Attentiveness: An Appeal for Christian Unity
Gordon-Conwell’s history is one of rich evangelical ecumenism. There are eighty-five evangelical and orthodox denominations represented in our community, and we are united by the authority of Scripture. This multidenominational nature is one of our distinctives as a seminary. We hear from our students and alumni that being in community with those from other evangelical traditions provides them with a more comprehensive and beautiful understanding of Christ and the Church.
However, one of the greatest challenges today in Christian witness for all of the Church is Christian unity. Our witness is hampered greatly by our ongoing divisions and the angry and divisive words and attitudes we have toward other Christians. I want to make an appeal for us to be evangelical advocates for Christian unity. In the words of Jesus:
. . . I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . I in them and you in me, so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
My appeal has three parts:
- Major in essentials: It is very important that this appeal starts with having clarity about what is essential in our Christian unity. Most orthodox theology statements stand on the firm ground of the following: the Triune nature of God, saving work of Jesus Christ, God as Creator of all, Scripture as the only reliable way to know God and salvation (infallible, inerrant, authoritative, etc.), the reality of heaven and hell, the missionary mandate, the church and the sacraments of baptism and communion/Eucharist. We can quibble over some of this, but the core is about Jesus and the meaning of the cross, which is the center of all of history.
Gordon-Conwell’s theology statement is our way of expressing something well received by most Christians but expressed through an evangelical dialect.
- Give grace in inessentials: Let me offer four areas where the evangelical church has had differences of opinion and where we need to be gracious and loving toward people on the “other side.”
- Baptism: Do we baptize infants as we welcome them into the covenant family? Do we wait until a young adult or adult makes a personal profession of faith and then baptize them? Do we fully immerse or not?
- Communion, Lord’s supper, Eucharist: What word do we use and what is the proper way to serve? What and how often do we serve?
- Church structure: Do we have a bishop? Priests? Pastors? Do we have elders, deacons, or trustees? Who has “authority” over the local church?
- Role of women: Are women excluded from certain roles or can women teach and preach in any role just as men do? Are women only to work with children and women?
Strong biblical and theological arguments exist on all sides of these various issues . . . and churches have divided and been divisive about these issues. Wars have even been fought over the definition and meaning of the Eucharist! We need to remember this: it is not only possible but necessary to prevent these differences from dividing us and thus hurting the witness of Jesus Christ.
Our cultural battles must not permeate our churches. This is my second appeal: give grace regarding inessential issues.
- Love those who are on the “other side” of evangelical issues. We must give grace to the issues and love to the people. We live in a culture of “us versus them,” “either-or” thinking. We need to resist the cultural impulses which bait us to immediately identify people as either allies or enemies. Such thinking splits families and churches. Our approach needs to be to welcome, engage, serve, and love even those who have the “wrong” position on communion or the role of women. Then we become the answer to Jesus’ prayer rather than the reason for Jesus’ prayer!
It may help to remember that there are very strong arguments—theologically, biblically, and historically—for the other side of each of these issues. Likewise, there are strong reasons to oppose each of these positions because of the abuses of the position. However, an abuse of theology is not necessarily an expression of it. The existence of extremes and abusers does not cancel good theology. It is simply a call to apply the command from Paul to “speak the truth in love” at all times (Ephesians 4:15).
As churches experience cultural divisiveness, let’s bring the fresh wind of the Spirit that blows away the divisiveness and distrust and gives fresh oxygen to the Body of Christ for his mission.
So, my third appeal is to love those on the other side of these inessential issues for the sake of Christ and his mission.
 Much has been written about church unity. I still remember from a book influential in my seminary training by Richard Baxter (1615-1691), The Reformed Pastor. In the book he emphasizes the need for humility and repentance in maintaining unity among Christians (pages 79-80).
 “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” is a saying that dates back to the seventeenth century, but it is unclear who first said it. My approach is a little different.
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.