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The Boundaries of Unity

Category Articles
Date February 13, 2009

The annual National Prayer Breakfast meets ‘in the name and the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ Pastors at the recent Promise Keepers National Clergy Conference affirmed their unity by shouting ‘Jesus’ in answer to the call to name ‘the Messiah in whom you have trusted your souls.’

These are but two movements that represent an attempt to create Christian unity by substituting a new paradigm of thinking for the traditional. Leave it to the Church Growth Movement to name these paradigms.

The traditional paradigm is called ‘boundary-set thinking.’ Boundary setters write creeds and confessions and use them to judge where people stand in relation to the truth. Those who affirm the creed or confession are inside the boundary. Others are outside.

The new paradigm is called ‘centre-set thinking.’ Centre-set thinkers are concerned not with boundaries but with direction. Jesus Christ and the gospel are the centre and the question about any person is not, ‘Is he inside the boundary?’ but, ‘Is he moving in the right direction?’

But it is at this very point that the new paradigm has a problem. Who is the Jesus at the centre? The Jesus of Arius or Athanasius? Which gospel are we moving toward? The gospel of Rome, Geneva, or the Crystal Cathedral?

If you say it doesn’t matter, then you are a relativist who has no Jesus to trust and no gospel to proclaim. But, once you say who this Jesus is and what his gospel is, then you are immediately involved in boundary-set thinking.

There is no doubt that boundary-set thinking has its problems. Did the early church really need to split over whether the Spirit is eternally sent forth by the Father and the Son or by the Father only? Could not the Lutherans and Calvinists have maintained unity by agreeing that we truly receive Christ in the Lord’s Supper without dividing over the way in which he is present? A brother and I were recently discussing a chart showing the origins of all the Presbyterian groups and, though we are both separatists, we agreed that our tradition’s history is not only confusing but embarrassing. And, more importantly, a scandal.

But centre-set thinking, for all its good intentions, has fatal problems. It is not reformational, in either the Lutheran or Calvinistic manifestations. The Reformation was the great era of modern confession-making, because the Reformers believed that biblical truth could and should be stated propositionally and systematically. These confessions, by necessity, drew boundaries as they served the purposes of testifying to the world, discipling believers, and maintaining the church’s purity and unity.

Centre-set thinking is not ecumenical. The post-apostolic church was greatly troubled by controversies about the Trinity and the person of Christ. They settled these matters at representative gatherings of the universal church, which addressed these issues by writing boundary-setting statements of faith we now call the ecumenical creeds. If you could not confess your faith using the Nicene Creed or affirm the Chalcedonian Creed, you were outside the church.

Most important, centre-set thinking is not apostolic. Unlike some of his admirers, the apostle Paul could recognize error and deformity in individuals and churches without pronouncing them outside of Christ. But, unlike many centre-set thinkers, he did not consider theological diversity a good thing. What Timothy taught the Corinthians Paul said ‘agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.’

When it came to the doctrine of Christ, John, the great apostle of love who taught that no one who failed to love his brothers could possibly be a Christian, was a rigid boundary-set thinker who declared anyone who rejected the apostolic testimony about Christ to be a ‘liar’ and the ‘antichrist.’ When it came to the gospel, Paul, who urged a church to ‘keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’, pronounced a curse on anyone who proclaimed a gospel different from his and said that any professing Christian who accepted the alternative gospel had fallen away from Christ. The New Testament is the collection of the apostolic writings, which preserves for generations ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’, the pattern of sound teaching to which all must conform.

Jesus, who prayed that ‘all of them may be one’ and ‘be brought to complete unity’, first promised to send the Spirit of truth and first prayed, ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.’ His prayer for unity has not yet been answered. But it will not be answered by unity in diversity of belief. It will be answered by unity in the Spirit of truth.

William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Mississippi.

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