Church Unity in the Love of the Trinity

Written by J. Immanuel Koks

I can’t think of a time when the unity of the church here in Aotearoa and around the world, has been put under this much strain. It seems like a constant hammer pounds on a wedge between those who are sympathetic towards progressive concerns and those who sense the need to hold on to conservative beliefs. Bang, bang, bang. Then the pandemic hit, and our government felt forced to take measures to protect the population. Lockdowns, masks, and vaccine mandates were all part of the Covid-wedge. Once again, Christians found themselves on different sides of this divisive wedge. The government and media kept pounding us with constant messaging about keeping safe, self-isolation, and the possibility of life-threatening illness. I personally think these messages were justified. But, the unfortunate flip side is that they taught us to fear each other: we don’t know if the person next to us has covid or not. So, this time, the great government sledgehammer kept whacking the Covid-wedge into place. Crash, crash, crash. While, mostly, this wedge is not of our making, it has driven us apart.

While disabled people are not to blame for this division because many of us have increased health vulnerabilities, we were part of the justification for the Government’s Covid-19 protection measures. Therefore, we found ourselves near the pointy edge of the Covid-wedge. Speaking for myself, as a person with cerebral palsy, I know I struggle with even basic life functions when I get sick. I am no more likely to get sick than others, but I was worried about how sick Covid could make me if I got it. (The good news is that I completed this article with a mild case of Covid and was not as sick as I could have been.) Therefore, I was quick to get the vaccine, I am careful about wearing masks, and taking other precautions so I could limit my likelihood of getting it. Because our church held vaccine-only services, I felt safer going to church. Nevertheless, I empathise with the disappointment that unvaccinated people feel when they were told to watch the service online or go to “vaccine-status unknown” services I acknowledge, therefore, that the decision by our church kaitiaki (eldership team,) to hold vaccine pass only services was yet another whack on the Covid-wedge.

Whether we agree with their choices or not, there is real hurt and disappointment on the part of those who believe our freedom was at stake with the vaccine mandate. The government-imposed vaccine mandates and vaccine passes brought about really difficult consequences for an individual’s “health decision.” For some, consequences included losing their job, and many others were excluded from everyday aspects of their lives. I think especially of those people who missed out on family milestones, birthdays, weddings, funerals, etc. There is no doubt that the choice not to get the vaccine, was a difficult decision.

Someone close to me is anti-covid-vaccines for health reasons, and what I said about freedom does not even begin to deal with the fear and concern that some people feel about the vaccine itself. Some of those people who have chosen to be vaccinated have been judged, condemned, and ostracised by those who are anti-covid-vaccine. While we may, or may not, agree, people with a variety of positions need our love, care, and respect as they try to navigate a very difficult situation. Whatever one’s experience and beliefs on these issues, we can all agree it has been as hard as it has been divisive, not only in the church, but beyond it as well. So, now more than ever; we need to think about unity in the body of Christ.

But, like many difficult aspects of our Christian walk and Christian thought, church unity is one thing that gets much harder, impossible even, when our priorities are wrong. If the primary focus is on what we must do to achieve unity, we risk going down the uniformity rabbit hole – where we settle into the grove of mixing only with those who are most like ourselves. I am guilty as charged; I find it too easy to gather around friends who think like me and feel defensive when people disagree with me.

When I think of the writings of St Paul, the fight for unity quickly comes to my mind. In fact, I would suggest we know what we know about Paul’s theology of salvation, his understanding of the church, or his understanding of the Holy Spirit’s gifting because he believed the church should be united.

Consider the fractious relationship between the Jews and Gentiles. Jews believed everyone needed to obey God’s law as they were told in their beloved Hebrew Scriptures. But the Gentiles did not come into a relationship with God by obeying the law. Paul’s response to this tension was emphatic. Welcome each other in because neither Jew nor Gentile save themselves by what they do. Rather, every one of us is saved by grace alone, because of Jesus’ faithful life as a first-century Jew, his death on Calvary, and his resurrection in Joseph’s tomb. Unity, I want to suggest, arises when we celebrate together the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus around the table of the Lord. This does not mean that other theology is not important. But our faith needs to be in his faithfulness, not in our ability to faithfully believe the right doctrine. Just as our works do not save us, our grasp of church doctrine does not save us either. Though theology can be a rich, ever-abundant supply of spiritual nourishment. However, knowing the details of doctrine should never take the place of simply trusting that the love and grace expressed on the cross are enough for us. In fact, this is liberating indeed, because God’s grace and love will always escape our fullest grasp.

In this, there are profound implications for the way we minister with those who have cognitive impairments. We know the evangelical insistence that “whoever believes in him (the Son, Jesus) shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16.) As a self-confessed theology nerd, I love the nitty-gritty of Christian thought. Yet, I am relieved that I am welcomes in God’s love and grace, despite all my misunderstanding. In fact, I am convinced that the same Jesus who welcomed the little children, will welcome us all in our inability to understand him fully. He welcomes us all even though we cannot live up to the high level of holiness that he desires of us. He also welcomes us in the limitedness of our understanding. After all, we are told in Jn 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This all leads me to believe that those who trust Jesus with a very simple faith, though they may not understand even the first principles of church doctrine, are just as welcome in God’s loving, gracious embrace, as any theological giant we must wish to name. Perhaps even more so.

As the church grew, it followed the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is a sign that every person, no matter how different they were from each other, is included in Christ. Since, when a person gets baptised they are united with him in his death and resurrection. Indeed, this grounded their unity because baptism was a way of recognising that all shared the same faith in the Trinitarian God who saved them. Paul told the Ephesians to

“be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:2-6.)

Paul knew that unity came through the church coming together in the shared worship of the God who saved them through his work as three persons in the world. Paul knew it was the one Spirit who held the church together. All of us worship the one Son, our Lord, Jesus, who though he is God became human, to live, die, and rise again for us. We’re united as we come to know the one Father of us all who loves us so much, that he sent his Son to save us, and gives us the Spirit to enable our flourishing. In the first four centuries, the early church knew that belief in one God, who was Father, Son, and Spirit, was the only way that they would remain united. But anyone who has done any study of Trinitarian doctrine will know that it’s hard work even to begin to get a handle on what is ultimately a mystery. Therefore, the theologians of the early church struggled to come to, and maintain, a unified understanding of God. These struggles played out in letters sent here-there-and-everywhere in the known world, and in long, large councils with representatives from all around that world. Why? Because they knew the only way to be united was to put our faith in the one God who saves us through his Son.

In theological language, we say that during this period, the church fathers were struggling for the catholicity of the church. (Note, the small c catholicity: I am not talking about the big C Roman Catholic church which emerged because of a massive split between the Eastern church—now known as the Eastern Orthodox Church—and the Western church that began in 1054.[1]) To recognise that we are members of the catholic church is the first step towards unity. Because it is saying, no matter what our differences, if we believe in the same God, Father, Son, and Spirit, and if we believe in the same grace that the triune God invites us to participate in, then we are all one church in Christ.

This is not to minimise the importance of those issues that divide the church into different denominations, but it is to say that those are secondary to the things that bind us together. It means that I can sit with my Roman Catholic aunty and recognise a fellow believer who loves the same Lord that I try to love. It means I can recognise my taxi driver, who is also an Orthodox Priest, as a fellow child of God, even though some of the things that we disagree about are not trivial in the least.

This emphasis on Father, Son, and Spirit is why, when St Paul turns to the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, he once again grounds it in what will come to be known as Trinitarian language. He writes, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Cor 12:4-6.) After this, Paul describes the different gifts of the Spirit, and how we all need each other, to work in our own gifting, which the Spirit purposefully gives to each unique member. But the point is, though the church is wonderfully diverse, and the Spirit enhances that diversity by giving us each unique gift, we are united because it is the work of the one God.

The Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas makes a point that brings us full circle. In western churches, birds of a feather flock together. We can go to a church that most aligns with how we think because of the wide array of denominations, and our cars mean we can easily travel some distance to church each week. Traditionally, in the East, the church placed a lot more emphasis on going to your closest church. That means the diversity of the local neighbourhood gets reflected in our church, including having to rub shoulders with those who perspectives are different from our own. So, for Zizioulas, maintaining unity in the local congregation, with all its diversity, is key to maintaining the catholicity of the church.[2]

So, how do we maintain the unity of the church? I know this sounds as simple as it is deep and wide. It is to stop trying to be the glue that binds the church together, by our own strength and knowledge. Rather it is to press into the Spirit and let him be the bond of peace as he gives us all his love, (1 Cor 13). We grow in unity when we come together around the person of Jesus, and focus on how his life, death and resurrection are for us. We can deal with our differences, even the differences of physical, cognitive, emotional, or social ability, when we keep on convincing ourselves that Jesus died for us in our weakness, as much as he died for anybody else in what we might perceive as their weakness. The other glue that binds us together is to know that it has always been the Father’s will to gather us all to himself in love. God the Father created me, you, and our neighbours, for a relationship with him, in Christ, through the Spirit.

So, I want to suggest that we allow the unity formed in Christ, to become a bit more real to us when we put the triune God, at the centre of our worship. When we gather to celebrate what he has done for us and when we go in the power of the Spirit out into the world. Therefore, I can think of no better way to do that than to celebrate the Eucharist (Communion or the Lord’s Supper) as the centre of what binds us together as a church. It is at the table of the Lord that we celebrate Christ, who died for each of us individually, and for the church as a whole. Furthermore, that meal is also a chance to look forward to the wedding feast of the Lord. When the church, the bride of Christ, will be cleansed of all that divides her, and will experience the fullness of communion with our God.

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References:

[1] “Great Schism,” The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church

[2] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church Contemporary Greek Theologians, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 254-57.

 

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