Lexham | 2022 | 288 pages (hardcover) | $29.99
Be sure to listen to MR editor-in-chief Michael Horton’s interview with Richard Lints about the themes in Uncommon Unity on the White Horse Inn episode released August 30, 2023, at whitehorseinn.org/lints.
A few years ago, during a particularly contentious presidential election cycle, my father shared an article with me from a publication to which he subscribed and asked me to offer him my thoughts on the topic covered. While the topic of the article dove into things with which I felt ill-equipped to engage, I did give a word of caution regarding the style of argumentation. Like many contemporary outlets today, the approach argued for the seemingly sole purpose of eliciting fear. The publication pitted us against them and attempted to make the reader scared of too many of them in places of prominence and power. In a publication that, on the surface, seemed committed to American ideals like e pluribus unum—out of the many, one—further reading demonstrated a desire not for unity in diversity but uniformity instead of diversity.
But what does it mean to be unified amid evident diversity? How have we gotten to where we are? What does Scripture say about how the church should engage with this subject? Addressing this topic in public often feels like pressing two magnets together with like poles—the more you attempt to connect them, the more they’re forced apart. In Uncommon Unity, Richard Lints, senior consulting theologian with Redeemer City to City in New York City, posits answers to these questions and more as he sets out to turn the traditional argument for unity upside down. Rather than focusing on “the doctrinal and structural ties binding the church together,” Lints writes, “we must first reflect on the nature of difference as it stands in relation to the theological constructs of unity” (xviii).
American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey is rumored to have said, “A problem well defined is a problem half solved.” In Uncommon Unity, Richard Lints defines the problem of our contemporary diversity and disunity well.
The book is broken into three parts. In part 1 (chs. 1–4), Lints addresses the cultural and contextual differences for understanding and dealing with difference (xix). Here, he describes the inclusion and exclusion narratives of the United States and how these narratives have helped create the deep polarization we see in the church and culture today. While democracy can muzzle the ability of the powerful to rule and suppress the weak, Darwinian law can still flourish because the muzzle is fastened loosely. Our current democracy has historically included more voices than any previous government through the multitude of those able to participate in governing decisions (31). It has also, however, by nature of that inclusion, excluded many voices (37). By popular vote, the majority can exclude the minority through the very mechanism of inclusion. But in a drastic turn of events in American history, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s showed that power in America could be found in exclusion. And now, “nearly anyone could be an outsider by defining themselves over against whoever they believed had discriminated against them” (63).
Understanding these narratives is pivotal for anyone attempting to understand and engage with our social imaginary—how we understand the world to work. Lints describes our social imaginary as “late secular modernity.” It’s late in that many social changes have been under way for a long time leading to our present age (57). It’s secular in that it’s primarily carried out without an abiding sense of a transcendent reality invading ordinary events (63). And it’s modern because what we believe about the world is largely a product of technologically induced ways of thinking (58). With this definition in hand, Lints continues to develop a description of our fracturing inside and outside the church while hinting that Christians are particularly well equipped to address these issues (79).
Outside the church, he uses the example of justice and morality generally, showing that both require morally responsible people and a moral framework upon which there is agreement (77). However, without an agreed-upon ultimate authority, the narratives of inclusion and exclusion allow for things that ought to be absolute (like justice and morality) to be interpreted differently, depending on whoever has the power at the time. In our social imaginary, we’ve removed the Almighty but kept some of his precepts.
Inside the church, however, Lints shows that these same narratives are at play in what he calls the “pluralist impulse,” which is our instinctual desire to choose for ourselves (83). Rather than being firmly rooted in a history handed down through established religious traditions, the evangelical desire to be “relevant” presents Christianity to the world like a buffet presents dinner: the options are endless, and the meal depends entirely on your preferences.
At a point in the book where it may seem that Lints will argue for uniformity instead of diversity, part 2 (chs. 5–8) challenges us to see the beauty of beautiful differences. Here, Lints fully develops the metaphor of marriage, his dominant metaphor throughout the book. To do this, he contrasts our social imaginary against a theological imaginary encountered in Scripture (111). The Creator-creature distinction is fundamental to how we view creature-creature relationships. Only once we acknowledge that meaning, purpose, and truth are given to us and not created by us can we flourish amid diversity because we’re ready to admit our limitations as creatures. “God has created us as social creatures who bear individual responsibility for our actions, as well as being ‘incomplete’ outside a social network of relationships” (135). Eve was a helper made fit for Adam, which assumes that Adam had lack (Gen. 2:18). He needed something diverse and complementary to his deficiencies to be whole.
What was true of Adam and Eve is also true of the church. We need one another. Christian unity is of the utmost importance because Christ bled and died to accomplish it. We exist in the already/not yet, where “the church’s unity has already been accomplished in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, yet is still waiting to be fully accomplished” (174). And it’s because of this that Christians should never be dissuaded from the work of unity (173).
While disunity isn’t new (12–14), the distinct ways in which disunity manifests in a particular culture and against the backdrop of particular historical and individual circumstances are always unique, so any attempt to address disunity must come from an approach willing to bend in certain areas while not being broken in others. Lints helpfully points this out early, stating that it’s inappropriate to draw a straight line from our shared social context to individualized iterations of experience in that context (56).
Enter part 3 of Uncommon Unity. In the book’s final section (chs. 9–10), Lints describes some points of application without prescribing how they ought to be applied. And his reason for this is wisdom. Lints writes that wisdom acknowledges that God has made the world with certain patterns, and our flourishing or demise rests on embracing or resisting those patterns. He goes on to say that, at a fundamental level, “wisdom acquiesces to the fact that we humans are not God” (236).
While this section of the book may be particularly infuriating to a reader looking for pragmatic actions to implement, especially on the heels of such a vivid and encompassing description of the problem, this final section is absolutely right. We’ve all tried on the shirt or hat that claims to be one-size-fits-all only to find out that’s not true. One cookie-cutter solution can’t account for the multiple ways diversity and potential disunity will be manifested in any given context. Lints knows that to blanket the end of the book with tasks and directives would be like a doctor prescribing jogging to a person with paraplegia and heart problems. Sure, jogging may be good for cardiovascular health, but what good does that do for someone unable to implement it?
Instead, Lints offers solutions by describing the reality and importance of wisdom. He articulates five facts of wisdom that all seem to connect to the foundational truth that humans are not God (236–42). He shows that the way the church navigates the challenges of diversity will be wise insofar as it’s firmly rooted in the logic of the gospel (247) and that the heart of the gospel is not an overcoming of diversity but instead has reconciliation as its impulse (248).
These final chapters neatly articulate a goal running straight through Uncommon Unity. Lints desires the church to understand and use gospel logic to create deep “unity-in-difference” (7). Gospel logic is “straightforward,” Lints writes. “The greater the collaboration, the greater the opportunity for conflict unless there is a constraint on the self-interest of individuals in the community” (25). A community committed to living cruciform lives together is the wisdom required for all attempting to navigate the conflict that’s certain to come when diverse people are joined together.
While the contents of this book are valuable for all Christians, its academic writing style probably won’t be easily accessible for the average churchgoer. I therefore stress the importance of ministers and ministry leaders who read this book to disseminate its contents with wisdom and care to their congregants.