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Four Levels of Christian Unity
& the Way There...

F. Earle Fox

Parishes and individuals in the Episcopal Church are experiencing profound disappointment leading to attempts to "discern" whether they should stay in the Episcopal Church or leave. But such discernment needs to be done with a clear notion of what might be involved, how to go about it, and how, if possible, to restore unity down the road. How would we know when we had found a proper answer to the question of staying or leaving?

Some have framed the question: Is it ever appropriate to move further from visible unity of the Church in the hope of later restoring visible unity? We will use that as a starting point.

When considering leaving a long and deep relationship, as the Declaration of Independence notes, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

Resorting to such a discernment process has been occasioned by the terrible disunity into which Christianity has been drifting for centuries. The conditions for disunity were already being sown long before Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenburg church door, sparking the Reformation. There had been moral corruption from our own human, nasty self-centeredness, and a sliding away from Biblical doctrine inspired in significant measure by the hold which Greek philosophy had gotten on Christian theology.  We are reaping the benefits of centuries of Christian failure.

So we Christians are today surrounded by resurgent secular and increasingly pagan assumptions about the world, and often unconsciously captivated by them.  We Christians need a tectonic paradigm shift back towards Godly common sense.  It will not be easy precisely because we ourselves are so often undermined by our own false assumptions.

The issues are literally everything -- all of reality: spiritual, moral, intellectual, political, education, family -- everything.  As with Pharaoh, we are in a battle between worldviews and between the lords of those opposing worlds.

But having lost track of our own worldview, we Christians are faring poorly in public debate, hardly knowing what to defend.  Pseudo-liberals (who do not liberate with truth) tend to think with their feelings. And pseudo-conservatives (incapable of conserving anything) are ineffective in promoting whatever truth they have, always responding to the other side and backtracking.

That suggests that neither side thinks God to be interested in, or capable of, winning the battle for truth.  That would be a slander on God, which, one suspects, He does not appreciate.

Is there any demonstrable reason to believe that we can indeed begin to reverse the drift into spiritual and cultural chaos? Yes, there is -- if we get back to basics.

People are raising the question of breaking present unity for a future and more healthy unity.  So, what is "unity"? How would be know if we just happened to bump into it?  (See also honest pluralism.  This article below is aimed at Christians, but applies with just a few changes to any two groups or persons aiming at unity.)

1. Four levels of unity & of communion
-- from 0 to 3 --

(0) The "zero" level is no significant unity at all.  Some persons are unable to have serious, deep unity, and they must be shunned, i.e., have no "trust and obey" relationships with them.  Their word and their words cannot be trusted - such as:

A. Those who are unable or unwilling to be truth-seekers and truth-speakers -- not holding themselves to that standard and unwilling to be called to account;

B. Those who resort to coercion, violence, or deceit to resolve problems -- rather than "Come, let us reason together...";

C. Those who believe there is no objective truth, so that there is nothing about which to reason.

D. Those who are in rebellion against God, the Lord of truth. 

All four are part of the kingdom of darkness. One must love such persons, but not trust them or unite with them. Love is tough. Ask Jesus.....

(1) The first and primitive level of true, significant unity is between persons who strive to be a truth-seekers and truth-speakers -- at any cost to themselves.

They are able to say, "If I am wrong, I want to know." They are correctable, willing to base discussion on the evidence as nearly as that is possible -- accurate observation of the facts and careful reasoning from facts to conclusions. It is a commitment to "science" in its broadest and most comprehensive sense -- the systematic search for truth. Theology is the Queen of Sciences.

This may seem "academic", but it is a necessary part of any aspect of life.

An honest truth-seeker puts himself at risk... to the truth. We can find out that we are right only when we are willing to risk finding out that we are wrong.  If we are not willing, we remain forever in doubt, often in a very defensive, compulsive, and authoritarian way.

One can work with persons committed to truth in an honestly pluralistic setting -- i.e., where every relevant person is invited into the discussion, not because everyone's view is right (pseudo-pluralism), but rather to discern which view is right in open testing of ideas.  Respect for all persons is required, but all views are up for criticism. Views are plural, truth is singular.

 Truth is the common ground of all communication and community, and so truth-seeking establishes a level playing field to which all are invited who will respect the pursuit of truth.  That is honest pluralism.  God makes truth the interface between Himself and His creatures.  We are thus not putting truth "ahead of God" in a demeaning way, rather we are being obedient to the plan of God for building heaven out of a fallen world.  Pursuit of truth and reality is the starting block out of which it all springs.  Those who subvert truth-seeking will not have the Kingdom (see Romans 1:18 ff.). 

This first level is commitment to common truth-seeking, not yet to an agreement about particular truths. This is the first and fundamental basis of the pluralism of the American Constitution -- to enforce free and open debate on legislation. It comes out of the Biblical worldview and Gospel.  No non-Biblical worldview has developed and sustained such a notion.

If we do not commit ourselves to this first level of unity, we will never be able to have a secure unity on deeper and more specific issues. 

There may be truth-seekers and truth-speakers in a non-Biblical worldview, and with such persons Christians can unite in the absolutely essential task of keeping open the arena of honest discussion.  Further, we can unite with them on various good-works projects. But we can have little union beyond that.

(2) The second level of unity is worldview.  Christians can have significant unity with those who believe the Biblical worldview to be true. We can have that kind of unity among reasonably orthodox Christian denominations, with reasonably orthodox Jews, and with assorted "believers" of various persuasions -- that is, with all who believe that God is the Creator of, and therefore Sovereign over, all things, and with whom we share some common knowledge and experience of the law and grace of God, like the "God fearers" among New Testament Hebrews.

Worldview unity provides the second fundamental basis for the American Constitution.  Our political freedoms and obligations are inalienable by civil government only because they come from the higher (highest) authority of our Creator God.  Rights or obligations which comes from civil government without God lack objective moral foundation, and so both rights and obligations are routinely discovered to be quite alienable. We ignore them.

The secular and pagan worldviews deny that there is a creator and are therefore left without a transcendent sovereign. That leads to severe disabilities in one's worldview, and an almost total incompatibility with the Biblical view.

Worldview truths can generally be known by reasoning without revelation -- often called natural theology or metaphysics.

(3) The third level, Holy Communion, where unity becomes clearly and specifically Christian, i.e., rests on agreement about the Good News, the Gospel, and the vision of a Triune God.  We agree, not only that God is, but what kind of God, and about His design for the world and ourselves -- about creation, the Fall, Incarnation, redemption, the 2nd Coming, and the so-called four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.

Only at this level of agreement can we have the fullest unity in personal or social relationship. That is why the Hebrews were forbidden to marry non-Hebrews, and why St. Paul urges us not to be "unequally yoked", i.e., married to a non-believer (2 Cor. 6:14).  In our deepest relationships, we should be spiritually united, most especially in the raising of children.  They are to be raised for God, not for the world.

The Lambeth Quadrilateral (Creed, Scripture, Apostolic Succession, and the Sacraments as the foundation for discussing reunion with other denominations) points us in the direction of these three levels.

This is the 3rd basis for the American Constitution: Jesus has already been chosen to be the "One World" governor (Matt. 28:16 ff.).  All government comes through Him, King of kings and Lord of lords.  That principle was recognized by the American founding fathers and by the then contemporary legal scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Or, as the "black regiment" proclaimed, "We have no king but Jesus!"  The Presbyterian clergy were named the black regiment by the British who saw the colonial uprising as a Presbyterian rebellion.  Presbyterian clergy preached thundering sermons on the sovereignty of God over all things, including over George III.  The "black", of course, was their clerical garb.

This third and highest level of unity requires revelation from God.  We cannot figure out, without God revealing Himself in both word and deed, what kind of God He is, and His intentions (laws) for us.  It always involves personal relationship.

2. The Way There --
Four Questions...

This third and highest level of unity requires revelation from God.  We cannot figure out, without God revealing Himself in both word and deed, what kind of God He is, and His intentions (laws) for us.  It always involves personal relationship.  

Q: #1. How does all this apply to the original Question: Is it ever appropriate to move further from visible unity of the Church in the hope of later restoring visible unity?

To put these levels of unity/communion to work, we must understand and be ourselves committed to them.

Most Christians in the West today do not even get off the ground with truth-seeking, unity level #1, and want to leap ahead to #3 without the #1-2 foundations of truth and worldview. And thus Christians appear artificial and arbitrary to non-believers, lacking substance. We consistently fail to counter that impression.

At a recent parish meeting, I made the "outrageous" comment that we Christians must learn to put truth ahead of God. That is not my idea, it is God's idea, illustrated all through Scripture, but an idea few Christians share or understand.

There are false gods abounding, so if we do not put truth ahead of God, we will never be able to distinguish false gods from the true God. Only false gods can benefit from our not putting truth ahead of God. And God knows that.

The Bible is the only Scripture which sees God offering to meet His people on a level playing field -- to discuss with us the terms of His intended covenant, and to give us a free choice as to whether or not we will sign up (Is. 1:18 - "Come, let us reason together..."). No other deity in all of human history even contemplates such a notion. "Testing the spirits..." means putting truth ahead of God (1 John 4:1).

And no other religion has a history of God's people consistently challenging and arguing with Him. The deities would not put up with it. "My way or the highway -- right to hell..." is the attitude of most deities imagined in human history.

Not so of the God of the Bible. See I Kings 18:17 ff., an astonishing appeal to both logic and fact; Gen. 18:16-33; Is. 43:8-13; Job 13:3-12; Micah 6:1-4; I Cor. 15:12-20; John 8:27-32. Elijah, Abraham, Isaiah, Job, Micah, Paul, and Jesus all put truth ahead of God.

But this is not the misleading pluralism where "everyone can be right". God has all the eternal life there is. If one leaves God, one chooses a wasteland existence (see T. S. Eliot,  The Wasteland, or C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce). We get what we want -- with all the consequences of our choice.

Using signs and wonders, and nature itself, God reveals His own nature and His intention for us in a way that anyone, in their own time and culture, can reasonably understand the terms and consequences, to accept or reject. Often God does that with stories and personal relationship rather than academic analysis -- though that too is necessary.

But it is precisely personal relationship (not academics) that drives us to fact and logic. If we are logically or factually inconsistent, if we lie or contradict ourselves, our relationships self-destruct. No one can trust us. Those two foundation stones of Biblical faith, trust and obedience, both require clarity of truth. Academics only fine-tunes the process in which we all ought to be already engaged -- making sense of life.

Ayn Rand, an atheist, reminds us Christians of that Godly principle: "Clarity always favors truth, and unclarity always favors falsehood." (Like Balaam, we had better not get picky about through whom God speaks to us.) We must learn to speak with logical and factual clarity. When we do, Christians will regain credibility in the public arena -- and (rightly) not until.

Such clarity is not a "head trip", it is first of all about relationship and about life. As John Macmurry said, "All thought is for the sake of action, and all action is for the sake of relationship."

God is creating a freewill covenant in which He reveals both Himself and the terms of the covenant, and thereby gives us the choice of joining or not. The terms are summed up in the two Great Commandments, to love God and to love another -- at any cost to ourselves. And then God demonstrates that He is committed to loving His neighbors at any cost to Himself.

It does not, it cannot, get any better than that.

It means that God is telling us to put truth ahead of Himself, that we are to choose Him as our God if and only if He is capable of meeting the very practical and very logical Biblical test for the true God. The true God can keep His promises. A false God cannot. That our God does so is precisely the sum and substance of our testimony. What other testimony could we have?

So, putting the truth ahead of God is not at all putting God down, it is learning how to honor Him in spirit and in truth. He wants us to worship Him if and only if He really is God, -- which in practical terms means, if and only if He can realistically convince us that He is God. But to be so convinced, we must be open to the truth -- the first level of unity. We are the ones, not God, who balk at openness to truth. That kind of openness, living in the light, scares us half to death.

But God draws us first onto the level playing field of reality-testing ("Come, let us reason together..."), and then up through those other two levels of unity toward Himself onto the high ground of reality. That is the history of the Bible and, if all goes well, our own personal history.

The Old Testament first gives us the worldview upon which all else is built -- the creation story, a world with a Creator and Sovereign (a radical change from paganism). And then the law (covenant, intention) of God. And thirdly, the New Testament Gospel, grace, and personal relationship.

Q: #2 Is it possible to implement, sustain, enforce open, honest, totally candid discussion based on fact and logic (level #1)?

This is the practical issue. How do we wield the 2-edged Sword of the Spirit (reason and revelation welded back to back)? How can we publicly speak the truth in love? How can we maintain that Jesus is Lord and Savior gracefully and compellingly?

Such spiritual engagement will require deep prayer, study, and a passion for intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. It will require study of the conditions for honest dialogue, how to spot both honest error and deliberate deception, and how to deal firmly and gracefully with them. It will require getting acquainted with the Biblical worldview and its mortal enemy, the secular/pagan worldview. It will require a publicly marketable understanding of the law and grace of God. These are all items at which Christians have failed for nearly two centuries. But I believe they are all possible.

If Episcopalians fail here, they will be irrelevant whether they stay or leave. We will simply carry our ignorance and inability with us, not having learned the needed lessons. So, we had better learn before we decide either to stay or leave our current situation.

Q: #3 Leaving which Church?

It is never right to leave the Church of God. It is never right in a destructive manner to leave a parish, diocese, or denomination.

But what if the parish, diocese, or denomination leaves the Church of God?

We must first determine whether that is indeed the case, and if so, whether there is a chance for reformation.

The four levels of unity make a very helpful plumb-line by which to measure. Any person or group which denies the principles of any level of unity is, almost for sure, believing/acting inconsistently with being a Christian, a follower of Jesus -- let alone with being a Church leader.

We must define the levels of unity as broadly as reasonable, and then hold fast to them.

Leaving an institution is not the same as leaving the Church of God -- assuming the institution has abandoned Biblical faith by compromising the levels of unity.

Q: #4 With unity once broken, is reconciliation possible?

The four levels of unity again point the way, building on each other. We must ask (ourselves first):

1. Do you agree that there is a truth, and do you renounce the rejection of truth?

2. Does your pursuit of truth lead you to the Biblical worldview?

3. Does your pursuit of Biblical truth lead to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as received through Scripture and Apostolic tradition?

And we might add a fourth, "Is your very life given to this, at any cost?"

When a limb is gangrenous, poisoning the whole body, one must amputate.  But as St. Paul notes, even those cut off can be regrafted into the vine.  Resurrection is possible.  The heterodox were welcomed back by the ancient Church through periods of repentance, study, fasting, prayer, and other spiritual, moral, and intellectual cleansing.

But all this makes sense only to the degree that we ourselves are committed to that process in our own recovery from sin and its effects, i.e., with serious accountability relationships among ourselves.

There is a way back to Church unity.  But it will not include knowingly rejecting the levels of unity built upon the decision for truth. Followers of the father of darkness will separate themselves, not just from the faithful, but from God.  Jesus comes with a sword to enforce that division (Luke 12:49 ff., Rev. 1:12-16) .

The emerging unity, founded on truth wedded to love, will always be open to further growth, to deeper understanding, and to restoration of alienated persons.  That is the nature of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is reality -- fully experienced, lived in, expressed, and shared.  The road to reality is the road of truth-seeking in relationship.  That is why Jesus can say, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

See also articles under Property Rights in the Church.

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Date Posted -  --/--/20008   -   Date Last Edited - 09/19/2012