Unity in the church?
What is unity? It’s not the same thing as conformity, that’s for sure.
Gotanswers.org offered the following answer to the question “How can a church achieve a true, biblical unity?”:
“The Bible underscores the importance of “unity” and “oneness.” Unity with others is “good” and “pleasant” (Psalm 133:1). Unity is absolutely essential because the church is the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and a body cannot be in disunity or disharmony with itself. If disunity occurs, it essentially ceases to be a body and becomes a disjointed group of individuals. Jesus’ plan for His church is people unified in the faith.
“The secret to unity begins with how we view ourselves within the body and how we view others. The key verse that addresses this is Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Disunity in a church is most often caused when we act selfishly and consider ourselves better than others. Paul goes on to explain further in the following verse: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Sadly, churches that experience disunity and are in conflict and turmoil are generally filled with people looking to their own needs, their own desires, and their own ambitions. Such behavior is characteristic of unbelievers, not those with the mind of Christ. Worldliness, not godliness, is the hallmark of the disunified church, as Paul reminded the Corinthians: “For you are yet carnal. For in that there is among you envyings and strife and divisions, are you not carnal, and do you not walk according to men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3).”
I find this all very interesting for a few reasons. The answer focuses on individual churches. I wonder if the answer to the question changes when you take the church on a larger scale? Or does the same answer apply? To some degree I think it does. But the more people you incorporate in, the harder the idea of unity becomes.
And what do you do in a culture that places such a high cultural value on individualism? How does individualism match up with what it means to have unity in the church? I’m not sure they do match. In this way the church is called to be counter cultural – offering a different set of values than what is valued in the culture it resides in. The early church did this – offering a far different set of values to live in contrast to the Greco-Roman values of the day.
But for many Americans, this is scary. For a long time we’ve equated Christianity=America, and Church membership = patriotism. But that’s never been the case, no matter how hard we try to spin it. No matter how many flags we put in our sanctuaries. No matter how we try to make Jesus into a Good American. America is a nation that came into being, has had numerous sins throughout its history, has done some wonderful things that have advanced humanity, has a culture and values that don’t always match up with Christianity and sometimes does nicely, and will go out of existence at some point in the future to be replaced by something else. In this regard, America is no different than any other nation that ever existed or will exist. America can be described in many ways, but it is not the equivalent with Christianity. Following Christ goes on whether America exists or not. Patriotism can be fine and good in many respects, but it is not the equivalence of being a Christian.
But there are many in this nation that believe the America is divinely blessed and that the nation is God’s way of carrying out God’s plans. The concept is American exceptionalism. But national exceptionalism isn’t Christian – regardless of whether we are talking about American exceptionalism, or Russian exceptionalism. Wait, didn’t you know that that Russians also think they are divinely blessed to carry out God’s will for the world? If you listen to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, you’d certainly come away with that impression. It’s Russia’s own version of Christian Nationalism and it’s just as dangerous and destructive and antithetical to Christlikeness as the American version. The only difference with which flag gets conflated with Jesus.
Sure, there’s a long history of people who have argued for these things within the church. Rome thought it was God’s agent to civilize the world. And many kingdoms who followed Rome all thought they were the inheritors of Rome’s legacy. But just because someone claims this doesn’t make it good theology or in alignment with Christ.
So let’s get back to the main issue – what is unity?
Unity is not conformity, as I started out saying. Unity means that there is something that we can identify with the goes beyond all our differences. For the church, that “thing” we are to identify with is Christ.
But how can there be unity in Christ when I’m not convinced that we are all worshipping and identifying with the same Christ?
I think we’re coming to a head with this in many respects. It’s been building for some time. Some call it the great reshuffling that is happening. People moving to different churches because of a church’s message and beliefs. People leaving churches over what they stand for. People finding new church homes because they finally feel like a burden has been lifted. Churches closing their doors. New churches and ministries being launched. Denominations that are splitting apart and others considering what their future looks like. And more.
In order to have unity in Christ, I think we need to be really clear on what we mean by Christ. Gone are the days when we can say Christ and we can assume that everyone has the same definition or even anything similar. Is Christ the person who sets people free from bondage, sin, and death, or is Christ the one who maintains abusive systems in order to maintain order in society and bring prosperity? Is Christ wrapped in a specific flag and only bless a specific nation, or does Christ transcend nations and love the world? Is Christ’s way the way of peace, or does Christ support the use of violence? Is Christ more concerned with the ends justifying the means, or does Christ’s means have as much importance as the ends? Is Christ only concerned with “correct” beliefs, or does Christ’s concern extend to how to treat others?
Which Christ, or which version of Christ are we talking about being unified in? Because as a pastor, I’m just going to say this bluntly. I have absolutely no interest in being unified under the banner of a Christ that maintains abusive systems for the sake of order, a Christ that only blesses one nation at the expense of others, a Christ that is only interested in bringing prosperity to those in power, a Christ that uses the means of violence to accomplish his goals, a Christ who believes in the ends justifying the means, a Christ who is more concerned with so called correct belief separated from faithful living and refusing to seeing the image of God in others. I don’t know what any of that is, but it isn’t Christ. It’s just more of what the world has been offering for a long time. Sure, there are some who slap the label of Christian on these things, but it doesn’t make any of them Christian or Christ-like.
I’m all for unity in the church. I think it’s important and essential in order to carry out the mission that Jesus has for us. And in that, we really need to be clear about which Jesus we are being unified in so that we are clear about what mission we are working on. Are we unified in Christ, or in something else that is labeling itself as Christ but is really something completely different and has a conflicting mission with Christ?
Yay, good stuff. Unity. without it, we may as well go home. Our goose is cooked.
The church heritage I grew up in seemed to just talk, talk, talk about unity nonstop. Never made great strides, but sure talked it to death.
You went right to Philippians and I Corinthians for it. That’s where I spent a great deal of my life. You could hardly pick more central passages.
At root, UNITY is an expression of LOVE. People who love one another, unite. Without love, you are just a noisy gong.
I think we could just dive into LOVE and unity will be a natural (dare I say “by”) product. But of course, even St. Paul does not put it in such simple terms. Maybe I am missing something.
If there is a core passage of Philippians, it surely is the hymn. Have this attitude in yourselves – be like Jesus who… who… who HUMBLED himself.
It appears you don’t really get LOVE or UNITY without HUMILITY. Humility seems to be YOUR part in the process while God’s mysterious ways pretty much runs everything else.
But just look at some of the language Paul uses there in both letters which set the bar so very high you can’t even see it, much less reach it: Have ONE MIND – AGREE – ONE HEART.
You cited the bit about hold the interests of OTHERS as MORE important than your own. That is about HUMILITY as well as LOVE. It’s the overlap part of a Venn Diagram.
Both churches present occasion for a letter due in no small part to “factions” or “quarrels.” Both communities which play host to these churches (Corinth and Philippi) are very proud places filled with very proud people. The church is the one body/group in town where people humble themselves.
Philippi is particularly a hostile place for the gospel. Want to talk about patriotism, you can hardly find a more patriotic place than Philippi. The colony was settled by retired military commanders from Rome who constantly parade military honors, who create a culture of adoration for Caesar, men who have already laid down their lives for Lord Caesar.
Just imagine a Friday Night football game – ahem – gladiator game in Philippi. The school district there has not outlawed prayer at all. On the contrary, they don’t start the game without a song, a flag ceremony, and a prayer where the whole crowd shouts/chants “Caesar is Lord!”
Just imagine living in THAT town!
Imagine getting sued and hauled into court in THAT town, and they open the proceedings with a quick prayer and everyone opens the session with a salute and a cry (straight out of 1933 Berlin) saying “Hail Caesar!).
Now, just imagine you are from the church in Philippi where they pray a very different prayer. One where the group in one voice pronounces “Jesus is Lord!”
This empire isn’t big enough for two.
So, you show up to watch the game or to defend yourself in court, but when they raise the flag and pray the prayer, you sit on your hands or even turn your back out of reverence to the TRUE LORD Jesus.
How do you think your law case is going to shake out when you say “Jesus is Lord” rather than Caesar? Do you think there is even a snowball’s chance in hell you might get a “fair” trial???
And what is St. Paul’s antidote to all this?
You gotta read the letter in its context to even see any of this, because out of context, there is really NO sense of it.
But way back in chapter one, the bit leading up to that hymn, Paul says that the church’s unity is a sign of destruction to her opponents, but a sign of salvation to them.
This is a war! Unity, sheer unity, is the battle strategy. Unity with is LOVE involving humility in the face of pride and fear and death.
Yeah… Unity is important.