'The Jesus Project': A Postscript

“You have said the gospel creates unity among people with ‘theological diversity,’ ” someone says. “That’s the part I can’t quite accept. Yes, it unites people of great ethnic and cultural difference, but it is agreement in our theology that creates unity that is greater than superficial differences of birth, skin color, or language. The Bible asks: ‘Can two walk together, except they be agreed?’ And Paul wrote: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.’ ”

Those are verses right out of the King James Version of the Bible at Amos 3:3 and 1 Corinthians 1:10. The first one may leave a false impression from that translation. The Hebrew text more correctly translated asks this: “Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment?” (NRSV). For the moment, however, let’s work with these verses in the familiar language most of us know.

The question “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” actually permits two very different answers. One could answer negatively this way: “No, two people cannot walk together unless they are agreed on a direction for their travel.” She can’t go north as he goes south – and be together. But they can indeed walk together in the same general direction (e.g., football stadium, restaurant) and love one another as friends or mates in spite of their disagreements (e.g., the team for which to cheer, food of choice). One could answer positively this way: “Yes, two people who disagree can walk together in order to discuss an important subject about which they differ.” If we accept the better translation of the verse, it is not difficult to imagine that two people who respect each other have made an “appointment” precisely because they think the issue at hand (i.e., business, education, Christian doctrine) is important enough that it deserves to be thought through very carefully.

The parties in view at Amos 3:3 appear to be Yahweh and Israel, not two Hebrew prophets or theologians. No, God and his people could not walk together in the Negev except by agreement on their goal of a “land flowing with milk and honey.” No, God and the people of Amos’ time could not walk together in holiness and rebellion. Both in the wilderness experience and in the times of the prophets, Yahweh was always willing to walk with his confused and far-from-uniform-in-beliefs Chosen People by his compassion and grace – just as he does with his people still.

Paul was very concerned about the situation at Corinth. The Christians there were neither “speak[ing] the same thing” nor demonstrating that they were “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment”; it could not be said of them that there were “no divisions among you” at Corinth. They were divided over preacher loyalty. Some were saying one thing and others another about who their favorite teacher was, and it had become such a sharp contention that they had turned it into a church quarrel. “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-17). What a spectacle that must have been for non-Christians who had come into their midst to learn the gospel – comparable to the experience some have today who wander into some Christian assemblies to find comfort after a horrible diagnosis or direction for their lives after a terrible moral failure, only to hear someone harangue Billy Graham or churches that don’t identify the two beasts of the Apocalypse correctly!

About what did Paul want the church at Corinth to be in agreement? Everything? About what did he want them “united in the same mind and the same purpose”? All items of Christian doctrine and practice? Of course not, for it was this same apostle who insisted that believers give one another great latitude of conviction and action at Romans 14. Thus he would write: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Rom. 14:4). The people of God at Corinth and Rome in the first century and at Presbyterian and Baptist churches today are to “speak the same thing” about the One who saves and sanctifies or about the One to whom they belong. Their best understandings of eschatology, church government, and Calvinism don’t have to mesh. Their confession of Jesus Christ as the One alone who is Son of God and Lord of All must be the same. It is in that confession that Christian unity is established and maintained.

provided, designed & powered by