On the Intersection of Differences and Unity in the Body of Christ

Esau McCaulley interviewed NT Wright on his Disrupters podcast last year. NT Wright is a British New Testament scholar of some renown who became McCauley’s mentor at St. Andrew’s. McCaulley is an African American raised a Southern Baptist in the deep south.

McCaulley made a comment after the interview that prompts my writing today. He said,

“I feel like I am a mix of a bunch of things. I have this kind of British, evangelical side, and I have this kind of African American church side, and strangely they have coalesced in ways I didn’t expect.”

N.T. Wright Forces an Overdue Conversation on the Disrupters Podcast 2-3-22

I think about how interesting and rich the conversation was between Wright and McCaulley. The fact that they come from unique and diverse backgrounds permeates the discussion as they explore the things that unite them.

Esau McCaulley is a New Testament scholar in his own right, now, due in no small part to the influence of NT Wright. He has written one book on Galatians, and he is now writing a second. McCauley also became an Anglican, but his heritage and unique experience, personally and communally, as a black man in America remain central to his identity.

I think about the church in the United States and the global Church. I recently heard someone note an unfortunate, unforeseen and unintended consequence of the Reformation and the great movement to translate the Bible into many languages to make it accessible to common people. That consequence was the fragmentation of the Church.

First, it fragmented into groups of people who spoke English, French, and other European languages. Over time, the fragmentation rippled out so that today in America we can find Spanish-speaking, Filipino-speaking, and other linguistic, ethnic and cultural huddles of believers that keep largely to themselves based on language, heritage, doctrine, the format of worship and other things.

The Reformation splintered into many “protestant” groups, and that fragmentation exploded in the New World where Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others splintered apart from each other into various and distinct groups, and many more new denominations sprung up. The fragmentation continued along cultural, doctrinal, ethnic, ritualistic, racial, governmental, and other lines.

Nowhere is this fragmentation more evident in the world than in the United States. In fact, statistics show that churches in the United States are more segregated than the rest of the country (which is still pretty segregated).

The intersectionality (to use a very loaded term) of the disparate backgrounds, experiences and heritage of Wright and McCaulley, and their ongoing relationship remind me of the need for unity in the Church. We need to come together. We need to talk. We need each other.

NT Wright is Anglican, but he has attracted a broad audience that includes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and American Evangelicals (among others). In the conversation on the podcast, McCaulley asked Wright what his major goals for the Church are, and Wright responded that unity within the body of Christ is top of his mind.  

CS Lewis (another Anglican) championed the idea of church unity in layman’s terms with his concept of “mere Christianity”. Mere Christianity is the intersectionality (I know….) of the primary doctrines that are essential for all Christians.

Not that I will try to identify those doctrines (here). That isn’t my point right now. The point is that Jesus said the world would know us by our love for each other. He prayed that we would be one like He and the Father are one. This is some highly important stuff!

With a focus on the common denominators (a kind Christ and him crucified approach), we can celebrate our own traditions, but we can’t discount unity in favor of our differences and take seriously the prayer of Jesus for our oneness. We should be praying, as He did, for unity among us based on the central things that matter most – not the least of which is love for one another.

I think about the fact that Esau McCaulley is taking what he learned in New Testament scholarship from a British Anglican and is applying it to the issue of racial injustice in America. He is doing scholarly exegesis of New Testament writings, such as the books on Galatians, while applying that exegesis to the modern problem of racial disparity.

And that leads me to use the loaded term, “intersectionality”, to make a point. Use of the term, I expect, might cause some to bristle. Intersectionality comes out of secular thought and culture that is Marxist at its root. The term is loaded with the concepts of Critical Race Theory and a worldview that rejects Christian principles and belief in God.

For the record, McCaulley did not use the term in the interview, and I don’t recall him using it in any of his podcasts I have heard or articles I have read. McCaulley upholds and carries on very much in the orthodox tradition of conservative Bible scholarship.

At the same, he is black in America and grew up with centuries of racial baggage weighing on him and his family caused by generations of disparate treatment at the hands of white colonists who were (largely) members of American churches. He stands at the “intersection” of traditional conservative biblical scholarship and racial injustice in America.

I know: there’s that word again…. I will get to the point.

McCaulley and Wright met at the intersection of European and American culture, background and thought, Anglican and Baptist traditions, white and black. We need this kind of “intersectionality”! People come together at the intersections!

While the term, intersectionality”, and the concepts that underlie Critical Race Theory, bring a “taint” with it into traditionally conservative church circles, we can learn something from it. We don’t have to take it in with all its baggage. We can redeem it!

The church often reacts reflexively against things that come from the outside, but we lose something when we fail to connect with the world outside the church. We lose touch with the world – people about whom Christ is keenly interested. They are the lost sheep Jesus was willing to leave the 99 to find.

One of the amazing aspects of the Gospel is the way it translates and is adaptable into all the cultures of the world. The Gospel has universal appeal and application. We, in the west, often insist on preserving the Gospel with a uniquely western flavor, but doing so (I am convinced) is to the detriment of the Gospel and its spread in the world.

Tim Keller in his sermon, The Gospel to the African, (focusing on the Ethiopian eunuch) quotes from Lamin Sanneh, who wrote, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, for the statement that Christianity is the only global religion. Sanneh explains that statement in detail in his book, but the statistics speak volumes.

A quick look at the concentrations of the major world religions tells a story:

About, 98% of Hindus live in India or southeast Asia.

About, 96% of Muslims live in the Middle East, northern Africa and southeast Asia.

About, 88% of Buddhists live in east Asia.

Christianity stands apart by its diversity. Christianity is spread all over the Globe and is growing fastest in areas that are very different, culturally, from the Western world that more people associate with Christianity.

The highest percentage of the Christian population lives outside the west. Below are the figures from the book Keller quoted (written in 2003) compared to a 2011 Pew Research article. Christians are spread around the world in roughly these percentages:

25%24.8%in Central America, South America & Caribbean
22%26.6%in Africa
20%23.5%in Europe (including half of Russia)
15%15.5%in Asia (including half of Russia)
12%12%in North America (USA & Canada)
*From Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West
**From Regional Distribution of Christians by Pew Research Center 2011

Notice that fewer Christians live in North America than other regions of the world. More Christians live in the non-Western world than the Western world (North America and Europe). Christianity has uniquely engaged the world and spread uniformly around the world compared to all other world religions.

In the United States, the Gospel became the salvation of slaves, even when the Gospel was used to justify slave ownership. Why? It didn’t happen because of the use of the Gospel to justify slavery; it happened despite it!

It happened because the Gospel transcends human attempts to confine it and box it in and attempts to control it.

I think of Paul speaking at the Areopagus quoting pagan poets and philosophers. Paul repurposed (we might say he redeemed) the use of pagan sayings and retooled them to reach the Greeks in Athens.

We shouldn’t shrug off or reject a word like “intersectionality”. We don’t need to be afraid if it. We can repurpose it, retool it and redeem a word like intersectionality to convey the Gospel message to people who don’t know the language of the Gospel.

On that point, it occurs to me that we need more intersectionality, not in the sense in which it might be applied in Critical Theory, but in a more generic sense of the word. We need more intersections in our lives that bring different people with different backgrounds together in Christ, like the relationship between NT Wright and Esau McCaulley.

We need to bring the diverse fractions of the Body of Christ together – putting aside for that purpose the things that define us separately and focusing on the commonality of Christ that binds us together.

Another, older word for this might be cross-pollination, to pick a word with less political baggage. We need more interaction and interconnection between ourselves and other people within the church and outside the church.

Within the church, we need to strive for the unity for which Jesus prayed. We need diverse factions of the Body of Christ to do this without losing their focus on Christ and him crucified. We may need to hold more loosely to peripheral things and cling more tightly to mere Christianity.

Just as importantly, we need to connect with the world for which God became man and died – not coming to condemn the world, but to save it through him. Just as Paul did at the Areopagus, we have to meet them where they are, using terms and terminology they know, and point people to Christ.

4 thoughts on “On the Intersection of Differences and Unity in the Body of Christ

  1. Great article. Today when I hear the term “THE Christian perspective” I cringe. The term implies there is a singular agreed-upon perspective. This is FAR from true. There are areas/issues where the conservative Christians and liberal Christians are 180 degrees apart… BOTH sides claiming to have THE Christian perspective. The biggest difference I see is conservatives tend to use the Old Testament as their foundation while liberals tend to use the New Testament as their foundation. To your point, we should strive to emphasize the areas of intersection.

    Liked by 2 people

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