When must we break unity?

At the recent Synod of the Sydney Diocese two important motions were passed concerning the wider Anglican communion.  The first affirmed our Archbishop for attending the consecration of Bishop Andy Lines as a Missionary Bishop for the UK. The second expressed our sadness that the Scottish Episcopal Church had broken communion with us, and other faithful Anglicans, by their decisions concerning so-called “same-sex marriage”.  In those debates, the importance of unity in the church was raised as an argument against these actions. Such arguments need to be heard and considered. Unity is highly valued in the Scriptures and so it should be valued by us (e.g. Eph 2:11-22, 4:1-6, John 17:20-23).  Indeed, is there any more difficult issue for Christians than when to break unity with people who claim the name of Christ?

However, we also see in the Scriptures that there is no value in maintaining a false or institutional unity simply for unity’s sake.  The unity that God longs for us to preserve is the unity that we have by virtue of our common faith in Christ.  It is a unity created by the fact that we share the Spirit of Christ.

Accordingly, the unity that Paul calls on us to eagerly maintain in passages like Ephesians 2 is a unity built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20).  That is, it is a unity built on a common faith drawn from the Scriptures.  The diversity that Ephesians then calls us to celebrate is a diversity of ethnicity and of giftedness – a diversity that is overcome by a non-diversity of faith. Paul’s end goal is that we would all reach unity – but it is a unity in the faith and the knowledge of God’s Son (Eph 4:13).

In that light, there is no benefit or godliness in maintaining unity with those who cease to hold firm to sound doctrine or who cease to place themselves under the authority of the Scriptures.  That sort of unity is actually condemned in the Scriptures.  Indeed, how can we yoke ourselves together with unbelievers for “what fellowship can light have with darkness” (2 Cor 6:14)?

However, motions of the sort moved at Synod are the easy part.  Sadly, the reality is that many international Anglicans walked away from Christ’s teaching long ago and so, for most evangelicals, passing motions such as these are an important but obvious and uncontroversial step to take.  We already know that for too long unity has been maintained in these parts of the Anglican communion at the expense of truth.  No, the reality is that the far more important and difficult question to ask is at what earlier point should unity have been broken for the sake of Gospel clarity and the good of God’s church?  That is the question that we must be ready to ask in our own contexts.

This article is too short to deal with that question fully, however let me float some ideas that might help us in this.  I wonder if the wisdom to deal with this issue starts in realising that in Ephesians 4 maintaining unity is always an end goal, while our current calling is to speak the truth and show love (verse 15)?  In Ephesians 4 we are called to ‘diligently keep the unity of the Spirit’ (verse 3), however, the express action we take is ‘speaking the truth in love…to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ (verse 15).  If our unity involves sacrificing truth and love, and growing apart from Christ, is it not by definition a false unity?

Sadly, it seems that too often the call to ‘maintain’ unity is used as a means of stopping the more difficult task of grappling for the truth while showing love and grace.  Rather than seeking the end point of agreement in Christ, the call for ‘unity’ is a means of ensuring that we are not questioned or challenged.  On that front, I wonder if the person who feels the need to demand that others “maintain unity” with them has, almost by definition, already lost the battle? They are perhaps a little like the sad (and inappropriate) situation of a husband who demands that his wife submit to him.  In the same way that a wife’s submission is a voluntary response to her husband’s godly loving service, perhaps unity should not be demanded but can only ever be the result of a mutual submission to God’s word expressed with love and grace?

Whatever the answers, recent events show us that the unity we work toward and maintain must be a unity built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  More than that, they also show us that surely we must be willing to take steps to call out false unity at a much earlier point than the Anglican Communion has done in the past.