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Once upon a time, way back in my seminary days, I found myself weeping in my library cubicle. I was reading “In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity.” I’m not sure what prompted this reading, but being a relatively new Christian (I became Christian at sixteen), it was the first time I had heard anything about church unity, and I wept my own repentance and the larger church’s failure to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4).
What struck me was the cost of our tens of thousands of denominations and the animosity between them. In his prayer for the church in John 17 Jesus seems to say that the church’s whole project of communicating the love of God to the world hangs on believers being one, not just in our invisible unity while visibly we all fight, but as the Father and Son are one.
What’s strange about this failure is that the oneness is not something that we create, but something that exists for us already. We don’t have to make it; we just have to keep it. The unity of the church is not predicated on our getting all our theological ducks in a row. The church is one because God is one. And since God has been so God determined to be with us, we have been united to Christ, so we are one. We are all filled with the same Spirit. We are only asked to live it out. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
As such, since that moment in my library cubicle I have been convinced that it is my job as a Christ follower, to live my faith alongside all sorts of people who disagree with me about all sorts of things, even if I think their positions harmful. As my understanding of God’s grace has grown, so has my understanding of who I am united with. I think there are limits to this, of course, but I doubt my capacity to find them.
The church has fought and split over baptism, communion, marriage, prayer, the sun and stars, set lists, drums, pants, bodies, hair, hats, clubs, schools, what version of the Bible to read and how best to read it, and so much more. We have massacred, burned, drowned, excommunicated, hated, shunned, condemned, castigated, and judged each other for just about everything, and many of those things seem silly in retrospect.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t argue. I think we should. Some of our fights are important. But we have to begin our arguments with the assumption that each one of us is only ever able to argue with anything theological because we are all standing on the mercy of our God who just keeps coming to us, just keeps forgiving us, just keeps calling us home.
Honestly, I would rather not be aligned with several versions of Christianity out there. I think some are wrong and harmful. But also, by the grace of God, I don’t get to pick who is in the church. That’s up to Jesus.
Robert Farrar Capon’s interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son has deepened this in me. He notes that the only person who is outside the party (representative of the Kingdom of God) at the end of the story is the older brother, and it is not because he is not invited. He is outside the party because he doesn’t like the other people who are inside. If that doesn’t sharpen a call to love, I don’t know what does. I do not want to find that I exclude myself from the final feast because I can’t stomach some of my siblings who sit at Jesus’ table.
Last week, I found myself weeping as if I were back in that cubicle. I was taking communion at a classis meeting. The church that my husband and I serve is a member of Classis Grand Rapids East (GREast) in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Many in our denomination think that GREast has gone off the deep end rejecting the Bible and accommodating to culture. We have not. We are a mix of churches — some who affirm full participation for our LGBTQ+ members in the church, and some who do not — but we are committed to doing life together anyway. There is some mutual understanding between us and some tension, but I think we believe enough in our own depravity and enough in the grace of God to think that, despite that, we can still be together under the cross.
What I think GREast understands is that churches like mine (on the affirming side) aren’t just succumbing to the “gay agenda” (whatever that means). What happened for us is that that we started to see the harm that we were causing by excluding certain people from full participation in the life of church. These were people who clearly bore the fruit of that one Spirit which we all share.
Many of us revisited the Scriptures, trying to understand how to hold our the CRC’s “pastoral guidance” alongside the work of God that we were witnessing. We began to see that the biblical argument against gay marriage, which we had simply accepted, was much weaker than we thought, and we could also make an argument from the text for full inclusion. So we felt convicted that we could no longer exclude people from the table without cause (and at the time we were within church order).
If you want some strong Christians in the church, take a look at the LGBTQ+ folks who keep coming. They are there entirely because Jesus keeps calling them back. Why else would they stay? Other church leaders in GREast may not agree, but I think they see that it isn’t capitulation.
As we, this mixed group of pastors, elders, and deacons, took communion we sang, “eat and remember the wounds that heal, the death that brings us life, paid the price to make us one” and I wept. Because Jesus did everything to pay the price to make us one, and our classis receiving the body and blood together is a clear example that it is possible to be together, but it seems that by hook or by crook some in our denomination would like to oust us. I think that most of them still think we are Christians, but removing us from the denomination will mean that they no longer have to be associated with us. That won’t stop us from being part of the body of Christ. We will still be one, even if we don’t act like it.
I can already hear the counterarguments, coming from every direction, and I have answers for some of them, and not for others (like, for example, how do we live together without harming people on the margins? That is also very important to me, and I have no idea of an answer). I don’t think this year’s synod is going to go well for my congregation or my classis. But the unity of the church is not a thing that we can opt out of. It exists because God exists. There are so many different kinds of people in the church because of the unending grace of our one God. And I am praying with Jesus that we will learn to act like that is true.