Attaining Unity: A Reply to Mike Allen

Mike Allen of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, scores some points in his review of The End of Protestantism. He lodges the fair complaint that my rhetoric sometimes outruns my evidence. He argues that more stress on the present reality of the church’s unity deepens the tragedy of division; divisions in the church “straightforwardly oppose reality.”

Of course, I have parries to these criticisms. The complaint about rhetoric misconstrues the genre of the book, which is sermonic rather than academic. Sermons need arguments too, but sermons aim to move, not merely to convince.

Mike is right that I don’t provide complete arguments or probative evidence for many of my assertions, that doesn’t mean there are no arguments or evidence to present. In some cases, I mistakenly wrote as if the reader would be familiar with my other work, where I offer fuller arguments. Mike is also right that my assertion that “nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions” is unprovable. But there’s plenty that makes it plausible – the New Testament’s forceful emphasis on unity as a part of the church’s witness, the testimony of unbelievers over several centuries, and the cultural effects of the church’s fragmentation documented by writers like Brad Gregory. (I suspect Mike is as skeptical of Gregory as he is of me, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Some of his other criticisms miss the bull’s eye. Mike thinks he can rebut my discussion of global Christianity by saying that the globalization of the church is likely to make Christianity more “fissiparous” rather than more unified. But I make exactly that point (p. 128), and his criticism misrepresents my argument in any case. The north-south inversion of Christianity isn’t evidence that “unity is just around the corner” (Mike’s mischaracterization, not my words). Along with the softening of Protestant-Catholic and East-West boundaries, it’s evidence that God is busting up the old world of post-Reformation Christianity, an end that offers opportunities for fresh beginnings. Mike doesn’t think these trends have much of anything to do with one another, but, working within the biblical paradigm I outline in chapter 8, I take both trends as signs of what appears to be an epochal internal restructuring of Christianity.

Mike’s point about the present unity of the church is criticism of a different order and requires a different sort of response. Like many, perhaps most, Reformed thinkers, Mike takes the present unity of the church as an invisible or heavenly unity, and characterizes my position as illegitimately empirical. Mine, he charges, is an ecclesiology of sight rather than faith. He acknowledges that I occasionally speak of present unity (p. 28), but thinks that present unity doesn’t play a large enough role in my book.

Let me attempt a slight restatement of my position that I hope takes account of Mike’s criticisms.

For starters, a methodological remark that addresses one of the underlying issues in Mike’s review: He characterizes the “underlying logic” of my book as “sociological” rather than “theological.” I don’t accept the criticism because I don’t acknowledge that disciplinary separation. More positively, I write from the conviction that theology is inherently sociological and that biblically-informed history-writing is a mode, and should be one of the chief modes, of theology. Are Samuel and Kings political science or theology? Is Acts history or ecclesiology? To my way of thinking, The End of Protestantism is a thoroughly theological treatise.

To the question of unity more particularly: An empirical test is integral to the biblical portrayal of unity. Jesus prays the church would be unified enough for the world to recognize it (John 17:21, 23). This cannot be a unity discernible only to faith, since Jesus expects the world to discern it. If our unity doesn’t show the world that the Father sent the Son, it’s not the unity Jesus prayed for.

On the basis of Ephesians 4:4-6, Mike argues that the unity of the “one body” is a present reality but not an empirical reality. The unity must be the unity of the invisible church. “God reveals oneness first as a gift in the present” that “must be maintained.” It “can be stretched and even scandalized” but remains inviolable. In the midst of stretch and scandal, we need to view the church theologically rather than sociologically or empirically.

This is a questionable reading of Ephesians. Nothing in the passage suggests that Paul is speaking of an invisible body (a strange category in any case). Immediately after the “poem” on oneness, Paul writes of gifts distributed by the ascended Lord Jesus to His church (vv. 7-11), gifts including visible apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who build up what must be the visible “body of Christ” (v. 11). Does it make sense to say that “body” in verse 4 is an invisible company when “body of Christ” in verse 11 is a visible communion? What warrants the insertion of a visible-invisible distinction? It seems more straightforward to conclude that for Paul the unity of the body is as visible as the unity of baptism.

There are invisible dimensions of the church. Fundamentally, the church is the body of the invisibly ascended Christ, animated by the intangible Spirit. But the contrast of visible and invisible doesn’t correspond to the distinction of unity and disunity; it’s not that the church is united invisibly by Christ and the Spirit while it may be disunited in visible respects. Visible unity expresses the invisible work of the Son and Spirit. Visible disunity grieves the invisible Spirit and rouses the jealous wrath of the Lamb. Unity and disunity have both visible and invisible aspects.

In what sense is the church visibly one in the present? Mike makes the helpful point that “potential areas of unity are also sites of division”; they “may be both unifying and dividing in various ways.” Just because they are “places of unity,” disagreement leads to division. To make this concrete: Baptism is a rite of unity even now. Believers are baptized into the Triune name, even though we do not share a common rite or understanding of baptism. Similarly with the Lord’s Supper, and with various other practical and doctrinal matters.

Mike’s commitment to the visible/invisible contrast leads him astray, however. In none of these cases is unity loitering invisibly behind visible disunity. Rather, unity and disunity are both evident on the surface, both “empirical” – unity evident in the similarities of the rites and the overlap of doctrinal commitments; disunity evident in the conflicts at those same points. That contraction between visible unity and equally visible disunity is precisely what sends Paul over the edge.

As Mike points out, Paul urges that the unity be maintained, exhorting the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” to unity (4:1, in context of 2:11-22). We are called to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). What happens if the Ephesians won’t listen? What if they become proud, harsh, impatient, unforgiving (contra Paul’s instructions in 4:2-3). Would Paul still say that the church is unified regardless?

We don’t have to speculate. We know that Paul castigates the Corinthians for their factions, for the “divisions” (schismoi) that have arisen within the church and especially at the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 11:17-23). He accuses Peter of denying the gospel for refusing to eat with Gentiles (Galatians 2). It’s worth a moment’s pause to ask how Paul knows that the church is “divided”? For the Corinthians, he has reliable testimony to that effect (“I hear that schismoi exist among you”). He seems to have observed Peter’s conduct directly (Galatians 2:11-14). In short, someone observed the factions of the Corinthian church and reported to Paul; Paul took that empirical testimony as evidence of “divisions.” And Paul did not say: Well, yes, there are empirical divisions, yet the body is one nonetheless. In Galatians, the unity was real because the church was the site of Jew-Gentile union, but that union could be rent, and by one as great as Peter.

How can we make sense of Paul speaking of the church’s “unity” while also straightforwardly charging the Corinthians with divisions? The answer lies in the eschatological structure of Paul’s understanding of unity. In Ephesians 4, Paul explicitly talks about future unity. According to verse 13, unity is not an entirely or fully present reality, but is something we “attain” as we grow to the fullness of Christ. If the unity of the church is a present gift at all (and I agree that it is), it is present as an eschatological gift. Unity, in short, shares the already/not-yet structure of the rest of the New Testament. As I put it repeatedly in The End of Protestantism, we are called to be now what we will be.

(My emphasis on future unity, by the way, is partial refutation of Mike’s claim that I offer a nostalgic “once there was unity” narrative. I do say that “once there were no denominations,” which is a fact. Whatever diversity existed in 350 AD, it was not denominationalism. Besides, it is beyond dispute that the European church split from one to many in the course of the sixteenth century. To deny this is to detach ecclesiology from history. Still, I decidedly do not think we can or should try to return to pre-Reformation forms of church life, and I state explicitly that the church has never existed in a blissful condition of complete harmony [p. 29].)

On the eschatological understanding of unity sketched above, unity is not a front-loaded reality that is already fully present under a veil. Unity is back-loaded, a future reality in which we already participate but toward whose fullness we strive. That perspective makes sense of Paul’s apoplectic reaction to divisions within the church; factionalism at Corinth threatens to divide the one Christ by dividing His one body.

This is as much an ecclesiology of faith as what Mike lays out, but it defines faith as Hebrews 11 does, as the confidence of things not yet seen. Faith is opposed to sight because faith is directed to God’s promises for a future not yet realized, promises that are already realized in part.

In the final analysis, the church’s unity cannot be destroyed. Jesus will have a unified body. In the power of the Spirit, we will grow up into the unity of the body of Christ. Along the way from present to eschaton, the church is sometimes more unified, sometimes less so, sometimes so violently fractured that claims to “unity” are a cruel joke. Factions do exist, wrenching schimoi can and do rip and tear. Christians are sometimes faithful to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, but at other times we grieve the Spirit with our hatreds and prejudices. The church will never lack a lamp, but Jesus does remove lampstands, plunging churches into chaotic darkness. Along the way, we seek and strive to preserve unity in the Spirit, trusting Jesus to do His work with His church, with our eyes open.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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