People are notoriously sensitive about their sports and their religion. The Simpsons satirically observed this when they introduced “Reformed Presbylutheranism” as the primary Protestant religion in the show. This humorous amalgam denomination makes light of how vaguely religious denominations are typically portrayed in a television industry that is sensitive to audience members tuning out if their favorite characters have a worldview slightly different than their own. This tip toeing is likewise seen with sports as most non-biographical professional sports films involve imaginary teams that couldn’t possibly offend any sports fan. While the sensitivities are similar, Americans are strangely far more comfortable wearing a cap with their favorite team’s logo than identifying their denominational or local church preferences. In what is at best a bizarre misreading of 1 Corinthians 3, many Christians feel identifying with a particular denomination or local church is somehow divisive or even arrogant. More and more Churches pride themselves as being inter-denominational (as if that’s even possible). Parachurch ministries sometimes condemn indentifying with local churches. In some cases individual Christians attend multiple churches based upon which community has their favorite of each program. The American church is ashamed of its denominational differences and more and more it is ashamed of identifying with a local church.
True unity not only acknowledges where we disagree, it allows pride in these distinctives. Further, it even encourages healthy dialogue about our differences. Unity is not agreeing about everything, but realizing what we agree on is of greater importance. This is excellently demonstrated by the Christian conference The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition brings together leaders in denominations that disagree about everything from baptism to just war theory and often the conference even features debates about these differences. The one thing The Gospel Coalition leaders agree upon is obviously the gospel of Jesus Christ. When separate some participants are voting in a president at the Southern Baptist Convention while others are approving a budget at the PCA general assembly. When together everyone at The Gospel Coalition are brothers and sisters in Christ and they celebrate their unity in Christ while still maintaining their denominational pride. Our willingness to have civil and loving debates are a mark of true unity. To put it simply unity looks more like a debate and a hug than small talk and a handshake.
Somehow taking pride in our distinctive has become analogous to being puffed up with pride like the Pharisees. If we believe something but don’t care enough about it to identify with it, why believe it at all? Christians united by the blood of Christ can disagree about any number of lesser theological issues but further they can take pride in what they believe on lesser issues. Someone that feels strongly that a system of ascending bishops should rule churches is right to identify proudly as Episcopalian. A believer that passionately believes that Jesus died for the sins of every single human being can label herself Arminian without any reason for shame. I might gladly accept the title of Southern Baptist because I firmly believe baptism should occur after salvation and that the SBC missions board are vital entities to support. None of these things are in any real sense divisive and the fact that we can gladly call ourselves Baptists, Methodists, or Anglicans and also call each other brother and sister testifies to true unity.
Another fact our misunderstanding of unity misses is that saying “I am something” is not the same as saying “I am not something else.” This distinction may seem minute but it is actually quite significant. Identifying with what we aren’t is to be divisive and contrarian, identifying with what we are is merely being intellectually honest and celebratory. Nearly every friend of mine from Texas fits the positive stereotype of showing overwhelming state pride. Texans are often extremely proud to be Texans and that’s not a bad thing. No one however would equate a Texan calling themselves a Texan to be somehow smearing Kentuckians for being from Kentucky. Even a former president of the entire United States often proudly spoke of his Texan heritage while leading every other state as well. This analogy goes a step further, someone calling themselves a Texan is in no way suggesting they are not even more an American. Not only is it entirely possible for a proud Texan to be even more proud to be an American, such is quite often actually the case. Strangely our false understanding of Christian unity doesn’t follow our analogy. It’s common for Christians to say something along the lines of, “I’m not a Baptist, I’m a Christian.” This honestly condescending type of statement fails to understand the simple truth that claiming one is a Baptist or is a Presbyterian, etc is to identify as a Christian. We all hold to certain distinctives within the Christian faith and claiming those distinctives not only acknowledges our beliefs but pledges our allegiance to true broader Christianity at the same time. If one Texan told another Texan, “I’m not a Texan, I’m just an American in Texas,” the first Texan would appear absurd and even pretentious. Having this mentality towards our faith is not honorable but ironically divisive.
This false sense of unity also reveals a failure to understand the role of a local church. Too often we see local churches as the different places we get our spiritual fill. Just like I go to Five Guys when I want a burger and Chick-fil-a when I want chicken, I might go to Church A when I want my favorite preaching and Church B when I want my favorite music. Alternatively, I may proudly go to Church C for the same reason why I go to a particular park; they have the best stuff for my kids. When we have either of these attitudes about church, it’s reasonable to see church membership as really inconsequential. Instead the Bible sees local churches as families (Acts 2:42-47) and covenant communities (1 Cor 11:26-29). More importantly the primary role of a local church in the Bible is according to Jonathan Leeman akin to an embassy. Local churches exist to affirm one another as living the life of a Christian and to reveal to those who aren’t what Christianity truly is. Church membership is like having your passport in God’s kingdom stamped. Both the apostle Paul and Jesus command churches to excommunicate those who are walking inconsistent with their claimed Christian faith so that they would cease providing false Christian assurance. Frequently the apostle Paul recognizes Christians with the house church they were part of in his epistles. This was akin to Paul saying greet Tommy and First Lutheran of Dallas, TX. No one is publicly regarded as a Christian in the New Testament that is not in active membership of a local Gospel church. Church membership does not make one a Christian, but it does reveal it to the world. Speaking of your church membership is speaking of the local body of Christ that fulfills the essential role of publicly saying you indeed are a Christian. Saying you’re a member of so and so church is like wearing a Baltimore Ravens cap; you’re not only showing you prefer the Ravens, but you’re telling Packers fans that you are also a football fan.
We live in a polarized world. In this broken apart world the unity of Christians will be a testimony to the hope we have in Jesus. This world doesn’t need to see a church that pretends to agree on everything. This world needs to see a Christianity wherein everyone wears their team colors with pride but we come together as family at the end of the day.