You Are All One in Christ Jesus

Last week I had occasion to attend two Christian conferences—Together for the Gospel (T4G) in Louisville, KY and the Wheaton College Theology Conference in Wheaton, IL, which focused on the work of New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright.

The conferences were very different, and I would venture to guess that I was one of a few if not the only person to attend both. Aside from both being gatherings of evangelical Christians and both covering the hot topic of justification to some degree, I felt like the groups were desperately far from one another in so many ways. Louisville and Wheaton are not that far from each other geographically, but my experiences in both places last week felt like two different worlds.

And at the end of it all—after more than 20 lectures by renowned Christian leaders, pastors, and theologians; after amassing 30+ books (I shipped most of them home); and after filling most of my neon green moleskin with notes—I’m left feeling simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. And I’m left wondering what sense might be made of such disparate experiences of corporate Christian thought. Is there any unifying takeaway from these two events? Yes—and I think it is (ironically) the idea of unity itself. Or the lack thereof.

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 as well indicates a sort of coming-togetherness, perhaps in a more academic sense.

But what did unity look like in reality at these conferences, and what did they have to say about the idea? Because it’s such a huge topic and because I’m still processing all of it, I’m just going to bullet some quickly-thought out observations here (written down on the plane ride home):

  • N.T. 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 conference at Wheaton. Apparently the overarching theme or 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) is that “the main symbol of Paul’s worldview is the unity of the church.” At various points in the conference he said things like this: “The cross brings together—unthinkably—the slave and the master” (talking about Philemon); “The cross is the place where the unreconcilable can be reconciled;” “The unity of the church is a sign to the world that there is a new way of being human;” “The unity of the church sends a message to the world-be rulers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they are not” (Eph. 3); and “Nothing justifies schism.”
  • Wright often quotes 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.”
  • The “Welcome!” letter to T4G registrants, which included hundreds of women, began “Dear Brothers (& Sisters!)…”
  • The Wheaton conference was dominated by white men, many with Ph.Ds, many wearing either sportcoats or bowties. But there were three women speakers, and several Canadians.
  • T4G was also largely homogenous (white, male, conservative) but did have one non-white speaker, Thabiti Anyabwile.
  • Anyabwile’s lecture was provocative, centering upon a claim that I’m pretty sure none of the white speakers at T4G could ever get away with saying: “The church is inescapably multiethnic, but it isn’t multicultural. It is monocultural.” He meant, I think, that when one becomes a Christian, he or she must check their old culture at the door, shedding the old snakeskin because Christianity is its own culture, set over and against all the other cultures of the world. I’m not quite sure what this means in practice, though. Are we humans not just as inescapably cultural as we are inescapably ethnic? Can not the Gospel unity which Wright speaks of display the countercultural coming-togetherness of diverse cultures as well as ethnicities?
  • The tone of T4G struck me as being rather on the defensive side. Far from being an olive-branch-extending “dialogue” between Christians of opposing viewpoints, T4G was rather more like a club of quite like-minded conservative Baptists and Presbyterians (PCA) patting each other on the back for their mutual buttressing of the “unadjusted Gospel” (the theme of the conference), while also corporately dismissing and sometimes bad-mouthing any and all so-called “adjusters” of the Gospel—a phantom, threatening group which includes N.T. Wright, anything “emergent,” Catholics, Rick Warren, and basically everyone that isn’t them.
  • The tone of the Wheaton conference was a bit more ecumenical (I saw Anglicans, Episcopals, Pentecostals, Greek Orthodox, and even some Reformed Presbyterians) and intellectually open-minded, full of lively and cordial scholarly debates between Wright and his colleagues, who pressed him on various things they thought he got wrong.
  • Speaking of debate – the elephant in the room at both conferences was the ongoing (and increasingly well-known) debate on the doctrine of justification between N.T. Wright and John Piper. And at their respective conferences, both spoke on justification and made reference to the other’s arguments. The problem is that these men, both pastor/theologians who speak eloquently and love God, are talking past each other on this topic. They are not in dialogue. This might change for the better come November when the two will square off in person at the annual meeting of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) in Atlanta. But for now, its hard to see much unity in their debate. From my view, they agree on much more than they differ. And however intellectually at odds they might be (which is fine), they are first and foremost brothers in the house of God. I hope they—and their respective supporters in the fray—can model this sort of unified, “mere Christian” spirit. I hope we all can.

13 responses to “You Are All One in Christ Jesus

  1. What can I say? A fascinating and informative post!

  2. pursuingintegration

    Sounds like quite the differing experiences.

    I also think that our cultures cannot be simply subsumed into the umbrella branch of a mono-cultural Christianity. At least in my opinion, God created the different cultures around the world and they each have something nice to offer. Also, in that scenario what does this mono-culture look like? Who decides what this mono-culture is composed of?

  3. Phillip Johnston

    Brett, I am extremely jealous of you getting to attend both conferences. I’m halfway through listening to both conferences in the last few days and have been doing my best to process it all too. I can empathize with your feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion. I’m coming from the perspective of someone who has been grounded in the Reformed faith in the last few years, but who has tempered Calvin and Luther with a lot of Wright.

    I find Wright’s emphasis on Biblical theology and the Kingdom inspiring and I think he’s spot on with his observations about not letting tradition trump the Text (the second chapter of Justification beautifully lays out that point). I am simply stunned by the depth and breadth of his work and the fact that he actually personally responded to an email I sent him thanking him for his ministry.

    But then I listen to a brilliant and beautiful address like the one Piper gave at T4G on justification and become convinced that Wright is missing something. Piper’s points about how the Christian must be sure that God is 100% on his side, his observations about Wilberforce (a name Wright dropped at Wheaton as well) on justification, and his timely points about the emerging Church are timely needed.

    Still, the end of Friday night’s keynote from Wright when he spoke about how much we need the historical Jesus of the Gospels made me weep. I could only think of what Piper said about how historical Jesus studies aren’t necessary. These two men really do need to talk because I think they are much more similar than they think.

    “If you lose imputation, you lose sola fide; if you lose sola fide, you lose the Gospel.”

    This is such a broad statement and I think there is so much that could be unified if some layers of interpretative pride would be shed. I think Wright would be willing to talk one-on-one with Piper. I think Piper would be willing to talk one-on-one with Wright. But I think that the Reformed camp would castigate Piper for a very long time. That’s the sad part.

    I’m rambling. Thanks for the post, though.

  4. I was at Wheaton for the Conference too. When Wright said, “Nothing justifies schism,” the audience was shocked out of its laughter (as I remember it). That was probably the most solemn moment of the whole conference.

    T4G is something I only follow in the blogosphere but it certainly seems like a mutual admiration society from what I see. Even though I am a fan of Desiring God.

    I agree that WTC was predominantly white, but there were a lot of women there. I disagree that it was “dominated by men.” I think that exaggerates the case.

    Also, I come from an Anabaptist tradition. Just to throw that diversity in there.

    Your post on the lack of unity tempts me to despair for the Church. But something Wright said encourages me. We too often conflate Jesus and the Church, driving us to “unwarranted triumphalism or despair.” When we as people too closely identify our community (or lack thereof) with Jesus, we can despair that we should ever see unity. But as you pointed out, Wright reminds us that it is Jesus is the uniting force, whose cross is “the answer to the sin that divides us.” Jesus is Lord. And that is the Church’s only hope.

  5. Yeah, once you start talking about Christianity as a culture, you’re on very thin ice, to quote Katie Couric. I’m sure he meant well, but it is a terrifying truth that one can buy Joel Osteen books at churches in China, if you know what I’m saying.

  6. I’ve literally just come from Wright at King’s (and he’ll be at a Redeemer event tonight in a couple hours), and he spoke a little about the Piper situation. He was incredibly gracious and said what it sounds like he said at Wheaton about the historical Jesus. I haven’t had the time to read both sides, but his response just a few hours ago to a similar question was a model for what we all should be when others disagree with us.

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  8. I think the lack of diversity in both of these WASP conferences is poignant; it continues to illuminate that Christian intellectualism made up of white men, conservative men. While these may have points that illustrate that unity of the Body is key part of Gospel, reconciliation with God & thus reconciliation with others, living as One body with Christ, their perspectives on the world continue to baffle me. The lack of monoculture that is pervasive in the American Church is disproportionate to weightiness of Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross. Far too often we argue and separate over trivial matters which bring disunity within the Gospel. Mostly, there is a growing sentiment of intellectuals speaking of but not actually following after the Gospel they hold so dear.

    On another note, the ETS/BLS conference should be interesting to see the two of them… though normally there are not debates, but papers presented and questions to follow (they may have changed things since I attended one in San Diego a few years ago). My hope is that their meeting in Atlanta this fall will point more towards intellectual community’s need for the Gospel, though they may present their differences.

  9. Pingback: Nothing Justifies Schism « Maude's Tavern

  10. FYI, your CT article on this got a mention on Theopolitical, in case you hadn’t seen it.

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  12. Did you see Justin Taylor’s response to your summary of Together for the Gospel today?

    I do find it quite upsetting that you have managed to upset a man who is currently on your blogroll, and you made no mention of the picture (or the teaching) on suffering for the glory of God from the conference. It is unfortunate that we as Christians do not disagree well, but I found within your post that you were not disagreeing well with T4G, but rather put them down with your comment, “like a club patting each other on the back for their mutual buttressing of the ‘unadjusted gospel’ against threats from various corners.” I typically love your writing and respect your opinion, but this viewpoint seemed to stem from a tinge of bitterness and anger.

  13. Admitting this comment is perhaps a bit too focused on another comment rather than the post as a whole (which I found thoughtful and interesting) I have to take issue with the comment that said “God created the different cultures around the world .” Did He? It’s my understanding from history that people develop culture and that’s a part of what God expects us to do. God did not create the diverse cultures of white American Evangelicalism or Native American panentheism or Anglo-Saxon hero-worship or Anti-Semitic Nazi Germany or Central American Catholicism or even postmodern Christian Hipsterism (to use an example that fits Brett’s area of interest/expertise/critique). People create culture. But that still doesn’t mean culture is evil (though I think we’d all agree that some tend that way) or irredeemable or even helpful. It’s just culture. It’s just how we behave and what we’ve created with our hands and what we value. It can be an important entry point for people to understand the message of the Gopsel, but all cultures have elements that will not be beneficial to the Kingdom. Some of these elements we should let go of (a personal example for me would be the sense of classism I was raised with, which is counter to the Christian faith in which we are all one–see, I knew I could get this slightly more on topic!) in order to better understand and follow God’s Word. Others, we should cling to because they help us worship (like music–whcih every culture has, right?) or help us to understand God better. I feel sort of rambly here, so I’ll stop. But we should remember that culture is a human construct.

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