Book Review: Until Unity, by Francis Chan
Francis Chan, Until Unity. David C Cook, 2021. 224 pages.
What currently plagues Jesus’s church more than anything else?
One peek at Twitter shows the diversity of opinions: “Liberalism!” “Pragmatism!” “Legalism!” Christians divide over the answer.
Francis Chan’s book Until Unity argues that division itself is the problem that has Jesus’s church sputtering and stalling most. He begins by lamenting the state of Christianity. Christians are “the most divided faith group on earth, and there isn’t a close second” (16). He remarks that God hates our divisions, and division itself may be a sign that the Holy Spirit is not in us (17). Moreover, our divisions cause the world to hate us and take little interest in Jesus (25). It’s a bleak picture, indeed, but one that, unfortunately, many Christians experience first-hand.
Yet, Chan concludes his introduction on a hopeful note: “I believe there is a much greater army of believers who are done with all the needless fighting and factions” (33).
The rest of the book is about outfitting this army for the task at hand. Chan begins by showing from Scripture that the Triune God, in whose image we’re made, desires our unity (ch. 1). He argues that every Christian should want unity (ch. 2). He foregrounds Jesus’s prayer in John 17 to establish the relationship between our unity and the success of our mission (ch. 3). And then he identifies what churches need in order to experience supernatural unity: repentance for divisiveness (ch. 4), Christ-like maturity (ch. 5), love (ch. 6), and fighting for other Christians and their holiness (ch. 7). Finally, Chan argues that unity must start with the individual, then their families, then their church, and then Christians everywhere (ch. 8). Chan concludes with an earnest prayer to God for unity.
Overall, Until Unity is a sweeping and searching appeal for God’s people to be one—and not a thin-air kind of oneness. Instead, God’s people should seek a oneness founded on our having been made one with God himself (34).
Chan has been a popular Christian writer and speaker for some time now. Like many, I benefitted from his book Crazy Love, which I read as a high schooler.
In 2021, Chan made waves with his newly-acquired mystical understanding of the Lord’s Supper. 9Marks committed a Pastors Talk episode to the issue. Since then, some have worried that slippage in Chan’s theology might follow. Until Unity does leave the door open to some slippage, as I’ll get to. Nonetheless, the book boldly champions several Christian doctrines that others find difficult to stomach. For example, Chan writes about hell and Judgment Day:
As it stands today, even the churches who still technically believe in Hell will rarely speak about it. Many have abandoned the doctrine altogether. . . . If the Scriptures so clearly describe the coming judgement, how can so many who claim to be Christian ignore these passages? The Bible teaches that we have a real Enemy. . . (75, 78).
Hell is the eternal backstop for those who live in rebellion against God. Wisely, Chan recognizes that this horrible reality should encourage Christians to evangelize the lost (61).
Additionally, Chan spends an entire chapter using the doctrines of the Trinity and the Imago Dei to argue for Christian unity. He also cites the 325 Nicene Creed in full as a positive example from church history of Christians seeking unity in truth (108). While I think Chan operates with a deficient understanding of theological triage, he clearly desires to maintain Christian orthodoxy and treats the Scriptures as his authority.
SOME GOOD ECCLESIOLOGY
I didn’t expect a book on unity to give considerable real estate to the subject of church discipline. Yet, Chan does just that, and he is right on the money. In his chapter on how unity requires a fight, Chan writes,
We will never have the unity that God wants of His Bride if we allow certain people to remain in our circle. Far from being a loveless act, the church’s love is dependent on its ability to challenge errant theology, confront unrepentant sin, and remove those who cause unnecessary divisions. (163)
He considers archetypal passages on discipline like Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Corinthians 5:4–5 and reasons that churches who don’t discipline assume themselves to have a better methodology than Jesus and Paul (166). Discipline, he says, is biblically prescribed and missionally necessary.
Chan also criticizes pragmatism’s creep into our churches. Too many churches desire big attendance over gospel obedience (86). To illustrate, he points to a church who used a celebrity to draw a crowd and then compares it to one that obeys God’s commands to live as a family (87). Our failure to obey God’s commands because we favor “strategy,” he concludes, is straight unbelief (88). This is a point we all need to hear.
For the many good aspects of this book, there are a few reasons to be cautious.
First, Chan essentially argues for a gospel essentialism. By that I mean, he thinks legitimate divisions can only occur over issues essential to the gospel. We should divide our churches over first-order issues, but not second-order ones, like the ordinances or church government. Arguing from Ephesians 4:1–3, Chan writes,
Too often, we have made doctrine the crux of our evaluations of other believers over and above the presence of the Holy Spirit. I know I have. If you are willing to let the presence of the Spirit take precedence over exact theological alignment in secondary issues, I believe you will find a much more diverse, beautiful family of believers because it is the family that God has made, not the one you have chosen. (156)
In other words, if we loosen our grip on secondary doctrines, we will remove most of the divisions we experience in churches today, provide more road front for the gospel, and better enjoy God’s diverse and beautiful family. More unity, more gospel, more beauty.
As good as such essentialism might sound on the surface, it’s misguided for a few reasons. First, the secondary doctrines Chan would have us set aside are from the Bible. Paedobaptists baptize infants because they see it in the Bible. Baptists require belief before baptism because they see it in the Bible. Chan isn’t asking both groups to discard mere opinions, but biblical convictions. Though not his intention, his guidance discourages his readers from doing what they believe is right. What are we teaching people about biblical authority if we tell them to discard their understanding of the Bible merely because someone disagrees with them?
Second, gospel essentialism undermines a church’s institutional authority, which in turn leaves the gospel itself exposed and unprotected. Suppose a member of your church decides he no longer believes in the resurrection, but he loves the church and wants to remain a member. Can he? I assume Chan would say he needs to be disciplined because first-order issues like the resurrection are worth dividing over. Fine, but who makes this decision and takes the necessary actions? A bishop? A group of elders? The whole congregation? The church must agree on this second-order matter of church government so that it can take the necessary step of removing the man and protecting the gospel. Second-order agreements protect first-order agreements.
Another example: suppose someone wants to join the church who believes baptism is necessary for salvation or that the Supper is necessary for clearing away the guilt of last week’s sin. Can she? I’d say that this woman does not believe the gospel and that allowing her to join the church both wrongly affirms her false gospel and puts others at risk of being misled too. It’s both loving and good for the gospel, therefore, for that church to agree on what baptism and the Supper are and are not. Again, second-order agreements protect first-order agreements.
Third, gospel essentialism can lead to doctrinal slippage. This is the natural outworking of my previous criticism. When the gospel is left unprotected, it stands to be lost. Praise the Lord that Chan remains as convinced as he is on so many matters of orthodoxy, as mentioned above. Nonetheless, I think he softens at least one edge of what it means to be an evangelical Christian by way of his ambiguous comments concerning the Lord’s Supper. Chan writes:
I am currently 90% sure that I have been wrong about my belief that Christ is not present in the Eucharist. I’m probably 70% sure that the denominations that hold the most accurate view of the Eucharist are those that marvel at the real but mysterious presence of Christ. I’m about 65% sure that transubstantiation as most understand it is inaccurate. (100)
At best, his speech is unhelpful insofar as it clouds the significant differences between Presbyterians on one side, Roman Catholics on another, and Lutherans in the middle. At worst, however, he leaves the Supper exposed to the possibility that the elements themselves communicate a grace independent of that which they are signs of. Even if Chan doesn’t believe in the Roman Catholic view, careless speech like this may lead others to assume this view is one reasonable option. While I appreciate his hesitancy to assert a puffed-up confidence, I believe the humbler posture is to work hard at understanding what the Bible teaches about the Supper and submitting to it.
THE LACK OF A UNITED-YET-DIVIDED PARADIGM
While reading Until Unity, I often struggled to understand who Chan was talking to. Individual Christians? Churches? Denominations? When Chan directly addresses the members of local churches, his unity “how-to’s” make sense. For example, Chan writes, “What we need instead is to love the actual people who stand before us and to find unity with those specific people” (194). Amen! Disunity in a local church takes the starch right out of its witness.
But what about divisions between local churches or denominations? What should they do with differences over secondary doctrines? Until Unity not only doesn’t answer these questions, it creates more confusion. For example, under the subheading “The Danger of Denominations,” Chan points to the 1054 split between the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the Protestant Reformation in order to lament present-day division (197). He cites Philip Schaff who said of Protestantism, “The sect system is a grand disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism, and which must be considered more dangerous, because it appears ordinarily in the imposing garb of piety” (198). All this leaves a negative taste in the reader’s mouth for present-day denominational divisions.
To be clear, Chan qualifies, “I am grateful for many of the insights that came about during the Protestant Reformation” (198). Yet Chan still fails to instruct us about how to pursue unity short of surrendering secondary doctrines.
What can unity look like when we agree on the gospel but not on, say, baptism? Suppose you have an evangelical Anglican and a Baptist church in the same town. They partner together on several evangelistic projects a year. They also pray for one another. Their pastors go to lunch regularly. And they even swap preachers from time to time. Yet on each Lord’s Day, they gather separately. Why? Because they disagree on polity and baptism. They are, in this sense, divided. But in the “we are all Christian” sense, they are united. What do we make of this?
Assuming the Baptists and Anglican friends never persuade each other, their churches will need to remain separate in order to protect each other’s consciences. They must act on what they are convinced by (Rom. 14:5b). Is this ideal? No. We all wish all Christians always agreed. Yet this side of glory we cannot wish such disagreements away. So either we suppress and disobey what our consciences tell us Scripture says, or we respect one another’s differences and give one another the opportunity to fence churches in a way that protects the truth as each of us understands it.
I appreciate Chan’s desire for Baptists and Anglicans to be able to unite in one church, but I fear his book is an exercise in trying to wish away real differences, which will ultimately require people to both disobey their consciences and remove the fences that protect the gospel.
Moreover, he overlooks the fact that, even while our churches put up fences around our membership and the Table through secondary-doctrines, we maintain wide gates through which we can enjoy one another’s fellowship. And this kind of catholic posture—showing gospel unity amidst some convictional disagreement—commends Christ, too.
Chan’s Until Unity appeals for Christians to be united. This is a right instinct, and I commend Chan for earnestly seeking such unity. After all, Jesus himself prays that we would be one, just as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:23). As I read this book, I found myself engaging in self-examination and being encouraged to put more effort toward loving my brothers and sisters in Christ. For this good work the Lord did in me through Chan, I am grateful.
Nonetheless, I fear that the results could be costly if we follow Chan in all the ways he wants to go about seeking that unity.
The relationship between truth and love is not simple, and it should not be treated as such. Love displayed as unity among Christians depends on their shared understanding of the truth, which is why Jesus prays for unity by asking the Father to “sanctify them in the truth” (John 17:17a). How do we know what is true? Jesus says to his Father, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17b).
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 Mark Dever, Jonathan Leeman, “Episode 110: On Preaching, the Supper, and the Unity of the Church (with Bobby Jamieson & Mark Feather),” last modified January 4, 2021, last accessed August 25, 2023. https://www.9marks.org/conversations/on-preaching-the-supper-and-the-unity-of-the-church/.