Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What is This Thing Called Unity?

I was once asked to speak to a church prayer breakfast group on “the unity of the body”. I joked at the time that the host did not tell me if I was supposed to be for it or against it. Nobody laughed.

Being for unity in a church meeting is kind of like being a politician who campaigns against crime. Along with preaching against a lottery and quoting John 3:16, we can be popular by speaking in favor of unity.

It is not just a church thing. It is an American thing. President Lincoln was, after all, quoting Jesus when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Why is unity so important?

The Psalmist tells us: “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!” The prophet, looking towards the holy mountain of the Lord, writes that “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Jesus Himself prayed: "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in Me and I am in You.”

Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there will be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” The early church was described this way: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Finally, Paul writes that: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Central to the faith of the Old Testament Israelites was the Shema, the truth: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.” Because God is one, one set of laws applied to both Israelites and foreigners. We see the ideal marriage expressed as “one flesh.” The selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira, those who would separate Gentiles from the Jews, the prejudice against Greek widows, the insidiousness of the Judaizers – all these things threatened the unity of the New Testament church and are roundly condemned in scripture. The shared experience of Christ as Lord reflected in the singleness of baptism and the joint sharing of the Lord’s Supper, our shared sense of mission, the shared suffering, and the love we share for each other are all bolstered by and reflected in our unity.

We sang in the seventies that we are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

That is the easy part. Like all the politicians who are against crime, we are all with Jesus and Abe Lincoln when we call for unity.

I don’t think that is the message that a lot of church members need to hear. Try raising controversial issues in many churches these days, and the answers you will probably get will be striking in their uniformity: “The church cannot face that, it might divide us;” or “The unity of the church is too important for us to tackle that.” I don’t think a pep rally for unity is what most of our churches need.

Of course, I am for unity of the local church and of the universal church. I am for unity because our Lord was for it and because Paul preached it and because it is the only way for the church to survive. Of course, I am for unity; the question is how do we get there and how will we know Biblical unity if we have it? So, at the risk of stepping on toes, which I am undoubtedly about to do, I want to bring a caution: I do not believe unity ought to be the primary goal of a healthy church; but, I do believe that Biblical unity will be the necessary byproduct of our discipleship if our primary goals are right. The road to unity is doubtless paved with godly intentions, but what do we mean by unity? How do we define it so we know we have it?

Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law' – 'a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'“ And yet, this same Jesus prayed that we be one, as He and the Father are one. What, then, is Jesus’ unity?

1. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when it requires uniformity.

To use an extreme example, the most unified group of human beings I can think of in modern history exists today in another part of the world. We call them Al Qaeda. They have one goal, one expression of that goal, and only one purpose. Individual differences are irrelevant if they are tolerated at all; individual goals appear to be immaterial.

I know that is extreme, and I am not accusing anybody in the church of terrorism. My intent is to use the ridiculous to make a point – we revel in our individuality. In the church, we call that giftedness. Paul talks about the body of Christ, and in the unity of that body, we all have different roles, different looks, even different smells. Somebody has to be the foot, while somebody else is the lung. You may be a tonsil and I may be a kneecap, but we function in our differences to become one body. You know the passage: “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don't need you!’”

Indeed, later in the same Ephesians passage I quoted earlier, Paul makes this point clear: “It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

2. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when nobody asks questions.

Unity, as I believe Jesus meant it, as I believe the early church practiced it, as I believe Paul preached it, and certainly as the historical protestant church fathers envisioned it, welcomes questions. Yes, I know I am from a profession that exists in an adversarial system where questioning is the stock and trade. Yes, I spent four years in high school and four years in college debating competitively. Yes, I am a trained questioner. No, I am not unfairly bringing a bias to this topic.

Do you ever see Jesus rejecting questions from among His apostles? He even embraced questions from the Pharisees, but that is a different topic for another blog. Among His closest followers, the same audience who heard Him pray for God to bring unity, Jesus listened to questions about withering fig trees and who would be first in the kingdom. He opened the floor Himself with questions like “Who do men say that I am?”.

I find it interesting, and frankly a little disconcerting, that a large church can deal with major issues in silence. No, I do not want a shouting match. Yes, I trust church committees and staffs. But does nobody have questions? Have we developed a culture where the road to unity makes the questioner shy away? I wonder.

Even more than questioning though, the proof is in the pudding. I believe that unity is not Jesus’ unity when nobody ever disagrees.

Maybe you are responding to yourself, “Lyn, of course we can ask questions at our church.” But I wonder about the ability to disagree freely. When a large church of apparent spiritual maturity chooses not even to consider legitimate issues because church unity may be at stake, we need to reexamine what kind of unity we have.

President John F. Kennedy said, “The unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion. “

A strong unified church can handle disagreement. Please hear me – I am not in favor of strife, discord, or anger. Nor am I promoting debate for debate’s sake in the church. But somehow, we are in danger of developing a culture that says, in the name of unity, I cannot voice my disagreement. I cannot stand up and say “I disagree.”

The dangers here are manifold. On a theological level, this is the issue that has driven a dagger into the heart of some of Christendom’s previously most admired branches and denominations. Today, many groups find themselves led by those who have stood up and declared that members must toe the line or leave the building – you must agree or you are not welcome, you do not qualify, you are not right. Ironically, in the name of unity, those who will not suffer disagreement have caused the greatest disunity the church universal, at least in America, has ever seen.

Another danger is the possibility of continuing in our wrongness without testing it. I don’t know who is right or who is wrong on all of these issues, but as long as we continue to do it as we have always done it and refuse to question and allow disagreement, we will never know if we are right or wrong. All we will know is that we are firm in our stance.

After all, there is very little difference between a path and a rut.

The biggest danger is missing a work of God. I know that God on occasion may and does move entire congregations simultaneously to the same point; but, you see, I think at least as often, God starts a movement with a few people – maybe it is an Amos, maybe it is a Martin Luther, maybe it is a Roger Williams, maybe it is a few churchmen and women who are willing to stand up and say, “This is not what we should be doing anymore, not what we should be preaching, not how we should be ministering… I disagree with the church.” When that disagreement is allowed, the voice of God may be heard.

There is another danger. Maybe most of the time, those who disagree with our tradition and our majority are wrong, but when they are not free to question or to disagree, they will leave. They do not like or do not understand what we are doing or why we are doing it, but when public disagreement is frowned upon in the name of unity, their options are to suffer in silence or to go somewhere else. Or worse, to go nowhere at all. In the name of unity, we in the church can mirror the doctrinaire leadership that characterizes many denominations today as we unwittingly drive wedges.

I know there is a ditch on both sides of the road. If you hear what I am saying as an invitation to anarchy or as an excuse to stand up in business meeting and complain when the church administrator has decided to buy a new Xerox machine, then you are putting words in my mouth that are not mine. The freedom to disagree, like all Christian freedoms, carries with it the responsibility to do so in Christian love and with a conscious mindfulness of the feelings of others, of the work of the church staff and committees, and yes, of church unity.

I do not have an agenda for any specific program. I am here to say that we should be open to the new voice, to the disagreeing opinion, without feeling threatened as a unified body. If that voice is wrong, the wisdom of the church under the leadership of the Holy Spirit will prevail. I have witnessed dozens of church meetings – business meetings and town hall meetings and deacons meetings – where there was honest, and even heated disagreement in the spirit of love and peace, and where the body spoke. After the issue is decided, the united church acts.

3. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when the focus is wrong.

Let me begin this section with a quotation:

…[T]he unity of our people and the unity of our various nationalities - these are the basic guarantees of the sure triumph of our cause.

That quote could be heard from some pulpits I know, but it is originally from an interesting pamphlet entitled On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People by Mao Tse Tung. Again, while the church is no closer to espousing Communism than it is to channeling Al Qaeda, we have to realize that there can be unity around the wrong thing as easily as there can be unity around the right thing.

I am using the word “focus” here not in the vision sense but in the mathematical sense. The focus of a parabola is the unmoving central point around which the curve is gathered and drawn. An ellipse’s shape and size are determined by two fixed points called foci.

When the church’s focus is Jesus Christ, then unity is right. When the focus is anything else, and I mean anything else, then the road to unity is wrong.

What do I mean? What other things can distract us? Well, they can certainly be bad things. If the Tower of Babel story teaches us anything, it teaches us that people who call themselves God’s people but who focus on something other than God’s plan – here it was their own desire to join together in unity to put themselves on the same plane as God – can have that unity destroyed when God intervenes. The Pharisees were united in what they would have said was doing what God wants. The Inquisition, though carried out by government, was born of a unified effort of a church.

But the other things that can catch the focus of a church are probably not in that league. Instead, these all fall into the category of the good getting in the way of the best. Carefully, let me give some examples. Churches can focus on worship style, church growth, koinonia, meeting the needs of church members, providing cultural relevance, raising money, or even on unity. Yes, I am saying that unity should not be a primary goal of the church. Unity is the natural result when the primary goal, the focus of the church, is Jesus Christ, His mission, His blood, His righteousness, His love, His face. Our church should be built on one thing, the Great Confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. When we all revolve around that point, we cannot help but to be in unity.

4. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when it becomes a fortress.

Of all the dangers inherent in giving lip service to unity, the spectre of “fortress church” may be the hardest to prevent for the unwary. We find ourselves building a church on a Benjamin Franklin theology: “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we will all hang separately.” In the course of striving for unity, we can become completely focused on ourselves. In the name of unity, we get together for fellowship and men’s prayer breakfast.

There is nothing wrong with that. We form motorcycle clubs and have departmental fellowships. Nothing wrong with those either.


Then, we decide it is time for ministry, and our first thought becomes ourselves. Let’s find some senior adults in the church who need help with chores. Let’s all get together and repaint the nursery. Let’s look around and see what members of our church need our help.

Please understand... I am against none of these things. I think we must help our seniors and our needy. When the nursery needs repainting, by all means let’s go do it.

What I am criticizing is a church mentality that looks first to ourselves.

The church is the body of Christ, and whatever else Christ was and is about, it was and is not primarily about meeting His body’s own needs. If, in the name of unity, our ministry program becomes day care, aerobics, divorce recovery, caregiver assistance, youth choir, marriage counseling, job placement, Christmas crafts, racquetball, senior adult cafeteria clubs, and yes, men’s prayer breakfast, we run the risk that a dying world outside our walls goes right on dying.

I have probably offended most of you with something in the last paragraph, and I have not meant to do so. I think that every ministry opportunity that we see should be followed, assuming it has a viable place in the Lord’s work and if we feel led by the Holy Spirit to follow it. My point is that the church bent on unity can become a fortress, taking care of its own, protecting itself from danger and division, and blind to the world around it.

Jesus calls us to something much greater than a church striving to preserve itself. He calls us to be His eyes, seeing needs in the dark places. He calls us to be His ears, hearing the cries of the hungry and of the misguided. He calls us to be His feet, going out of our fortress to the needy. He calls us to look not inward but outward, not towards meeting our needs but toward sacrifice of our needs so that others may be touched. He calls us to walk where He walks, among the harlots and the lepers and the Pharisees and the crosses.

But here is the kicker – I am indeed in favor of church unity. The church that does not require uniformity but instead celebrates its internal differences and utilizes its many gifts will be unified. The church where questions and yes, disagreement, can be voiced openly and received lovingly will be stronger as a single unit. The church focused on Jesus Christ cannot help but be unified. The church that is not a fortress but a ministering body that touches its community will be the paragon of unity.

I believe strongly that the church is Biblical when it is in one accord. But I do not believe that the early church fathers got up every day agreeing with each other about every issue any more than they got up and were uniform in their choice of breakfast. If you read the scripture, you find not that the church made unity its goal but instead that the members were in one accord because they were continually praising God, continually in prayer, continually working for the purpose of the Holy Spirit. They did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Church unity is critical. But it is a byproduct of our discipleship, of our commitment to the work of Christ, of our focus on our Savior.

“So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus….” “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another.”

Richard Baxter, a seventeenth century Puritan, said it this way: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

May God bless us and give us unity as we follow Him in one accord.

1 comment:

Louis Boyte said...

Amen and amen. Thank you for those thoughtful and thought producing words!