time I spoke them.
These appeals come naturally to us. For one thing, Biblical unity is a virtue. Moreover, like fish in water, all our lives we’ve swam in the cultural streams of cheering on openness, togetherness, and harmony. Since a tyke at Mr. Roger’s feet, I’ve wanted only to reside in just such peace-making waters. I love encouraging people. I find it easy to “go along to get along.” My homing instinct is trained towards those comforting waters of warmth.
But Scripture is not that. There is a bracing mountain-cold, “slap-in-the-face” quality to the waters of Scripture. The more I study Scripture, the more I must do so on my knees, because every passage runs against the current of heart and calls me to repent.
Including to repent of the desire to have unity at all costs.2
Scripture shows unity can be idolatrous, as in the case of the people of Babel.
Scripture shows unity can be a smokescreen for cowardice, as in the case of King Zedekiah.
Scripture shows repeated warnings against a unity that blesses what God has not blessed.3
Scripture shows that unity in Jesus’ church must never hang from the empty air of our good intentions and cozy feelings. Unity must always be rooted in bedrock truth, on the foundation of “the apostles’ doctrine.” In fact, if core truth is abandoned our unity is no longer Christian unity at all;4 it is a counterfeit coexistence and an ultimately futile endeavor.
Here are three examples of how unity, if pursued for its own sake, will backfire on us and prove vain, no matter how well-intentioned we may be.
1) As we’ve seen play out in other denominations, unity that compromises on matters of sexual ethics, will mean disunity with the ethnic and global church (and the historic church too.)
Different ethnic communities in our denomination are speaking up. We’ve heard from the CRCNA's Latino Consejo about their ardent support of the HSR. Navajo and Zuni believers drafted appreciation for the HSR, which Classis Red Mesa adopted and sent by way of overture to Synod. I’ve heard Chinese congregations in the Pacific Northwest are leaving the Canadian Presbyterian church, desiring to unify with a denomination that holds to the very convictions the HSR represents.
The global church laments (and even rebukes) the church in the West on these matters. If the CRC wants to honor and respect diversity among us --ethnic diversity and our global brothers and sisters-- then the HSR represents an alignment with their wisdom and concerns.
2) We aren't the first denomination to be in this spot, asking these questions. Plenty of denominations have gone before us in this. And all of them had the same good intentions we have. They all wanted a "big-tent" denomination; one that could accommodate two views on sexual ethics; one that could unify on bigger matters and still do ministry together. Has it worked?
Look at our older sister the Reformed Church of American, the Presbyterian Church USA, the ELCA, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Mennonite Church, the Canadian Presbyterian Church. I recently learned the United Methodist Church organized as a denomination that committed to the “at all costs” principle, resolving – in effect- that "our main non-negotiable will be unity. We will stubbornly figure out a way through any problem by staying united." They have been having challenging conversations and trying out different solutions (local options, etc) about this issue at every assembly since 1972, and now they too, threw in the towel saying, "we can't do it, we must separate."
There must be something about the HSR issue that, like so many other issues, a church body cannot “agree to disagree” on.5 (I venture one reason, of many, in my next section.) Does not the experience of all these other denominations call our churches to humility? Why do we think we can make a middle way, a unity-first way, work when it hasn’t worked – and is not working- for anyone else? The middle position must be able to give its grounds, its evidence, for precisely what makes the CRC, or individual congregations among us, so different that we will be the exception to the rule.
3) Finally, as Rev. Vriesman and Rev. Midge made clear in their November discussion, the longer the church tries to hold two irreconcilable positions (even in the name of unity), the more individuals- who deserve clarity- get hurt.
One position says, "God's love means mortify and find your identity only in Jesus".
The other position says, "God's love means embrace and celebrate your creational-diverse identity."
Each position believes the other position does actual people actual harm.
Each position finds the other position in need of critical correction.
Each position will discover that the culture will only continue to sharpen their convictions in more intense, and oppositional, ways.
Each position, though, has an integrity to it.
What lacks integrity is to say both these positions can be held simultaneously. The center position—while incredibly attractive and natural for peace-loving people to hold— is fundamentally contradictory and therefore will be impossible to endure. Moreover, it will become increasingly offensive to the other two positions. And when it comes to pastoral care, the center position may be the least loving. It seems to care about a false institutional unity more than it cares for beloved image-bearers.
A friend and I disagree with each other over the HSR but we absolutely agree on one thing: "Clear is kind." My friend said it well. We must be clear or we hurt people. We hurt our denomination. We sink the ship.6 And our unity would be false.
Our denomination must decide on the HSR. And then accept the consequences. I don’t like even writing it. As hard as it is for peace-making, unity-loving people (like myself, who cherish loved ones with differing convictions, who regularly lose sleep and tears over these matters) - as hard as it is for “middle way” people to admit, we must see that every decision—including the center one, the one that seeks unity—will come with unavoidable and serious consequences.
The Lord of the Church—full of grace and truth, abounding in love and faithfulness – can make the same abound in His people. Jesus can help us honor each other, even while we courageously acknow-ledge the painful truth: that mutually exclusive positions cannot both be our starting point for love.
As one pastor said, “sometimes the best way to preserve unity is to admit we don’t have it.”7
Here’s a few of these great admonitions for unity. We are readily at home in these verses, and can think of many more:
1 Pt 3:8 ESV- Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind
1 Cor 1:10- let no divisions be among you but be united in the same mind and the same thought.
Rom 14:15- Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification
We can affirm the value of unity at many costs. But not all costs. We must recognize that some costs are out of bounds for us. “If the salt loses its saltiness” than the cost is too high.
Because it’s less said in our modern ears, here’s a larger smattering of warnings against illegitimate unity. We can also think of many more verses in this category:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…’ Matthew 10:34-35
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil from among you.” 1 Cor 5:11-12
Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. Is 52.11
“Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…” Rev 18:6
“We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. John 15:18
What is “Christian unity?” Ephesians 4:3, often appealed to in our denominational moment, says “Bear with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Note a certain kind of unity is called for here—the “unity of the Spirit.” Our Reformed belief is that the Spirit is wedded to his Word. If we ever deliberately dismiss or undermine the Word, then the Spirit leaves the building. And we’re left with a counterfeit coexistence. Unity not in the Spirit, that’s unity just in name. In every one of the unity passages, we see unity must grows out of rootedness in the Word, the Spirit’s Word.
Among the many issues (that we would not tolerate teaching an opposing view on) are ethical matters like racism or human trafficking, or theological matters like the exclusivity of Jesus Christ or salvation through His blood.
There is a parable that goes back more than 1500 years to Jewish rabbis. The parable, slightly adapted, has three persons in a boat in the middle of the sea. One man holds up a 2” auger to bore a hole in the boat’s bottom. You protest. The man insists he only wants to see the sea at his feet and stop being so narrowminded. The third man jumps in to bring peace. “Hey, I have a middle position! Here’s a ½” auger in my backpack. A 2” hole would be too big, but a hole of less an inch ought to be okay. It’s a win-win! We can honor each position.”
Rev. Kevin DeYoung, blog from July 13, 2012