There are a number of ways to think of “perfecting unity.” When I first told people this would be the title of my book on ecumenism many looked uncomfortable. They nodded and smiled politely. A few of them took me aside — or called me on the phone — some time later and expressed their concern that I was at odds with one of the “norms” of ecumenical theology. They pointed out to me that one of the most important statements of the World Council of Churches had declared that unity among Christians is a gift of God and that our task is to live visibly into that reality that God has already created for us. I wasn’t surprised to find myself being thus corrected. I’d managed to elicit similar comments from people at almost every meeting I had attended during the first year I worked in the ecumenical and interreligious office of The United Methodist Church. As they knew, I am not a ecumenist by training; I am a historian. Perhaps, they simply thought I didn’t know. (I)
This is the point where I realized I had something different to say than what I was hearing out of friends and colleagues. So many of them took the meaning of the title to be a suggestion that we could improve upon the work of God. That was not what I meant by the phrase at all. But it is significant that this is such a common response — and I want to make sure to show respect to those who see unity in Christ in this way. They are correct that the members of the World Council of Churches Assembly said in 1961 at New Delhi that God gave unity to the church as a gift on Pentecost. But that same statement said that it is for that unity that we must pray and work. I am a historian and not an ecumenist by training. I have become an ecumenist on account of my life’s course moving me in that direction. As a historian, my job is to notice nuances and not gloss over inconsistencies. My job is to increase the depth and breadth of understanding — not to agree with anyone (unless it happens by means of the persuasion of the facts). The emphasis many place upon revealing the full visible unity of the church — and saying less or nothing about working for it — is rooted in a deep theological commitment that God works for our salvation and our role is to receive God’s precious gift. It is generally also a theological understanding that is grounded in a concern over “works righteousness” and the importance of knowing that we live life and are saved from sin by the grace of God. As a Wesleyan Christian I have a different understanding of grace and how we respond to it. For now, though, it is important to acknowledge that the phrase I use as the title of my book causes many people discomfort. I understand that.
As I said above, “perfecting unity” means something very different to me. Indeed, it means multiple things. And it is because of the multivalence of the meaning that I find the term so useful to express my conception of unity among Christians (and even unity among people of all faiths; and of creation itself).
My first sense of the meaning of “perfecting unity” is drawn out of the idea that we are all being perfected in the love of God in Christ Jesus. The Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection — scarcely familiar to many members of Wesleyan Methodist traditions today — sees salvation (you can imagine that to mean “rescue of you and me, by God, from slavery to sin and death”) as also consisting of healing of the soul that has been scarred by life in a world in which God’s love has not been enacted out in our lives — or has even been openly rebelled against. Whether we think of ourselves as “sinners” or not (to sin, at its root as a word means “to miss the mark”), the fact is that none of us is untouched by sin. We live in a world that is deformed by lovelessness or by loves for lesser things (pleasure, material possessions, power, or even knowledge, as examples). Because of this there is none of us who is unaffected by sin. There is none of us who does not catch the disease of a world afflicted by sin. Thus, from a Wesleyan theological perspective, it is justification (pardon for sin) that saves the life of the soul. But further healing is needed; indeed, is necessary. That healing is understood in theological terms as sanctification (being made holy — or, as one could also say, being made spiritually whole). From a Wesleyan perspective being rescued from sin and death is the first step in the healing of the soul and of the life of each person. This rescue and healing can also be thought of as it applies to communities — and even to all of God’s Creation. If, therefore, unity in Christ is understood to mean unity with Christ and with all of God’s Creation, that unity is (as Wesleyans like to say) a “means of grace” through which we are sanctified. Coming together in and with God and one another we are healed. We learn to love one another. We learn to love as Christ loves. In so doing, we become more and more like Christ Jesus and that “image” of God in which we were all created (and that has become so badly marred and damaged on account of sin) is, by degrees, restored to its intended luster and beauty. (II)
Notice here that my orientation towards unity is as a process. It is not an uncovering of a static reality (like a carved statue from which a cloth is removed). Rather, unity is something that transforms. It enlivens those who commit to it and who are willing to be changed by it. Unity among Christians (and among everybody) confronts anything within us that is an obstacle to love. Being confronted we are faced with the choice to change (and grow in the love of Christ Jesus) or to resist change (and cling to the wreckage of imperfect love that clogs up the vitality and goodness of our life in and with God).
Another meaning comes from a different perspective: the sense that unity IS perfected by God’s love through our response to God’s grace. Here let us imagine unity as a precious gift of God, something akin to pure gold. But, since it has been a gift that has been with us throughout the tragic story of human error, as a characteristic of our very nature as creatures of God, it too has suffered degradation through neglect and misuse. It has been tainted with impurities. The gold is still there; but it is now mixed with other things that have distorted it and even rendered it ineffectual (in practical analysis — made it functionally absent). Unity is something intended to be powerful and good in its nature and purpose. As we commit ourselves to growing in God’s grace and putting into practice the love that God teaches in Christ, then it follows that, just as we once added impurities to God’s gift of unity through our sinful behavior, we will now work to remove those impurities and see functional unity restored as the unblemished gift that God gives us.
Again, unity is thought of here as a do-ing. It is a practice of life in grace. Like a practice of physical exercise, it grows stronger (as with a muscle) the more one commits time and energy to it.
Both senses of “perfecting unity” rooted in action on the part of people assume that we are participants with God in the faithful living of our lives. We walk with God, as the disciples walked on the road with Jesus during his earthly ministry. We respond to the lessons we are taught. We work to enact the things learned in our lives and continue to grow.
My own orientation in spiritual matters is very practical and far less philosophical than that of some people. In this sense, I am a good example of a member of the Wesleyan traditions. This is also an aspect of theological outlook that draws some lines of connection to other Christian “pietists” over the centuries. When some Christians speak about restoring the “visible unity” of Christ’s church, my own reaction is to focus upon the word “visible.” Like many Wesleyans, I have an intellectual and practical suspicion of that which I cannot experience. I do not experience visibility and invisibility when we speak of unity among Christians. I experience the presence of unity or its absence. I am always surprised when I see people getting excited about saying that God’s church is united; but we need to make it visible. It is important for non-Wesleyans to understand that the suggested hiddenness of unity seems illogical — even nonsensical — to some Wesleyans when contemplated in light of Christian history that is littered with the bodies of millions who have died because of what seems to be a very visible dis-unity. If unity is there and needs to be revealed, is religious violence in the name of Christ a mere covering that blocks our view of underlying unity? I don’t think so. There is something about that argument that seems to diminish the tragedy of real disunity — of unity that has itself become afflicted with impurities and cast about like a half-living (at best) object instead of being a practice of life.
However you may view the term “perfecting unity,” it will be key to framing your understanding of all that I write in this book. If you find my assertions make you uncomfortable, know that I write what I write in pursuit of building up love. We all must be authentic in our words. If you are persuaded by what I say here, fine. But the real aim is to meet each person authentically as sister and brother. This book is an invitation to conversation and faithful witness. It is also an expression of yearning that we may embrace one another and work together in the love of Christ for the healing and nurture of our world. This is no less true for those who may understand unity in similar ways to that which I express here. Wesleyans do not all think the same; and subtle differences are important as well. I hope to encourage conversation and reflection that will lead to faithful action. All voices and all perspectives are needed in such a sharing of ideas and living of Christ-centered lives. For me, a meeting of minds with varying perspectives, a meeting of minds with the full embrace of mutual love, is unity being perfected.
(I) For the text of the 1961 New Delhi Statement on The Church’s Unity, please see https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/1961-new-delhi/new-delhi-statement-on-unity. In looking closely at the statement itself the notion that unity is a fully accomplished task is not present in the document; but that this is something for which we must pray and work to see realized. And yet, many have portrayed this statement as saying that the unity is fully accomplished and our task is to “reveal” it. This is likely an attempt to avoid the notion of “works righteousness” and avoid fears of Pelagianism. Thus, the essence of differences over this statement seem to boil down to interpretation of the text rather than the text itself.
(II) For important reflections upon Wesleyan understandings of justification, sanctification, and the means of grace, please see: David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).; Richard Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013).; Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press/Kingswood Books, 1994)., and; Ted A. Campbell, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials, Revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011).