“Let the Tension Remain” (Eph. 4)

Yesterday I was given the honor of delivering the keynote address at the college faculty retreat for Bethel University. The retreat committee asked me to speak on the theme of unity. Here’s a lightly edited version of my comments.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Eph 4:1-6 (NRSV)

Whether Paul or Peter or anyone else, the authors of the New Testament keep calling Christians to the same unity for which Jesus himself prayed: that his followers “may all be one,” as unified as is the community of the Trinity itself. In that sense, it’s true: our house dare not be divided against itself.

For there is no Christian hermeneutic that lets a Christian community dispense with unity.

But unity of what sort? To what end? I don’t believe in unity for unity’s sake, nor do I believe in just anything that calls itself “unity.” The New Testament demands a particular kind of unity, for a particular purpose.

Duccio, “Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles,” from the Maestà Altarpiece (1311) – Wikimedia

Ephesians 4 starts with a “therefore,” which Cathy or Juan would tell me is a cue to back up a few verses, to one of the most famous doxologies in Scripture: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (3:20-21).

Because God’s power is at work within us, therefore… because God is accomplishing more than we can ask or imagine, therefore… maintain unity with one another… therefore, live in the bonds of peace.

Our unity as Christians, therefore, is inseparable from our mission as Christians, from the work we do — as the Pietists say — to God’s glory and for our neighbors’ good.

So let’s start to look for our unity there: in our common mission, in our shared work.

One problem with that approach is that we live in 21st century America. Economic and legal systems have accustomed us to think of our work as our own.

I wrestled with this assumption just last week. The 17th was a big day for me: the publication date for my newest book, a spiritual biography of Minnesotan aviator and white supremacist Charles A. Lindbergh. For five years, I’ve invested countless hours in telling the complicated story of a deeply flawed man. The result reflects all the skilled effort that I can bring to bear as a historian: research, analysis, synthesis, and writing.

But it is not “my book.” At least, it’s not only “my” book.

Larson & Shady, From Bubble to Bridge

Its inspiration came from others: for example, our colleagues Amy Poppinga, Sara Shady, and Marion Larson, whose commitment to love neighbors of other religions made me want to better understand my neighbors who, like Charles Lindbergh, are spiritual, but not religious.

To achieve that understanding took research… which first took the work of archivists to preserve documents, and the work of librarians — like our own Sandi Oslund, and Kaylin Creason before her — to connect me with the work of other scholars. And even when my research and my writing were concluded, it took the work of editors and designers and others at a publishing company to bring the book to its readers, who now invest their own effort in this shared mission of seeking understanding.

So as I pivot from a summer of publishing to a fall of teaching, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the way that my work in the classroom depends on the work of so many others. Our students, first of all, who are the reason for our mission, who let themselves be challenged and supported by people like us, even in the middle of a pandemic. But I also think of the admissions counselors who helped those students make a terribly complicated decision and pick Bethel… and of the advancement officers who persuaded donors to fund scholarships that helped reduce the staggering cost of this university. They brought those students to my classroom, which is only a good site for teaching and learning because people in Facilities Management and IT do their work. (With far more anonymity and humility than I do mine.)

In that classroom, my focus is on my field and my subject. But even as I speak, I hear the echoes of other voices, coming from other educators in our community.

This fall in HIS354 Modern Europe, for example, my students and I will visit some dark places in the past: the dehumanization of industrial poverty and colonial oppression, the mass killing of total wars and genocides. In teaching that history, I will surely evoke the problem of evil — we will ask how a good, just, all-powerful God can possibly allow those who bear his image to be degraded in such ways. No historian can resolve that problem, but I can raise it knowing that my students can grapple with it again in a theology or philosophy class, or in a chapel or small group led by a campus pastor. This fall my students should feel horror at God’s seeming absence in the ugliness of history, even as they wonder at the beauty of God’s creation in classes on everything from art to physics, biology to poetry. And for some students, hearing about past wounds in my class will only amplify their calling to heal in the future, as nurses or social workers or counselors or physical therapists.

A member of a German Einsatzgruppe prepares to murder a Jewish mother and her child in the Ukraine, 1942 – Wikimedia

None of this is easy work for students. We press them up against the very limits of their understanding and empathy and effort; they might even experience what feels like failure. But many of them will succeed in that challenge because they have already learned how to push themselves as individuals — and then how to depend on others — as members of an athletic team or a musical ensemble or a missions project. And when it does feel like I’m asking too much in my classes, I can thank God for colleagues in Student Life and the Counseling Center and Health Services, who see to the emotional, mental, and physical health of students whose lives are far more complicated than what I glimpse for a few hours each week.

And when I start asking questions and sharing perspectives that take my students out of their comfort zone, even to the boundaries of the few essential truths our community affirms, I trust that my president and provost and deans will defend my freedom and integrity as a Christian scholar, that their work embodies our values of Truth-Seekers and Learners as much as mine does.

As the people of the church of Jesus Christ, said the apostle Paul, we are members of one body: unified by one Spirit, called to one hope, and under one Lord, but with different vocations and gifts. As his letter to the Ephesians continues, we hear a theme familiar from other epistles, that “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”

Or if I could offer a more academic paraphrase of Eph 4:11:

The gifts God gave were that some would be professors, some administrators, some coaches, some resident directors and registrars. And even among the professors, Some would be political scientists and some chemists, some musicians and others marketers. Some would be compelling lecturers or nimble discussion leaders, some wizards in the lab or studio, while others would be clinician-educators and service-learners. Some would come from the same backgrounds as their students, some would open their students’ eyes to new perspectives and experiences. Some would turn their students’ worlds upside-down and their beliefs inside-out, while others would be particularly good at helping students to pick up the pieces and put them back together.

But no single Bethel student’s education is the sole responsibility of any single professor or other employee.

Whatever our place in the larger body of Christ, we all “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:12-13). And whatever our discipline or position at Bethel, we all, as President Allen has put it, “[provide] challenge and support for our students as we encourage them in the journey of making their faith their own.”

Ross began his term as Bethel president in the summer of 2020… let’s hope 2021-22 is a little calmer

I think what Ross said there is exactly right. Challenging and supporting our students — intellectually and spiritually — to make their faith their own is the work we have in common. That kind of education is the reason for our unity and its source.

But such unity demands diversity. We take most seriously our shared purpose when we take seriously not only our different roles, but also our distinct backgrounds and perspectives.

So let us never confuse disagreement for disunity.

“But speaking the truth in love,” continues our text in vv 15-16, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

And if you missed how v 15 started, we hear it again ten verses later, when Paul calls on his fellow followers of Jesus to “[put] away falsehood” and “speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another” (v 25).

We are unified, therefore, speak truly.

So beware now one of the most dangerous legacies of Bethel’s 150-year long history: the Swedish Baptist Pietist aversion to conflict.

I love the irenic spirit of this place. It’s what drew me here instead of somewhere else, and a big part of what keeps me here whenever I want to seek greener pastures. But even as my stomach churns to say the words, I know this: that if it seems like there is no conflict within our community, it’s almost certainly because someone is speaking falsely — or because someone else has been shamed or scared into not speaking at all! (And that someone is very likely me.)

Let no one tell you that honesty is “divisive.” Truth cannot create division; it can only shine light on the divisions that already exist.

Our work is both the basis for our unity and bound to lead to conflict. The questions we ask are too complicated — the world we seek to understand is too complex — for those who genuinely seek truth to interpret what they find in the same way. Honest disagreement is an engine of inquiry.

And sometimes seeking truth reveals problems that are caused by misunderstanding and resolved by learning. This is the very purpose of the liberal arts, which liberates us from inherited assumptions and engrained fallacies in order to serve each other. We cannot put away such falsehoods without speaking truly.

For if unity cannot do without truth, it also cannot dispense with justice.

The same apostle who exhorts the Ephesian Christians to unity also excoriates their Corinthian brethren for divisions, even in Communion itself. Why? Because the church in Corinth had divided itself into factions based on wealth, with the rich being so selfish in their practice of the Lord’s table that they would “show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing” (1 Cor 11:22).

So as Paul continues his extended meditation on Christian unity in Ephesians 4, I think it’s telling that he takes time in v. 28 to insist on a basic principle of social justice and human dignity: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” There can be no meaningful unity if the greed and arrogance of some leads to the privation and humiliation of others.

Yet when those being oppressed in this way speak out, some Christians condemn them for speaking “divisively”; they accuse their fellow believers of bugaboos like feminism or socialism or CRT.

Embed from Getty Images

Here is false Christian unity: accusing those who decry injustice of fomenting division. Sister and brothers, there is no peace without truth and justice, and there is no unity without solidarity and empathy. As much as we work together to prepare students to be Christ-followers and truth-seekers, we are also working together to prepare them to change an unjust world by setting it to rights. If Pres. Allen is right that we need to double down on Jesus, we also need to double down on his compassion for the suffering and marginalized. If we double down on Jesus, we double down on his kingdom prevailing.

So, what must we do? Maintain unity within our diversity, while we speak truly and live justly.

But here’s where it gets really hard.

Ephesians 4 ends with another imperative: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (vv 31-32).

I’m sure that was hard to pull off in the 1st century, but it seems almost laughable here in the 21st. I don’t know about you, but I often feel like I’ve been conformed to a political and cultural pattern in which truth-telling is supposed to sound bitter and wrathful, and justice-seeking scoffs at kindness and forgiveness.

That is the way of our world; it cannot be the way of any Christian community. “Be angry,” v. 26 begins, and our modern ears keen eagerly to the shrillness we hear in Paul’s voice… then we recoil as he warns us not to dwell in anger, not to “let the sun go down on” that emotion. Anger is an honest instinct within any relationship or community, and it can be a healthy expression of our desire for truth and justice. But unforgiving, unrequited anger can never become our brand.

El Greco’s painting of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple – Wikimedia/Vanderbilt Divinity Library

For our identity is found in Jesus Christ, who was both righteous in his anger and gentle in his heart; when we take on his yoke, we learn from both the furious table-turner and the suffering servant.

Likewise, we should expect conflict, but not revel in it. “Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed,” writes Pope Francis. “It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality.”

I hear myself and know that what I say sounds impossible. If disunity can result both from failing to speak truth and speaking it too harshly, from failing to seek justice and seeking it too mercilessly, it may seem like the church’s every effort to maintain unity in this world will be futile.

I hear myself and I cringe, because words against anger and exhortations to kindness, falling from lips like mine, are so often what those with power say to silence the powerless.

In any event, I’m certainly no model of how to live out the complicated unity that I prescribe. For some of you, anything I say about unity or truth or justice or kindness matters less than the cautionary example of my own past misconduct or hypocrisy.

But none of that means that I’m wrong. Just that this is a complicated problem.

Fortunately, I’ve been reliably informed that academics love complicated problems.

So if you have tracked with me this far into the closing hour of a long day, let me leave you with two sources of potential encouragement: a parable, and a prayer.

1975 photo of Clarence Bass – Bethel Digital Library

The parable comes from our own history — specifically, the life of Clarence Bass, who taught theology in Bethel Seminary from 1955 to 1988 and died this summer. I didn’t know Dr. Bass well — not enough even to call him Clarence right now. So last month I attended his memorial service at Central Baptist Church in St. Paul, hoping to learn more from his family, friends, and former students.

One member of the latter group recalled him debating predestination with an Arminian colleague one day in Bethel’s coffee shop. (Clarence Bass, I should add, was a Reformed scholar who did his doctorate under John Baillie at Edinburgh.) It was a heated argument, so tense that this seminarian started to wonder how these two professors could possibly share the same faculty, the same curriculum, and the same mission. But even as they fired Calvin and Wesley quotes back and forth, Dr. Bass and his colleague suddenly realized that they both had to teach in five minutes. So they finished their coffee, got up and shook hands, wished each other a good class, and agreed to “let the tension remain.”

Let the tension remain. I think that’s often the best we can do when we want to unify anything that is separated: whether knowledge or a community dedicated to seeking knowledge, we can often do no better than to let the tension remain.

For if you and I do that, we may feel uncomfortable and awkward, but we commit to remain in each other’s presence. If you and I agree to let the tension remain, we also commit to building the trust that enables us to do our work apart, but together, in honest disagreement, but towards the same end.

If we don’t agree to do that, we commit to the opposite of tension: release, which lets go of the pain and uncertainty of conflict… by embracing the numbing certainty of separation, which grows and grows until we are farther apart than when first the argument began…

Until the ligaments of our body are stretched to the point where the eye says to the hand and the feet, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). To the point where the Arminian Christian and the Reformed Christian say to each other, I have no need of you. Until the historian and the scientist, the professor and the president, the church and its university say to each other, I have no need of you.

Again and again at Bethel we strive for connection and resolution: to make the parts of our lives into a holy whole, to integrate faith and learning, and to seek a unified future for what our provost calls “one Bethel.” We seek healing and often feel wounded for our troubles. But if unity seems elusive, it is never a failure to trust others’ efforts, to honor diversity, to speak truthfully, to seek justice, and then let the tension remain — until we try again the next hour, or week, or year.

After all, we experience the passage of time as mortals, often unable to remember the progress we’ve made in the past and unable to do more than guess at what awaits us in the future. We at Bethel forget the unity that we’ve built over 150 years, and we can’t see the greater unity that awaits.

So Paul closes this section of his epistle by reminding us that we are not our Triune God: all-knowing, always-just, already-unified. Rather, we are called to “be imitators of God,” as God’s “beloved children” who “live in love, as Christ loved us” (5:1).

Fellow beloved, let me encourage you this year to be an imitator of God: above all else, live in the love of Christ, especially with those from whom you feel most estranged, towards whom you feel the deepest anger; then, as you are called and gifted, seek your small part of the unity, truth, and justice that God alone can grant in full, letting the tension remain where your efforts inevitably fall short, and trusting that “the power at work within us” — within all of us — “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).