Christian unity: two words that are easy enough to say or type but too often quite elusive to experience. Regardless of experience, the theological reality is that followers of Jesus are in union not only with Christ, but also one another. We are one body, united by one Spirit with one faith in one Lord made visible in one baptism.
However, one need not possess the skills of Sherlock Holmes to observe that this theological reality can be difficult to discern visually or experientially.
Though its eternal status remains secure in the work of God, its earthly manifestation continually seeks to escape the people of God. In the American context, the church has mimicked the fracturing of the cultural and political landscape. Michael Graham masterfully summarized this fracturing at Mere Orthodoxy.
This fracturing is not new in the Protestant tradition. We were birthed in protest. In some form or fashion, a version of protest has continued for 500 years. This resulted in Protestant denominations that are nearly impossible to calculate. Because many of these originated in protest, they minimized (if not outright rejected) Christian unity. This is particularly true in the American context, where overthrowing ecclesial traditions and norms is built into our cultural DNA.
I am not a prophet and do not presume to know what the future holds in the American religious landscape. However, numerous consensuses and coalitions who are allegedly unified in the unchangeable truths of the gospel are proving unable to withstand the weight of current fracturing.
Where does Emmaus situate herself in these confusing times?
Our longing is to reject inevitable fracturing, instead laboring for the unity Christ has secured for eternity. Unity which is to be tasted here and now.
Our small contribution in this endeavor is the nurturing of humble orthodoxy. As we seek embodied formation of ecclesial theology our posture must be one of humility around Protestant orthodoxy.
To be clear: humble orthodoxy is not to be confused with Hans Frie’s generous orthodoxy. We are not looking to change the foundational truths the church has proclaimed for 2000 years. Nor is it a dismissal of the need for courage and zeal in defense of truths we hold dear.
Humble orthodoxy is a call to take seriously the Apostle Paul’s words concerning the unity of the church and how this unity is maintained. The Apostle unequivocally states we are one body united in one Spirit, one Lord, one God and Father, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:4-6).
Beliefs about who God is in his triune nature, the authority of the Scriptures, and the essence of faith in the work of Christ alone for salvation are the foundation of Protestant orthodoxy. Despite incalculable amounts of division over the past 500 years, Protestants remain strikingly unified in this orthodoxy. Kevin Vanhoozer and others served the church well in 2017 at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by reminding us how much catholicity exists in the Protestant tradition as he and others penned a “Mere Protestant Statement of Faith.” Because of the Protestant catholicity, this confession serves as the confessional statement for Emmaus.
However, if we have learned anything in the past two years, it is that agreement on matters of orthodoxy is insufficient to maintain unity.
Paul’s words preceding his statements on unity in Ephesians are equally needed. Before statements on our Christian unity in Ephesians 4:4-6, the Apostle implores his readers to make “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3).
What does it mean to make every effort laboring to maintain Christian unity? Paul’s answer has a particular posture in mind in verse 2 when he writes, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” We are called to maintain unity.
It is striking that Paul does not say the eternal unity Christ has secured naturally exists among us, instead we must labor for its visual manifestation. We must labor with a particular posture of humility and gentleness that makes bearing with one another in love possible.
What does this practically look like? In our view, it means we don’t have to agree on the timing and mode of baptism, church polity, the exact nature of Jesus’s return, and a host of other theological, ecclesial, and cultural issues that are not central to orthodoxy in order to enjoy the fruits of Christian unity.
We believe being in proximity with whom you disagree on secondary and tertiary issues in a seminary context is essential to maturing in theological formation and ecclesial theology. There must be “another” to bear with in love for the fruit of humility and gentleness to have recipients.
This is not an easy endeavor. History and experience teach us this. However, it is an endeavor we make “every effort” to nurture.
Cory Wilson (Ph.D., Reformed Theological Seminary) is Co-founder of Emmaus Theological Seminary, where he teaches in the fields of Missiology and Theology. Cory also serves as a Pastor of City Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Cory and his wife Jasmine have called Northeast Ohio home since 2012 and have four children.