Real Tension: Bringing Holiness and Unity Together

InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis says that “we believe in the unity of all believers in Jesus Christ, manifest in worshiping and witnessing churches making disciples throughout the world.”  Sounds awesome, right? Who doesn’t like the unity of Christians? At face value, we’re drawn to this ideal of Christians worshiping and working together for the gospel. But it’s in the details of what that looks like where we begin to struggle. What do we do when we have to focus on the specifics of unity? What happens when some of our student leaders who come from a particular denominational background question the beliefs and practices of other students from a different church tradition?

I don’t live much in the happy land of superficial Christian unity.  I’m an Evangelical Protestant whose ministry in InterVarsity is spent mostly in Catholic contexts, so I’m constantly trying to figure out how Catholics and Protestants can do mission together.  We’re all Christians who share core beliefs but we also have some significant theological points of departure from one another. 

I’ve been both helped and haunted by something the scholar and former Anglican bishop N.T. Wright said in a lecture on the Apostle Paul, “The visible tangible thing [to Paul] is the ecclesia (Church), the united and holy community. Unity is easy if you don’t care about holiness. Holiness is quite easy if you don’t care about community. It’s doing the two of them together that’s the real trick.”  That is the real trick, indeed.

The Tension is Real

N.T. Wright has captured the tension I feel trying to bring Christians together to evangelize across our historic divides. And who likes tension? Picture just for a moment a rubber band stretched between two of your fingers. The best way to get rid of the tension in the rubber band is to remove it from one of your fingers. No tension; problem solved. But in reality, it’s not that simple. Your first task is to choose which finger to slip out of the rubber band!

Here’s how that illustration plays out in what Wright says is Paul’s non-negotiable of unity and holiness together: If I unhook the finger of holiness, I run the risk of opting for a least common denominator that ignores or dismisses real distinctives and disagreements, both theological and ethical. On the other hand, if I unhook the unity finger, I take on the character of a separatist — questioning the legitimacy of anyone who doesn’t share my set of beliefs and convictions. Lover or fighter? Reconciler or prophet? Which finger should I choose? Which one is most reflective of the nature and character of God?

Reconciliation is a Prophetic Call

Maybe it goes without saying that holiness and unity are not mutually exclusive. The call to reconciliation is a prophetic one; being un-reconciled is un-holiness (see Matt. 5:23-24). The opposite is true as well: there is no meaningful reconciliation without uncovering hard and sometimes painful truth. Now we’re back to the tension. Which is actually where the real energy is (my inadvertently aimed wad of paper that beaned Mrs. Coleman in the third grade taught me that—at least about rubber bands).

Let me just say that living in this tension is not some magical third way—a little bit of unity and a little bit of holiness, cooked to perfection. It’s a messy, mistake-filled process that frustrates and embarrasses me and tempts me to give up. But the absolutes of both unity and holiness demand that I keep trying to work as hard as I can at both of them.

The tension of holding both unity and holiness together leads me back to those “worshiping and witnessing churches…throughout the world.” InterVarsity’s “unity” as an interdenominational mission is composed of various individual members of larger Christian communities that are in broken relationships with one another.  We cannot ignore the church part of our parachurch identity. The end product of our mission is growing followers of Christ who live out their discipleship, not in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship alumni groups but in churches; churches that remain at odds with one another.

The positive power of the tension comes exactly here: when we are able to receive the teachings and traditions of our various churches (the holiness part) and at the same time receive our brothers and sisters who belong to Christ but hold to different traditions (the unity part). I think this is the hard work of deeper Christian unity. This is work that leads us beneath the surface-y singing in a circle into meaningful conflict and profound reconciliation and beyond, toward fruitful evangelism and awakening.


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Scott Brill

Assistant Regional Director

Scott Brill has worked for InterVarsity in New England for over 30 years and is currently Assistant Regional Director, focused on ministry to Catholic students and campuses. He also serves as a Campus Ministry staff member of Assumption College in Worcester, MA. He is passionate about promoting conversation and reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics, is a member of both the Lutheran/Roman Catholic and Evangelical/Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogues, and is the Co-Director and Founding Fellow of the Boston-based Institute for Christian Unity.