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The Practical Unity of the Church
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Chuck Colson and Ellen Vaughn
Being the Body (Nashville, Tennessee:  W Publishing (Thomas Nelson), 2003. 510p.)

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This is a revised and expanded version of an earlier book called The Body.  Colson and Vaughn discuss practical and theological concepts of the Church as One Body in the world.  Vaughn's name was new to me.  I was familiar with Colson from his well-known prison ministry and his earlier political activities.  I had not previously read any of his writing.

I found the book extremely articulate and comprehensive in scope, this book is still an easy read.  The length of the book is at first daunting, but the story flows well.  The personal anecdotes and examples from various settings keep the story active and move the reflective discussion along.

Though writing in a novelesque narrative style, the author present an excellent correlation of readable and engaging information from various disciplines: politics, theology, history, sociology, art and culture.  I found this engaging, informative and enriching.

A long chapter 17 details the persecution of Christians in Communist Europe, and their part in the fall of Communism in 1989-90, in making that happen.  I appreciated the details of the events described.

The authors provide a good ideological summary of the streams of thought and activity in the Protestant Reformation, including the foundations of modern science, critical scholarship and technological development laid by early Protestant leaders.

Practical Unity Marred
The book issues a strong plea for practical unity, but then modifies this by the qualification of strong evangelical concern for "correct doctrine."  I was surprised by this from writers who otherwise seem reflective and realistic.  It was ironic, since they call for a practical unity, then include this statement about intellectual unity, which seems to undercut rather than support their primary focus.

If the unity they seek is practical, then why do they shift to the intellectual sphere of rational abstractions as an added requirement?  Is unity to be practical, relational or intellectual?  The authors seem on the right track in their primary emphasis of practical unity.  They derail their intial call by shifting to the rationalist requirement for intellectual agreement as an added component.

Relational or Intellectual?
While this is lamentable, it is understandable.  This intellectual focus is a primary feature of the Modernist rationalist worldview.  They are simply succumbing to the worldview of their time and culture.  But this mindset contradicts the approach of Jesus.  Practical, relational unity seems to be the focus of Jesus in his instructions to his followers in the Gospel of John (Ch 14), when he tells them to be one as he and the father are one.

Jesus, as portrayed here by the Fourth Evangelist, seems to be quite practical and relational, as Jesus prays that they may be one in the same that way that Jesus is one with the Father.  He prays that the followers might be also "be one in us (John 17:21)."

This relational unity is confirmed as Jesus commands his followers to love one another (John 15:12, 17).  The goal of this loving unity is "everyone will know you are my folowers (John 13:35)." Jesus does not qualify this with any intellectual limitations of abstract propositions.

I found this shift of focus to intellectual beliefs distracting from the broader positive sense of unity presented in the book  The concept of unity of the Body in New Testament writers does not focus on mental concepts (beliefs) beyond the basic confessions of Jesus and his resurrection.  Their review of the Reformation should have indicated that the focus on "doctrine" that followed is divisive, not unifying.

This mental concept of the gospels as facts, rather than relationships, has failed to work over the centuries of the Christian era, where it has been emphasized.  The result is division, not unity.  The actual focuses of the book otherwise indicate that this section on "correct doctrine" may have been included as an accommodation to those with this focus.  The authors otherwise emphasize other aspects of unity overall:  practical and worship focus as the common center.

Focus on Reason
I was glad to see the strong pleas for practical unity, but the authors retain the more doctrinaire neo-gnosticism that has become common in some biblicist circles, as they still maintain this unity must be built on a foundation of strong evangelical intellectual concern for "correct doctrine."  This sounds like Colson's contribution, as it is similar to language I have heard him use before about "propositional truth."

It appears to me that the focus on the concept of "beliefs" as commitment to certain objective propositional statements is one version of the modern Enlightenment ideal of Reason, quite different in tone from the biblical concept of truth as relational.  Jesus put the precepts of the Kingdom of God in relational terms, centered in the Hebrew concept of covenant relationships, not rational abstractions.

Relational Truth
In his great prayer for the Unity of his followers, Jesus indicates unity is not based on our beliefs, but on the glory of God:  "I have given them the glory that you gave me, so they will be One in the same way we are One" [John 17:22].  Truth is a power that depends on God, not on our perception.  Jesus prays:  "Set them apart by the truth; your word is truth" [John 17:17].  Jesus puts truth in personal and practical terms:  "I am ...  the Truth" [John 14:6].

What is now called "doctrine" goes way beyond the New Testament concept of "teachings," which are repeatedly iterated as the basics of the confession of Jesus as the living revelation of God, and the basic events of his final week recorded in the gospels.  We don't find any list of required doctrinal beliefs in the Gospels.  Paul presents the first written statements of the Good News available to us [1 Cor 15:3-5].

Never did Jesus present his list of abstract propositional statements.  Those came later, arising around interpretive concerns out of cultural and linguistic contexts.

Full Coverage
Colson and Vaughn also draw strongly on Catholic sources, and give a good coverage to Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly in regard to the faithful suffering of Christians under Communist regimes.  They survey current areas of Christian persecution in the world.  The book is more prophetic than I expected in speaking to the "evangelical" church and its common foibles and failures.

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First notes written in May 2005 and review posted on Amazon.com
This version posted on Thoughts and Resources 23 December 2008
Last edited 27 Februuary 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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