"Nothing justifies schism." This was the sober, stone-faced, and curiously truncated response by N.T. Wright when asked—at last week's Wheaton College Theology Conference—what might justify such action. The question wasn't theoretical: he currently serves as Bishop of Durham in the Church of England.
I attended the Wheaton Conference one day after attending another conference—Together for the Gospel (T4G)—which took place in Louisville and featured a who's who of "Young, Restless, Reformed" leaders/pastors for whom Martin Luther's ultimate schismatic act stands as one of the greatest, most heroic, God-ordained actions in Christian history.
The juxtaposition of these two sold-out conferences, which represent two of the most important strands of evangelical Christianity today (the neo-Reformed movement and the "N.T. Wright is the new C.S. Lewis" movement), made the question (problem?) of unity within the church impressively pronounced.
The conferences were very different, and I would venture to guess that I was one of only a few—if not the only one—to attend both. Louisville and Wheaton are not that far from each other geographically, but my experiences in both places felt like two different worlds. At the end of it all, after more than 20 lectures by renowned speakers (everyone from Mark Dever and John MacArthur to Jeremy Begbie and R.C. Sproul), I was left wondering whether unity really is evident in the church today, and if so, in what sense.
"Nothing justifies schism." In that powerful statement, Wright, perhaps the world's leading Christian theologian/writer/intellectual, was calling for the church to prioritize unity and emphasize common ground, not at the expense of doctrine and not in a universalist way, but because the "unity of the church is a sign to the world that there is a new way of being human." Unity, said Wright, "sends a message to the would-be rulers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they are not."
Wright, who is currently working on a massive tome on Paul, to be released "no sooner than 2012," spoke about unity a lot during the Wheaton conference. The overarching argument of his Paul book (the next volume in his magnum opus series that so far includes The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God) seems to be that "the main symbol of Paul's worldview is the unity of the church." At various points in the conference he said things like, "The cross brings together—unthinkably—the slave and the master" (talking about Philemon), and, "The cross is the place where the unreconcilable can be reconciled."
It's hard to argue with that. One does get the sense when reading the New Testament that unity within the church is, well, important. So why is it so hard for us to achieve?
On one level, the idea of unity is easy to agree upon. Most Christians are probably on the same page with Wright when he underscores the barrier-crashing importance of Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
But "all one" is easier said than done. And at the two conferences I attended, the contradictions and complexities of what it means to be one body and one family in Christ were made manifest.
Both of these conferences—on the surface and in their rhetoric—speak the "unity language." "Together for the Gospel" bespeaks a coming-togetherness or coalition of various wings of Christianity for the sake of the "main thing"—the gospel. Wheaton's conference was entitled "Jesus, Paul & the People of God: A Theological Dialogue With N.T. Wright"—language that also indicates a sort of coming-togetherness, perhaps in a more academic sense.