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Archives for 126 – Unity of the Spirit

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Barton W. Stone

The Restoration Movement, which gave birth to today’s Churches of Christ, was founded by Barton W. Stone and Thomas Campbell. Stone was earlier than Campbell by a few years, and worked in Illinois at a time when Illinois was the American frontier.

Stone had been an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he was excommunicated when he began serving communion to non-Presbyterians. He had preached at the famous Cane Ridge Revival and seen men and women converted by gospel preaching — even though many of the preachers weren’t fellow Presbyterians. Even Methodist and Baptist preachers brought people to Jesus. Indeed, in his autobiography, Stone declared, while near his own death many decades later, that not a single convert from Cane Ridge had strayed from Jesus. Each conversion had been clearly genuine as shown by the fruit of the Spirit borne by each.

His rejection by Presbyterian authorities led him to participate in the dissolution of the Springfield Presbytery, an organization of Presbyterian congregations that decided to be Christians only but not the only Christians. To explain their decision, they wrote the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery — the earliest document of the Restoration Movement.

THE PRESBYTERY OF SPRINGFIELD, sitting at Cane Ridge, in the county of Bourbon. Being, through a gracious providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die: and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make, and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and following, viz: Read more »

markpowellAs a professor of theology and a minister in the church, I take seriously James’s warning that teachers “will be judged more strictly” (Jas. 3:1, NIV). Something has to distinguish authentic Christian belief from the host of other religions and ideologies, and the preservation of the gospel requires opposition to certain beliefs and practices. For my part, I maintain that authentic Christian belief is rooted in the historic Christian vision of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and what this God has done for the redemption of all creation, including the incarnation and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

As important as these shared beliefs are, however, there is something more fundamental to unity. In fact Christians can agree on matters of belief and practice and still be divided by race and ethnicity, social status, political convictions, musical preferences, and even petty slights. More fundamental than our religious convictions and social identity markers is our union in Christ (Gal. 3:26-28) and the shared Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), which God has graciously given to us in our baptism. Further Jesus’s followers must have a heart that desires and pursues unity. A spirit of authentic unity is possible only by God’s Spirit of unity working in us.

In Ephesians 4:1 Paul calls Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” English translations usually translate 4:2-3 as a series of imperatives or commands, but these verses are actually prepositional phrases and participles that expand upon and describe the “life worthy of the calling you have received.” This way of life includes being humble and gentle, being patient, bearing with one another in love, and making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit though the bond of peace” (4:2-3). Christian unity is a gift of the Spirit, but it is also something Christians are called to pursue. Just as Christians are to grow in the virtues of humility, gentleness, patience, and love, so Christians are to desire and develop a spirit of unity.

A spirit of unity, like the rest of the Christian virtues, is “the fruit of the Spirit” in our lives. In other words, a spirit of unity is evidence of the Spirit’s presence and working in us. It is interesting to consider both “the acts of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 in regards to Christian unity. The acts of the flesh include things like “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy” (5:20-21). In other words divisiveness is a destructive sin that comes quite easily to us and regularly tempts us. The acts of the flesh are contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit, which includes virtues that, among other things, cultivate unity in the church: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). The Spirit of unity gives the virtues needed to pursue and maintain unity to those who humbly seek God.

Like the rest of Christian discipleship, the pursuit and maintenance of unity is beyond our natural capabilities and inclinations. We need God’s Spirit to help us grow in wisdom as we discern which beliefs and practices are fundamental and spiritually healthy, and which are not. We need God’s Spirit to give us ears to hear God’s truth, especially when it comes from our opponents, and mouths that speak the truth in love. We need God’s Spirit to help us desire peace and love the unlovable. Christian unity is possible only by the power of the Spirit who binds the church together as one.

Even more so than a rigid uniformity, a spirit of unity among Christians is crucial for the proclamation of the gospel. An institutional unity preserved by power is far less compelling than a spirit of love even in the midst of visible divisions. After all, maybe God allows the divisions that exist, even among those who call on the name of Jesus, to help us grow in maturity and rely on God rather than our own schemes. Still, God calls us to pursue peace with others and submit to the Spirit’s work in our lives. As we do we live in hope, longing for the day when God gathers his people together as one, and the unity we already have in Christ is experienced in full.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:5-6).

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Mark Powell is professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. His latest book is Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality.

pope-francis-patriarch-kirill-meetThe schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches is over 1,000 years old. Ecumenical efforts have been attempted over the centuries, all to little avail. But things are changing thanks to — amazingly enough — persecution.

According to Christianity Today, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox churches, met in Cuba’s Havana airport. This is the first such meeting in a thousand years. Their discussion dealt with the persecution of Christians in the Middle East — many of whom are either Catholic or Orthodox. Many are also evangelical or Protestant. We Protestants have had missionaries in the Middle East for centuries.

Moreover, there are Christian churches in the Middle East that date literally to the apostles themselves. Much of Paul’s activity was in Asia Minor: modern-day Turkey. Other apostles worked in modern-day Syria and Iraq. We think of these as Muslim nations, but they were Christian nations centuries before Mohammad.

Pope Frances recently commented, Read more »

white-dove-hd-720p-animal“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” – Ephesians 4:1-6

A lot of Bible translations put a heading over Ephesians 4 something about unity. While Paul has a lot to say about unity in Ephesians 4 it is not his primary point. Unity is one part of a bigger picture that he is talking about from this point in the letter onward. What is that bigger picture? Paul names it in 4:1 – “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (4:1).

Living in line with the worthiness we have received from God is big for Paul. He writes about it often and expects it to be a big part of the community of faith. He wrote something similar to the Philippians (1:27), to the Colossians (1:10) and the Thessalonians (1 Thes 2:12). When Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica a second time he reminded them of the worthy life he called them to live in his first letter but this time he reminded them that while they are to live in a manner worthy of their calling, the One who makes them worthy is God (2 Thes 1:5, 11).

This brings up an important point. There are two things going on here when Paul deals with things like worthiness, unity and even righteousness. It is God who makes us worthy or righteous or unified. It is us who have to then live accordingly to what or who God has made us to be. That last word is an important one. This is about a state of being. This is, then, ontological. Put simply, ontology has to do with the nature of our being or our existence. In other words worthiness is a state of being and not just actions we do. You can imitate the actions without God’s transformative work in your life to make you into someone new (new creation). It is God who makes us worthy or righteous or united (a state of being) and then because that is who we are, as a result we are to live in a manner worthy of the worthiness we have received from God.

This point about ontology is a big one because it is something that plagued their world and plagues ours today as well. It has to do with the essence of who we are as human beings. In the world there are certain states of being in Paul’s day that had rigid defining boundary markers (view as a state of being) – Jew vs Greek, slave vs free, honored (rich and affluent or of high position) vs shamed (poor and marginalized) that were considered states or statuses of one’s life. In Christ God is making a new creation by taking these seemingly unjoinable groups joinable…by taking the many and making one new humanity. It is, seemingly, a change in the nature of our being to be brought into unity with others who the world said had some quality about them that you shouldn’t or couldn’t join yourself to…like the nature of cats and dogs (or biblically the lion laying down with the lamb), always fighting. It seems to be in their nature.

We cannot do anything that makes two or three or ten groups one but that is what God has done through Christ and marks as a reality through the Holy Spirit so that together we can live worthily into the calling that we have received and by we Paul means along with others who I would never have expected received the same calling. God gives us that gift of true unity (even in our being as the body of Christ and as members of a new creation reality). What does God expect of us? To live worthily as He has made us worthy…to live lives that recognize and maintain our unity as He has united us…to live righteously as he has made us righteous and that will require being (not just acting) humble and gentle and patient (4:2) in order to do the second thing God expects of us – maintain the unity He has given us through the Holy Spirit.

If you are at odds with another Christian. If you, right now, have hatred in your heart to another Christian. You need to forgive them or ask them to forgive you…or both! We don’t see the boundary marker lines exactly as they did but we have our own set. Maybe race is a problem for you. Or maybe you are angry at the conservatives or at the progressives. Or maybe you are mad at the elders because of their last decision. Whatever it is in your heart that is pushing others away who are supposed to be one with you in Christ Jesus you need to repent of and seek to be unified even with those you have great difficulty with. Live as we are in the eyes of God. All you are doing is recognizing the unity God has already made between you and them…you have just had a hard time admitting that God has done what God has done and who wants to be in that boat?

PatrickMeadIt’s been a couple of months ago now but I remember thinking “whaa?” when I got a message asking me if I thought we might add any more books to our Bible. Back in the day when I wrote the Tentpegs blog I might have just ignored that question and I almost ignored it this time…but it haunted me. The man who sent it is no crank. He is a good man and a friend of mine. What could he possibly be asking?

In short: no, we aren’t adding any more books to our official canon of Scripture. Ain’t gonna happen (a little Tennessee lingo there). And yet…

The formation of the scriptures – by which I mean the writing of the individual books and their eventual inclusion or exclusion in our Bibles – is a fascinating study and not without its head-scratching moments. To what extent was this or that book edited? Is the traditionally accepted writer of this book its actual author? Why was this or that book excluded (most of the time the answer is obvious, by the way)? Why was this one included? Sometimes we have to shrug and say we accept this or that book because some men way back in the 100-200s championed them (such as Irenaeus’ support of the Book of Revelation). But that wasn’t quite what the writer of my Facebook message asked.

I have often wondered – and sometimes aloud – why we assumed that the Spirit quit inspiring writers when, say, John of Patmos died. That opens up a whole can of worms about how we view inspiration, the work of the Spirit, etc. and I’m not sure I’m qualified to discuss said can. Regardless, for nearly two millennia Christians have agreed that they had their Bible and it was complete (exceptions exist and we aren’t discussing the Apocrypha which is accepted on some level by Roman Catholics). Even with all my questions about the formation of scripture I have to agree whole heartedly. I don’t think we are going to see any new scripture – and I really can’t see why we would want it.

That said…the more I contemplated the question the more I realized that we already add books to our canon and remove others. How? I cannot speak for every reader but I will admit that I read some books and go “wow!” and elevate them to Very Important Status in my life. Gregory Boyd’s “God at War” saved my faith when it was going wobbly. Max Lucado’s “God Came Near” and “No Wonder They Call Him the Savior” had a lot to do with my desire to follow Jesus and C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” shot down all my arguments against the existence of the God of scripture. I don’t consider these books (and others I could name) scripture but there is no question that I meditate on them, they feed my soul, and they have had a much more profound effect on my life than, say, the Book of Ezra.

I began to wonder if I had unofficially removed any books from my Bible, at least in practical terms. To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Chronicles or Ezekiel in years. I believe they are scripture…but that belief hasn’t driven me to search them in the way I search Hebrews, Romans, and the Gospel of John. I love the Book of Psalms but, truth be told, I run to about 40 of them over and over and largely ignore the others unless I need them – rather like ignoring something in the medicine cabinet until you need it.

I stick by my answer: we are not going to be adding or subtracting books from our Bible nor should we. And yet, the question has driven me to honestly consider if I haven’t added and subtracted some on my own. And that troubles me. I appreciate the question and will continue to work through its ramifications in my life and invite you to do the same in yours. What books do you treasure – even if you do not consider them equal to scripture? And what books in the Bible have you functionally removed by never reading or referencing them?

By the Way:
At Fourth Avenue Church we are preaching through the Bible, taking a book a week (giving larger books more weeks). We are also going through a congregational wide “read through the Bible” program that has tremendous buy-in from the whole church. Our teens and pre-teens, in particular, are fired up about it and encourage each other to read and memorize scripture. I found out yesterday that a host of our students have already memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount (many others are almost there). Couldn’t be prouder of this church.

white-dove-hd-720p-animal2016 is our year of talking about what unites us as Christians. Talking about what divides us is the “low hanging fruit” of theological conversation, meaning, it is easier to pick the fruit from the low branches of the tree than to do the hard work of getting out a ladder and climbing up to see what is in the rest of the tree. If you climb the tree all the way up you will find that there are many uniting elements to the Christian faith that we should lean into.

My goal is for this issue of Wineskins to be a ladder for us to see further up the tree in discussing the Holy Spirit. The fruit at the top of the tree turns out to be the fruit of the Spirit. What does that mean for us and how can a common understanding of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work help us be more unified in our faith and identity?

The truth is, the Holy Spirit doesn’t need our perfect understanding in order to do His work. The Spirit will do it in spite of our imperfections. That doesn’t mean we cannot seek to understand and grow in grace and knowledge and we study these things together. What is more, the Holy Spirit doesn’t need us to think we are united to still unite us. I believe the Holy Spirit has as much grace in how He operates than does the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit isn’t waiting on us (those who are “in Christ”) to “get it right” before the Spirit does what the Spirit does.
Thank God for that or else we would all be in a mess!

As Paul conceptualized his faith in Christ and what it means to be a disciple of Christ one of the primary uniters of his theology was the Holy Spirit. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old, slave or free, male or female…in Christ everyone shares a commonality by the Holy Spirit. God gives the Spirit liberally to all of His children. He doesn’t give more of the Spirit to the rich than the poor or the free than the slave. Roman citizens don’t get any more of it than a Judean peasant nor does Caesar (would he have converted) than Paul himself. In this regard the Holy Spirit is the great equalizer in the Christian community.

Because the Spirit is given equally to all of those God chooses to give Him to that also means that the Holy Spirit is the great unifier of the Christian community because the Holy Spirit distinguishes those who are “of Christ” from those who are “of the world.” Paul makes that distinction in Ephesians 2 where he says that outside of Christ people follow the “spirit who is at work in those who are disobedient” (2:2) but that in Christ we have access to the Father and are built up to be a temple where God dwells by His Holy Spirit (2:18, 22).

When we lack a good theology of the Holy Spirit we will lack unity. What is even more ironic is that the subject of the Holy Spirit has been one of the great dividing lines in Christianity as a whole as well as the Restoration Movement where people of differing views take such a strong stance that people are judged as “in” or “out” of the community of faith based on their doctrine of the Holy Spirit. There is a sad irony in play there when the very thing that is sent to unite us is used to divide us. In the words of Paul, “may it never be!”

This month we will be discussing the Holy Spirit in Churches of Christ. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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