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Spring 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 1 · pp. 91–100 

The Accord Factor in Mission

Frances F. Hiebert

In the twentieth century, the worldwide church of Jesus Christ is a mosaic of fragments in which a coherent design is often barely discernible. Especially since the fundamental-liberal schism in the beginning of the century in America, the words “unity” and “ecumenical” have been considered almost unmentionable by the conservative, evangelical parts of the church. The liberal wing, on the other hand, has worked hard to develop their own version of unity. Who is right? And what difference does it make?

Unity is not a shallow reductionism that results in an “ecumenical broth.”

The thesis here is that both are only partially right. It is undeniable, however, that Jesus and the Apostles expected unity defined as accord or harmony to characterize the Christian church. The difference it makes is that some kind of visible unity is a great asset, if not a necessary factor, in successful witness in missions and evangelism.

Being in one accord—“of one heart and mind”—was what characterized the first group of believers (Acts 4:32). They were convinced of the fulfillment of eschatalogical prophecy that had inaugurated the new Age of the Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they had been established as the Spirit’s first-fruits; and the Spirit of Jesus brought unity, love, and accord to people who previously had been at each other’s throats. {92}

THE BIBLICAL VISION FOR UNITY

The Old Testament prophets such as Zephaniah, visualized an age characterized by unity.

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord with one accord (Zeph. 3:9). 0

Jesus and the apostles prayed that unity would mark relationships between believers.

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . (John 17:20-21a).

Even Jesus’ boat trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee dramatized the universality of his mission. The Sea of Galilee, the barrier between Jews on the one shore and Gentiles on the other, was transformed into a unitive bridge by the little fishing boat that criss-crossed the lake carrying Jesus and his disciples (Senior 1989:220).

Paul, once racist Pharisee was blinded into accepting a mission to the Gentiles, learned the lesson of Christian unity well. He drilled it into his converts. To the Galatians he wrote that neither ethnicity, socio-economic status, nor gender distinctions apply to those who participate in the life of the Spirit; they are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27-28). The Ephesians got an even longer exposition of the accord/unity factor (Ephesians 2:13-19).

The Spirit is the unifying factor because it is only through the Spirit of Jesus that any community or individual has access to the God and Father of Jesus. It is a oneness given by God, not fabricated by humans (Van Engen 1991:49). People from every nation (the “near” and the “far”) may partake in the new covenant and this puts a seal on their common humanity (Senior 1989:339).

With a grand flourish, the Apostle Paul wraps it all up and ties it with a ribbon when he writes:

There is one body and one Spirit; just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all, and through all and in all (Eph. 4:5).

EARLY CHRISTIAN ACCORD

Michael Green observes that the unprecedented style of loving relationships and warmth of fellowship in early Christian communities must have been attractive to the ordinary person. He thinks there was no {93} parallel to it in antiquity (Green 1987:123, 180, 178). The word that Christians adopted for their fellowship, koinonia, was common parlance to denote unofficial associations, clubs and trade guilds in Roman society. But “the divine alchemy” of participation in the unifying Holy Spirit that was inherent in Christian koinonia made it absolutely unique.

Here were societies in which aristocrats and slaves, Roman citizens and provincials, rich and poor, mixed on equal terms and without distinction: societies which possessed a quality of caring and love which was unique (Green 1987:182).

Truly, this breaking down of barriers between all people and between people and God is unique to the Christian gospel. The Good News is that the cross forms a bridge of love between all the islands where different groups of people have isolated themselves from each other and God. It connects different races, different classes, and spans one of the deepest and most universal chasms of all—the division between women and men. If that isn’t true, it isn’t the gospel, because those are the splits that cause the pain and suffering in the world that Jesus came to heal. And because in a very real sense this is the gospel, it also is the mission.

John Howard Yoder defines the starting point for missions as the time when Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue and identified himself as the one sent by God to inaugurate the new age of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-21).

It was clear to all who heard him that he was announcing a visible sociopolitical, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God, achieved by his intervention in the person of Jesus as the one anointed and endued with the Spirit (Yoder 1972:39).

This event leveled all of humanity under the rule of God and so was a visible declaration of their unity. C. Norman Kraus makes the same point:

The rule of God is the central message and eschatological goal of the church (its mission). The evangelical message of the church is the announcement that in Christ the reconciliation and healing of human society is possible. All the warring factions of human society are now called to unity in the family of God (Eph. 2:14, 19) (Kraus 1991:174, bracketed words mine).

There was a great deal of tension, of course, among the early Christians as they worked at putting this ideal into practice. That may be why almost every New Testament writing stresses this essential aspect of Christian life. The Apostle Paul was embarrassed by the Corinthians who were doing their laundry in public by taking other Christians to civil court because it was detrimental to their witness (Senior 1989:336).

In spite of the gap between ideal and real, however, there was a quality of life among the Christians that attracted outsiders. Michael Green notes:

The joyous fellowship of the early community, with its apostolic leadership, its community of food and possessions, its earnest meetings {94} for prayer, its deep and intimate brotherhood—this too must have had an appeal all its own (Green 1987:109).

This surely was one of the Christian communities’ most potent and effective means of witness. And so it was intended to be. Jesus’ prayer for the oneness of his disciples is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21b). Speaking directly to his disciples, Jesus gives them a “new commandment” to love one another as he has loved them. The result will be a clear witness:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:27).

In fact, in John’s gospel, every passage that stresses mission also stresses unity (Osborne 1991). There is an interesting little pericope in the story of the Pharisaic council called to decide how to deal with Jesus’s rising influence on the Jews (John 11:49-53). John reports with some irony that the words of Caiaphas, the high priest, unintentionally but accurately prophesied Jesus’s inauguration of a universal mission. Jesus death would serve to save not only the nation of Israel, but it would “gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52). The irony may be that Caiaphas was thinking of salvation in terms of the Roman government and “the children of God” as Jews of the diaspora. John, on the other hand, with his post-resurrection theological perspective, was thinking much larger thoughts about eternal salvation for all those who believe in Jesus (John 3:16).

POST-APOSTOLIC UNITY AS WITNESS

Unity, love, and accord as witness and mission continued to mark Christians in the post-apostolic period. The pagans around them might have had similar ethical teaching, but Christians were enabled by the grace and presence of God’s Spirit to make their profession credible by their lives. Their society of love and mutual care astonished and persuaded pagans that the Christian gospel was entirely unique (Green 1987:120).

This quality of fellowship, so different from other kinds of associations in which there might be mutual hatred between the members, was something to be guarded at all costs because it was crucial to the advancement of the mission of the church. Therefore, unity was a critical concern not only in the New Testament writings but also to Ignatius, Clement, and second century Christian authors in general (Green 1987:182-3).

One prominent pagan who was persuaded by this witness was Tertullian. Including himself now with the Christians, he wrote: {95}

It is our care for the helpless, our practice of loving kindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. Only look, they say, look how they love one another (they themselves being given over to mutual hatred). Look how they are prepared to die for one another (they themselves being readier to kill each other). Thus had this saying become a fact, “hereby shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if you have love one to another” (Green 1987:308 fn.55).

THE STATE OF THE ART OF CHRISTIAN ACCORD

The question that now must be asked is this: How would a pagan of today perceive unity in the Christian church? Would it seem to her that those who are proclaiming a gospel of love and unity sometimes seem to hate each other?’ Are most American Christians concerned only about the Accord that may be parked in the driveway? In the World Christian Encyclopedia, published in 1982, David Barrett records that Christian denominations increased from a global total of 1,900 in the year 1900 to over 18,000 in 1970. By 1980, there were close to 21,000 which amounts to a net increase of 270 new denominations a year, or five every week.

Barrett comments that in many countries this proliferation of denominations has produced serious overlapping, competition, rivalries, clashes, violence, and even lawsuits (Barrett 1980:17). Robert Schreiter describes the problem as “a culturally and cognitively diverse Christianity that yet professes one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Schreiter 1991:284). But David Bosch is more specific. He ascribes the proliferation of new churches to a “Protestant virus” which causes divisions on the basis of “extremely questionable distinctions” (1991:466).

Instead of being in one accord, Christians too often promote their own brands of Christianity like used car salespersons who inflate the value of their own product and smear the competition. Questionable advertising often accompanies these campaigns. An example of this would be the “health and wealth “gospel promoted by some televangelists.

The denominational issue, of course, is only part of the problem. There are other schisms that wrack the body of Christ in the last part of the twentieth century. Different ethnic and socio-economic groups—even those of the same denomination—may refuse to worship together, rationalizing this division on the basis of the Homogeneous Unit Principle of Church Growth theory. 2 Men and women still are unreconciled to each other. Instead of relating on the basis of Gal.3:28, many still act out of the universal hostility between women and men that results from pagan ideological premises. {96} 3

One of the main justifications for schisms throughout church history has been the need to preserve a “pure” church. This concern has real validity. But how shall we deal with the fact that the unity of the church is part of its purity?

An important mission statement formulated by the faculty of Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, CA.) makes this point:

A readiness to be open to the Spirit’s work among God’s people must characterize our relations with Catholics or all confessions—Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican—as with all other Christians. The unity of the church is part of its purity. We cannot compromise our Biblical convictions; that is part of our commitment to purity. And one of those biblical convictions is that Christ has but one church (Fuller Theological Seminary Faculty, 1983; emphasis mine).

Charles Van Engen, professor of Mission Theology at Fuller, sharpens the point when he writes:

We do not confess “holy catholic churches” or families of God” or “peoples of God” or “bodies of Christ or New Israels.” In the biblical view of the church the plural only refers to geographical location of churches, not existential being of the Church. In its essence there is only one church (Van Engen 1991:49).

Van Engen writes that Karl Barth was convinced that a plurality of churches that mutually excluded one another could only mean a plurality of Lords, of spirits and of gods (Van Engen 1991:49).

Truth or purity must not be played out against unity. A hallmark of Pauline theology was his refusal to entertain the possibility of a disjunction between the truth of the gospel and the divinely willed unity of the church. The supreme value was unity and this truth, and while unity is already a fact for those who are in Christ, it is also a command: “Be one!”. (Bosch 1991:464, 467).

LIMITS TO CHRISTIAN UNITY

But is it possible for Catholics, Mennonites, Charismatics, African Independent Churches, Evangelicals, and main-line Protestants to be in one accord? Here it is important to recognize the parameters of unity.

A physical unity of one large organization is a sheer impossibility. Perhaps because of the way unity has sometimes been defined to mean structural organization, the term “accord” better carries the meaning intended here. Accord seems to have more to do with spirit and attitude. Not the size, place, or institutional authorization, but the mission purpose and what C. Norman Kraus calls “Spirit/spirit” of the group define true churchly character (Kraus 1991:185). {97}

If Christians get that right, if they can relate to other Christians in the spirit of the Holy Spirit, there could even be a positive side to denominations. There was after all, never a dull uniformity about the Christian movement. From the beginning there was variety in doctrinal emphasis, forms of church government, and cultural observances (Green 1987:181). Even within the membership of local churches there was not an “introverted club of like-minded enthusiasts,” but a group of people with various complementary gifts that were needed to exercise mission and ministry in the world (Van Engen 1991:51).

Russell Spittler of Fuller Theological Seminary believes that the positive side to denominations is that what one overemphasizes may be exactly what others are lacking. He suggests that the spiritual gift model may be applied to denominations as well as to individuals. With that perspective, no one denomination can say to the other, we have no need of you. The unity that we look for, writes James Scherer, is not uniformity but the multiple expression of a common faith and a common mission (1987:149). 4

So, although denominations are a fact of Christian life in the twentieth century, and are not likely to disappear in the near future, the important point is not to give them ultimate validity (Scherer 1987:86). They are penultimate structures that must exist only to facilitate the common life and mission of the one holy catholic church.

Differences will remain and many will not be easily resolved. Transubstantiation, papal authority, “spiritual warfare”, ancestor veneration, women in leadership, participation in war, “liberation strategies,” the eternal destiny of unbelievers, and the validity of other religions, to name a few, are divisive issues in the world-wide church today. The question is, do these differences justify the deep cuts made in the body of Christ when Christians refuse to recognize or fellowship with each other.

There is one valid limit to unity identified in Scripture. however, that must be respected. Spiritual unity for the New Testament has a center in the person of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and participation in the sacraments and life of the community of the Spirit depends on being “in Christ” and serving Jesus as Lord.

The Christian faith has an exclusive dimension. It cannot be relativized alongside other religions to come up with some kind of universal accord. 5 Those who worship a god who is not the Father of Jesus cannot participate in the unity of the Spirit of Jesus; but all those who worship the God and Father of Jesus Christ are united into one family. In case of the latter, then, differences are not of identity but become a family matter to be worked out with love and patience. The confession that Jesus is Lord unites all who make it in one spiritual body. {98}

VISIBLE UNITY AS A SIGN OF HOPE

The trouble with a spiritual body is that it is very hard to see. Spiritual unity must have some kind of visible, outward expression if it is to make an impression on the world. The splits and competition between Christians cause confusion and even defeat. 6 The race issue, for instance, that still separates many American Christians hides their spiritual unity and therefore diminishes their witness. If the world actually saw Blacks and Whites living out a model of reconciliation in common church life, they would have to ask why (Perkins 1992:23).

How to visibly express spiritual unity and accord in the global Christian Church is surely one of the most serious missiological issues that faces the twenty-first century. 7 James Scherer notes that all Christian traditions affirm that there is an essential relationship between mission and unity, but they differ on how much is needed for fellowship. What kind of unity is required by confession of oneness in Christ, and in what does it consist? Can groups that are divided in structure share the proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments? (Scherer 1987:236).

According to David Bosch, Christianity is in the midst of a paradigm shift of momentous proportions. It is impossible now, he writes, to say “church” without “mission” nor to say either without at the same time talking about the one mission of the one church. The previous, modern paradigm saw the choice as between diversity without unity or unity without diversity. The “post-modern” paradigm to which we are shifting manifests itself as unity which preserves diversity and diversity which strives after unity (Bosch 1991:464-465). 8

It is in this tension that the church must find ways to convince the world of its unity. And as the paradigm shifts, some hopeful signs are appearing as traditional animosities between many Christian groups erode under the relentless wind of the Spirit.

One of these at first may appear to be less than hopeful. It seems that many Christians who claim to be moved by the Spirit are always moving. Yuppies, known for their dislike of firm commitments, seem to change churches almost as easily as they change clothes. Urban churches especially are plagued by floating congregations. But although the problems this causes cannot be denied, there is a positive aspect to all this denominational fruit-basket-upset. Christians from different backgrounds are getting to know each other. And when they do, they are discovering that one accord is possible when Jesus is in it.

If this kind of accord becomes a reality, it will surely have the same effect as it did in the First Century. Modern pagans will take notice if Christians work together in Spirit/spirit with all who proclaim Jesus as {99} Lord. The witness of the church will become more credible as it carries out its mission to the fragmented, fractured societies who face horrendous global challenges in the twenty-first century without the Christian hope that God’s saving power surpasses any “fates” that threaten the cosmos (Senior 1989:319).

NOTES

  1. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Bible, 1989.
  2. In David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia, under the discussion of the proliferation of denominations there is a cartoon. The cartoon character says, “About 2000 years ago they asked this guy what he felt was his most important message . . . He said, ‘Love one another’ . . . Out of his message evolved some 20,780 distinct religious denominations . . . and they all hate each other!” (Barrett 1982:17).
  3. The Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) as developed by Donald McGavran at the School of World Mission of Fuller Seminary concludes that because people do not like to cross ethnic, racial, and economic barriers to become Christians they should be allowed to form churches composed only of people like themselves. According to David Bosch, Peter Wagner, McGavran’s most prominent disciple, has used the HUP to nurture prejudices and legitimate racism in the church. On the dust cover of a Wagner book, Wagner is praised for having transformed the statement that “11:00 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America" from a millstone around Christians’ necks into a dynamic tool for assuring Christian growth.” Bosch sees something “drastically wrong” about that statement. Starting new churches that mirror people’s foibles, fears, suspicions, and prejudices and make them feel comfortable and relaxed is not acceptable. The loss of ecclesial unity, Bosch writes, is not just a vexation but a sin (Bosch 1991:466-467).
  4. Cultural Anthropologists have identified hostility between men and women as a universal characteristic of human cultures (Paul and Frances Hiebert. Case Studies in Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987, p. 43). Alvin John Schmidt, among others, has shown how pagan ideologies have influenced the people of God with regard to the relationship between women and men (Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Macon Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1989).
  5. David Bosch writes that holding to both truth and unity presupposes tension. It does not presume uniformity, a leveling out of differences, a shallow reductionism for a kind of “ecumenical broth.” Differences are genuine and must be treated as such (Bosch 1991:464).
  6. Pope John Paul’s recent encyclical, Mission of the Redeemer, warns the church about “succumbing to the belief that one religion is as good as another.” On this matter, he seems to be in accord with evangelicals but not with the Catholic theologian, Paul Knitter (No Other Name?) or the Presbyterian, John Hick.
  7. A bewildered young Jewish convert at Fuller Seminary once asked, “But how do you know which Christian to believe?” {100}
  8. In the final chapter of Gospel, Church, and Kingdom, Scherer identifies 15 missiological issues for the church in the new missionary era and offers theses for further reflection. One of these reads: “As all churches are under obligation to continue the pursuit of Christian unity and to find ways of manifesting unity in Jesus Christ before the world, they should seek opportunities for common study, fellowship in the gospel as conscience allows, and partnership in Christian witness before the world. . ."(Scherer 1987:237).
  9. There a wide divergence at present among scholars over the meaning of the term “post modern.” David Bosch and Thomas Oden, for instance, use it quite differently from secular scholars such as Jean Francois Lyotard.

WORKS CITED

  • Barrett, David B. (1980). World Christian Encyclopedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bosch, David. (1991). Transforming Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  • Faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary. (1983). “Mission beyond the mission.” Theology, News and Notes xxx:3 (October) 4-17.
  • Green, Michael. (1987). Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Kraus, C. Norman. (1991). God our Savior. Scottdale: Herald Press.
  • Osborne, Grant (1991). DMS 930: Missions in the New Testament. Class notes (July 15-19).
  • Perkins, Spencer. (1992). “Can Blacks and Whites be Neighbors?” Urban Family (Winter):21-23.
  • Scherer, James A. (1987). Gospel, Church & Kingdom. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.
  • Schmidt, Alvin John. (1989) Veiled and Silenced: How Culture shaped Sexist Theology. Macon: Mercer University Press.
  • Schreiter, Robert J. (1991). “Anthropology and Faith Challenges to Missiology.” Missiology: An International Review XIX:3 (July) 283-294.
  • Senior, C. P., Donald, and Carroll Stuhlmueller, C. P. (1989). The Biblical Foundations for Missions. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  • Van Engen, Charles (1991) God’s Missionary People. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  • Yoder, John Howard (1972). The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids.:Eerdmans.
Frances Hiebert, a theologian and writer, is International Student Coordinator at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL.

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