by John Armstrong
Theologian J. I. Packer called the thesis of my book, Your Church Is Too Small (2010), a “corrective vision.” That book identified a serious defect in our Christian practice–a defect that has led us to embrace a myriad of new divisions within Christianity. We value our personal views and opinions above all else, including the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, whom God the Father loves and whom Christ redeemed. In America we have clothed our democratic individualism in “God words” and embraced an agenda of perpetual separation. We have chosen ideology over the Carpenter of Nazareth. We seem to have forgotten the inheritance Jesus left us: our God-given oneness (John 17:20-24).
Last week I referenced the breakdown of unity in the church and our culture. This breakdown has undermined modern life, especially in our communities: marriages, families, local churches, neighborhoods, workplaces. I prefer to call this relational breakdown an “unholy separation.” Such a separation is manifested both in indifference and a lack of love toward those who differ from us. This “unholy separation” keeps the church from making a difference in the world. (Recall Jesus’ warning in Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”)
Globalization has shrunk the distance between the human family, but our bonds with those closest to us have only weakened. Our children hope for a better tomorrow, yet multitudes of young adults are leaving the church. The next generation dreams of making a real difference in a world marked by so much negativity. They aim high, creating courageous projects and embracing a vision of partnership that promotes love and community. But the church doesn’t heed the young. It easier to focus on ritual than to engage in the hands-on love of Jesus. In truth, our biggest problems are not doctrinal but relational. To address the breakdown of unity we must bridge this “unholy separation” by naming it and then repenting of it.
Many in Western culture sense a fresh call to co-create with the mystery of the universe. After all, even though we have rejected many traditional ideas about God, we remain an inherently religious people. We recognize the rampant breakdown of common sense. We long to heal the many families wounded by divorce. We hunger for better earthly cities modeled on transcendence. We grasp for something—or Someone—more. We wonder: What can sustain us politically, ethically, economically and socially?
Religious leader Chiara Lubich (1920–2008), founder of a Catholic movement that seeks the recovery of spiritual oneness, gave her life to pursuing loving relational unity. Just a few years ago she observed, “A world immersed in secularism, materialism and indifference,” she once observed, “has brought us so many sharp divisions, to such poverty and crises! [But] things go backwards, [initially] in order to advance. The world returns to the unity of the human family as God intended it to be.”1 I have written Costly Love because I believe our need for “advance” is far more evident now than at any time since World War II. I also wrote it because I am persuaded that God is already leading us toward greater unity. There is growing evidence of this around the world within many movements of faithful people.
I now believe this growing movement of unity among Christians will change our world as this new century unfolds. In the foreword to my earlier book, J. I. Packer wrote:
Embracing this vision will mean that our ongoing inter- and intra- church debates will look, and feel, less like trench warfare, in which both sides are firmly dug in to defend the territory that each sees as its heritage, and more like emigrants’ discussions on shipboard that are colored by the awareness that soon they will be confronted by new tasks in an environment not identical with what they knew before.3
“This vision,” which I call missional-ecumenism, is directly rooted in the nature of God. Your Church Is Too Small anticipated the central question I will address in my soon-to-be-released book Costly Love: “What does it mean to believe that God is love and, more particularly, what does it mean for the church of Jesus Christ to live out this love?”
Pursuing unity as an end in itself will not heal our divisions. We must reconsider our view of God’s essence, his divine nature. We must return to the central truth that God is a merciful Father revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who incarnates holy love (1 John 4:8, 16). For Christians, there is no separation between God’s holiness and God’s love. But this does not mean we seek to balance the holiness and wrath of God with divine love and grace. In his epistles, John shows that love is God’s character, while holiness and wrath are “dispositions” that become active on particular occasions. This explains why love alone is eternal. If our experience and understanding of God are merely philosophical, then our love for one another will be rigid and cautious.
John Armstrong is a friend of A2J. You can read more of his writings and follow him here