Timothy George: Unity must not imperil theological integrity
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Unity among Christians can be achieved, but it should never come at the expense of moral purity or theological integrity, Timothy George said at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
George, dean of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., was on Southern's Louisville, Ky., campus to take part in an academic conference, "Southern Baptists in the New Millennium: Identity, Orthodoxy, and Cooperation," that debated the identity and role of Southern Baptists in the 21st century. He also preached in chapel Feb. 27, using 1 Corinthians to illustrate what should and should not be the basis for Christian unity.
"We do not purchase true unity in Christ at the expense of moral purity," George said, noting that the apostle Paul "has a lot to say not only about unity but about purity, about holiness, about the fact that we're called to be saints."
Concerning theological integrity, George said, "There are some people in the ecumenical movement and elsewhere who would say, 'We need to forget about all this doctrine, all this theology stuff. Just focus on the environment or focus on some good social cause.' ... That is not the way to true biblical unity. We do not purchase biblical unity at the expense of theological integrity."
George pointed out that Jesus himself illustrates this point in John 17:19 when he prays to the Father regarding believers, "I sanctify Myself for them, so they also may be sanctified by the truth" (HCSB). In verse 21 Jesus prays that all Christians "may be one."
The model for Christian unity can be found in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, George said. It is there where Paul argues that true unity can only be accomplished by focusing on the gospel, the love of Christ and the grace of God, George said.
"The way to true unity is always focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "That's why Paul in Galatians is so concerned about not betraying the gospel. He says in the strongest language used anywhere in the New Testament that if anyone betrays the gospel and preaches a different gospel, that person will be condemned by God.
"This [the gospel] is where we begin. This is where we take our stand. This we cannot negotiate. This we cannot compromise. ... It is a gospel that leads to and produces and brings a unity in Christ."
George said that unity must be accompanied by love -- the type of love stressed in 1 Corinthians 13.
"It's not just human love," he said. "It's not just butterfly, puppy love. It's the love that comes from Christ, the love that Jesus had for us that led him to the cross, where he shed his blood and died for us so that we could be saved through faith in him."
The third essential element to unity, George said, is an appreciation of and thankfulness for God's grace.
"The way to unity is the way of grace, sovereign grace, amazing grace," he said. "It is only by Christ, the undivided Christ, that I have come to know Jesus, that I have come to have eternal life, that I have come to share a fellowship with brothers and sisters."
Few, if any, of these elements existed at the problem-riddled church in Corinth, George said. He demonstrated this by pointing to the various problems that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians. He said in chapter 3 the problems of pride and arrogance are addressed; in chapter 4, sexual immorality; in chapter 6, Christians suing one another; in chapter 7, divorce and sexuality; and in chapters 8 and 9, food offered to idols. George said the problems continued in chapters 10 and 11, misuse of the Lord's Supper; chapter 12, debate over spiritual gifts; chapter 15, argument over eschatology; and chapter 16, disputes over money.
"Paul knew these people," George said. "He had shared their joys and sorrows. He knew their struggles and their heartaches as only a pastor can know such things."
Paul was clear in his admonishment of the Corinth church, George said.
"What does Paul say to the warring factions in Corinth?" he asked. "He says, 'Come down from your wisdom. Come down from your conceit. Come down from your pride and condescension. If you want to sail under the Pauline flag, ... come down here to the cross."
Similarities between the church at Corinth and today's Christian church are apparent, George said.
"What does Jesus think when he looks down on us -- on our personal rivalries, on our dividing into parties like these people in Corinth?" he asked. "I think his heart must break. I'm sure the Holy Spirit is grieved."
George concluded by asking, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if ... instead of only talking about the church of the undivided Christ, we could talk about the Christ of the undivided church? We can't do that now. And, if you ask me, I think we probably will never be able to say that perfectly and completely this side of the parousia, when the church will be presented [as] the bride to the bridegroom, without spot, without wrinkle on that great day.
"We're not there yet, but in the meantime we can remember what Paul is saying to the Corinthians and is saying to us, 'The way to unity is the way of the gospel. It is the way of love. It is the way of grace.' We do not get there by compromising our purity, our integrity, our diversity. We get there by focusing again on our unity and the one who purchased our redemption with his own blood on the cross."
Chapel messages can be heard through Southern Seminary's website at www.sbts.edu/news/audio/speakers_chapel.html.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: TIMOTHY GEORGE.