A Feature Review of
A House United:
How the Church Can Save the World
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
As the US has become increasingly divided, some Christians have rightly sought to show the rest of the world a unified group. Some have suggested, however, that that unity should include no public disagreements, that the world should see a church together in mind as well as heart. We’d have a better witness if we didn’t argue on Twitter, the thinking goes. Conversations concerning Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention have sometimes taken this tone, whether about letting those outside the SBC watch the chaos or even about how leadership problems could be handled.
Allen Hilton, founder of the House United nonprofit, has a different approach to the situation. Rather than avoiding conflict or working to come to a single understanding of an issue, Hilton searches for ways to come together not just in spite of our differences, but more specifically by utilizing them. In his new book A House United, he writes, “God gives us our difference as a gift – an asset, rather than a threat … We should come together across difference because being different together makes us better” (175-6). Our potential for conflict contains the seeds for something greater.
Hilton’s work finds its roots in two key ideas, one sociological and one theological. The sociological one views the source of our social problems to come heavily from our separation from those people unlike us. That gap can and does occur geographically, practically, and digitally. With an ideological gulf in place, we can fall further into our own echo chambers and away from the repercussions of intolerant or even combative approaches to others. We found our way into our tribes, and we’ll protect them fiercely.
That perspective isn’t novel; it synthesizes work that’s been circulating. That doesn’t make it less relevant, and it’s essential that Hilton lays the groundwork for the rest of his argument. His clarity makes the writing move, and it will certainly be useful for anyone unfamiliar with the ideas presented. Churches could use A House United as part of a home group or class project, and the book gets everyone on the same page quickly. Readers more familiar with this terrain, running from roughly from James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars through Alan Jacobs’s recent How to Think, could be comfortable moving at quicker pace.
The theological point leans heavily on John 13 and 17. Christians are to be recognized by their love for each other (a verse Facebook users tend to skip). Jesus calls his followers to “be one” and to “be brought to complete unity.” These characteristics of the church’s life will be a testimony to God as both Father and Son. Hilton notes this thinking in the Pauline epistles as well, concluding that “Christian love and unity are designed not merely as a feel-good practice; God intends them to do nothing less than change the society in which Christians reside” (20). If Christians are to be united, but are moving apart with both speed and vitriol, something must change.
A key part of that change comes in embracing our difference, and not avoiding it. Getting to that point is its own challenge. Right now, Hilton writes, “Christians shoot down Christians, perhaps because we interpret disagreement as hostility” (46). That attitude has to change, and not for the good just of a given church or political party, but as part of properly living out a Christian faith. Where we act out of fear and self-preservation (inertia at its finest), we should be overcoming as community known for its care for each other.
If we’re even to try to do that, though, we’ll need some tools. Hilton first suggest meeting each other on mission and then learning to read our Bibles together. In order to bring “Christians from Left and Right around the same table to read scripture,” we’ll have to “do what it takes to read Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 and those other passages that divide us” (138). Neither side (if we want to make it a simple binary) of the progressive/conservative divide surely has it all right, and both perspectives have strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue sounds better.
Hilton reminds us of the Jewish rabbinic tradition of conversation and debate, writing that “they have a native trust that their scrimmage, even with its confrontations, is a heavenly one that will ultimately produce heavenly results. They agree about the Book – not on what it means necessarily, but on its primacy in forming their world” (140). With that sort of attitude, Christians could engage each other more optimistically; a little humility would go along with in the hope that the conversation will be a boon to everyone.
To do so, Hilton recommends organized strategies for having what he calls “Courageous Conversation”. While he demonstrates some broad outlines of what works and, just as helpfully, what doesn’t, he doesn’t pin down enough details. These ideas might come through best in resources more focused on difficult conversations or through workshops, lectures, or conferences, but it’s unfortunate that the book builds to this very practical moment and doesn’t quite get us there. According to House United’s web site, the book serves as “a manifesto for the House United Movement,” and it does that, but a follow-up guide would be useful for putting these ideas into practice. Hilton explains that he’s “produced tools designed to help groups move up the scale of engagement, from tolerance to … constructive collaboration,” and even a peek at these tools would make this book more useful (190).
As it is, A House United has its place, using a quick overview of cultural and spiritual concerns into a compelling argument for why Christians should unite from various perspectives rather than bicker with each other, ignore large chunks of our faith community, or dissolve challenging differences. In having the hard talks with open minds and hearts, we may just develop something that edifies the church while testifying to our neighbors. The outside world doesn’t need to see a church that never argues; it needs to see one that can argue lovingly.
Justin Cober-Lake holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. He’s also the co-founder of OneFocus Press.