Disunity is the original sin of Protestant Christianity. We divide endlessly, because there’s no mechanism within the movement for resolving theological disputes. There’s no pope, no Magisterium, no ecumenical church council that serves as the supreme court of our faith. As a result, our denominations sometimes seem like defective calculators that only divide, but never add or multiply.
It’s not only because we lack an effective mechanism for conflict resolution that we divide. Most Protestants care deeply about the truth, doctrinal truth, even though we don’t always agree on what it is. In our quest to get it right, we have sometimes sacrificed unity on the altar of ideology. Theology becomes everything. It becomes a great wall separation to keep some people out, others in. I’m not suggesting we throw the theological baby out with the separatist bath water. Doctrine can be true and helpful and beautiful, especially when it is used like a road map to point us to God and not like a club to beat people with and to keep them in line.
In some groups unity is reduced to conformity. We can have unity, they contend, only when we agree theologically. The prophet Amos asked, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). Some answer no and follow it to the logical conclusion. Unity requires rigid conformity to a long and very specific list of doctrinal statements, not to mention overly strict behavioral norms. The payoff for churches with rigid theology and strict conformity is a sense of safety and comfort. We prefer to be around those who are most like us. When we attend church with those who believe exactly as we do, it affirms us and makes us feel we’re not alone. For many people, having their beliefs challenged is unsettling and frightening.
But it’s not only conservatives who separate from other Christians. Mainline Protestants are sometimes ecumenical more in word than in deed. Episcopalians fellowship mostly with Episcopalians, Presbyterians with other Presbyterians, Methodists with Methodists, Congregationalists with Congregationalists. Denominational distinctives divide us despite high-minded statements about the importance of unity.
Sometimes it seems the truth-versus-unity challenge is a zero-sum game. Like a seesaw, when one side goes up the other comes down. How can we preserve unity without sacrificing truth? And how can we uphold truth without damaging our spiritual oneness?
I’m reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. It’s a memoir about the author’s struggle with parish ministry and how she made the painful decision to exchange her pulpit for a college lectern. Not only is it beautifully written but it is also thought provoking. Here’s what Taylor says about truth: “My faith is far more relational than doctrinal. Although I am guilty of reading scripture as selectively as anyone, my reading persuades me that God is found in right relationships, not in right ideas, and that a great deal of Christian theology began as a stammering response to something that had actually happened in the world” (107-8). I think she’s onto something. If truth is more relational than rational, then the tension between truth and unity disappears.
Those are some of my thoughts about truth and unity. What are yours?