Andrew Walls on Christian commonalities

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.


David Shane posted on July 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I think Christian unity serves at least one other purpose – as a witness of the truth of the Gospel to the world. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” All the world should know that all of us (Methodist, Catholic… even Presbyterian) are His disciples because of our love for one another.

So it is important to at least have, literally, Christian love for one another, across denominational boundaries, despite disagreements. I know I’ve been fortunate to witness that in spades it my own life, in people I have come to know personally. How to extend that to an institutional level, so that the world knows that Baptists love Methodists even when they argue, I do not know. (And perhaps it doesn’t need to be extended, as long as Christian neighbor loves Christian neighbor, that may be enough. It’s hard to speak of love between institutions anyways!)

David Wm. Scott posted on July 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for the comment, David. I couldn’t agree more that Christian unity must be rooted in love for one another, both as a witness to and an acting out of the gospel. It’s a good question to ask, though, to what extent institutions can “love” each other? Institutions are made up of people, but can we appropriately apply such anthrocentric concepts as love to institutions, and if so, what would that look like? And how does membership in an institution affect how we as individuals live out love toward other Christians?

Shannon Ture posted on August 31, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Hi. I found your blog post while browsing the internet in hopes of perhaps finding a blog BY Andrew Walls, in order to keep up with him. I enjoyed reading this post, as I think a lot about Christian unity, and how it’s so important for the Gospel to be truly known. I was discouraged at the end, though, to find you don’t have much hope for that binding substance among Christians of varying beliefs. I agree with the first comment-er that love is it, but to add my own thoughts and expand on that idea, I think we must be cautious against mustering up that love ourselves. In the verse he quoted, Jesus commands us to love one another, but I don’t think He expects us to have it, display it, pour it out, on our own. After all He says He’s in us as He is in the Father. He’s got it, and He provides it. The “rivers of living water” flowing through us we cannot create; we can only be vessels for them. So what then is our part? To be vessels fixed on Him, abiding in Him. There is a night-and-day difference between when we try and produce love and unity on our own, and when we rely on Him to do it through us. The difference is so obvious — the equivalent of dirty rags compared to beauties unimaginable. In fact, allowing Him to bring us together in unity allows Him to get the glory, and isn’t that what we want (when we’re abiding in Him)? I think those four commonalities you illuminate in your article are for a purpose, but knowledge of them, or even practice of them, are not enough. It’s knowing/practicing them in Spirit and in Truth.

David W. Scott posted on September 1, 2011 at 11:28 am

Shannon, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for reading it. I think you’re right that achieving Christian unity requires more than just human effort – it does require the action of the Holy Spirit. But, as you point out, that’s the beauty of Christianity – Jesus has promised us that he will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

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