The other day, I heard a couple of my colleagues discussing the similarities and differences in the major Abrahamic religions’ views of God. How similar and dissimilar is the Christian God from the Muslim God or the Jewish God? One of my colleagues, pushing the dissimilarity issue, said that he wondered whether Presbyterians worship the same God as the Baptists, or the Assemblies of God, or the Episcopalians. I mischievously chimed in at that point, questioning whether any of us actually worship the same God. Do any of us have the same view or an exact understanding of God?
Understanding Precedes Unity
As he and I pushed the issue to its extreme, I was reminded of a course I took several years ago. It was a survey course (Elements of Christian Thought) that looked at Christians through the ages and how each of their unique viewpoints and life experiences have contributed to the understanding of Christian faith through subsequent ages and in various cultures.
A diversity of voices filled our readings and class discussions, including Athanasius (ca. 297–373), Augustine (354–430), the Cappadocian Fathers (fourth century), Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376–444), Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109), Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), Karl Barth (1886–1968), Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), Kallistos Ware (1934–), and Kathryn Tanner (1957–). Each claimed grounding, to some extent, in faith in Jesus Christ and the Christian Scriptures. And each expressed their Christian faith while seeking to understand how it fit within their experiences of reality and within their particular cultures.
Elements of Christian Thought not only challenged each student to understand how these historical figures had defined their faith but called for each of us to do the same. And it revealed the truth of our discussion: ultimately, we each have different views and experiences. So, how can we say we share a common Christian faith?
Unity in our faith is crucial. It is at the heart of Jesus’s high priestly prayer in John 17:20–23 (NLT):
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.
The centrality and critical importance of unity based in love is further highlighted in Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:37–40 and John 13:34–35, where he says that loving God and loving each other are the two greatest commandments.
Love Is Central to Unity
Jesus knows that love is central to unity and to our witness to the world. No doubt that same thought is at the heart of the quote often misattributed to Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
This theme dates back to the earliest church writings and is often repeated throughout the New Testament (e.g., “love covers over a multitude of sins,” “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love,” or “owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another”). And in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul penned an especially powerful call to unity (Ephesians 4:3–6, NLT):
Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.
So Jesus puts unity in his prayer for those who would follow him, and Paul says we are to make every effort to keep united in the Spirit, rightly setting this endeavor in the context of humility, gentleness, and love. In light of these verses, how are we to respond to the disunity and acrimonious comments that are expressed between some Christians?
Love and Unity Require Effort and Humility
Some of the most conflict-ridden public dialogue among Christians transpires between those who hold various views of science and creation. The theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism camp is constantly in conflict with the young-earth creationists (YECs), who are, in turn, in conflict with them and the day-age/old-earth/progressive creationists (OECs). Theistic evolution proponents (TEs) believe that OECs don’t understand evolution, and TEs and OECs believe YECs don’t understand science or take it seriously enough. And then there are those who are less engaged in the sciences and prefer a more allegorical or framework approach to understanding scriptural references to the creation accounts. Each Christ-follower should ask, What does this conflict do for the witness of Christ in the world and to the call of Christians to seek truth, seek God, and make every effort to maintain unity? Such acerbic conflict is a major blemish on our Christian witness and one from which each of us should humbly seek to repent for our part.
Science is a quest for truth. Following Jesus is a commitment to seek and follow the Truth. God is the author of all creation and the arbiter of all that is true. He wants us to know him and be reconciled to him. For this, he has made great and costly provisions. He has chosen to reveal himself through creation (Romans 1:20), the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 2:10–16), and the Incarnation of Jesus (Colossians 1:15–23). As we seek truth in our world and our faith, we should do so with humility and with the hope that the God who wants to be known will harmonize the truths that we discover about his creation and his character. Whether we study nature via science or Scripture via reason and faith, we should all look to the author and perfecter of our faith and lay aside nonessential differences to maintain unity in our witness of Jesus Christ to a lost and broken world.
Therefore, though we each have different views and experiences, let us love one another and pursue truth, peace, and unity. Will you join me in praying for the unity of Christ’s followers, especially among those who work in the overlapping areas of science and faith?
Note: I wrote this blog before attending the Dabar Conference Creation Project at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The conference’s focus this year was “Reading Genesis in the Age of Science.” Following that meeting and the ASA annual meeting earlier this week, I am even more convinced of the deep need for and value of gracious dialogue among a diversity of Christian theologians, biblical scholars, and scientists seeking unity for the sake of the gospel to a watching world.
- For more on unity and disunity in the church, read my colleague Kenneth Samples’s five-part article “Examining Christian Disunity” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5).
Subjects: Disunity in the Church, Christian Life