By Eric Stetson
Before he went to the cross, Jesus told his disciples that they should not be divided. In a moving prayer, he asked God to make all his followers one, united in the Father’s love. “My prayer is not for them alone,” said Jesus of his first disciples. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You. May they also be in Us… that they may be one as We are One… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.” (John 17:20-23).
It is in the spirit of this prayer of Jesus Christ that the Christian Universalist Association has been founded. The word Universalist refers not only to a belief in universal salvation. It also means that God is in all people and that all people should come together in unity to become one in Christ. That is our greatest goal. We are trying to fulfill the hope of Jesus when he prayed that all his followers would become one in the knowledge of our Heavenly Father’s boundless love.
But creating unity among Christians is tough. You can’t just wave a magic wand and say, “Let’s all be one in Christ” — and poof! — all the divisions of denomination and doctrine and tradition suddenly vanish. Nor would such uniformity necessarily be a good thing even if it were possible. There are many ways to be a sincere Christian, and oneness doesn’t have to mean the obliteration of diversity. What it should mean, rather, is a newfound sense of respect for each other’s spiritual journey and path, and a willingness to come together in fellowship to spread the Gospel — regardless of our differences of worship style or minor doctrines.
Even that much is not easy. There are some Christians who prefer to follow individual teachers and strongly identify with the religious leaders they are comfortable with, wishing not to have any fellowship or connection with others. This spirit of separation is what ultimately leads to the curse of denominationalism — the idea that Christians must be forever divided into competing “sects” or “camps” that have little contact with one another, and sometimes even hate each other.
The Christian Universalist Association is being formed because we do not want to see this sectarian spirit tear apart the burgeoning Christian Universalist movement in the 21st century. Even among those who believe in the “reconciliation of all,” many still do not want to reconcile with others who agree that all are saved through Christ but believe and worship and understand their faith in different ways than they are familiar with. Without the CUA, I have no doubt in my mind that 20 or 30 years from now, there would be several new denominations that teach universal reconciliation for people in the afterlife, but which dislike each other, criticize each other, and refuse to work together in this life.
|Paul warned against identifying with individual teachers or apostles, and urged all Christians to be one in Christ.|
I have little tolerance for hypocrisy. If “Universalist” or “Inclusionist” or “Reconciliationist” Christians cannot even have the courage and the vision to get connected and unify with each other, then we are nothing but the worst kind of hypocrites. Strong words? You bet! Those are the kind of strong words the Apostle Paul used, which we read in our Bible. Paul warned against identifying with individual teachers or apostles, and urged all Christians to be one in Christ.
In Paul’s time, all Christians were universalist in their understanding of salvation, so eternal hell wasn’t an issue. What was an issue was everything else. Various people were starting churches and making converts by teaching their own particular “spin” on the Gospel — Paul included. There was nothing wrong with that, except if it got in the way of Christian love, brotherhood, and unity.
Paul saw this happening in the Corinthian church and warned the members about this spirit of doctrinal division, the preference for following specific individuals and the refusal to come together under the larger banner of the Gospel. “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you,” he wrote to the church. “What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.'” (1 Cor. 1:11-12).
Now here comes Paul’s strong rebuke: “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1 Cor. 3:3-5).
We today in the Christian Universalist movement need to hearken to Paul’s warning and do what is necessary to heed it. Let there be no doubt: the Apostle Paul was not a lone ranger who wouldn’t work with people he disagreed with. He was not an anti-organizational 100% independent preacher. Just the opposite! For if he had been, he would have been guilty of leading people — either intentionally or unintentionally — to follow himself instead of Apollos or Cephas or whoever else, neglecting to bring all the believers together in the Body of Christ.
What Paul did was tirelessly work to promote greater levels of connection and organization among the various members of the Body of Christ. He did this even when he disagreed with other leaders in the new faith — sometimes strongly. Just imagine how it must have pained Paul to tell new believers to take up a collection to send back to the Jerusalem Church, which was led by James, one who leaned in the direction of Judaism rather than the more radical spiritual vision that Paul promoted in his own writings. But he did it anyway (e.g. see 1 Cor. 16:1-4). Why? Because he knew that Christ wanted unity.
Jesus didn’t want to start ten new religions, or a hundred new denominations. He came to earth to bring people together as one, to make us realize that we are all brothers and sisters, the children of One Heavenly Father. Thank God that the great and tremendously influential Apostle Paul didn’t try to be a Paul or an Apollos. He tried to be a minister of reconciliation.
Sure, Paul had his own opinions about Christian doctrine — sometimes very strongly held, vigorously expressed, and highly controversial. But this didn’t stop him from telling all Christians to strive to become one. And friends, the only way to be one is to be part of one body. Just because we disagree about some things doesn’t mean we should refuse to unite with one another to work together for the things we can agree on: a God who is Love, who sent His Son Jesus into this world to show all people how much He loves us and is committed to saving us.
That is what the Christian Universalist Association is all about. Before its creation, there was no way for people today who believe in the true Gospel of an all-loving God to unite with one another, regardless of denomination, tradition, and personal doctrinal opinions. Now there is. I humbly ask that all believers become part of this association to unify the Body of Christ in the rediscovered knowledge of God’s all-embracing, all-saving love.
In the CUA, we share the hope of Jesus Christ that Christians may not be divided, but united in the Gospel. And we share the passion of Paul for helping to organizing the ecclesia to become more effective in spreading the true message of Christ. I pray with every ounce and fiber of my being: Lord, let us be one!
This article was originally published in the May-June 2007 issue of The Christian Universalist Connection. Eric Stetson is the author of a 2008 book, Christian Universalism: God’s Good News For All People. He served as the founding Executive Director of the Christian Universalist Association.