For what has felt like forever, division has been a common experience for our families, neighborhoods, churches, and nation. This insight is so familiar that we might be tempted to retire it as a cliché.
Except we can’t, because we’ve been through too many painful ruptures to ignore: friends ghosting us without warning, church members leaving for every reason and no reason at all, news of wars far away, and whispers of civil wars near to home.
The deep differences of our cultural moment stir questions in our hearts: Is division the inevitable result of difference and diversity? And if the church is divided, what hope is there for unity in the world?
Theologian Richard Lints tackles such questions in his new volume, Uncommon Unity: Wisdom for the Church in an Age of Division. His book is a cord with three strands. Part 1 (chapters 1–4) narrates the stories of our diverse and divided culture. Part 2 (chapters 5–8) offers resources for pursuing unity with Christian faithfulness. And part 3 (chapters 9–10) helps form a contextualized wisdom for the present and the future.
Lints begins by surveying the different stories we tell about our culture and its history. He describes, for example, how the seeds of both inclusion and exclusion have been planted in the soil of American democracy. I found this helpful for navigating a culture divided between telling the American story as a 1619 exclusion narrative (rooted in the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans) or a 1776 inclusion narrative (rooted in the universalism of the Declaration of Independence). The church’s possession of a gospel that both includes and excludes frees us from picking a team. It allows us to believe and tell the whole truth about our culture.
Lints rightly shows that, in our current moment, the “cultural cover” of Christendom is crumbling. Rather than trying to rebuild this cover or retreating from cultural engagement, we must recover the grace and hospitality of the gospel’s narrative of inclusion.
For those like me, who are still dizzied by evangelicals warmly embracing Christian nationalism over the past half decade, Lints reassures us that we are not crazy. Advocating a new Christian nationalism or Christendom misunderstands both the story of our culture and the story of the Bible.
Instead, the church might find that its diverse, pluralist context provides promise for the pursuit of unity. While illogical to the world, this opportunity makes sense in light of what 20th-century missiologist Lesslie Newbigin calls “the logic of the gospel”—a gospel in which God welcomes estranged others as forgiven friends. Lints stands ably on Newbigin’s shoulders, continuing his pursuit of a mission-shaped church and a church-shaped mission suited to the cultural realities of the post-Christian West.
The church needs resources for this mission, and Lints points toward biblical teaching in two critical places. First, he highlights Scripture’s understanding of humanity, which allows us to wrestle with how race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality shape our personal identities without defining them to the core. As Lints explains, we can’t treat complex human beings purely as members of identity groups or as atomized individuals. The Bible, instead, treats us as individual persons formed by God in relationship with him and others. Remove individual identity or relational identity, and you corrupt the biblical doctrine of the image of God.
Second, Lints points to biblical teaching on God himself—specifically his Trinitarian nature. This is an idea with clear implications for pursuing unity amid diversity. I do, however, have some reservations with how Lints handles it. He wisely warns against projecting created reality and human relationships onto the utterly unique God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That said, his discussion on the Trinity’s relationship to created unity and diversity seems to approvingly cite theologians like Stanley Grenz and Miroslav Volf, who advance a relational model of the Trinity. Relational Trinitarianism revises the classic understanding, viewing the three divine persons as individuals who relate to one another in a divine community. This move can risk compromising the doctrine of God’s singular being.
This difference aside, Lints rightly points us away from superficial unity and counsels us to walk in the tension of wisdom. We can’t whip up such wisdom in a microwave. We must inhabit the world of the Word in a slow simmer, so that we can better interpret the world by the gospel’s logic. Such logic must live and move and have its being in union and communion with the one true and living God, made man in the person of Jesus Christ.
Lints admits that “a work both defending and describing the unity of the church may seem a hopeless task.” Yet he reminds us that the gospel offers the church both unshakeable conviction and contextual flexibility. In other words, it gives us a backbone, helping us stand tall on core truths while allowing us to bend on nonessentials. In this gospel, God welcomes strangers and forgives enemies. As the church receives God’s welcome and forgiveness, it offers those to the fragmented world around it.
Here, I want to connect Lints’s discussion to the concept of the church’s pluriformity, a term used by Abraham Kuyper to describe how various traditions and denominations can coexist within the universal church. I think this concept can help us understand how the local church, in its unity and diversity, might witness to a diverse world in a credible way.
Ultimately, Lints’s book affirms that church unity is both a present reality and a future hope. On God’s eschatological timeline, unity fits into the category of “already but not yet.” The church is already one in union with Christ. Yet the church will not fully be one until Christ returns—when, seeing him as he is, we will be fully like him.
In the meantime, we can walk in wisdom, pursuing unity amid difference and division. In fact, our longings for unity may themselves represent essential first steps. As Lints writes, “It is important to remember that we were created for the experience of unity-in-difference, and that our yearnings for it are themselves pointers in the right direction.” Uncommon Unity helps us walk further down the path that God has appointed.
Danny Slavich is pastor of Cross United Church in South Florida. He is an adjunct professor at Trinity International University-Florida.
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