A few days ago, in the midst of one of those authority-driven blowups that happen on Facebook every so often, somebody linked to this article. I read it, and my brow furrowed. I didn’t agree with the conclusion, but even more than that, I had trouble figuring out where the author was coming from. He insists that unity based on a shared understanding of Bible authority was impossible, but he never specifies whom this understanding could unite. Is he talking about brotherhood unity? Congregational unity? Both?
Rather than engaging in a point-by-point rebuttal, then, I thought it would be worth setting out my own understanding of unity from the beginning.
Independent Bible study results in disagreement. I do not believe that unity between brethren depends on perfect agreement about every single spiritual issue that might arise. As a practical matter, such perfect agreement never exists, and as a theoretical matter, our approach to religion probably makes it impossible.
In the churches of Christ, above all else, we are committed to the idea that every individual Christian must study and understand the Scriptures for themselves. We’re anti-clergy, anti-creed, and strongly pro-individual engagement with the word.
However, that individual engagement produces individual results. None of us are the same people. None of us have the same worldview. None of us have the same level of spiritual maturity or Biblical understanding.
As a result, when different people read the word, they come to different conclusions. Some are better than others; others are equally valid (your guess about the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is as good as mine!). Much of the work that we do in our local churches has to do with handling and working through these disagreements, constantly assessing our own convictions against the witness of Scripture, constantly learning, and constantly growing. Indeed, the very nature of spiritual growth implies an imperfect understanding and the existence of disagreement.
Unity is primarily a local issue. Jesus has authority over the whole church; apostles had authority over multiple churches (as in 2 Corinthians 13:10). Today, however, there is no one left on the earth with such breadth of authority. Elders are instructed to shepherd the flock of God that is among them, and preachers have authority over the preaching of the gospel, not over people.
By default, then, local churches are left with nearly unlimited local autonomy. The New Testament is very concerned with unity and fellowship within a local church, but it has little to say about fellowship across the brotherhood. In fact, the only instances I can think of where such fellowship is said to exist (and apostles aren’t involved) are when a church establishes a financial relationship with a preacher (Philippians 1:3-5) or a church in need (2 Corinthians 8:4).
However, most of those who complain about lack of unity in the churches of Christ are concerned with unity across the brotherhood. Not surprisingly, lack of respect for congregational autonomy was an important, perhaps critical factor in all the great crises of the Restoration era. Generally speaking, when brethren meddle in things that are none of their business (like the business of other congregations), they accomplish little good and cause a great deal of trouble.
To be honest, I’m not terribly concerned with the Jackson Heights church’s unity with other churches, nor even with what other churches are doing. I am very concerned with maintaining unity in the Jackson Heights church, and with whether it is doing the Lord’s work. If we keep our attention focused where it ought to be rather than taking other people’s dogs by the ears, brotherhood fusses will evaporate.
Unity is a practical issue. In the article I cited above, the author insisted that those who hold to a traditional view of Bible authority are responsible for producing a list of every issue that is a matter of doctrine and their views on those issues. I have numerous problems with that. First, I think we call such lists “creedal statements”, and I’m violently opposed to such things. They undermine the authority of Scripture.
Second, and even more importantly, unity in a local church has to do with practice much more than belief. I have no earthly idea what every member at Jackson Heights believes about every doctrinal issue, and I don’t have much interest in finding out. Picking at that scab seems like a great way to stir up unnecessary trouble.
Instead, my concerns are twofold. At Jackson Heights, I must be able to worship according to my conscience, and the holiness of the church must not be leavened with members who make a practice of sin. If both of those things are true, I am willing to be united with my brethren here on that basis, and I suspect that 99 percent of Christians would say the same.
Next time: What do we have to agree on in order to be united?