Unity is important. However, some view the church’s current grasp of unity as worse than a dumpster fire. But it is important, so let us start off with that OK? Being united in Christ is something that comes naturally to a body that agrees the head is Christ. Just because some individual members might want to pass off their unnatural growths as heads, doesn’t mean we acquiesce. I am seeing this growing trend for unity, this call for unity, this demand for unity–which is awesome. But as Inigo Montoya once said to Vincini “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
It is true that unity is important. Jesus prayed for it in his last moments after the Lord’s supper, he prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one. Let’s first recognize that that kind of unity for mere man is probably a bit transcendent for us to attain. As much as God is one, maybe trying to mimic the Trinity is a bit of a tall order? But, before my tongue bursts through my cheek flesh let’s also remember that the persons of the Trinity are also distinct in being as well. So what gives, what does this really mean?
Jesus is saying a bit more than simply be like me. So what is he getting at? Looking at the High Priestly prayer from John 17 we see an important point as Jesus prays. He says he is not praying for everyone but for those the Father has kept for himself. Jesus, in praying for unity, is making distinctions, those that are his and those that are not. Furthermore, he prays for unity and the keeping to happen, but for it to happen within the parameters of his Words. He prays for us to sanctified in his truth.
So if truth is at least some kind of barometer in our quest for unity, what kinds of distinctions or demarcations or dare I say it denominations are allowable? Are the Romans Catholics right to call us Protestants to repentance, are the Eastern Orthodox right in calling us apostate? If you have a carte blanch winner takes all interpretation of Christian unity with matching sweaters and everything, then the church is really failing. Was the subsequent dividing from the Reformation actually worse than the scruples of the Medieval Church that brought it about? In short, No, but why? Let’s go ahead and get this one out in the air: Doctrine divides. Which is why some flee from it all together as my last post was about addressing.
But the fact that doctrine divides is entirely a Biblical reality. About half of all of the New Testament letters are the apostles doing ministry while including the need to address real divisive issues for church life. There are times to separate, there are false teachings and false teachers. (1 Cor 5, Gal 1:6-10, Col 3:8, 16-19, 2 Thess 3:6, 1 Tim 1:3-7, 4:1-3, 6:3-14, 2 Tim 2:14-26, 3:1-9, 4:1-5, Titus 1:10-16, 3:9-11, 2 Peter 2, 1 John 2:18-27, 4:1-6, Jude. But I don’t want to excuse the point that Jesus still prayed for unity. So how about we find the balance that must be present? Now looking at Jesus, he many times corrected wrong thinking that the Pharisees had, the options were always come on board with Jesus or continue apart from him. Jesus warns his disciples about the deceptive leaven of the Pharisees teaching. In other words, certain kinds of teachings were to be avoided as they lead to error. (Luke 12)
Now I see this working out in many arenas: Catholicity, which again simply means universal, how church’s get along-all breeds and creeds, but further in cultures. We thank Martin Luther, but let’s put the doctrine question aside, for now, obviously, certain things must make us separate. But as churches take on different expressions and traditions, we should come to understand pretty quickly why some meet over here and others meet over there. When John tells us:
No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 1 John 2
We must also admit that perhaps some of those we would wish did church a little differently, and perhaps more like us–the proper way, are still brothers and sisters in Christ and maybe it is our understanding of church unity that may need to grow a bit. If we can grant that perhaps unity looks less like a smooth and uniform freshly painted wall and more like one of those fading popcorn ceilings with white and yellow stains, then we might get somewhere. When Romans 10:9,10 tells us that people merely need to call the name of the Lord and confess him as Lord to be saved, we must allow that they might wear different color tee-shirts from us during the week and, God forbid, even wear them in church.
If we press this idea that our definition of unity means that Sunday mornings fail because is the most divided day of the week by design, then we have a bit of big problem to overcome. But before we concede that understanding answer this, why must that which demarcate by necessity be divisive?
The miracle of Pentecost was that real and genuine barricades crumbled by the power of God himself as even language was superseded. That didn’t mean that when the Spirit ceased making communication a non-issue that their natural separate worship experiences were now sinful. Pentecost was a picture of heaven, a picture of how only God can undermine the very real challenges of Babel. The point of Babel was that the people would spread out and cover the earth–not remain altogether. This wasn’t sinful division but how God wanted people to reach the far edges of the earth. At Pentecost People heard the Gospel in their heart languages realizing there was something beyond language that could unite us. People continue to seek that in general, this is why we do Bible translation. People don’t have to learn English to be saved nor do they have to attend our building. Of course, we have cross-cultural ministry but it doesn’t mean that all individual churches must have services for every different people group in a 25 miles radius, nor does it mean every different people group must worship in the same way. It is fine if God simply raises up a different church down the street to do that because it is Christ that unites us not culture. Baptism and communion unite around Christ, not style.
We have black churches and white churches, Spanish churches, and English-speaking churches, etc. Now this problem is easy to identify–if anything other than simple preference and stylistic differences are drawing these lines then they must be fiercely fought against, such as racism, bigotry etc. Those have no business in the body of Christ. But if it is simply a black person wanting to worship in a black church, so what? That is a culture question, a flavor question, an experiential question. If a white person wants a worship experience that is more his flavor, who cares? This is a part of what Romans 14 is about, we don’t fight and divide over preferences, we allow for other brothers and sisters to do it differently. We never demand that our differences don’t exist and that they don’t matter. We have unity in that we have charity for others as they worship differently because we know what binds us is the faith, is Jesus. That is unity, not having your employer forcing you to attend sensitivity training.
Understand style and experience demarcate as well. The question is never what unites us because that is always Christ, the question should be what actually draws these lines? The answer can be sinful or simply utilitarian. There are very much doctrinal differences and even traditional differences. These do not divide us but demarcate. Now some doctrinal issues should divide us as the many references I pointed out above, Martin Luther realized that the very faith was at stake and he did something.
The point is if it is not a gross theological problem we should never confuse a simple demarcation with full-on dragged out God angering discord. We call it as we see it for sure, but don’t make one have to be the other. If it is sin, then let’s repent and be reconciled. Even once that has happened, we call still go to different buildings on a given Sunday.
The point is demarcated and divisive are completely different things.
There will always be a kind of unity that looking forward to heaven is all about. But the nations and tribes that all stand before God are still unique. We need not make breaking that uniqueness a part of ministry. This has to do with the heart. If I don’t want to minister because I don’t like you then fine, I have a problem and let’s talk about that. But if I don’t want to minister there because it is not my calling or gifting then fine, God will raise up someone. God is not letting large swathes of people be missed because too many Protestants are white guys. Christ is what unites us, not a bigger sense of multiculturalism.
I don’t think that picture of the worship around the throne room is supposed to be a model we necessarily seek, but an end we desire as we seek God on the throne. But to further the point, I also don’t think a lack of that picture is sin for the church. This really has to get to the heart. If you worship there because of the minister and the music and I worship here because of the message and the guitar solos, then that shouldn’t be viewed as disunity or a failing of Catholicity. It should be viewed as we simply don’t have buildings big enough, but, nor should we. The early house churches could only house so many before you had to go down the street to Larry’s. What if at a Corinthian church you wanted more of an Ephesian style? Or what if at a Galatian church you wanted more of a Colossian type meal afterward? Is that a big deal?
Now I know that race plays a suspicious marker if what I am saying is true, but race has many preferences in cultures that would genuinely demarcate. If something is familiar and available then we will probably go there versus somewhere else. Might it be a ploy of the enemy to let us be divided over preferences rather than being united in Christ? If you want an impassioned preacher who will challenge your ears drums and music that will challenge your feet, good, there are places for that, but if you don’t, race relationships shouldn’t be the culprit. I have worshiped in White, mixed, Hispanic, Spanish only, and Black churches, high liturgy, and low liturgy. I have come through that forming an opinion of what I enjoy most. Is that OK? These shouldn’t be assumed to be anything more than personal taste, if so then let’s allow Christ to be our unity.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:3
If we are to have the unity of the Spirit in the worship of Jesus, then let us grab hold of the bond of peace, celebrate it and not throw it in the bin because more people of different colors aren’t here with us. This is a heart issue, not the dressings on our windows. I am all for unity, but that doesn’t mean we just need a bigger building so we can all meet together as some sort of command. Where there is liberty in Christ we shouldn’t press for law. I don’t wish to undermine churches that can do this well. They should continue as they are led, but it is too easy to turn around and look down our nose at a church who don’t have the same gifting or even populace or the same draw to achieve similar ends. We are to make attempts at keeping the peace not make attempts to force a unity of gatherings.
If I was pastoring in a black community and very few blacks came but kept going to mostly black churches is that wrong? Perhaps I am bad at my job, or perhaps my flavor doesn’t appeal? If my church drew whites and even Latinos, would that be wrong? Now, if it was because I refused to minister to blacks and the blacks refused to be ministered to by me, or if the whites and Latinos refused to go to church until I came then that is a problem–let’s look at it. However, that doesn’t have to be the reason. Let’s not go looking for problems that don’t yet exist. Yes, racism has been a problem, but the solution doesn’t mean every church must become a multi-color, multicultural, seeker sensitive affair where personal tastes are extinguished.
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Let’s not demand that all our degrees of change be the same and turn liberty into a vice. If churches do meet together with more shades of the color than others we praise God and when they love each other but meet separately, we praise God. If God grants one ministry to be mixed then we praise God, if God grants another specialization then we praise God. If God grants us another week with the doors open, then we praise God. The fact that there is no slave or free man or woman Jew or Gentile in Christ goes both ways, God grants us freedom.
We need to understand that unity is being united in Christ, it doesn’t mean we must all have the same worship experience. Forcing people to worship together as some sort of command, despite styles and preferences, cultures and experiences are misguided back-patting. Might the ensuing fires and conflict be arising because we keep telling each other that they worship wrong? Unity is something that needs to be sought but it doesn’t mean adopting everyone else’s picture of it, that is a race that we can’t win.
There is a reason the creeds of the faith tend to be succinct, the agreements are important but expressions of worship will be vast. Some want priestly garbs, some want incense, some want drums, some want an organ, some want gospel music, some want a lecture, some want more illustrations, some want electric guitar, some want stained glass, some want pews, some want carpet, some want a dance floor, and some want a cathedral, some want a robust children’s ministry, some want a ministry to the homeless, some want a tract ministry, and some want a bowling league, but all must have Christ to be united. He is the only thing that binds us together. The larger the list of demands the more fallout there will be. This is why we major on the majors and we should minor on the minors. As the Trinity is truly one and truly distinct in members, how about we allow that for our churches as well? The question is always the driving force. What drives you to meet and minister where you do? I want unity as much as the next person, but I want that unity to be Christ and not anything else.