Monthly Archives: March 2019

“Once Saved Always Saved” and Other Controversies

March 2019 Credo

Question: How can a believer reconcile the doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved” with Hebrews 6:4-6?

This question raises the important larger issue of how the formation of Christian doctrines and the interpretation of the Bible are related to each other. I hope the person who raised this question will forgive me if I dwell on this issue, instead of answering his or her question specifically. I do this because I am convinced that, if we see the larger picture, many issues of the Christian faith, including the question of whether we are able to lose our salvation, would fall into their proper place.

Many Christians probably hold on to such an understanding of the relationship between Christian doctrines and biblical interpretation: Christians begin by studying the Bible, and then distilling and systematising its teachings, which then constitute the doctrines of the faith. In this rather simplistic account, Christians are assumed to approach the Bible with a tabula rasa (blank slate), and derive all their content and conclusions purely from what the Bible says.

More sophisticated theories of interpretation (and, we might add, our personal experiences) tell us that such a simplistic account of interpretation does not occur in real life. The reader always brings a set of presuppositions with him when he encounters a text, and his interpretation of what the text says is profoundly affected by these presuppositions. This is why, in the history of the Church, the same Bible passage could be interpreted in radically different ways by different groups of Christians, all fervently convinced that their reading is the correct one.

The presuppositions we bring to the text come from a variety of sources, e.g., our cultural backgrounds, our experiences, our personalities and our unique forms of reasoning. For Christians, one important source of presuppositions is our current understanding of the Christian faith (i.e., the set of doctrines we hold). This constitutes an influential framework in and through which we read and understand the Bible.

This does not mean, however, that we are inevitably trapped by our presuppositions when we read the Bible (or any other text). This is because the act of reading, while invariably influenced in profound ways by our presuppositions, also has the power to give us fresh insights. These insights, may, in some cases, strengthen our presuppositions, but may also, in others, challenge or undermine them. Hence, as we are exposed to different texts and different opinions, there is a possibility that we might change our minds and refine or even jettison our current set of presuppositions.

Because of how Protestant Christianity, in her history, has split into numerous different streams, different groups of Protestants are influenced by different theological frameworks when they read the Bible. One major framework is provided by the Reformed movement, which began in Switzerland in the 16th century.

This movement, also called Calvinism, places great emphasis on the sovereignty of God, especially in the process of our salvation. It is God who predestines those who would be saved and those who would not, and such predestination cannot be changed in the slightest by any other factors, including our human decisions. It was within such a scheme that the teaching of “once saved always saved” arose, and it is easy to understand why. Only those who have been predestined would receive salvation, and there is no possibility they could lose this salvation because it rests ultimately on the unchangeable predestining will of God.

An alternative scheme arose as a result of dissent within the Reformed movement itself. A Dutch theologian called Jacob Arminius sought to give a more efficacious role to the human will in our salvation. The counter-movement he started, called Arminianism, eventually came to reject the “once saved always saved” teaching. Because we are free to reject God’s saving grace, even after receiving it, it was possible for Christians to renounce their faith and lose their salvation.

It was both natural and expected that the Calvinists and Arminians would read the Bible according to their respective theological frameworks. These frameworks determine how the two groups deal with texts which, on the surface, are both favourable and unfavourable to their respective positions. The Calvinists, therefore, tend to put emphasis on the passages which seem to suggest the permanence of our salvation (e.g. Jn 10:27-30, Phil 1:6) and interpret the “less convenient” passages in a way consistent with their larger scheme.

So, when it comes to Heb 6:4-6, some Calvinists argue that those whom the passage mentions as being in danger of “falling away” are those who are not true Christians and who have not been saved in the first place. Other Calvinists accept that Heb 6:4-6 was addressed to true Christians, but say that it refers only to a hypothetical situation (true Christians falling away) which would never materialise in reality. Arminians, on the other hand, appeal to a more “straightforward” reading of Heb 6:4-6, and have their own strategies for interpreting the passages traditionally seen as supportive of Calvinism.

How should we Protestants respond to this situation we find ourselves? There are, I would like to suggest, two levels of response we can make. On one level, we can put effort into undertaking a serious study of the key Bible passages in the Calvinist-Arminian debate (including Heb 6:4-6), with the aid of commentaries and scholarly writings. Such study, however, should be undertaken with a clear-headed realisation that our own presuppositions profoundly influence our reading of these passages (and that the same is true for the authors we consult). The aim of such a study is to see if we gain new insights which may either strengthen our present theological beliefs or challenge them.

On another (and I would suggest, more important) level, we should examine the underlying theological frameworks themselves. Besides the specific issue of what the Bible says on whether we are able to lose our salvation, what are the strengths and weaknesses of both the Calvinist and Arminian positions as a whole?

Are there, in fact, alternatives to these two positions, and might these alternatives render moot several of the seemingly important issues in this intra-Protestant debate? Could we, for example, hold the poles of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in a kind of ineffable tension, and avoid the detailed clarity with which both Calvinism and Arminianism have sought to set out their relationship?

This is the approach, for example, of many thinkers in another branch of Christianity called Eastern Orthodoxy. They seek to hold the tension on some of the issues on which Protestant thinkers tend to gravitate to one end or the other. On the specific matter we are discussing, holding the tension might lead us to discover that both the “Calvinist” and “Arminian” Bible passages have their specific pastoral purposes to fulfil, which we can appreciate without having to come to an objective certainty as to which side is definitely correct. Those who need reassurance in trying times might therefore take refuge in the more “Calvinist” passages, while the more “Arminian” passages might be properly directed at those who have become complacent about their faith and taking their status as Christians for granted.

Perhaps one weakness of our Protestant heritage is that theologians in this sector of Christianity have sought to explicate the faith with too much clarity, coming up with massive theological structures which seek to explain clearly the minute details of Christianity and to logically link them to one another. This looks very neat, of course, and there is a certain satisfaction we feel at coming up with a clear and “water-tight” framework.

Such clarity and tidiness, however, might have come at the expense of disavowing valid positions which could also be found in the Bible and our long Christian tradition, just because they do not fit smugly into our beloved structures. We might, in other words, have let go of tensions we should have maintained, even at the expense of clarity and tidiness in our theological systems.

Perhaps, as we take a step back from the minute details of these intra-Protestant debates, we might begin to question whether they are truly crucial to the maintenance and growth of our Christian faith. Perhaps, after seeing the larger picture, it becomes far less pressing and important to adjudicate with certainty as to which side is right on some of the issues they disagree on.



Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

Big Data, Ethics and Society

March 2019 Pulse 

We live in an age where we witness a truly unprecedented explosion of data – its collection, sharing and analytics. The phenomenon that came to be known as Big Data has impacted every sector of society – economics, politics, policing, security, science, education, policy, health care, public health, etc – in profound ways.

Although definitions vary, Big Data can refer to (1) the data or information collected, known as datasets, and (2) the process of analysing these ‘big’ datasets. ‘Big’ points either to the quantities and the electronic sizes of the data accumulated (gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, etc) or to the techniques and technologies employed to analyse the data. As Brent Mittelstadt and Luciano Floridi explain, ‘The latter approach defines “big” in procedural rather than quantitative terms, by connecting the size of the dataset to its complexity, understood in terms of computational or human effort necessary for analysis.’

Big Data has to do with the volume, variety and velocity in which information or data is generated, processed, analysed and used.

In today’s world, the volume that data is generated is truly staggering. We are no longer thinking only in terms of terabytes (one million million [12 zeros]).  We are thinking in terms of exabytes (one quintillion, that is, a million raised to the power of five [18 zeros]) and zettabytes (one sextillion, that is, one million raised to the sixth power [21 zeros]). Scientists have estimated that by 2025, the Internet will exceed the brain capacity of the entire human population on planet Earth!

The variety of the data generated is equally mind-blowing. As Kord Davis points out, ‘Performance metrics from in-car monitors, manufacturing floor yield measurements, all manner of healthcare devices, and the growing number of Smart Grid appliances all generate data.’

In addition, because we leave our digital footprints and a trail of personal information whenever we use the Internet, Big Data impinges upon individual lives in unprecedented ways. Eric Freeman and David Gelernter, who coined the term ‘lifestream’, describe this phenomenon thus:

… a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. The tail of your stream contains documents from the past (starting with your electronic birth certificate). Moving away from the tail and toward the present, your stream contains more recent documents – papers in progress or new electronic mail; other documents (pictures, correspondence, bills, movies, voice mail, software) are stored in between. Moving beyond the present and into the future, the stream contains documents you will need: reminders, calendar items, to-do lists.

The velocity in which we generate, acquire, process and output data has increased exponentially even as the number of sources and the variety of formats grow at an ever-faster pace. According to a report from IBM Marketing Cloud published in 2016, 90% of the data in the world today have been created in the preceding two years alone, at 2.5 quintillion bytes a day!

The ramifications of Big Data on institutions, organisations, businesses, nations and individuals are still unfolding and therefore cannot be fully anticipated at this point in time. More significantly, Big Data forces both stakeholders and society alike to re-conceptualise and recast the familiar social and ethical issues and concerns surrounding information technology. As the Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society points out, ‘Big data’s broad ethical consequences strain the familiar conceptual and infrastructural resources of science and technology ethics.’

What, then, are some of the pressing ethical concerns surrounding Big Data? I list a few in the remaining space of this article.

Privacy and Consent

The issue of privacy is invariably highlighted and discussed in the literature on Big Data ethics. Unlike the past when data collection was limited by human perception and cognition, in the era of Big Data the collection of data by information technologies is now automated and autonomous. The scope of the data has also expanded and grown exponentially over the past two decades. This unique characteristic of the age of Big Data has made privacy and personal safety an even more important and pressing issue.

Alongside the issue of privacy is that of informed consent. Traditional approaches to informed consent, where consent is sought from individuals who participate in a single study, no longer applies. This is because Big Data is designed to reveal unintended and even unexpected connections between data points. ‘Broad’ and ‘blanket’ consent mechanisms (as opposed to single-instance consent) have been suggested, but these are not without their own problems.

Ownership

The next ethical issue has to do with ownership. As the European Economic and Social Committee explains, the issue of ownership ‘revolves around how to consider a user’s data that was produced after processing the original dataset: are they still a user’s data, or do they belong to the company that carried out the analyses? Or to the company that collected the original data?’

The concept of ownership is further complexified by the question of rights. This has led some to speak of two forms of ownership, as the rights to ‘control’ data, and as the rights to ‘benefit from’ data. ‘Control’ ownership suggests that the data subject has the right to restrict undesired uses of the data, while ‘benefit’ ownership refers to his right to utilise Big Data for his personal benefit.

The ownership question has sparked complex debates on ethics, legislation and public policy.

Surveillance and Security

The availability of more data and the advancement of technology has made it possible not only to track an individual, but also to generate insights into his behaviour. The ubiquity of CCTVs, positioning capabilities in mobile devices (GPS), the use of credit and ATM cards for payments and withdrawals all contribute to the surveillance and profiling of individuals.

While the ease of tracking has undoubtedly benefited society in some ways like ensuring public safety and swifter and more efficient police investigation of crimes, they have also come with a cost. The diagonal and non-directional nature of surveillance that takes place across the different levels of society can limit the liberties of members of society in subtle ways.

The second issue is security. In January 2019, The Guardian reported that data breaches in Yahoo in 2017 compromised 3 billion accounts. Other breaches include Marriott International (500 million customers), Linkedln (164 million), Sony’s PlayStation Network (77 million), Uber (57 million) and Ashley Madison (31 million). Institutions in Singapore have also had their fair share of data breaches in recent months, due to the work of malicious hackers or fraudsters.

Social Ramifications

Besides these serious ethical concerns, there are also a number of social ramifications of Big Data that should never be trivialised. One major concern is that Big Data can force a digital divide in society, thereby worsening the inequality that already exists. Digital divide refers to the difficulty that some face in accessing services delivered by new technologies due to their unfamiliarity with them.

Big Data can also lead to the de-humanisation and discrimination of individuals and groups when opinions and perceptions are formed on the basis of their digital identities (information about them obtained from different sources). The Norwegian Data Protection Authority explains that this takes place when ‘we are no longer judged on the basis of our actions, but on the basis of what all the data about us indicates our probable actions may be.’

In other words, Big Data can ‘de-incarnate’ individuals by presenting distorting abstractions and caricatures that feed prejudice, discrimination and even hatred in a process known as the dictatorship of data.

The final question that we must consider is that of epistemology. There is a tendency in both mass media and industry to adopt a disturbingly naïve approach to the ‘facts’ presented by Big Data. They work on the assumption that Big Data is ‘objective’ and that it has the ability to reveal reality without the need for interpretation and critical assessment.

According to this epistemology, data is supposed to be able to ‘speak for themselves’ and the ‘truth is already there, waiting to be discovered’, implying that there is no need for theory or hypothesis. For example, confidence is placed in ‘data-driven science’, whose authority and impeccability are judged by the amount and the compelling quality of data it presents.

This mythological view of Big Data, which, as it were, signals the ‘end of theory’, will have serious consequences if it goes unchallenged.

As we celebrate the promise of Big Data and what it can offer to society, we must also be cognisant of the dangers that lurk in the brave new world of information technology. We must be aware not only of the complex ethical issues such as privacy, ownership and security. We must also be alert to the harmful distortions it introduces to the many things we take for granted such as human identity, dignity, value and relationality, and how they may undermine our society.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Book Review – Through the Valley: the Art of Living and Leaving Well

March 2019 Feature

This book, as the author himself notes, draws its title from the Twenty-Third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Appropriately, this slim, readable volume does not merely address fears of ageing or of death. It speaks instead of journeying through the valley to age well and die well.

The author, Dr William Wan, is eminently qualified to write on this topic. He won the Active Ageing Award in 2011, and still serves as the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement – a position he took up at age 64, when many others are beginning to enjoy a laidback retirement. Dr Wan, now in his early 70s, continues to keep 15-hour work days, preaches regularly at different churches, and is a frequent contributor to the Straits Times.  This book was fittingly written while he was on sabbatical for his 70th birthday.

Through the Valley* comprises four sections: ageing well, dying well, being prepared, and a concluding postscript. In all the sections, the reader is led to consider what it means to both live well and leave well.

The first and lengthiest section begins with a scene-setter: Singaporean society is greying. “Successful ageing” must therefore be viewed from various levels, including the individual, the family, the community and the nation. At the individual level, Dr Wan shares, in a manner that is not pushy but matter-of-fact, how his Christian faith and spiritual disciplines provide an important anchor in his own experience of growing old. The author’s reflections are invaluable in demonstrating the importance of spirituality in ageing well, a dimension that is not always elaborated in other literature on ageing.

The book also covers familiar topics such as maintaining one’s mental and emotional health, eating well, proper exercise, remaining engaged and humble through constant learning, and the simple pleasures which come from showing kindness to others, including to caregivers.

Dr Wan presents the concept of being re-fired for work and service even after being retired, and explains how his Bucket List comprises not merely leisure activities but pursuits which are new and somewhat challenging, which push him to remain open to new experiences. These are useful concepts, although some readers may wish for more elaboration on what these might look like for different groups: those who fear premature retirement due to skills obsolescence or workplace ageism, those who cannot afford to stop working due to their financial situation, or those who are already in poor health upon retirement.

The book takes a helpfully nuanced view of nostalgia, showing how it is not merely a negative preoccupation with the past, but can also be both a positive force which sustains self-identity and self-image. The numerous anecdotes, short stories, jokes, and reflections in this section make for a lively yet thought-provoking read.

Part Two on Dying Well begins with an overview of how each of the main religions in Singapore view death and the afterlife. The views of agnostics and atheists are also acknowledged. It remains a fact common to people of all faiths (and none) that death is certain, and can often be sudden. Hence, the author argues, one must make appropriate preparations in order that one might die well.

The book addresses the taboo of speaking about death, which is common in Singaporean society.  While the author acknowledges legitimate fears – of the unknown, of making a faux pas, of being a burden, of not being able to resolve unfinished business – he points out that not speaking can have negative consequences not just for the deceased, but for those who remain behind. Given the inevitability of death, and virtually everyone’s desire for a dignified departure, it is crucial to have honest conversations (what the author calls die-logues) before it is too late.

Dr Wan himself leads the way in shedding the coyness in speaking about death by sharing his own near-death experiences, and by elaborating on his own intended die-logue with close friends. This provides an excellent model for readers who may be struggling to even begin having such conversations.

Part Three, titled “Be Prepared”, begins by introducing the concept of death cleaning (from the Swedish döstädning), which points to the importance of making adequate preparations so as not to leave a mess for others to tidy up.

What does this preparation entail? The book uses an analogy that is familiar to well-travelled Singaporeans. Dying is like emigrating to a different country. In order to make a proper exit, one must have the appropriate immigration papers. These papers include a last will and testament, a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), an Advance Medical Directive (AMD), an Advanced Care Plan (ACP), and even one’s intentions concerning organ donation or the release of one’s cadaver for medical science. Such documentation, though uncomfortable to consider and converse about, is crucial in sparing one’s loved ones from confusion, contention, or compunction.

At the same time, while the book mentions briefly that an AMD does not allow a doctor to actively hasten the arrival of death, it does not highlight related terminology such as physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, nor explain why these are ethically problematic. Readers should be careful not to confuse suicide with the legitimate and important preparatory documents listed in the book.

The final section titled Postscript is not a mere afterword. Rather, it addresses what happens afterward, that is, after one has passed away.  The audience for this section of the book is primarily the bereaved. The author explains the different stages of grief and the importance of tears in coming to terms with a bereavement. One recalls the traditional Chinese saying男子汉流血不流泪 (“real men shed blood, not tears”), which turns out to be not at all helpful in coping with grief.

And just how does one comfort a person who is grieving? Dr Wan provides many helpful suggestions, gleaned from his years of experience as a pastor and counsellor, concerning what to say, as well as what not to say.

The book closes, not with a conclusion from the author, but with writers of various backgrounds sharing their personal stories about living well and dying well. A fitting end, for no matter one’s creed, class, or skin colour, we will all age, we will all face death. Readers of Through the Valley will certainly be better equipped to face these well. This is a book I will undoubtedly get for my parents as they step into their senior years.

*”Through The Valley: The Art of Living and Leaving Well” by William Wan is available at all good bookstores and at www.stbooks.sg.  


Gilbert Lok is currently pursuing the Master of Divinity at Trinity Theological College. He hopes to serve in the pastoral ministry after he completes his theological studies. Gilbert worships at the Aldersgate Methodist Church.

Bettering Humans

March 2019 Pulse

Since the mid-nineties, doctors in America have been prescribing human growth hormones to healthy children whose projected adult height is in the bottom first percentile – five feet three inches for boys and four feet, eleven inches for girls – in order to make them taller.

For many years, a biotech company based in New Jersey called Memory Pharmaceuticals has been developing memory enhancing drugs or ‘cognitive enhancers’ (sometimes dubbed the ‘Viagra of the brain’) and targeting the 76 million baby-boomers in America who are experiencing age-related memory loss.

These examples are just the tip of a large iceberg of what some philosophers and ethicists have been calling enhancement technologies, arguably the fastest growing and one of the most troubling developments in our biotech age. ‘Enhancement technologies’ is the hypernym that refers to the use of genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnologies, neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, etc., for human enhancement.

Enhancement technologies therefore refer to the use of technology to increase certain physiological or mental attributes that could not be achieved naturally. Height increase and memory enhancement are examples of the goals to which such technologies are directed.

The myriad of ethical and social issues raised by the use of biotechnology for enhancing human capabilities have been well rehearsed in the burgeoning literature of the subject. Many worry that enhancement technologies will exacerbate the injustices that already obtain in current biotechnologies and their applications.

For example, they may worsen social inequality because only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the benefits of these cutting-edge technologies. This could further result in the creation of two classes of humans – the enhanced and the unenhanced – thus further stratifying a society already polarised by racial and economic divides.

One could easily add to the list of social woes that the use of such technologies could bring about – rabid social discriminations, and even eugenics.

Despite these concerns, some advocates and visionaries of human enhancement are not satisfied with merely augmenting and strengthening existing capabilities. Their aim is to use these new technologies to create, where possible, novel human capabilities such as infrared vision.

The vision of these prophets is therefore to so radically transform the human being so as to transcend human nature itself. This, of course, raises profound theological and philosophical questions not only about human nature, but also if there is indeed such a thing as human nature to begin with.

To be sure, many transhumanists do believe in some broad and general sense that the concept of human nature has some utility because it enables us to distinguish the human from an animal or machine. In fact, the very term ‘transhumanism’ suggests that there is a ‘human nature’ that science and technology must now seek to transcend.

However, with the advancement of genetic science and cybernetics what constitutes ‘human nature’ has become so fluid that it defies any dogmatic description.

For example, in editing the genetic material of the germline certain transhuman traits may be introduced and irreversibly transmitted to future generations. For better or for worse, that trait now becomes part of human nature, although there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it. And in advanced cybernetics, the answer to the question where do the machine end and the human being begin might no longer be as straightforward as when computers and machines were external to the human body.

Enhancement technologies also raise the difficult issue of the extent to which we should allow human creativity – our scientific knowledge and technological prowess – to remake what we are. Put differently, they raise the important and pressing question about whether moral limits should be imposed on science and technology, and how such limits should be determined in the first place.

In its paper on human enhancement, the Conference of European Churches states that while human creativity must surely be encouraged, ‘there are eventually limits’. And it is in recognising these limits that we achieve greater sobriety about our scientific and technological endeavours.

The first step in recognising these limits is to acknowledge our own finitude as creatures. ‘The notion of humans as the image of God’, states the Conference, ‘embodies a fundamental distinction. God is eternal and unlimited, but humans are created and finite’.

In addition, we must also acknowledge the limits of our science and what it can or cannot achieve achieve. ‘Not everything is possible for science to solve, human ingenuity to engineer, or medicine to cure’, states the Conference baldly. To recognise these limits is to jettison that triumphalistic view of science called scientism.

The second step is to acknowledge that we are fallen creatures. ‘Our Christian heritage teaches us to be sceptical of romantic notions of unrestrained human improvement and scientific progress, not only because of finitude but also our moral failings … The borderlines between good and evil can be crossed all too easily’.

The quest for human enhancement reveals something profoundly disturbing about the human condition. It points to an innate sense of unease with our own humanness and creatureliness, or, as Helmut Thielicke puts it, our sinful protest against finitude. In seeking to remake ourselves, to defy the finitude in which we are confined, we reveal the depth of our rebellion against the one made us the kind of creatures we are, who sets the limits – our Creator.

Here is where the scientific community can benefit from the wisdom that can be found in the religious traditions, especially Christianity. It helps us to evaluate the human and cultural enterprise of science and technology and those who shape and apply them.

While the technological imperative urges the scientific community to pursue everything that science has made possible, the Christian tradition raises difficult and inconvenient questions.

In doing so, it emphasises the point that if the scientific enterprise is to be conducted profitably, that is, for human flourishing in the most holistic sense, if science is to achieve its proper goals, these questions are unavoidable.

The technological imperative is fixated with the question of what our science and technology are capable of, what they can do. The questions raised by the Christian faith have to do with whether there are immoral and illicit ways to use the powers that our science and technology have placed in our hands.

Christian faith teaches us that morality not only concerns the things that we must do but also the things that we must refuse to do.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

That They May Be One

March 2019 Credo 

In what is known as his high-priestly prayer, Jesus asked his Father not only to protect his disciples but to unite them as one: ‘Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one’ (John 17:11). Unity is so central to the being of the Church that the ancient Christian creeds present it as one of her essential attributes (the others being holiness, catholicity and apostolicity).

Yet, the fact that the empirical Church is not united but deeply divided and fragmented is evident to even the most casual observer. For a variety of reasons, the ancient Church split in the Great Schism in the eleventh century into what is now called the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. And in the sixteenth century, the churches of the Reformation broke away from the Roman Church of which they were once a part.

Since that time, the Protestant churches have splintered into many different denominations and groups. Depending on how one defines a denomination, there are now between 20,000 and 30,000 Protestant denominations, each with its own distinct theological hue and organisational structure.

Given this sorry state of affairs, can Christians still declare that we ‘believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ without a tinge of irresolution, not to mention despair? What does it mean to say that the Church of Jesus Christ is one?

The New Testament makes it very clear that the unity of the Church is not premised on the way in which she is organised, her hierarchy of leaders or even her mission in the world. Rather, ecclesial unity is theologically grounded – that is to say, it rests on the nature of God and the Church’s relationship to God.

Writing to a Church marred by schisms, Pauls reminds its members that they have all been baptised into the one body by the one Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:13). Expanding the same insight in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul writes: ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (4:4-6).

This had led theologians in the Patristic era like Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (200-258), to declare that the Church is ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.

This means that the unity of the Church is a gift: it is made possible and actual only by the grace of God. As the Russian Orthodox Church puts it in a document on ecumenical relations: ‘The unity of the Church is above every human and earthly union, for it has been given from above as a perfect and divine gift. The members of the Church are united in Christ like vines, rooted in him and gathered in one eternal and spiritual life’.

However, as Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner points out, ‘Unity, like all other attributes of the church, stands under the tensions that attend the discrepancy between what our faith tells us about the church and what we see actually embodied in its empirical life’.

This means that although Christian unity is a divine gift, it is also at the same time an urgent task. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul emphatically exhorts his readers to strive to guard the unity that they already enjoy by grace: ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (4:3).

But in order for the Church to obey this Pauline injunction she must constantly clarify what Christian unity entails. This is because erroneous or distorted visions of unity can only engender further fragmentations in the Church.

To start with, unity must not be confused with uniformity. Unlike the military, the members of the Church do not adopt the same hairstyle or wear a uniform. A united Church is not one in which all her members look, think and sound alike.

To be sure, the Church across the different denominations can be characterised by common core beliefs (articulated in the Nicene Creed, for example) and practises (prayer, baptism) that are deemed non-negotiable. But, as Everett Fergusson explains, ‘to expect a large degree of uniformity is to deny individuality and uniqueness of personality’.

Christian unity allows for difference and diversity because as the ‘new humanity’ the Church is multi-ethnic and multicultural, made up of people of ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Revelation 7:9). The Church must never see such diversity as reprehensible or as obstacles to Christian unity; rather she should celebrate it as a gift from God.

However, the Church should be acutely aware of the fact that this God-given diversity that could inject so much vitality and richness into ecclesial life could also be the source of divisions, schisms and fragmentation.

Such fractures, caused by what may be described as a toxic form of identity politics, are already evident in the early Church, leading Paul to stress that the Christian’s identity in Christ transcends his social and cultural ‘identities’ without nullifying them. This is what the Apostle tries to underscore when he insists that ‘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’ (Galatians 328).

Both uniformity and sectarianism are inimical to the nature of the Church. As Philip Hefner clearly and emphatically puts it: ‘A monolithic unity that suppresses or violates the life-giving multiplicities of humanity is as unsatisfactory in the church as the sectarianism that elevates natural interests in a manner blasphemous to the oneness of God’s nature and will’.

This brings me to the concept of ecumenic hospitality. The terms ‘ecumenism’ and ‘ecumenical’ come from the Greek oikoumene, which simply means ‘an inhabited region’. In ecclesiology, the term is used to refer to the whole body of different Christian churches.

Ecumenic hospitality is the attitude that urges us not just to acknowledge the fact that there are Christians belonging to other denominations, but also to embrace them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Ecumenic hospitality is based on the acknowledgement that Christians have much in common with each other because of their faith in the one God revealed in Scripture. Consequently, the differences that do exist among Christians should not be the cause of division in the household of God.

By extending such hospitality to Christians of different denominations and ecclesial traditions, we are not only striving to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). We are also allowing these Christians to challenge and enrich us by the ways in which they have appropriated and lived out the Gospel in their respective traditions, cultures and contexts.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.