Christian unity is an important theme in Scripture and in the church. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, urged them to live in harmony with one another, “so that there won’t be divisions in the church. I plead with you,” he writes, “to be of one mind, united in thought and purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10). This flows out of the idea that though God exists as three persons, the three are perfectly united in this way so that we can actually speak of God as one. According to Psalm 133, it is in the context of true harmony that God pronounces his blessing. And it is definitely true that when members of God’s family live and work in true unity God blesses in amazing ways.
I have seen this to be so in my pastoral work. Unity in the church is always a relative thing in the sense that it is hardly ever absolutely perfect. But the degree to which the church approaches a true sense of unity is the degree to which it will attract attention in all kinds of positive ways and be successful in accomplishing much. There are many examples of this in Israel’s history. When the people were united in the Lord they overcame the Enemy. The worst times in their history were when they were divided among themselves — because they were also out of step with their Lord.
But true unity in the Lord is not the same as uniformity. There is much in Scripture about the value and beauty of a legitimate sense of diversity. 1 Corinthians 12 – 14, for example, speaks of the diversity of gifts of ministry in the church as so beautifully illustrated in the different uses of various parts of the human body. The wonder of this diversity is that the various parts function together in complementary ways to accomplish a commonly held purpose — all managed by the brain (the head). And so, writes Paul, it should also be in the body of Christ.
In other words, some sense of diversity in the church is legitimate and actually attractive. But there are other elements of diversity that are not helpful and not welcome. For example, unity in the Lord is challenged when various parts of the Christian body have different opinions on cardinal truths of Scripture. It is folly to speak of unity in those kinds of situations. Yet, this is exactly how some Christians are inclined to think about unity. They expect unity despite deep differences in theological conviction. From what I can see, God does not expect unity among his people in those kinds of circumstances. In fact Paul often took pains to speak to issues of theological importance in order to uphold the truth of the Gospel. A significant level of agreement on theological matters is foundational to a true sense of spiritual unity.
In this regard, the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada (to which I belong) is not experiencing a true sense of unity at the present time. I speak of the current divide in the denomination regarding theological perspectives on the role of women in the church. It is true that in the last decade there have been strenuous attempts to affirm unity despite the difference that exists on this subject. At a General Assembly a few years ago, a motion passed by a slim majority supporting the ordination of women. Rationale for the motion minimized any sense of gender distinction as well as the significance of ordination. The forthcoming Assembly in Calgary at the end of next month will consider a motion to authorize women to serve as Senior Pastors, at least in cases where local churches affirm that women can serve as church elders.
Ironically, the proposal for this motion flows out of the work of a special Commission on Unity. A recently appointed second Commission on Unity has affirmed the theological difference that exists in the denomination on this issue but proposes that both perspectives accept and affirm one another despite this difference. In doing so, the Commission seeks to establish unity based on the fact that this is a secondary issue which we should set aside for the greater good of our mission together. Yet many others do not consider it of secondary importance because of its relationship to the issue of biblical authority and its practical impact on local churches throughout our denomination. Its greater priority is reflected in the apparent sense of disunity that actually exists because of it.
My contention regarding this matter in the C&MA of Canada, is that there can be no true unity in the denomination unless there is agreement or resolution on a deeper level. It is no good to simply say that we have to acknowledge the legitimacy of two different theological perspectives on this issue. The problem is similar to what we might expect in a marriage where these two deeply-held perspectives exist — one holding a complementarian view of how the marriage works, and the other an egalitarian perspective. It would be difficult for such a marriage to be successful. However, the marriage could work if both were willing to acknowledge some significant level of truth in each other’s perspective.
And that’s exactly what I think needs to happen in the C&MA of Canada on this issue. I believe true unity could be achieved if there was a genuine affirmation of gender equality (based on Scripture), but which was also qualified by the recognition of some difference in roles (also based on Scripture). These two positions need not be mutually exclusive. It is true that God created men and women in his own image, that they might together share in the grace of life. And this is confirmed in their redemption (Galatians 3:28). But it is ALSO true that there is a legitimate sense of difference in how they are to function in relation to one another, particularly in the context of marriage (Genesis 2, Ephesians 5) and the church (1 Timothy 2, 3 etc.). This difference need not detract from each other’s God-given equal value. But it does recognize that God has established an order in his original design for men and women just as he has for the members of the God-head (i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:28).
True unity in the C&MA of Canada could be achieved, I think, if everyone was willing to acknowledge these two legitimate biblical truths. The practical outworking of this position may be a little more difficult, but not impossible to achieve if these two biblical truths were given official complementary status in the Alliance. It would mean, for example, that women need to be recognized and utilized for the myriad of legitimate gifts they bring to the local church, save in the matter of governing church leadership. Women could serve in all kinds of roles in the church (and certainly in the general work of God’s kingdom), but some limitation of their service would apply to church leadership roles. Each church could be permitted to work out their own configuration as long as they were also willing to affirm and practice a basic God-appointed gender difference and partial restriction.
God’s call in all of this is for his church to experience true biblical unity. Christians shouldn’t be compelled to experience unity when differences do not align with their deeply-held biblical convictions. Unity on paper is not the same as organic unity. In my view, the C&MA of Canada needs to work harder toward this kind of spiritual, biblical, and organic unity.