Called to Christian unity

Called to Christian unity
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

"We hear a special calling to make visible the unity of all Christians, proclaiming that in our diversity we belong to one another because we commonly belong to Christ."

Declarations of this calling ring throughout Disciples history. In the early nineteenth century, Barton Stone spoke of Christian unity as our polar star. "If we oppose the union of believers," wrote Stone, "we oppose directly the will of God, the prayer of Jesus, the spirit of piety, and the salvation of the world." The seminal document of the Disciples movement, Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, calls division among Christ’s followers "anti-Christian," "anti-scriptural," and "anti-natural."

Peter Ainslie, a leading Disciples pastor in the early years of the twentieth century, declared that Disciples constitute "the first definitely organized movement in the history of the church for the healing of its schisms."

"Take Christian unity out of the message of the Disciples," said Ainslie, "and their existence only adds to the enormity of the sin of division by making another division."

When Disciples gathered in 1909 to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration and Address, they listed "the unity … which Christ prayed might continue to exist among all those who believe on Him" as the number one principle for which we stand.

Today, many people in our pews are unaware of this ecumenical focus. Others see the unity of the church as less important than work for evangelism, on the one hand, or peace and justice, on the other — as if the way we live with one another makes no difference to the credibility of our proclamation or the effectiveness of our service and advocacy.

So I am pleased that the Vision Team has called us back to our special calling. Over the past two centuries, it is this passion for the wholeness of the body of Christ that has given vigor to our evangelism, an edge to our social ministry, and particular content to our worship and preaching. If today the Disciples witness seems diminished, it may be because we have forgotten who we are, becoming just another denomination intent on self-perpetuation.

Of course, what is meant by Christian unity has itself been a cause of division. The quote above suggests three things about how Disciples have understood it.

First, unity is given. Our task is not to create the oneness of the church but to receive the gift of reconciliation that is ours in Jesus Christ. The first assembly of the World Council of Churches put it succinctly: "Christ has made us his own and he is not divided." Christians of different races, classes, nations, and political affiliations may not agree with one another. But because of our shared communion with Christ, we cannot say, "I have no need of you" (1 Cor 12).

Second, unity must be visible. Most Christians recognize that the unity of Christ’s followers is a dominant scriptural theme; but many contend that such unity is a spiritual reality that need not be expressed through visible, structured fellowship. Disciples, however, have insisted that unity must be tangible enough that it makes a witness to the world of God’s reconciling power. That’s why Disciples have become part of united churches in places like Jamaica, Great Britain, and North India, and given major leadership to the U.S.-based Churches Uniting in Christ.

Third, unity is inherently diverse. At the risk of over-generalizing, let me suggest that the Roman Catholic Church has, at times, maintained unity at the sacrifice of freedom, while Protestants have, at times, safeguarded freedom at the cost of unity. Disciples have been unusual in our conviction that unity and freedom can and should go together — which means that the oneness we envision has nothing to do with uniformity.

This is a special calling: to promote with all our strength the visible community of persons who may not be alike, except that they have known the astonishing, transforming love of God through Jesus Christ and chosen to follow him.

This is the eighth in a series of columns exploring a new Disciples identity statement developed by the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins. For the full statement, go to www.disciples.org.