Called to unity

Called to unity
Michael Kinnamon

"We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us."

Disciples have always had trouble saying who we are. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone favored “generic” names — Disciples and Christians — in order to emphasize our place within the whole Christian family. The irony, of course, is that our very commitment to the unity of the church is itself a distinguishing mark, a particular identity. For much of our history, we haven’t wanted to be a denominational brand, like Presbyterian or Episcopalian. And yet, how will people hear our witness if we aren’t clear about who we are and what we stand for?

This question was in the mind of the Vision Team as we worked on the brief Identity Statement above. In order to encourage study of the statement, I want to list six things it suggests to me. Keep in mind that this is not a sociological statement but a theological one; it doesn’t describe how we live but how we ought to live as church.

First, our identity is centered in Jesus Christ. What makes Christians Christian is the joyful proclamation that the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is known to us in the person of Jesus. Because of him, we can say with confidence, “God is like this.” Because of him, we can say whose we are.

Second, we are not simply believers in Christ, important as that is; we are his followers — his disciples. To put it bluntly, the church doesn’t exist just to meet our needs, to be a source of community and occasional support. It is the place where we are shaped in a way of living that has as its model the ministry of Jesus. Faith in him involves active commitment “to take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Third, as part of the body of Christ, as a community summoned into being by the good news of God’s gracious love, we can rightly be called “church.” Disciples, however, have also understood ourselves as a movement within the church for its renewal. We exist as a distinctive people in order to remind a fragmented church that in Christ we have been reconciled.

Fourth, our historic plea for Christian unity is sometimes heard only as a call to heal divisions caused by denominationalism. The Vision Team chose the word wholeness in order to signify that our oneness in Christ also has to do with overcoming other barriers, including those between blacks and whites, between Cubans and Americans, between liberals and conservatives. In a world fragmented by such things as racism, nationalism, and ideology, what a witness Christians could make.

There was a time when we Disciples were associated with unity — wholeness — the way Quakers are associated with peace or the Salvation Army with charitable service. Is that still the case? If not, have we simply become another little church intent on self-preservation?

Fifth, this passion for wholeness means that our particular mission involves welcoming those who are often unwelcome, either in the church or in society. Human community cannot be whole as long as some of God’s children are treated as neglected strangers. The credit for such a mission is never ours to claim, however, because our acts of welcome are but a response to God’s amazing grace. We are called, in the wonderful words of the Apostle Paul, to “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

Finally, it follows that the heart of our life together is the Lord’s Supper, where we see enacted each week the story of what God has done for the world’s salvation in Jesus Christ, and where we hear, yet again, the call to go forth as disciples.

Of course, there is much more to be said about who and whose we are. In addition to the Identity Statement, the Vision Team has offered 12 “marks” of our identity. In the coming months, I hope you will join me in exploring them.

DisciplesWorld has asked Michael Kinnamon to explore a new Disciples Identity Statement in this column. The statement is a work in progress from the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins.