Last week, I wrote a post in which I encouraged Christians to think about what binds us together. What binds us together is different, however, than what we have in common, and I hope to demonstrate that in this week’s post by using the work of the great missiologist Andrew Walls. I think Walls has written some of the most brilliant stuff on the history of Christianity, and especially its relation to culture, that’s out there, so I’m also happy to plug reading Walls by writing this post. And as it turns out, he’s written something germane to this question of what unites Christians.
In an article entitled “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture”, Walls first notes the extreme variety amongst Christians of varying places and times in terms of beliefs and practices. Walls asks how someone from another planet looking at Christians in these different times and places would recognize them as part of the same movement.
Walls’ answer is that there are three common elements shared by Christians across time and space, to which one can add a fourth: a man, a meal, a bath, and a book. (The wording for this is not Walls’, but I can’t for the life of me remember where it does come from.) The man, of course, is Jesus. Walls points out that Christians everywhere see Jesus as having ultimate significance in history and in the ongoing religious life of their communities. The meal is communion, using bread and wine or some sort of substitutes for them. The bath is baptism, some sort of ritual anointing with or immersing in water. Communion and baptism are the two universally recognized and universally practiced Christian sacraments, and both are distinctively Christian. The book is the Bible, used by Christian communities across space and time, albeit translated into different languages. These, then, are the four foundational Christian commonalities. Are they enough, though, to constitute the basis of Christian unity? It would seem not.
Christians all agree that Jesus is important, but there have been widely differing interpretations on why he’s important. Is he an atoning sacrifice for sin? Is he the victor in the struggle against the devil? Is he a good moral example? Is he divine? Is he human? Is he semi-divine? What is the relation between the historical Jesus and the cosmic Christ? All of these questions and more have divided Christians about Jesus even as they have had Jesus in common.
As for communion, Christian unity fares no better there. Christians may all practice communion, but many won’t share communion with each other, the most notable example being the Roman Catholic’s Church exclusion from communion all but faithful Catholics. Furthermore, as Christianity has spread into climates where wheat and grapes are not readily available, communion has been additionally divisive as Christians grapple with whether it is acceptable to substitute something else for bread and grape wine. Then there are the theological debates about communion, the most famous of these being how to understand the nature of Christ’s presence in the elements, with the major camps being the transubstantiation people, the consubstantiation people, the spiritual presence people, and the memorial meal people.
Baptism, too, though a universal ritual for Christians, is not a uniting ritual. Here, the major distinction is between those who practice infant baptism and those who insist on adult (or believers’) baptism, with the latter often not recognizing the validity of the former. In addition to this divide, there are also debates between the sprinklers, the dunkers, and any other forms of administering baptism you could hope for. Questions about validity separate these groups, too. And these questions are just in the realm of practice. There are also significant debates over the theology of baptism, what happens in baptism, what the status of the unbaptized is vis-à-vis the church or heaven, etc.
Finally, we come to the Bible. Anyone who’s spend time around Christians should not be surprised that the Bible fails to provide a source of unity, too, as arguing about Biblical interpretation among Christians is as old as the Bible itself. There are both big picture arguments (Is the Bible inerrant? How is it inspired?) and little picture arguments (How do you interpret such and such a text?). There are even arguments about translation, usually playing into little picture arguments about the interpretation of specific texts.
Hence, commonalities are not sufficient grounds for unity. They’re a good starting place, but unity in terms of purpose, action, spirit, and fellowship needs something more. In order to work and worship together, we need something more than saying, “Well, we all like Jesus,” or “We all read the Bible.” I personally think it’s too much to hope for to come up with something more that will unite all Christians, but I do think it’s an important and potentially answerable question for Christians who are united in a particular denomination. It’s important, too, because those united in a particular denomination are supposed to work and worship together. And that is ultimately the point of Christian unity – that it enable our work for and worship of God.