“That They May Be One”: Evangelical Unity after World Vision

Ten minutes after I pressed “Publish” on Monday’s post about my struggle to find a way to blog well about the World Vision controversy, I found myself lecturing on the Catholic Reformation and Wars of Religion in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class. While the fracturing of the Church into tens of thousands of denominations didn’t start or end with the Reformations, it was no doubt exacerbated and accelerated by that phenomenon. So, as I often do in this lecture, I closed with Jesus’ post-Last Supper prayer for unity:

John 17:23-24 on Papyrus 108
John 17:23-24 on a 3rd century papyrus – Wikimedia

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23, NRSV)

Reading this prayer in this particular lecture is always a convicting experience, but I was even less settled than usual because I’d been thinking so much about the meaning of the World Vision controversy for evangelicalism. The next day I came across Mennonite pastor Michael Pahl guest-blogging at Jesus Creed, where he too quoted John 17:20-23 and sighed, “What I long for… is not compromise but understanding, not agreement but acceptance and appreciation, not uniformity but unity.” But part of me suspects that that longing will go unfulfilled, and instead Trevin Wax will be proven right: “The World Vision decision was a tremor that warns us of a coming earthquake in which churches and leaders historically identified with evangelicalism will divide along all-too-familiar fault lines.”

I’m not sure that we evangelicals can maintain unity in spite of differing beliefs related to human sexuality and marriage, but given what Jesus asks in John 17, I can’t imagine how we can continue to call ourselves evangelical if we don’t at least make a serious attempt at it.

* * * * *

In a recent Anxious Bench post, historian Tal Howard (using a term coined by Timothy George) argued that the fragmentation of the church is dys-evangelicalflagrantly contrary to the desire of Jesus as expressed in John 17:23, where unity is essential to witness. As Howard put it:

If Christ’s message in the Gospel of John holds, then the mandate for evangelism and discipleship ought to go hand in hand with that of ecumenism: the task of Christian unity and the Great Commission should dovetail in purpose.

Or as Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical on John 17, “This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission” (emphasis mine).

1910 World Missionary Conference
The 1910 World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh – Wikimedia

Now, evangelical ecumenism is not latitudinarianism. While he thinks evangelicals are heirs to the ecumenical spirit of the 1910 Edinburgh Conference, Howard observes that the “charisma of this meeting was later routinized into the World Council of Churches, settling into a bureaucratic, least-common-denominator social ecumenism—one that many evangelicals, not without good reason, came to criticize.” Evangelicals don’t proclaim just any good news, but a gospel centered on the Cross, attested to in Scripture, producing the experience of conversion, and lived out actively in evangelism and social action alike.

But if we are to claim the name of the Evangel and share the good news, evangelicals can’t treat each other (and other Christians) in such a way that needlessly deepens what George calls “the open scandal of the followers of Jesus excluding one another from the Lord’s Table, all the while proclaiming ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Ephesians 4:5).” Unfortunately, what the late great John Stott lamented fifteen years ago is still with us:

Today, however, many of us evangelical Christians acquiesce too readily in our pathological tendency to fragment. We take refuge in our conviction about the invisible unity of the church, as if its visible manifestation did not matter. In consequence, the devil has been hugely successful in his old strategy to divide and conquer. Our disunity remains a major hindrance to our evangelism. (Evangelical Truth, p. 116)

As evangelicals, our best hope to reconcile evangelistic witness with Christian unity is to recover Stott’s solution: “In particular, we need a greater degree of discernment, so that we may distinguish between evangelical essentials which cannot be compromised and those adiaphora (matters indifferent) on which, being of secondary importance, it is not necessary for us to insist” (pp. 116-17).

* * * * *

Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener
“…great care should be exercised to keep controversy within bounds. Unnecessary argumentation should rather be reduced than extended, and the whole of theology brought back to apostolic simplicity” – Philipp Jakob Spener, Pia Desideria

Such discernment is woven into the DNA of evangelicalism. While it seeks to revive the Reformation, evangelicalism is not simply an extension of 16th century confessional Protestantism. Its roots are in 17th/18th century renewal movements like Pietism, whose leaders sought both to return to the Word of God and to avoid needless disputation, and the First Great Awakening, whose leaders readily crossed post-Reformation boundaries, agreeing to disagree on theology even as they partnered on evangelism and social action.

Closer to our own time and place, I hope we haven’t lost sight of the “big tent” nature of postwar neo-evangelicalism, which was all the stronger for the willingness of Presbyterians, Baptists, Mennonites, Nazarenes, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and others to transcend disputes that — in another place and time — would have had them anathematizing each other (or worse). In early March David Dockery, the Baptist educator who is moving from the presidency of Union University to the same position at Trinity International, insisted that “It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary matters and work together toward a common good to extend the work of the Gospel around the world and advance the kingdom of God.”

Dockery spoke three weeks before the World Vision controversy exploded. But while World Vision’s planning and execution were terribly flawed, unity in essentials was the spirit that seems to have animated its original decision. Rich Stearns had hoped that his organization’s deferring to church and denomination views on same-sex marriage would be taken as “symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity” — for the sake of a common commitment to what is undoubtedly an evangelical essential: love made active in service to the poor. Like Tony Campolo, I was troubled that the most fiery critics of the original World Vision decision seemed to be making “their interpretation of Romans 1, and a few other passages of scripture that they believe deal with same gender eroticism to be a defining criteria as to what is Christian and what is not. They have made same gender marriage a defining issue. I believe that it is not.”

Journalist Sarah Pulliam Bailey thought that an approach like Campolo’s might win the day, suggesting that “Over time, sexuality could become an issue like women’s ordination, something Christians agree to disagree on without questioning each other’s faith.” But at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax thought there was nothing secondary about this issue. Quite the contrary: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

His definition of “moderate” is a not unfair condensation of what I’m arguing here — and it places me outside his definition of “evangelical.”

* * * * *

So is sexuality/marriage an essential or defining issue? I tend to think it’s not, but I have to admit that I’m always inclined to pick peace over conflict. To a large degree, this is why I’m so at home in the pietistic Evangelical Covenant Church, which keeps to a short list of six essential affirmations, embraces “freedom in Christ” for the remaining adiaphora, and “affirms its companionship in faith with other church bodies and all those who fear God and keep God’s commandments.” (As such I’m not bound by ECC resolutions like the 1996 one on human sexuality, but for the record, I do affirm its position.)

Worthen, Apostles of ReasonIn any case, it’s certainly not my place to tell all of evangelicalism how to decide this vexing problem. As historian Molly Worthen concludes, “American evangelicals’ craving for clear authority is second only to their refusal to let any authority boss them around” (Apostles of Reason, p. 257).

But if you find my argument for evangelical ecumenism compelling and want to engage in something like Stott’s “discernment” on questions related to sexuality and marriage, let me suggest a few principles:

1. Start by reading John Stackhouse’s “friendly tipsfor those Christian leaders, preachers, professors, pundits, activists, and anyone else who wants to participate in our culture’s ongoing discussion of homosexuality.”

2. In his Jesus Creed post, Michael Pahl stressed that unity required “genuine conversation to take place, some charitable listening.” I agree — and would add that the conversation needs to take place in thousands of settings at the level of “two or three gathered together” (or perhaps slightly larger gatherings, like congregations and Christian workplaces), where people who already know each other in all their imperfection and yet still love each other as sisters and brothers in Christ can listen to each other. It should not take place primarily in the blogosphere, with polemics written to reassure and animate anonymous masses of the already-convinced, who never need hear out an opposing view.

3. Nor, to sound what might now be a tired refrain at this blog, should such a conversation take place in national isolation, as if the 16% of evangelicals who live in North America get to make decisions for the 84% who don’t. Progressives should have to talk to African and Asian Christians, who are much less likely than Americans (or Latin Americans) to view homosexual behavior as morally acceptable; conservatives should have to do the same with evangelicals in post-Christian countries like Britain and Australia, where the World Vision reversal was received with outrage.

4. It’s going to be hard to have a serious conversation if each side treats sexuality as a mere surrogate for other, undoubtedly central issues. Wax seems to speak for many on the right when he claims that “Same-sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are a number of issues related to traditional Christian belief and practice.” Just as problematic, progressives too often treat opposition to same-sex marriage as automatically negating Christ-like love. (It may indeed be possible to love the sinner and hate the sin without being a “homophobe.”)

5. In all such discussions, we should assume that evangelicals will appeal to the authority of Scripture alone, and not reserve “biblical” solely for our own position.

Smith, The Bible Made ImpossibleYou don’t have to join Christian Smith in concluding that biblicism inevitably ends up in “pervasive interpretive pluralism” to admit that no two evangelicals read the same Bible the same way. Mark Noll, for example, responded to Smith by observing that “When Evangelical communities pause to think carefully, the result is a much broader array of cohesive biblical interpretations, even from those whose statements about Scripture sound biblicist,” even as his survey of evangelical doctrinal statements finds that “the areas of agreement were greater and more impressive than the disagreements.”

If we do “think carefully” about what the Bible says, it doesn’t seem impossible that evangelicals can arrive at a broad “array of cohesive biblical interpretations” on human sexuality, even as they find (perhaps to their surprise, given the current state of polarizing distrust) that they actually still share many beliefs in common.

(Or forget what I said and just listen to John Stott again: “Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty. We can also hope—through prayer, study and discussion—to grow in our understanding and so in our agreement” — Evangelical Truth, p. 117.)

6. But we need to acknowledge that none of us truly reads Scripture alone; consciously or not, we all are guided by sources outside of the text itself. (I like Roger Olson’s prima scriptura — Scripture first for Protestants, but not alone.) In addition to sources like church tradition and scientific research, we should honor one of our central distinctives and consider personal experience as shared through testimony.

Experience and testimony don’t have authority over the written Word, but if evangelicals have always been especially attentive to the ways that God works in the lives of individuals, whose stories help to proclaim the gospel, then I can’t imagine claiming certainty about any position without first listening to testimonies as diverse as those of Jonathan Merritt, Jeffrey Chu, and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

* * * * *

And if we are to split apart, one final thought: It would be especially tragic for disunity to stem from a dispute over marriage — just as it was sadly ironic that so much Reformation-era strife centered on the sacrament that Protestants called “Communion.”

John Paul II, Ut Unum SintJesus’ prayer in John 17 is, after all, an astonishing glimpse into the community of the Trinity, with Son asking Father not only that his followers would “be one,” but that they’d “be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me… completely one….” “God wills the Church,” wrote John Paul II, “because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape. The faithful are one because, in the Spirit, they are in communion with the Son and, in him, share in his communion with the Father….”

We get tastes of this communion through everything from worship and sacrament to fellowship, friendship, and service. But there’s an intimacy to “I in them and you in me” that humans in this world rarely achieve outside of marriage.

So while my conscience is bound as I affirm (in the language of the lifestyle covenant that I join other Bethel faculty in signing) that “sexual intercourse and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity are reserved for monogamous, heterosexual marriage,” I can imagine how terrible it must be for persons oriented towards the same sex to be told that the loving intimacy they desire cannot be sanctified. While I think LGBT people can and should experience the closeness of life together as members of the Church — it’s a hospital for sinners, all of us — I have to acknowledge that my belief that marital union is reserved for different-sex couples causes pain and alienation for many.

So it struck me in Monday’s lecture that we should spend far less time complaining about disunity manifested in denominational and theological splits and far more time confessing the disunity resulting directly from our own words, deeds, and thoughts. Adapting an Ignatian exercise for this time of the year, I asked students to join me in imagining themselves at the foot of the Cross, looking on Jesus’ broken body in their mind’s eye as we each meditated on how we contribute to the breaking of the Body of Christ even today.

That might not be a bad practice for all of us before we get down to the hard work of restoring evangelical unity.


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