A time for division, a time for unity
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
Living in harmony and unity as brothers and sisters in Christ is not an optional extra but something that the Lord desires for his church. Facing his own sin-bearing death, Jesus prayed in the garden that his disciples would be one (John 17:11). Paul teaches that believers are part of one body, and should make every effort to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3). Factions and dissensions are seen as acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:20).
And yet, paradoxically, faithfulness to the gospel causes division. Jesus said that he had come not to bring peace, but a sword; his message would set family members against each other. Paul told the Corinthians that there will be occasions where we should not even eat with those in the same fellowship who deny the faith with their words and actions.
This is not division caused by being difficult or obnoxious. We are called to live at peace with others as much as possible; to gain respect from unbelievers, to seek the peace of the city. But we are warned against a false unity, trying to maintain genuine spiritual fellowship in Christ with those who have very different views on how to live, about what is good and true, even about the nature of reality itself.
It is painful when such divisions occur in families and even in churches because one individual or group follows the way of Christ and the other does not. In such cases we need to ensure that fallout is minimal, to show love and respect out of shared humanity, to cooperate on common concerns.
In the church we need to differentiate between things which are central to the gospel, and those which are ‘adiaphora’ - issues which are important but not essential, over which we can agree to disagree. We have failed if we break fellowship over a matter of worship style or mission strategy, for example. We have also failed if we maintain a false ‘unity’ with those who do not believe what the bible clearly teaches on a central truth, or who see such teaching as optional and can be put side by side with error, as if Christian teaching is determined by our choices.
These principles explain why Anglican leaders from all over the world came together in the early 2000’s to confront theologically revisionist Western Bishops and theologians, and to form the Gafcon movement, standing for and celebrating unity based around shared understanding and confession of faith. The Jerusalem Declaration from the 2008 conference in Jerusalem, and subsequent communiques, have stressed the glorious truths of the gospel and shared task of mission given to Christians from all nations going to all the world, but also warn that departure from the witness of Scripture by church leaders must be met with a call to repentance, which if not heeded will result in a break in fellowship and forfeiture of spiritual authority (JD, clause 13).
So while love should be indiscriminate, unity discriminates, but not in the way so many in the world discriminate, only associating with those of the same racial and tribal group while being suspicious of ‘outsiders’. Rather, the bible celebrates diversity, in the vision of every race, tribe and tongue, often mutually uncomprehending languages, united in worship of the Lamb, shared vision to make him known, and thinking on key issues shaped by the Scriptures.
Anglicans like all Christians in the West are faced with pressure to conform to the thinking of the secular world, particularly in the contested areas of the nature of the human self, sex and marriage. Should our default “unity” be seen with those of the same culture, perhaps in our family, local church or Diocese, similar in background but who have a very different understanding of Scripture and of the nature of reality? This is what the Church of England’s ‘Living in Love and Faith’ seems to assume.
Or should we, while retaining an attitude of love and respect for those around us who do not share biblical convictions, see true fellowship and unity with the faithful worldwide church, even if they are far from us and different culturally. Should we not first see ourselves as being one with, and accountable to, our spiritual brothers and sisters in the faith, rather than necessarily those in the same local institution?
As Anglican churches in Britain and Europe are faced with pressure to conform to the thinking of the secular world, particularly in the contested areas of the nature of the human self, sex and marriage, there is a choice: as theologian Martin Davie puts it, between:
“… trying to find some sort of compromise position that enables them to remain Christian while abandoning the traditional Christian view of sexual morality and sexual identity, or being willing to continue to hold to a traditional, orthodox, Christian position and accept the consequences of so doing.”
Faithful Anglicans should surely prioritise fellowship with the global orthodox church over attempts at “good disagreement” with those who are geographical and cultural neighbours but who have a different agenda.
Rev Andy Angel has written an important reflection on unity and disunity in global Anglicanism, entitled:
Unity, Divisions, and Living in Love and Faith: Reflections on Some New Testament Texts and What Might Constitute (Dis)Unity
Andy reflects in detail on biblical passages including John 17, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, concluding that unity cannot simply describe “group cohesion”in an institution, but is inherently tied up with the calling of individuals to life in Christ, the calling of the church to witness and mission, and the authority of the apostle’s teaching.
Applying this to the Church of England: we must begin with recognition of disunity, and to ask hard questions, for example whether more formal separation of structures, for example by the creation of a third Province, might be a positive development - rather than fracturing existing unity, it would allow already differentiated factions to get on with mission and ministry according to their own understanding.
Andy also suggests that the creation of new jurisdictions by Gafcon, such as ACNA and ANiE, rather than being a threat to Anglicanism worldwide, are “thoroughly Anglican developments” and should be recognised as part of the Anglican Communion. Local congregations can find themselves unable to accept the authority of their local Church of England bishop, and yet high levels of communion and fellowship can be maintained through global networks.
Disagreements over sexuality do not threaten the church’s unity: they demonstrate disunity; but genuine positive spiritual unity, for the purpose of mission to the nations, can be maintained and grow. Such creative solutions would necessitate discussion around practical considerations such as the global role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, general governance and finance issues, but resolution is becoming more pressing.