"Nothing justifies schism." This was the sober, stone-faced, and curiously truncated response by N.T. Wright when asked—at last week's Wheaton College Theology Conference—what might justify such action. The question wasn't theoretical: he currently serves as Bishop of Durham in the Church of England.
I attended the Wheaton Conference one day after attending another conference—Together for the Gospel (T4G)—which took place in Louisville and featured a who's who of "Young, Restless, Reformed" leaders/pastors for whom Martin Luther's ultimate schismatic act stands as one of the greatest, most heroic, God-ordained actions in Christian history.
The juxtaposition of these two sold-out conferences, which represent two of the most important strands of evangelical Christianity today (the neo-Reformed movement and the "N.T. Wright is the new C.S. Lewis" movement), made the question (problem?) of unity within the church impressively pronounced.
The conferences were very different, and I would venture to guess that I was one of only a few—if not the only one—to attend both. Louisville and Wheaton are not that far from each other geographically, but my experiences in both places felt like two different worlds. At the end of it all, after more than 20 lectures by renowned speakers (everyone from Mark Dever and John MacArthur to Jeremy Begbie and R.C. Sproul), I was left wondering whether unity really is evident in the church today, and if so, in what sense.
"Nothing justifies schism." In that powerful statement, Wright, perhaps the world's leading Christian theologian/writer/intellectual, was calling for the church to prioritize unity and emphasize common ground, not at the expense of doctrine and not in a universalist way, but because the "unity of the church is a sign to the world that there is a new way of being human." Unity, said Wright, "sends a message to the would-be rulers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they are not."
Wright, who is currently working on a massive tome on Paul, to be released "no sooner than 2012," spoke about unity a lot during the Wheaton conference. The overarching argument of his Paul book (the next volume in his magnum opus series that so far includes The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God) seems to be that "the main symbol of Paul's worldview is the unity of the church." At various points in the conference he said things like, "The cross brings together—unthinkably—the slave and the master" (talking about Philemon), and, "The cross is the place where the unreconcilable can be reconciled."
It's hard to argue with that. One does get the sense when reading the New Testament that unity within the church is, well, important. So why is it so hard for us to achieve?
On one level, the idea of unity is easy to agree upon. Most Christians are probably on the same page with Wright when he underscores the barrier-crashing importance of Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
But "all one" is easier said than done. And at the two conferences I attended, the contradictions and complexities of what it means to be one body and one family in Christ were made manifest.
Both of these conferences—on the surface and in their rhetoric—speak the "unity language." "Together for the Gospel" bespeaks a coming-togetherness or coalition of various wings of Christianity for the sake of the "main thing"—the gospel. Wheaton's conference was entitled "Jesus, Paul & the People of God: A Theological Dialogue With N.T. Wright"—language that also indicates a sort of coming-togetherness, perhaps in a more academic sense.
But there is a fundamental difference between the approaches of each group to unity. At T4G, which this year had the theme "The (Unadjusted) Gospel," unity often means keeping the heresies out. To be unified is to fight "together for the gospel" against the inroads, questions, and reexaminations that some Christians are undertaking. Speakers at the Wheaton conference at times had points of real disagreement with Wright (though they were all clearly on board with his main points and themes). T4G, by contrast, was more like a club patting each other on the back for their mutual buttressing of the "unadjusted gospel" against threats from various corners.
For the T4G folks, protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise. The Patristic Fathers got it right whenever they were ironing out disputed doctrines and fighting against heresy, said Ligon Duncan in his talk. But on matters that were not disputed, he said, their thought sometimes got muddled up.
The exact opposite point was made at the Wheaton Conference by Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Wheaton, who suggested that theologians like Wright (and, presumably Christians in general) are more often correct in matters they collectively affirm than in matters they dispute. This statement reflects the contrasting spirit of the Wheaton Conference as regards unity: It's what we affirm that matters. Are we on the same page on the core issues? Can we agree on the claims of the creeds? Yes? Then let's hash out the details of theological minutia (which is definitely important) in a spirited, friendly debate as the people of God exercising the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
Speaking of debate, the elephant in the room at both conferences was the ongoing (and increasingly well-known) debate on the doctrine of justification between N.T. Wright and John Piper. And at their respective conferences, both spoke on justification and referred to the other's arguments (with cheers from their respective rallied troops in the audience). The problem is that these men, both pastor/theologians who speak eloquently and love God, are talking past each other on this topic. They are not in dialogue. This might change for the better come November, when the two will square off in person at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta. But for now, it's hard to see much unity in their debate.
It's hard when one side (Piper/T4G) sees the Reformed doctrine of justification (imputed righteousness) as the lynchpin litmus test wherein believers are found to be either orthodox or borderline heretical. Disagreement on justification seems to stymie any further discussion for the neo-Reformed crowd, a position which immediately rules out fellowship with large (increasingly so) swaths of Christendom. For Wright, justification is certainly crucial, but what seems even more crucial for him is the unity of the church. Paul, after all, speaks of justification only in a few places (Romans, Galatians, etc.), while unity is a topic that shows up constantly in nearly everything he writes.
But I think Wright would also do well to show the Reformed side a bit more respect and not write them off for "asking late medieval questions," let alone dismissing the very idea of schism within the church (isn't schism appropriate in some cases? As in, if the Gospel truly does become "adjusted" in significant ways?).
However intellectually at odds Piper and Wright might be (which is fine), they are first and foremost brothers in the house of God. I hope they—and their respective supporters in the fray—can begin to model a more unified spirit. Imagine the witness of that!
The highlight of T4G for me was the singing of classic hymns like "And Can it Be" and "It is Well" with 7,000 fervent voices all in one accord. And at the Wheaton conference, I was most moved by a final prayer in a packed auditorium where hands were laid on Wright as we prayed for him and his ministry. It strikes me that unity is most viscerally experienced in moments like this: singing songs together, praying in concert, in fellowship with one another.
What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved? That would be a unity the rulers of the world would truly be afraid of.
Brett McCracken blogs at The Search and is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, which comes out in August. "Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.