Anyone who’s spent much time in church will know that disagreements happen. If those disagreements aren’t resolved quickly, they may soon become full-on conflict. Factions form. And the long term unity of the church is jeopardized. This can happen on different levels, whether it’s a local church or a whole denomination, as is presently the case in my own United Methodist Church. However a particular conflict plays out, the cultivation and maintenance of authentic church unity requires robust reflection on what constitutes authentic church unity, which brings me to N. T. Wright.
I’ve been reading through Wright’s little book, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, as part of my sermon prep for a series I’m preaching called Live Worthy: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. One of the key contextual issues in Philippians is what appears to be a budding conflict that centers around two leaders in the local church (see Phil 4:2), and much of what Paul says throughout the letter is aimed at reconciling that conflict and maintaining the unity of the Philippian community. Reflecting on that situation, Wright says
Unity by itself can’t be the final aim. After all, unity is possible among thieves, adulterers and many other types. Those who commit genocide need to do so with huge corporate single-mindedness, as the Nazis showed when killing millions of Jews, gypsies and others.
No: what matters is that Christians…should focus completely on the divine drama that has unfolded before their eyes in Jesus the king, and is continuing now into its final act with themselves as the characters. Bringing their thinking into line with each other wouldn’t be any good if they were all thinking something that was out of line with the gospel. The love that they must have is the love that the gospel generates and sustains. Their inner lives, which are to be bonded together, must be the inner lives that reflect the gospel. The ‘same object’ which they must fix their minds on must be the facts about Jesus the Messiah, and on the meaning which emerges from them (98-99, italics original).
It should be clear that authentic Christian unity is never unity in name only. Authentic Christian unity can only be had when it is gospel-oriented unity. And that unity is bound together by love – but not just any love – gospel-motivated and gospel-oriented love. All that, of course, means that unity is only possible among those who have the same understanding of the gospel. And that further means that unity is achieved not primarily by talking about unity but by talking about the gospel. Only when we are deeply and passionately committed to the same gospel will we be able to work toward authentic Christian unity.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.
Click here to get a copy of N.T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters.