I think it might have been from N. T. Wright, but recently I heard (or read) something on what would stand out to the Apostle Paul about the church today. And the answer was the disunity of the church. He would be struck by all the divisions within the church, within Christianity. It’s not like he didn’t have to struggle with that propensity amongst churches and Christians in his day. The sin of the church one might say today is simply how we divide ourselves from each other.
In some cases the division is over doctrinal differences, such as infant baptism versus believer’s baptism and much more. In other cases, actually closely related to doctrine, there are differences in practice. Some churches require certain kinds of dress and the following of certain rules, some do’s and maybe a good number of don’ts. Such could be written or simply understood.
What is the answer? Of course it would depend on which group, church, or church leader you were talking to. And although their answers might be fairly predictable, we might be in for some surprises here and there. Of course Jesus is the head of the church. He is the Great Shepherd of the sheep and God has appointed under him undershepherds to be pastors and take care of the flock, God’s people.
I have no easy answers, except the general answer to unite when we can. Specifically on levels in which society is prone to divide, such as racial along with economic differences. The church needs to be moving toward the answer of what’s lacking and needed in society at large. People of different cultures and backgrounds living together, and the church taking care of its own, so that the poor are looked after.
In recent decades there has been a push to get back to the origins, something more of the roots within the tradition of Christianity. Along with that there has been a plethora, indeed more and more good Biblical scholarship which takes scripture seriously both within and at least largely compatible to that tradition. Of course the appeal to scripture must always come first within good Christian tradition. But how the Holy Spirit has led the church over the years, and particularly trying to understand how that happened in the early centuries is important, I would think, in laying the ground for a unity into which we could all settle.
The goal might be in the words of C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity.” We try not to invent a thing, but be faithful to the trust God has given us in the gospel and in the scriptures, centered in Jesus Christ. From that we can and need to be innovative in what our witness looks like. How the Spirit leads us to embody the gospel in a specific time and culture. That is ongoing. While certain basics remain the same.
And to move closer to the unity to which we’re called, we’re going to have to apply plenty of grace to accommodate differences, insofar as that’s possible. When it doesn’t seem possible, or we’ve reached some impasse, we then need to appreciate the unity in the Lord and in the faith that we do have, living as closely together within that as possible.
There are no easy answers, but this is a goal to which we should be headed within the one faith that is ours together in our Lord Jesus.