This papercut by Chinese artist Fan Pu makes me smile: Jesus strolling along cheerfully, wrapped in a cloak made up of Christian faithfuls of all colors. The artist said that when she created it, she had in mind the joyful uniting of the church with Christ when he returns: “When is Jesus full of joy? I believe it is only through the completing of the Church on Earth, when we become the bride of Christ, and Christ the joyous groom comes to receive the bride.” Isaiah 62:5 says, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” To me, this artwork doesn’t so much conjure up the image of Christ as bridegroom as it does the image of Christ as head of the church body. What makes Jesus happy? The unity of all people under his headship.
Paul says that the ultimate will, pleasure, and purpose of God is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Jesus echoes this same desire in John 17:20-23, when he prays “for those who will believe in me through their [the disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. … I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” The gospel message isn’t meant to tear apart; it is meant to bring together. Jesus died on the cross so that we could all be made one with God and with each other. So then why is Christian history filled with so much divisiveness? Why is it defined mostly by its schisms and breaks (called either “heresies” or “reforms,” depending on which side of the line you’re standing)?
These two charts from Wikipedia are just one of many possible ways to illustrate the various divisions (and subdivisions, and sub-subdivisions) of the Christian church. Depending on who you ask, there are three to nine main branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.), and then growing out from each of those branches are yet more branches, and then different twigs and buds grow from those branches. Beyond that, some people also insist on making even further distinctions by wing (conservative, mainline, liberal) and theological belief system (Calvinism, Arminianism, Dominionism, etc.). My question is: With so much variation, are we all still growing from the same root (namely, Jesus Christ)?
The official Seal of the United States reads E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”); Christianity might well adopt the opposite as its dictum—Out of one, many (Ex uno plures?). We’re heading in the opposite direction, guys—farther apart instead of closer together. And that’s not a good thing.
I’m all for diversity, as I hope this blog demonstrates. So when I say that all Christians should walk in unity, I’m not talking about uniformity—those are two entirely different things. It’s OK to disagree on minor theological points and to have varying styles of worship and such. Nor am I saying that the church has to be this static entity, locked in tradition and brooking no argument. Not only is it OK, it is vital that we continue to innovate and to challenge and to respond in a relevant way to the culture as it changes. But we must be united in the God we worship and the message we preach. How do we do that? By committing ourselves to attaining “the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13), who is indivisibly one. The more we see and learn of and embody the true nature of Christ, the more united we will become.
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. … From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:3-5, 16)
The human body has many parts, each with different functions but operating together as a singular organism, connected in an intricate and interdependent way. Similarly, every church in the world should play a functional role in the growing and building up of the universal body of believers, and this is the clincher: all parts working together under the headship of Jesus Christ. The church today seems sick and dysfunctional because we’re not sending signals to the same brain. That is, we have different ideas about who Jesus is, and that’s dangerous. I’m not talking about what color his hair was or whether he would approve of rock music; I’m talking about what his central message was, what he taught about salvation, and whether he really was the Son of God or no. Sadly, not all who sit under the umbrella term “Christian” agree on these points, and that keeps us from living in unity. Most of the disagreements arise from different interpretations of the same Scriptures (though some denominations ascribe like authority to other texts, or believe in ongoing revelation). So whose interpretation is right? Well, it’s hard to know, and perhaps we will never know until we stand before God. But we at least ought to dialogue productively with each other as we try to figure it all out, instead of drawing more lines and writing more labels. You may think that the universal unity of all Christians is an impossible ideal and a naïve one, but it’s not, because it was God’s intention from the beginning, and he will accomplish it in the end.
Notice how Paul says that we should strive to “keep” the unity rather than create it. That’s because the unity already exists; the church need only preserve it. All Christians are sealed, possessed, and indwelt by the same Spirit and look forward to the same hope. We worship the same Lord, with one faith. When we condemn other denominations and sects to hell and see our own as the only “right” one, the only one carrying on the true legacy of Christianity, we sadden and shame Jesus deeply. When Protestants dismiss Catholics as “not real Christians,” it’s like cutting off an arm of the body. And when Catholics say that Protestants don’t belong to the true church, they’re cutting off a leg.
I do realize, like I said before, that some of the divisions are there because of major doctrinal differences; this is a real problem, because how can we work for a common cause if we can’t even agree what that cause is? Other divisions exist to establish different governing structures, which is a practical concern and fine, I suppose. But a lot of things that divide Christians today, I feel, are simply a petty matter of semantics—for example, what does it matter if when a married couple first presents their newborn baby to God and publicly commits to rearing him or her under his teachings, it is called baptism or dedication? (In one, the pastor rubs water on the baby’s forehead; in the other, he does not. So what?) Or does it really matter whether I believe that the physical presence of Christ resides in the Eucharist, or only his spiritual presence? Many of these issues are, in my opinion, peripheral to the real issue at hand, which is how we can best glorify God, embody his love, and expand his kingdom. Before we can do any of that, though, we must first know Christ; that’s what all Christians should be trying to do, and most are. Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptist—doesn’t matter. We’re all just trying to grow in our knowledge of Jesus and to figure out what it means to live under his headship.
God, please grant us grace and understanding as we strive to know you more fully and share your message with others. And please grant us the strength and humility to come together in this endeavor instead of cutting ourselves off from those who interpret your Word differently than we do. Remind us once again of the common purpose to which you called us all. Help us to be the body that you died for—united with you, in you, and working together in love.
I agree with much of what you have said in this post. I would go one further and say that even the less minor-seeming differences of theology and belief are only enough to stand between groups if we let them be so. Jesus worked to coexist with the Pharisees, who disagreed with him on almost everything. How can we strive for any less?
“…what does it matter if when a married couple first presents their newborn baby to God and publicly commits to rearing him or her under his teachings, it is called baptism or dedication? (In one, the pastor rubs water on the baby’s forehead; in the other, he does not. So what?) .”
So what? Where do I begin?
First, what is baptism? Baptism is a public declaration of your decision to identify yourself with Christ. How can a baby choose to identify themselves with Christ? Your salvation and baptism should be personal choice not one imposed on you by your parents.
Second, infant baptism is most commonly practiced as a way to cleanse the baby from “Original Sin”. While this may not be the intent of the church practicing the “baptism”, why would a Bible believing church even want to do something that could be so easily associated with an unbiblical practice?
Finally, baby dedication is not for the baby. Baby dedication is for the parents to publically dedicate themselves to the raising of their child in the fear and admonition of the Lord. In my own opinion, baby dedication should be renamed to parents dedication. Also if a church feels they must absolutely must use water in the ceremony (strictly for tradition’s sake), the ceremony should not be called baptism.
I wasn’t referring to those churches that use baptism to “save” the baby; salvation I identified as a major issue, not a minor one, and I would question anyone who believes that sprinkling a baby with water in any way makes that baby a Christian. I was particularly referencing the baptism practices of Baptists vs. Presbyterians, both of which use baptism as a symbol—but different symbols.
I was raised in a Baptist church but now attend a Presbyterian one. My church, which performs adult baptisms as well as infant ones, is very emphatic that baptism does NOT bestow justifying grace; they describe it instead as bringing the individual into the “covenant community.” They say that baptism has replaced circumcision as the seal of the new covenant (Colossians 2:11-12). In the Old Testament, Jews were circumcised in anticipation of the Jewish faith in which they would be raised. But to be a Jew, they had to also believe in the God of Israel, which they could do only when they reached an age of maturity. For Presbyterians, baptism is less about faith and more about identity.
I totally agree with you that conscious belief and repentance should precede baptism. I don’t agree with the way Presbyterians use the terms “baptism” or “covenant,” because I have different interpretations of those terms, based on my understanding of Scripture. But this is just my point: Should we really get hung up on something like that, so much so that it prevents us from working together in the worship and service of our Lord Jesus Christ? For Baptists and Presbyterians, the gospel message is the same: Christ died on the cross as an atonement for our sins, and we become saved by accepting that, through humility and faith, and making him the Lord of our lives.
I very much am intrigued by Ms. Fan Pu’s Happy Jesus and would like to use it in a devotional book. Where can I get written permission to do so? Dennis Rogers
You might try contacting the organizers of the Jesus Laughing Exhibition in Scotland. Their contact information can be found at jesuschrist.uk.com. If that doesn’t work, maybe you could contact someone from the Asian Christian Art Association, which I know has published her art before. Perhaps they would have her contact information or could tell you more about how to obtain permission. Good luck!
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