Rally to Restore Unity

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Rachel Held Evans is one of my New Favourite Bloggers. I can't believe it's taken me this long to find her writings about Christianity, life, womanhood and social justice but I'm really glad I did. I was excited to see her plans for a week-long Rally to Restore Unity - "Because our commonalities are more important than our differences…".

1 Corinthians 12 says: "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body...But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

John 13:35 says: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And according to Paul in Ephesians 4:1-16: "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

The theme of Christian unity is a really tricky one and the problems affecting it, the problems stopping it from being what it should be, are vast and wide-ranging and differ depending on where you live, what sort of church you attend. Your racial identity. Your gender.

One of the main reasons Rachel was inspired to launch the Rally to Restore Unity was the fall-out and the drama which the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins has caused. Bookshops have stopped stocking his work. Pastors have been fired for reading it. I've deliberately refrained from reading the dearth of blog posts about the whole affair, but from the few paragraphs and comments I've skimmed over, I know that some of my fellow Christians have been displaying incredible levels of vitriol about the issues involved. This, of course, isn't anything new and I'm no stranger to it - as someone who is pretty invested in gender issues in the church I can't avoid it.

And there's always something. Gender issues are a major sticking point whether we're talking about bishops, birth control or everyone's favourite, those neverending 'head/source/helpmeet/partner' wrangles. There's the 'Which Bible translation do you use?' issue. Before the Love Wins controversy blew up, there was the Great Steve Chalke and Spring Harvest vs UCCF, Keswick and the Atonement Drama of 2007. Despite the language used in the verses above - the bits about love and honour and patience, one thing I've learned is that you should never underestimate the capacity of supposedly loving Christians to go all-out on the bullying, threats and insults. Particularly on the internet. Over issues, which fundamentally, should not affect the fact that we are all part of one body with common goals and purposes. We have a common bond which should go much further than it currently does towards uniting those at loggerheads over doctrinal differences.

I think disunity over these issues is toxic. When I've heard people say that they would walk out of a church if they saw communion being served by a woman, or that they wouldn't be going to a joint church event because the Catholics and the Methodists are involved (and believe me, I have heard people say these things) I think they probably need to sit back and think about how these words fit with Jesus's teachings about unity and the body of Christ. It's perfectly acceptable and natural to have disagreements, but I think it's vital we consider at what price these disagreements come.

Some months ago I read a blog post by a pastor who was most perturbed that the group of churches he is a part of had been criticised for not displaying more unity with other church groups and denominations. His response was that he saw no real point in getting all ecumenical with people whose doctrines and way of 'doing church' he had differences with, because such partnerships would only be unproductive and a waste of his time. I do agree that if there was going to be a situation where differences made it very hard to work together and caused major issues, then that would be unproductive. But as a way of taking a stand against ecumenism, it leaves a bad taste and I wondered why calls for unity had got him so riled.

Plenty of Christians aren't really in situations where doctrine causes such disunity and drama. But there are issues of unity close to home for most of us, as churchgoers, which could always do with examining. What does church, for us, look like? And how do we feel about those for whom church looks different? What level of respect and honour, as brothers and sisters, do we display towards:

- those who prefer a traditional church service when we prefer a contemporary one (and vice versa, of course)?
- those who incorporate charismatic gifts into services when we don't?
- those who wear smart clothes for church when we don't feel the need to 'dress up'?
- those who attend churches with predominantly working-class congregations when ours is a middle-class one?
- those who attend churches which are racially diverse when ours is predominantly white, or black?
- those who are big on community action and social justice when we feel we have different priorities?
- those who go to churches with pews, or altars, or raise their hands in the air when they worship, or experiment with alternative worship, or 'do' outreach, or run the Alpha Course or decide to use Christianity Explored instead?

Are we accepting and accommodating, or do we mock, roll our eyes and make comments about the right way to do things? Or God's way? It's not about agreeing with each other about everything or even enjoying and wanting to go to every type of church and service. It's about remembering what unites us and that God feels the same way about all of us, rather than making everything about calling out people for not being exactly the same as us, having the same priorities and looking like us.

Criticism has its place and in cases of abuse, of hate speech, of distorting God's message it is justified. There are many people who have been hurt by the church. But this week is all about Restoring Unity, so let's reflect on it and see where we can make changes in to further the cause.

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