Last week I had occasion to attend two Christian conferences—Together for the Gospel (T4G) in Louisville, KY and the Wheaton College Theology Conference in Wheaton, IL, which focused on the work of New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright.
The conferences were very different, and I would venture to guess that I was one of a few if not the only person to attend both. Aside from both being gatherings of evangelical Christians and both covering the hot topic of justification to some degree, I felt like the groups were desperately far from one another in so many ways. Louisville and Wheaton are not that far from each other geographically, but my experiences in both places last week felt like two different worlds.
And at the end of it all—after more than 20 lectures by renowned Christian leaders, pastors, and theologians; after amassing 30+ books (I shipped most of them home); and after filling most of my neon green moleskin with notes—I’m left feeling simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. And I'm left wondering what sense might be made of such disparate experiences of corporate Christian thought. Is there any unifying takeaway from these two events? Yes—and I think it is (ironically) the idea of unity itself. Or the lack thereof.
Both of these conferences—on the surface and in their rhetoric—speak the “unity language.” “TOGETHER for the Gospel” bespeaks a coming-togetherness or coalition of various wings of Christianity for the sake of the “main thing”—the Gospel. Wheaton’s conference was entitled “Jesus, Paul & the People of God: A Theological DIALOGUE With N.T. Wright”—language that as well indicates a sort of coming-togetherness, perhaps in a more academic sense.
But what did unity look like in reality at these conferences, and what did they have to say about the idea? Because it’s such a huge topic and because I’m still processing all of it, I’m just going to bullet some quickly-thought out observations here (written down on the plane ride home):
- N.T. Wright, who is currently working on a massive tome on Paul, to be released “no sooner than 2012,” spoke about unity a lot during the conference at Wheaton. Apparently the overarching theme or argument of his Paul book (the next volume in his magnum opus series that so far includes The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God) is that “the main symbol of Paul’s worldview is the unity of the church.” At various points in the conference he said things like this: “The cross brings together—unthinkably—the slave and the master” (talking about Philemon); “The cross is the place where the unreconcilable can be reconciled;” “The unity of the church is a sign to the world that there is a new way of being human;” “The unity of the church sends a message to the world-be rulers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they are not” (Eph. 3); and “Nothing justifies schism.”
- Wright often quotes Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
- The "Welcome!" letter to T4G registrants, which included hundreds of women, began "Dear Brothers (& Sisters!)..."
- The Wheaton conference was dominated by white men, many with Ph.Ds, many wearing either sportcoats or bowties. But there were three women speakers, and several Canadians.
- T4G was also largely homogenous (white, male, conservative) but did have one non-white speaker, Thabiti Anyabwile.
- Anyabwile’s lecture was provocative, centering upon a claim that I’m pretty sure none of the white speakers at T4G could ever get away with saying: “The church is inescapably multiethnic, but it isn’t multicultural. It is monocultural.” He meant, I think, that when one becomes a Christian, he or she must check their old culture at the door, shedding the old snakeskin because Christianity is its own culture, set over and against all the other cultures of the world. I’m not quite sure what this means in practice, though. Are we humans not just as inescapably cultural as we are inescapably ethnic? Can not the Gospel unity which Wright speaks of display the countercultural coming-togetherness of diverse cultures as well as ethnicities?
- The tone of T4G struck me as being rather on the defensive side. Far from being an olive-branch-extending “dialogue” between Christians of opposing viewpoints, T4G was rather more like a club of quite like-minded conservative Baptists and Presbyterians (PCA) patting each other on the back for their mutual buttressing of the “unadjusted Gospel” (the theme of the conference), while also corporately dismissing and sometimes bad-mouthing any and all so-called “adjusters” of the Gospel—a phantom, threatening group which includes N.T. Wright, anything “emergent,” Catholics, Rick Warren, and basically everyone that isn’t them.
- The tone of the Wheaton conference was a bit more ecumenical (I saw Anglicans, Episcopals, Pentecostals, Greek Orthodox, and even some Reformed Presbyterians) and intellectually open-minded, full of lively and cordial scholarly debates between Wright and his colleagues, who pressed him on various things they thought he got wrong.
- Speaking of debate – the elephant in the room at both conferences was the ongoing (and increasingly well-known) debate on the doctrine of justification between N.T. Wright and John Piper. And at their respective conferences, both spoke on justification and made reference to the other’s arguments. The problem is that these men, both pastor/theologians who speak eloquently and love God, are talking past each other on this topic. They are not in dialogue. This might change for the better come November when the two will square off in person at the annual meeting of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) in Atlanta. But for now, its hard to see much unity in their debate. From my view, they agree on much more than they differ. And however intellectually at odds they might be (which is fine), they are first and foremost brothers in the house of God. I hope they—and their respective supporters in the fray—can model this sort of unified, "mere Christian" spirit. I hope we all can.