Sermon by Prof Graham Holderness: Christian Unity, January 22nd 2017

Christian Unity

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there are no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Cor. 1.10)

Paul was writing to Christians of the Church of Corinth about the middle of the 1st century AD, so some 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. And already the church is riven with faction, with controversy, with disagreement. Disagreement about matters of ritual, such as whether Christians should continue to be circumcised, or avoid eating food that has been consecrated to a pagan God; disagreement about matters of sexual morality, adultery, marriage. Some members of the church claimed to ‘speak in tongues’; some even denied the Resurrection of the dead. There is even dispute on the very identity of the church, its origin and foundation: as members think of themselves as belonging to the church of a particular preacher – the church of Paul, or the church of Apollos, or the church of Cephas – rather than members of one church, the church of Jesus Christ.

Legitimate areas of disagreement

Paul deals with these disagreements in different ways. On sexual morality his advice is clear: the church must set its face against sin, avoid sexual immorality. But whether or not someone remains chaste, or gets married, doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether you’re circumcised or not. It doesn’t matter if you eat food consecrated to false gods, as long as you avoid offending other believers. It doesn’t matter if some people speak in tongues, as long as there is someone to speak sense. These things are legitimate areas of disagreement. The church can tolerate them without compromising its unity.

Other matters are non-negotiable, or to use a contemporary term, ‘red lines’. Christian can’t deny the resurrection of the dead, as that’s the core of Christian faith. And you can’t split the church up into factions that belong to different preachers: since all such preachers of the Gospel, including Paul himself, are merely servants of Jesus, and all believers should be united in Jesus. These are our ‘red lines’ as stated in the Creed: ‘I believe in one church … [I believe in] the resurrection of the body’. The faithful should put aside their differences and remember that ‘all things are yours. . . . You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Cor. 3:23).

So what 1 Corinthians tells us about the early Christian church is that it was full of disagreement; that many of these disagreements were about matters that weren’t really all that important; and that some disagreements have to be somehow resolved, or negotiated, since they challenge the very basis of the Christian faith. The church must be unified and ‘of one mind’ on the fundamental issues; even though the body of the church will always be diverse, marked by difference, fissured by disagreement. It’s a good model for a church, a community, a nation. Agree on the fundamentals; disagree about everything else.

St Paul was writing to a particular local church that was part of the one church founded by the apostles. If he came back from the dead today and wanted to write to the Corinthians again – addressing the letter to the Church of Corinth, c/o the Holy Father, St Peters’ Basilica, Rome – it would have to be forwarded to the Archbishop of Athens, since the metropolis of Corinth now lies of course inside the Greek Orthodox church which split from the Roman Catholic church in the 11th century. 500 years ago from this year, 1517, saw the beginning of the Reformation, which divided the Western church into multiplying denominations (estimates suggest there are now between 20,000 and 40,000 separate churches world-wide). Paul’s church divided when disagreements could no longer be contained; when people felt that the matters in dispute were fundamental, not marginal. So while Paul was talking about unity within the church, today Christian unity is much more about unity between the churches, about the work of attempting to reconcile or acknowledge whatever disagreements split them apart in the first place.

The first Epistle to the Chiswickians

If Paul came back and wrote a letter to this church – the first Epistle to the Chiswickians – what would he say? Would it be anything like 1 Corinthians? Are there within this congregation fundamental disagreements about belief, ritual practice, and social behaviour? Well no, not really. I think we’d be a very disappointing subject for a Pauline Epistle. We are ‘an inclusive church where the ministry of all is accepted and encouraged’. In other words we embrace diversity; we value difference; we tolerate disagreement. We probably have very different views on all sorts of current issues – Brexit; the US election, etc. But none of them threaten the unity of this church.

This is not the case with the Church of England as a whole, where we see profound disagreements about the ministry of women; or same-sex marriage; or celibacy in same-sex relationships. Here disagreement can easily reach the point where people start to talk about splitting from the church to preserve what they see as fundamental traditional values. The Faith and Order Commission of the General Synod produced a report on ‘Communion and Disagreement’, which echoed 1 Corinthians in insisting on the ‘pluriformity’ of the church, while at the same time recommending productive ways of disagreeing: patience, the avoidance of antagonism and demonization, empathy with another’s point of view.[1] But this will only work if we can all agree that the point of disagreement is not fundamental, not a ‘red line’: then we can compromise, then we can make reasonable adjustments. We can tolerate disagreement. But some controversies are regarded by some people as fundamentals, as ‘illegitimate’ disagreements. It’s hard to see how you can ever reach ‘unity’ over differences that seem to be irreconcilable.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, before Jesus went to the cross, Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples: that they would remain united as one, and that they would be sanctified in the truth. First is a prayer for unity. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us’. (John 17.20-1) Unity amongst believers mirrors the unity between Jesus and God the Father. Second is a prayer for truth. ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17.17). The truth is the word of God.

Christian unity is ‘unity in the truth’. Which sounds much simpler than it really is. A church that values unity more than truth runs the risk of losing sight of the latter. Such a church tolerates a very broad diversity of belief and behaviour, provided that people stay together. Such a church might turn a blind eye to heresy: might for instance think it acceptable to include a passage from the Quran denying the divinity of Christ in a service of Holy Communion, as was done recently in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow. Such a church might tolerate, affirm or even endorse sin.

One London vicar wrote to Rowan Williams

Other Christians emphasise truth to the extent that they are willing to sacrifice unity to preserve it. They are so committed to purity of doctrine that they separate themselves from anyone whose behaviour trespasses what they see as the truth. One London vicar wrote to Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, demanding a recantation of his views on celibacy: ‘I asked him whether, to protect the unity of the Church, he would be willing to say that his personal writings had been wrong; and whether he would call on Christian people in same-sex sexual relationships to turn from them. He will not do that. He will not refute error and defend the truth against error’.[2] The result is division: people can retreat to their own isolated ghettos of like-minded believers.

Jesus prayed for a church committed to both truth and unity; but as St Paul makes clear, it was a church characterised by diversity of race, class, gender, personality and ‘gifts’, God-given talents or abilities. ‘ Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone’. (1. Cor. 12. 4-6) The strength of the church lies in this diversity, just as the various parts of the human body all help it to function as an effective whole.  ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’. (1 Cor. 12-13).

Paul’s powerful image of the church as a human body in 1 Corinthians demonstrates this unity in diversity: ‘the body does not consist of one member but of many’. (1 Cor. 12-14). Every Christian needs every other. We are all different; but we are all one in Christ. ‘God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body’. (1 Cor. 12. 18-20) Each of us has an essential role to play, though it is not the same role. If any one of us fails in playing our role, the whole body suffers. If one member is troubled, that trouble communicates itself to the whole body. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together’. (1 Cor. 26) We are all needed. We all need everyone else.

Disagreement is inevitable

So a church is a body in which people help one another to grow in love, committed to each other’s good, willing to sacrifice themselves for one other. Disagreement is inevitable, because the unity is in diversity. But let us approach disagreement with a concern for truth and unity, and with a commitment to mutual concern, and many apparent difficulties can be resolved.

Holding unity and truth together requires patience, endurance, love, and courage. Churches can fail in the task Jesus conferred on them, and sacrifice either truth or unity. But as Paul made clear, each Christian is committed to every other Christian, not just those who are like us, those who think like us. Being a truly committed member of Christ’s body means that every other Christian is my brother or sister to whom I owe responsibility; because in Christ, in St Paul’s words, and only there, are we ‘united in the same mind and the same purpose’.

[1] GS Misc 1139. GENERAL SYNOD Communion and Disagreement A Report from the Faith and Order Commission (2016).

[2] A.N. Wilson, ‘Holy Sage’, The Spectator (18 December 2004).