A Word (or two thousand) on Unity
Unity is tricky business. Because of the Fall (the one in Genesis 3, not the season), we are inclined toward disintegration. Before Adam ate the fruit forbidden, there was harmony, unity, and right fellowship between man and God, the man and the woman, man with creation, and even man with himself. After that which was forbidden was eaten, everything blew up. We can observe this in our own experience without a whole lot of work. Relationships that were once strong fall apart (either slowly or because of some conflict), relationships that never were begun because of differences (perceived or real), even relationships that remain in tact suffer seasons of conflict, and require pretty healthy doses of repentance and forgiveness to endure.
If this is true on a personal level, it is only reasonable to assume that this happens on a larger scale. A good illustration of this is the United States (I choose the US because I’m more familiar with it than I am, say, Botswana or Nepal or France). As a nation we are at odds with other nations, yet within our nation we are divided in all kinds of ways -race, class, political affiliation, and so on. And even within those divisions, there are divisions. All the way up and all the way back down the chain it goes. Rodney King asked the question several years back, “Can’t we all just get along?” Well, Rodney, it seems that we can’t.
But, this isn’t the way it is supposed to be – nor the way it will always be. I can say this because this is what the Bible tells us. I have been considering Paul’s letter to the Ephesians for the last couple of years, and its truths press into me more and more as I read this majestic letter. Paul begins by giving us some insight into who we are. What Paul insists upon in the opening chapter is that we are now “in Christ.” He uses the phrase (or its equivalent) eleven times in the first fourteen verses. That’s a lot. And being “in Christ” is more than a metaphor – Paul is here saying that our identity is now bound up with Christ. What we have (every spiritual blessing), who we are (sons and daughters of God), what we are (holy and blameless before God), is all because of our being connected to Christ and to one another (the body of Christ).
Paul goes on to say that we are God’s workmanship (his poem – which is simply a lovely thought), and that we are one in Christ. That is, Jews and Gentiles (no greater disunity has existed in the history of the universe) are now one people in Christ, and are “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Chapter four begins with an exhortation to unity.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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 all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV)
Our default position changes (or should) from one of fragmentation and disintegration to one of unity. We are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” because there is “one body and one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Now, let’s think about the Church – with a big C. The universal Church. All the saints of all the ages, generally, and the Church that is alive in our time. Historically, she’s been a bit of a mess. At present, she’s, well, a lot of a mess. In some sense it may seem that the Church is in the worst shape ever. More fragmentation and disunity exists now than ever. In the early Church there were factions and disunites that existed, to be sure. But disunity was never formal until the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern Church and the Western Church split over three words in the Nicene Creed (obviously there’s more to the story than that, but that is ostensibly the reason for the schism). Another 500 years passed and a monk by the name of Martin Luther tacked a note on a door citing 95 things that the Church (the Western one) needed to chat about. In two shakes of a monk’s tail the Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Since then the number of denominations requires a scientific calculator to figure. Catholic (various kinds), Orthodox (various kinds) Protestants (whoa! the number of kinds), and some that claim to be outside any classification.
So, what about Paul’s exhortation to unity? Seems like we have collectively said, “Yeah, we would be unified but those stinkin’ (insert group with whom you disagree here) just won’t do, think, say, or believe the right things.” We are, quite literally, disintegrated. A moment’s reflection on Jesus’ words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” should cause us shudder in our collective boots. Does is look like we are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” or does it look like we are more interested in building and preserving our own local, denominational, ideological or whatever empire? I would suggest that there is a lot of empire building and not enough kingdom building. We gather in with those of our own kind (for as long as they stay our kind), and talk about how right we are, and convince ourselves that in heaven everyone will finally realize how right we were all along. Heaven, for many of us, is that place where everyone finally sees it our way.
Don’t get me wrong. The more thinking we do (which we ought to do!), the more different opinions are explored and espoused. There is a sense in which fragmentation is good…for a season. It gives us the freedom (?) to explore new ways of thinking, to wrestle with ideas that haven’t been fully developed in the history of the Church. And this is happening (much to the chagrin of those who have already got everything nailed down). But we can do this without disintegration. We can do this without taking up arms against our brothers and sisters in the faith. We can do so without name calling and tongue-sticking-outing. And that leads me to my point (you had to figure that one was coming eventually). Unity isn’t theoretical in Paul or in Christ.
We are told in several places that we are branches on a vine (the same vine), a body, a family, a building, a nation and a people. We are individuals, but we are one body, one family, one building, one nation, one people, etc. So, we have to conceive of ourselves this way. The Baptists are connected to the Presbyterians are connected to the Catholics are connected to the Orthodox are connected to the Assemblies of God are connected to the Non-denoms are connected to the Anglicans are connected to the Plymouth Brethren are connected to the Lutherans, and on and on. Just reading that last sentence made some of you cringe, but I don’t care. 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 all, who is over all and through all and in all. And we need to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace because of it.
As I try to imagine what this should look like, I can see how difficult and frustrating it is. I mean, just a discussion about beer is enough to set the world afire in some parts. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t work at it. It seems to me that the best place to start is at the foundation – the essentials of the faith. Can we affirm the Apostles’ Creed? Wow! Do you see how much there is in common already? Do we see things nuanced differently here and there? Yup. Let’s talk about it. Let’s listen to one another as though we’re trying to understand rather than merely looking for holes that we can drive our proof texts through.
Further, let’s actually do something together. A few days ago several churches joined together for a community Thanksgiving service. That diverse churches came together is good in itself, but, what was even more glorious was that the churches did something together. We gave money to support three different local ministries. One a crisis pregnancy center, one a wheelchair ramp building ministry, and one a food shelter that has gone into the transitional housing for homeless business. It was small, but it was something like Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap.” I look forward to much more such events and opportunities for people from different denominational and doctrinal commitments to work together to do some serious Matthew 25 work.
This doesn’t erase the differences, but it puts us into contact with one another, and that proximity makes it a whole lot easier to talk than if we cloister ourselves within our partitioned walls, muttering to ourselves about all those sinners who do it wrong. As we learn to get along, we might actually learn to get along. And we will learn to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
One more thing before I let you go (and thanks for hanging in there with me this long). While we are clinging to the unity that we have, we must be striving for the unity that is still to come. Paul said in the same chapter of Ephesians”
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…
Did you catch that? “Until we all attain to the unity of the faith…” Paul seems to be saying that there will indeed come a time when unity will be complete. He talks about us coming to maturity, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” That’s a huge statement. The Unity Train runs on the tracks of inevitability. So, all aboard. Let’s keep reaching for the unity to come while we eagerly protect the unity that we have. We are brothers and sisters (don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing Kumbaya). We are a part of the same body. We are united under one Head, namely Jesus Christ. Let’s live like it.
Instead of churches competing with one another for market share, instead of going negative like we’re running for office, instead of assassinating the character of the faithful servant of the living God down the road, howsabout we learn to build one another up in love. Howsabout we work as though the same Lord will judge us both? Howsabout we see the world through the eyes of our Head, rather than the avarice in our belly? If ministers and laity alike are eager for unity, it may cost a little pride, but it is a price well worth paying to exalt our Lord in the world.