Unity versus Holiness

I was listening to a podcast of N.T. Wright this past year. He said something along these lines, “It’s very difficult for a community to be holy and unified at the same time.” At least that’s the way I heard it.

Regardless of precisely what he said, this is the thing I continued to think about. Yep. It’s hard to have holiness and unity at the same time. I’m sure the force of the quote could be diminished by deconstructing the words or playing with their definition – figuring out a way to make them work together seamlessly.

When I talk with younger folks in the church (I’m 43), I get the feeling their primary value is unity. It makes sense to me. You can make a reasonably strong Biblical case for the primacy of unity (Jesus’s prayer at the end that we would be one, and the Hebrew vision of Shalom, for example). But, I think it’s also a response to something they feel: everyone is always fighting, everyone is just so angry with each other.

Perhaps you could call it a hunger. Their experience of so many loud voices, with so many resources to do their campaigning, so angry with everyone else, always dramatically slamming their fist on the table moments before leaving it – well, it leaves one hungry for something different.

I think this hunger for something different is a hunger for unity. If they were forced to choose between unity and holiness, they’d pick unity. Immediately. Why? To my younger friends, all these competing views of holiness – both secular and sacred – just create anger, hatred, tribalism, judgment, and ultimately, separation.

And, right or wrong, their understanding of Jesus is that if he were forced to choose, he’d pick unity over holiness as well.

The more thoughtful ones admit the need for holiness, which might be defined as a commitment to a set of values. But, the only models they have for working out a commitment to holiness lead to division. The sense I get is that they want to call a timeout – could we all just agree to hold our definition of holiness loosely for a day, a week, heck maybe even a year. Long enough to catch our breath, pray, talk when the stakes aren’t so high.

Perhaps spend some time at the table together, eating bread and drinking wine alongside the guy who, as unfathomable as it is, invited all of us there.

By Jason Brown