Learning from J I Packer about principles for Christian unity.

As this is the last day of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight three quotations from chapter 3 of  J I Packer’s book Taking God Seriously [1] which are particularly relevant to discussions about Christian unity today.  

Unity as a present gift and a future goal.

The first quotation is about how Christian unity is ‘both a present gift and a future goal.’ Packer writes:

‘As each Christian is in Christ and is one with him, so all Christians are one with each other in and through him. ‘Christian’ here means , quite specifically, a believer who is born again, knows Christ, is indwelt by the Spirit, and seeks to live to the glory of the triune God. Christian unity is the active, acknowledged togetherness of all Christian people, who share their supernatural life in their Savior’s love and who love each other across all boundaries of race, color, social standing, and denominational churchly identity. From this standpoint Christian unity is a divine gift and foretaste of heaven, and is entirely the fruit of God’s grace.

From another standpoint, however, Christian unity is a goal not fully reached at this time, by reason of differences of belief and behavior among those who profess faith. Persons in the churches who depart from historic Christian and biblical standards in either department, and teach and lead others to do the same, obstruct, disfigure, and actually disrupt Christian unity, no matter how sincere they may be in thinking they are in the van of theological wisdom and spiritual progress. We cannot read hearts and are not therefore able to tell whether those who lapse in this way are Christians in the real sense or not, but we can and must say that their lapses create barriers to our acknowledging of Christian unity with them, for that is indeed the case. Full unity with merely partial believers is not possible.’

Unity as bounded by revealed truth.

The second quotation is about how Christian unity is ‘bounded by revealed truth.’  Packer writes:

‘What God thinks and says is for Christians the absolute standard of truth. God spoke freely to reveal his mind about the realities of redemption and of redeemed life throughout the entire history of his redemptive work, from the days of Genesis to the days of Christ and his apostles some two millennia ago. That revelation is recorded and embodied in the canonical Scriptures, which the Holy Spirit inspired so as to give the world in every age an accurate knowledge and understanding of what God had said and done. What was that revealed and recorded now stands over against every human idea and cultural consensus to measure how far they are true or false by the yardstick of God’s word. All who recategorize Holy Scripture as well-meant and religiously insightful but factually unreliable human tradition, and assume the right to pass judgement on its truth and wisdom rather than letting it pass judgement on them, undermine Christian unity rather than advance it, and create huge confusion and vast spiritual uncertainty in the process. Little as controversy should be encouraged or enjoyed, those who uphold the cause of Christian unity after make clear the falsity of this intellectual method and its results, and must go on making it clear until (please God ) this aberration becomes a thing of the past.’

Unity as involving a principled practice of Christian love.  

The third quotation is about how Christian unity involves  ‘a principled practice of Christian love.’ Packer writes:

‘Christian love for one another, as an expression of our unity in Christ, must be practised responsibly, in light of what God has told us in Scripture and shown us in Christ about his ideal standards for human living. Failure to do this will disrupt Christian unity yet again. The idea that loving people – one’s children, spouse, friends; disadvantaged and abused groups – means giving them everything they ask for and tolerating whatever they choose to do is a sad sub-Christian mistake. Love gives, certainly, but giving that does not observe the limits of behaviour acceptable to God and that does not, however indirectly, give encouragement and help toward self -control, emotional maturity, courage, humility, patience, truthfulness and trustworthiness, purity and holiness, and Christlikeness generally, is not Christian love in action. Moral insensitivity and indifference cancel Christian love, instead of expressing it. It is not loving, in the Christian sense, to confirm anyone, let alone fellow Christians, in wrong ways, and it is certainly not the way to acknowledge our Christian unity with anyone. Christian love is unconditional in the sense of accepting, respecting, and showing goodwill to people just as they are, but it is not unconcerned or undiscerning about being beneficent as distinct from merely indulgent. True Christian love holds to Christian standards all the way.’

What these principles mean for us today.

During the course of the twentieth century major strides were made in the fostering of Christian unity, both through ecumenical dialogues and agreements between churches and groups of churches, and through the development of ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches or the World Evangelical Alliance. Since the beginning of this century, however, much of this ecumenical progress has gone into reverse as new divisions have opened up over the issues of transgender and same-sex sexual relationships, divisions which have split apart both individual churches and groups of churches.

In the face of this situation, we cannot abandon the quest for visible Christian unity. According to John 17:20-23, Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers on the night before his crucifixion and the fruit of the victory won by his crucifixion and resurrection was the formation of a community whose members  were ‘of one heart and soul’ (Acts 4:32) and who shared a common life of worship, witness,  and service as a result. That still has to be our goal today.

However, if we are serious about working towards the achievement of that goal in our day we have to take seriously the three principles concerning unity highlighted by Packer in the quotations given above. Christian Unity is impeded when people depart from ‘historic Christian and biblical standards’ of belief and behaviour. Christian unity is bounded by the truths revealed by God in Holy Scripture. Christian unity involves the practice of ‘principled’ rather than undiscriminating love.

In specific terms, what this means is that the divisions that have opened up over transgender and same-sex sexual relationships will only be properly healed if there is a return to the historic Christian belief, based on the teaching of Scripture, that human beings are called to live as the men and women God created them to be, and to live lives that are marked by either sexual faithfulness within heterosexual marriage, or sexual abstinence outside it, and if those in the churches are prepared to show principled love by encouraging people to live in these ways and giving appropriate support to those who find doing so particularly difficult.  

Paradoxically, in order to bring about the healing of divisions in this way in the long term, divisions may need to increase in the short term. This is because orthodox Christians may need to set up their own new churches, or new structures within existing churches, in order to provide settings in which traditional Christian belief and practice can be maintained against the day when revival comes and the Church as whole is willing to accept them once more.   

[1] J I Packer, Taking God Seriously (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).