Evangelical Unity and Diversity: cont'd
Updated: Sep 11
David Newman is a retired priest. After many years in parish ministry he served as Archdeacon of Loughborough and then Warden of Launde Abbey. He contributed to Journeys in Grace and Truth – revisiting scripture and sexuality (Ekklesia 2016) and is the author of Growing Up into the Children of God - exploring the paradoxes of Christian maturity (Sacristy Press 2019)
David first blog on this subject provoked quite a lot of discussion. Here in this second blog David responds and take the discussion further, offering some perceptive reflections on Jesus's own response to the issue of who is, and is not, 'for him'.
The scene is Hogwarts School and the students are returning for the new year. The previous one had finished in tragedy with the Triwizard tournament ending in the death of one of the participants and the return of the evil Lord Voldemort. There is a climate of fear and suspicion. Relationships become tense, and even friends find themselves bickering and edgy. It is clear that the danger facing the students is that rather than uniting against the real common foe they allow their fears to turn them inward against each other. This is the theme picked up by “the Sorting Hat” who at the beginning of each year has the task of placing the new students in one of the four school houses. Each house embodies the distinctive personality of their founder and for many years this diversity had been a strength. However, as the Sorting Hat sings:
“But then discord crept among us
Feeding on our faults and fears
The houses that, like pillars four,
Had once held up our school
Now turned upon each other and
Divided, sort to rule.
And for a while it seemed the school
Must meet an early end,
What with duelling and with fighting
And the clash of friend on friend”
So, although the Sorting Hat must perform its duty to sort them into houses, it is concerned that this will further division rather than just diversity:
“Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
The warning history shows,
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external, deadly foes
And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within …”
I hope I have not lost anyone by beginning with this excerpt from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Although the realm of wizards and magic might not seem explicitly Christian, the Harry Potter stories, like many other works of children’s fantasy, resonate with a Christian worldview and the insights into the overcoming of evil are often profound. Here on the subject of unity and diversity the questions are posed: what is the boundary between creative diversity and destructive disunity? who is the enemy and are they within or without?
In my first article I explored how some of the intensity of the debate over same-sex blessing and marriage in the evangelical constituency might be explained by the dynamics of minority behaviour and wondered whether the apostle Paul’s challenge to the Corinthian church to grow up into a more mature unity in Christ even while holding differences might be relevant. It certainly provoked much comment which perhaps isn’t surprising, for here are passionately held convictions meeting deeply felt identities. Some of the response focused on the definition of a ‘true’ evangelical and so illustrated one of the tendencies I identified of excluding dissidents from the tribe. Evangelical purity became the issue more than an exploration of a generous biblical inclusivity centred on Christ. I found my own credentials being picked over and challenged; “Is he really one of us?” was the gist of that response with the sub-texts of “Has he led a growing orthodox church?” or read all the relevant orthodox theological texts? It is of course a common political tactic to kill the message by shooting the messenger and given that we have reached the political stage of the same-sex issue perhaps some of that is inevitable. However, for an evangelical even political processes need to keep being held up to scripture.
There is some interesting gospel precedent for such issues. Mark records how on one occasion the disciple John reports to Jesus that someone who “was not one of us” was driving out demons in Jesus’ name.
"... it would seem that Jesus was less concerned about the group identity more about the good fruit ensuing from a ministry that was being done in his name."
Jesus is quite relaxed about this and not only advises against trying to stop him but makes the very inclusive comment – “for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-41). It is interesting though to contrast this with another occasion when the Pharisees are alleging that Jesus is driving out demons by the power of Beelzebub and Jesus responds with a much more exclusive statement: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). What is it about these two incidents that accounts for the contrasting responses of Jesus?
On the first occasion it would seem that Jesus was less concerned about the group identity and whether the exorcist was “one of us” and more about the good fruit ensuing from a ministry that was being done in his name. Where Jesus was recognised and ministry was well intentioned and effective then it could be encouraged rather than opposed. However, on the second occasion he was dealing with some serious opponents who were linking him with the power of evil. By doing so they were rejecting what God was doing in and through Jesus: “if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Their accusation, Jesus warns, was a blasphemy against the Spirit for which there was no forgiveness. It was as serious as that. They are rejecting God’s source of human healing and redemption. “A tree is recognised by its fruit”, Jesus concludes.
These incidents are highly insightful for the current situation in the church and the evangelical response to it. That there are real differences is a given. Are these differences between people who are ultimately on the same side or fundamentally opposed?
"Are these differences between people
who are ultimately on the same side
or fundamentally opposed?"
If ‘the enemy’ has really come within as a fifth column then they need to be resisted, but if ‘the enemy’ is external then diversities need to unite against a common foe. Are faithful same-sex relationships and those who are prepared to bless them the enemy or are they part of a diverse church that in its diversity actually commends the gospel? Are they blaspheming against the Spirit such that Jesus might say they are against him, or even if they are to some “not one of us” either in sexuality or theology, are they to be embraced because they are for Jesus and not against him? What do we say to those for whom such relationships are inspiring responsible love, human flourishing and devotion to Christ? As we look at the fruit of such relationships which the scriptures encourage us to do, are they gospel allies or gospel opponents?
To paraphrase the Sorting Hat:
For our church is in danger
From external, deadly foes
And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within…
For me there are plenty of external deadly foes for the church to be addressing in these times, urgent idolatries and injustices that rate highly on a biblical agenda. My prayer is that we might unite in our diversity to address them, for as Jesus said “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. The question is posed: ‘is the blessing of same-sex partnerships such a manifestation of evil that it is the rejection of Jesus, the unforgiveable sin’ because we should not divide for less. Or might Jesus be saying: “whoever is not against us is for us”?