Book Review: Unreconciled
We live in a divided age. Division is prevalent at all levels of society. In fact, for many, division is simply the new normal—the unwavering characteristic of our age. While we may desire to live in a time of peace, understanding, and acceptance, we also struggle to believe anything like that is possible. Paul Jeon is under no delusion that things are much better in the church than in the world. Yet in his very short, accessible, and pastoral book, Unreconciled, he gives hope to those who might despair over the disunity or division that pervades the church in general or their particular church.
OUR IDENTITY IN CHRIST
Focusing on the small, oft-neglected book of Philemon, Jeon provides a number of important lessons about reconciliation. His conviction is that this book’s purpose is to help Christians get along with people they would rather not. In all, the book helps us understand how we ought to interact with others—especially with those we may find particularly difficult.
Jeon begins his discussion of reconciliation looking at our identity as Christians. Jesus said, “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This kind of reconciling love might not be exciting or flashy, but it is one primary way Christians testify to who they are and to whom they belong. Unless we understand who we are in Christ, then reconciliation will likely seem like an impossibility. Certainly our social class, ethnicity, nationality, and other features of our life matter, but Christians have something far more foundational that shapes our identity—we are in Christ. Because we have been shown grace, we can show grace to others. Christian community exists as a result of all kinds of diverse people receiving God’s grace and then coming together and showing grace to one another. Unlike worldly communities, the Christian community is not a result of natural commonalities or shared interests.
Jeon particularly focuses on community in chapter 2. He points out that faith in Jesus and Christian fellowship go hand in hand. Through faith we are brought into community. What that community looks like will differ from place to place and a person’s engagement in the Christian community will also differ according to calling, stage of life, and other factors. But a lack of desire to live in community should lead us to question if we are truly in the faith, for it is the very thing we are brought into through believing.
In Christ’s community we learn what it means to forgive, what spiritual gifts we might have, and what the Christian life entails. We learn from God’s Word as a community and we learn what the implications of God’s word are by participating in community life. Reconciliation is one thing among others that we learn about and then see on display in the church. Reconciliation is never easy, but it is necessary, because community isn’t optional.
LEARNING TO MEDIATE FROM PAUL
Chapter 3 contains Jeon’s explanation of peacemaking. Looking again to the book of Philemon, Jeon unpacks principles for reconciliation. He shows, for instance, the importance of mediation. Paul himself is acting as a mediator between Philemon and Onesimus. Mediation is not always required, but in some situations there is little help of progress if no one else facilitates conversation. Jeon also shows that Paul’s mediation focused on the implications of the gospel. Because Philemon and Onesimus are united in Christ they ought to treat one another as brothers.
Jeon does well to point out that many of the divisions that plague the church today would be helped significantly if, like Paul, we focused on our unity in Christ before all else. The good news of the gospel and its implications are always important because Christians are always blinded by something in their lives. Philemon was an outstanding leader in many ways, but that did not remove his need to be instructed by Paul. To see clearly we must be told the good news over and over again.
Lastly, Jeon reveals Paul’s effectiveness in persuasion. Mediators must not only provide sound biblical counsel, they must demonstrate the right posture and manifest godly character. As Jeon shows, throughout Philemon Paul was humble, personal, reasonable, all while endeavoring to hold his audience accountable.
A FEW CONFUSING POINTS
Jeon does take some interesting interpretive liberties. For example, he sees Paul’s reconciliation with John Mark as a result of realizing the grace he had received from Jesus. This speculation seems to lead us to conclude that Paul’s rejection of Mark was as a result of not understanding the full implications of the gospel.
Jeon also occasionally uses confusing terms. For example, he refers to special revelation as revelation that comes directly and audibly from God and thus benefits only a few individuals in the Bible. Normal revelation, on Jeon’s account, is what comes from listening to the preached Word and living in community. It is through normal revelation that we learn God’s will for our lives. This explanation of revelation is confusing on a few levels. First, it conflicts with the way theologians have traditionally used the term special revelation to refer to Scripture. Second, if I am understanding Jeon rightly, then living in community is equivalent to hearing God’s word preached. Anyone with more than a few days in the church might understand how troubling and confusing this idea is. We must certainly maintain a distinction between the fellowship of Christians and hearing God’s word from the pulpit.
Ultimately, Jeon’s short book has some helpful insights on community and reconciliation based on principles found in Philemon. It may provide thought provoking material for those who desire to see reconciliation take place in their own relationships or in their church in general.