I was at a conference recently where the keynote speaker talked about the crisis of the “unum” in our national life. He was, of course, referring to the motto that appears on our American coins – “E Pluribus Unbum.” Here’s some helpful background material on our motto –
E pluribus unum was the motto suggested by the committee Congress appointed on July 4, 1776 to design “a seal for the United States of America.” At the time of the American Revolution, the exact phrase appeared prominently on the title page of a popular periodical, The Gentleman’s Magazine which collected articles from many sources into one “magazine”. The phrase is similar to a Latin translation of a variation of Heraclitus’s 10th fragment, “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.” A variant of the phrase was used in Moretum, a poem attributed to Virgil but with the actual author unknown. In the poem text, color est e pluribus unus describes the blending of colors into one.
Although their design was not approved (and two subsequent committees would be appointed), their motto was selected by Charles Thomson six years later when he created the final Great Seal in 1782 and inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM on the scroll carried in the beak of the American bald eagle.
The general meaning of each Latin word is clear: Pluribus is related to the English word: “plural.”
Unum is related to the English word: “unit.” E Pluribus Unum describes an action: Many uniting into one. An accurate translation of the motto is “Out of many, one.”
The Keynote speaker’s observation at that conference I was attending was that in American political life these days, the “unum” – the “one” – the center that holds us together in our “pluribus” – the “many” – has gotten completely misplaced, and that unless and until it gets recovered, that we are going to continue to suffer from the unproductive and destructive social deadlock and idealogical intransigence that we are currently experiencing. If there is not something bigger than our seperate conclusions and settled convictions holding us together as a people, then we will wind up “biting and devouring and being consumed by one another” as Paul warned the Galatians spiritually (Galatians 5:15).
Now, the spiritual and not the political is my proper sphere of influence as a pastor, and so what I heard that Conference keynoter say about the crisis of the “unum” in our national life got immediately carried over in my head and heart into the life of the church. This was timely because right before going to that conference I had written my last blog on “Bounded, Centered or… Fuzzy?” In that blog, after introducing and exploring the notion of “bounded set churches” and “centered set churches,” I asked the question, what happens when the center of a “centered-set church” like the Disciples gets fuzzy? When the center of a “centered set church” is neither clear nor held with much conviction, what happens to that church?
And I would suggest that what happens is the very same thing that we see happening to us nationally these days. We become increasingly fragmented, brittle and stuck. If the center of a “centered set” community of faith is not clear and compelling, then there is nothing to hold that community together except our own private convictions and personal causes to which we are constantly trying to convert everybody else, and then criticizing them and distancing ourselves from them when they don’t. In the language of our original vision statement as Disciples, Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (1809) –
…division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is antiscriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is antinatural, as it excites Christians to contemn, to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.
…nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.
That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the Scriptures are silent as to the express time or manner of performance, if any such there be, no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the Church; nor can anything more be required of Christians in such cases, but only that they observe these commands and ordinances as will evidently answer the declared and obvious end of their institution. Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the Church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined. Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the Church, or be made a term of communion among Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.
That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.
…if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of Divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose should be adopted under the title of human expedients, without any pretense to a more sacred origin, so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the Church.
Boil all of this down to its essence, and what Campbell was saying was that –
- Human opinions divide, and those divisions impede the life and work of the church.
- Having opinions is inevitable for us as human beings, but for the sake of the Gospel, those opinions must not be allowed to become matters of ultimate concern for the church.
- Only a deeply Biblically informed commitment to Jesus Christ is a sufficient center for the life and work of the church.
- And when this center is made clear, it will become compelling.
Historically, Disciples understood this and made it their singular cause. It’s why our “Good Confession” as a church is a resounding affirmation of the single Biblical truth that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior” (Matthew 1616). And it’s why our one characteristic act as a church is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper where we “remember” Jesus Christ “raised from the dead, descended from David” as the essence of the Gospel (2 Timothy 2:8). Historically, we Disciples had a center that held, and it was that center that made our “centered-set” understanding of the church work. It was our “unum” – Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I Corinthians 2:2) – that held our “pluribus” together. And I believe that it still does.
At a recent working session of the Church Unique team here at Northway, the subject turned to a conversation about the core values that define and direct us as a church. A number of ideas were proposed and examined by the group before settling on just a handful of them. Not surprisingly, our practice of the Lord’s Supper as a church made the cut. Both the frequency with which we observe communion and the intensity with which we invite any follower of Jesus Christ regardless of denominational background to join us in the feast of remembrance and presence are expressions of a value deep in our soul as a people. As we struggled to name that value from which our practice of the Lord’s Supper as a church springs, the language that finally emerged said: “We are a church with an open table where our diversity finds its unity in Christ.”
“E pluribus unum!” An “unfuzzy” center holds — and it is absolutely compelling.