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I don’t believe in church unity…

[reading time: 15 mins]

I don’t believe in church unity because 40 years of church life is shouting in my soul most in the church don’t really want church unity. I’m not basing this on what people say - or have said - or preached, or blogged or otherwise communicated. As for various things churchy the difference between things said and things done can be embarrassingly vast. No, I’m basing the comment on what’s done about church unity. That little test, the one that goes ‘don’t listen to what they say listen to what they do’, is as effective a cutting edge on things suspect as a knife through a butter vault. And when its applied to what the church does about unity it cuts hard and true. 

There are many ways this could be demonstrated but the easiest way is to simply imagine a workplace conversation in which things Christian are being discussed. You are espousing the heroics of the tomb-busting Jesus: the cross conquered, quintessential life insurance, ultimate satisfaction, the need for sin to be forgiven, heartfelt repentance etc - when the retort from the not so hapless hearer is a simple but shattering ‘well how come you guys can’t get along?’

Now you could immediately go all self righteous (and annoying) i.e. ‘ah you poor spirit-less non-christian you just can’t see truth like me and besides I know an excuse-turn away from Jesus when I see one'. Or maybe you could go historical and show that most churches actually have at their centre core beliefs that have remained stable for thousands of years. Or you could go philosophical and point out the remarkable distinctives of Christian faith and the Christian hero (Jesus) as compared with other religions and how, despite these great truths, people are still people and so from time to time church splits occur. 

But what you couldn’t do is deny that for an average non churchy dude looking at the church, the church really can’t seem, as a whole, to get along (at least when applying the ‘not what’s said but what’s done test’). 

And this isn’t just because one study indicates 41,000 different Christian groups exist today. Such studies say nothing about any essential differences or why such groups exist independently - differences which could be geographical or organisational rather than related to core beliefs about Jesus. Nope, non-church dudes don’t normally google such things - its tiresome churchy dudes like me who google such things. No, for the average non-churchy guy the retort ‘why can’t you guys get along’ is much more about daily experience than statistics. 

And their daily experience, at least in the western world, is one in which they pass by numerous and differently branded churches on their way to such things as Sunday footy and markets. Most of these churches all have ‘church’ on their billboards but they also have ‘baptist’, ‘presbyterian’ ‘Assemblies of God’ and/or trendy names like ‘On the Edge’ ‘Good life’, ‘Nexus’ and, if in America, ‘First something' e.g. ‘First Baptist’ or ‘First Presbyterian’ which makes one wonder how does ’Second Baptist’ feel (isn’t second the first loser after all?). After the drive-by church billboard sighting there’s the…well what is there? And that’s my key point, at least in an Australian experience, what else is there for the average non churchy guy to see publicly of the church in totality and in honourable oneness? 

Yeah maybe the ongoing and appalling child abuse cases in which we are all unified insomuch as they seem to occur in all denominations. Or maybe, at least publicly, the occasional documentary about Hillsong followed by critiques from angry atheists who ironically unify with surprising allies - 'doctrinally precise' christians. Or maybe, while suffering from a bad case of insomnia induced by too much pizza and not enough beer, the non-church guy sees evangelical TV preachers (please pray) at 5 am with custom suits and custom jets all espousing a Jesus who had dusty sandals and no place to lay his head. The non-churchy guy could then, out of some strange fascination, google said jet-owning preacher and find a different group of Christians - without insomnia or guts full of pizza and beer - angrily putting together web- streamed conferences targeting Christian movements (I meant it, please pray) who are apparently victims of strange fire. 

And after that, when sleep does come, that dude can go back to the rest of the week - some 99.9% of the week - in which the church as a united and one-voiced whole is as absent as sunlight at midnight. And that’s my point. What is there to show we do get along? The silence is deafening. Why can’t we get along? Good question. Lions clubs seem to get along. So does Rotary and the native orchard society. So how come a supernatural organisation like the church can’t?

And while the questions hangs like cluster bomblets in the air, the internal thoughts remember. Remember things like my Opa banned from saying anything in the church and the my first experience of a church split as a teenager. I remember guys on either side of the ‘to heal or not to heal’ argument: older guys who I loved becoming bitter towards one another. Coffee and cake at each other’s homes became angry glances or long spiralling exchanges to a bristly nowhere.  I remember the pastor who looked like a used car salesman but loved like a saint practically running after a young and slightly lost married couple (us) to bring us into fellowship… and then the same pastor in tears before the congregation as (you guessed it) arguments sucked the oxygen out of friendship.

Then there was the soccer convo with a guy about things churchy and things unificatory (yep wiki dictionary says this is a word) when he made the comment as I complained of lack thereof (unity, not church) ‘at least no one ever smacked another churchman in the eye like my Granddad said happened in a church meeting’. True story: somewhere midst the talk of next week’s sermon, a new pulpit and who was bringing scones someone got a punch in the eye. Someone in a church leaders meeting got a punch in the eye. 

IMG 1990

Thankfully though most of these things don’t feature in the non-church dudes favourite google searches. What does feature is the lack of a feature: the lack of any positive,  noticeable, tangible 'at large' feature of the church unified and proud and true. Which brings me off my internal reflections and back to the chill of the problem. If the Lions Club can get along why can’t a supernatural organisation like the church?

And that’s why my cutesy title begins ‘I don’t believe in Church unity’. I don’t believe in it because, from a purely human perspective, there’s absolutely no reason to believe it. In small scale intra and inter denominational arguments, in the large of doctrinal or experiential exclusions and in the absence of large scale visible unity, churches over and over give everybody watching every reason in the world to disbelieve. 

The only reason I believe in the tangible oneness of the church is because the bible says it. To believe in western church unity in the 21st century one has to be incredibly biblical because the bible seems to be the only place where it’s really believed. Take for example Jesus beautiful exit prayer before going to the cross. 

There’s heaps that could be said (and preached) on Jesus’ heart cry to His Father but the biggie that leaps into the heart and bangs around dislodging hard stuff is ‘that they may be brought to complete unity…’ Why? Why does the eternal son of God pray this to his Father..? Because it will testify to the authenticity of his very claim to be from the Father. ‘Then the wold will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have love me’. The greatest demonstration of the living reality of the living son is if His living church ‘gets along’. The old song was not only catchy it was theological: they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love. So when a watching world has trouble with the veracity of our message perhaps it’s not time to head over to ‘www.reasonstobelieve.org’ (even though that’s a great resource) or to buy Ravi’s latest or William C’s latest. The greatest reason to believe in the world is the lived ‘that they [the church] may be one as We are one…’ 

Another biggie in Jesus prayer is ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me...' The glory to be visibly, supernaturally one - where the church loves even in the worst and most awful of circumstances - is a gift. Unity and oneness is a gift: a beautiful gift powered by God’s glory which is God himself. Church unity = Church members being coupled to God Himself. So within strange fire, within the punch you in the eye leaders meeting, within church division are people who, if they are true Christians, have God himself within. So how then could God, or could Christ be really divided?  That’s the true awfulness of church division. We get God in His Spirit as a gift and insomuch as we are one with Him we are one with each other but then we take that gift and punch it in they eye. For surely it's God who feels feels division more than any of us ever could or would if it’s truly His body being divided...

It’s easy at this point to get depressed…until you read 1 Corinthians. There you see the worst types of division (yeah I know still depressing but wait for it…) In fact any normal 21st century Christian would have had every reason to leave this church and find another. Wouldn’t you leave this church if a significant portion of your congregation was visibly getting drunk at communion (1 Cor 11:21)? Or if other portions of your congregation were going on after-church visits to the local temple-brothel (1 Cor 6:16) Or if name-dropping factions such as the Paulites, the Appollites and the Cephites were divisioning (1 Cor 3:5)  This would not be church to visit even if the coffee was really, really good. 

And yet Paul has this to say at the beginning of his letter:

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…1 Cor 1:2,3

Yep, I had to check to make sure I hadn’t sipped one too many lattes when I read this: ‘grace and peace to you’; you excessively-drinking, brothel-visiting, proud factionalisers ‘who are called to be holy together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours’ 

That’s extraordinary. If anyone, anywhere had an excuse to call brothers 'non-brothers' surely that excuse was the non-brothering behaviour at Corinth and yet Paul insists on putting them under the unity descriptor 'their Lord and ours’. (Now I don’t for a moment think any true brother will keep on keeping on with drunkenness, sleeping at brothels and factionalising. That means nothing earth shattering has occurred in the soul and if anything should make our lives shake more than an earthquake it's Jesus death on the cross and subsequent resurrection bringing progressively lasting change.) 

Adding to the surprise of ‘brothers’ Paul then generously sprinkles numerous calls to unity throughout the letter. Like this:

I look at the bit ‘that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought’ and wonder to myself... We can’t be even a quarter united in predestinating Calvinism, power charged charisma, baptism, church governance, cosmological beginnings etc so how could we ever be ‘perfectly united in mind and thought’. 

Smarter guys than me have postured that we can be perfectly united in our understanding of the gospel. The theory here is that provided we have the same understanding of gospel basics than we have unity - these are close fisted, die-on-the-hill issues whereas other issues are open-handed and we don’t have to argue over them except when we are trying to achieve greater theological precision and greater understanding of the truth. That’s has unifying power to a point. But that bond of unity seems to come unglued as soon as people start adding things to ‘the basics’. So nek minute you have to believe in predestination as well as the basic ‘I need (and I mean really need) Jesus to forgive my sin and stand in my place and give me eternal life’ Or you have ‘speak in tongues or we won’t believe you really are believing the gospel’ Or ‘baptism has really got to be immersion for you to be truly saved’ etc. And before you know it, like a dew-drop in the sun the once shiny core-bond evaporates. 

But here’s a thought I had...crazy really. What if we just committed together, perfectly, in mind and thought, to the concept unity really is a precious gift of oneness and we should make every effort to maintain it - just as the bible says? Maybe, like a fresh stream from a fresh spring all the other scary things about unity like the very right fears of truth degradation, Jesus distortions, fluffy slipper inter church tokenism and yellow livered retreats from hard truth would simply be subsumed by a downhill rush of living water as we depended - needfully - on Jesus and God and His precious Spirit to do what we can’t (and won’t). 

I guess I am crazy… But still it kind of glows a little doesn’t it? Imagine if we all really wanted to be unified and we trusted wholeheartedly for God to bring it - in true truth and true love. But hey, If you don’t agree, (irony detected) then I have these words which are Paul’s words: 

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another. 

Did you hear that? He appeals, he calls, he exhorts, he strongly desires and beseeches you to agree so you might be perfectly united in mind and thought...

And if worldly wisdom (which Paul sees as one of the main burrs in the side of unity) burrs up to un-justify unity and oneness then he says this...

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly –mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? 1 Cor 3:1-4

Yep, as creepy as an adult in nappies, disunity amongst long-time Christians is weirdly wrong. And in other letters he won’t given up on the theme that Christian immaturity equals disunity. For example in Ephesians 4:13, after the famous He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teacher to equip the saints for the works of ministry, he gives us this definition of maturity and it isn’t a heavily bookmarked bible or a kindle library full of the puritans. It’s tangible unity in the faith:

…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 Ephesians 4:13

Worldliness, i.e. Christian immaturity - acting like mere men - is seen as adults-in-nappies disunity. And of course, like anything in the bible, this aint just a unity of the mouth its a unity that couples mouth with heart and heart with hands and hands with actions. Becoming truly mature is becoming truly unified with true brothers and sisters in Christ. Makes sense I reckon because if we are all attaining to the measure of the fullness of Christ then we are all becoming more like the centre of our faith rather than the ugly periphery where the atmosphere of the spirit becomes the cold vacuum of the flesh. There are heap more verses one could drink from (just keyword search ‘one’ or ‘unity’ or ‘unified’ in the NIV) but the ones that really get my attention are the ones which involve a command or an imperative to unity such as:

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 Ephesians 4:1-5

Ok so 'live a life worthy of the calling you have received’ which means ‘be completely humble and gentle’ yep got that... with God’s supernatural power got that. ‘Be patient’ yep... got that as well - again only in, and through, the grace of God flowing like a river, but yep got that it’s part of being worthy of the calling. ‘Bearing with one another in love’... yep that’s Christianity 101... ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ ok now that’s a little different than the rest. 

You mean to live a life worthy of the calling means to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit’. Well that’s interesting… Are we really being told a life worthy of the calling will be a life making every effort to maintain unity (cause unity’s a gift before it’s ever a calling)? Are we really being commanded to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit’ with true Christians from the doctrinal sage to the dance with banners colour junkie to the barely holding on doubt wrestler to the Mr angry blogger Christian. It sure looks that way. And it would sure be interesting if anyone really, really tried. That would be almost as interesting as a three way man hug between John MaCarthur, Benny Hinn and Rick Warren. And if it was done in truth seeking, love seeking trajectories it would be just as cleansing and just as glorifying. It would certainly be the ‘amen’ to Jesus prayer… wouldn’t it?

Now I’m not saying there aren’t massive issues to overcome not the least of which would be some of the Hinn weirdnesses, the Warren-isms and the MaCarthur cluster-bombing dislike of Charismatics. And I’m not saying sometimes the groan and angst of division isn’t sometimes necessary. I’m not saying that at all because these are all big issues that should be dealt with. But what I am saying is Christ divided? Is God big biceped and sovereign? Is God big and sovereign enough to bring true doctrinally precise and relationally authentic unity where hearts and minds are agreed that this God is 'our God and theirs’. And isn’t He big enough to make it a heart imperative for His people everywhere if they would just stop following hard-nosed divisions. 

But how? I don’t have a comprehensive answer but I do have an answer. If I see an opportunity to ‘make every effort’ then I will  make every effort. It might even start like this. There you are running up a foggy and dark street as part of your evening jog. There you are considering past divisions where perhaps you were told there couldn’t be true leaderly unity if you weren’t a five point Calvinist. There you are halfway up the last hill on the jog and some of the hurt starts to rise up as you remember having to leave the church you helped start and having to start another. There you are wondering how it all went so wrong when it started so right. There you are wondering how much you really did right and how much was wrong and how in the world it could come back together. There you are worried about the reputation of Jesus in this church situation. And then in the fog dispersed and half light of the street you get the crazy thought that maybe it could come back together - somehow. Maybe not as one congregation but certainly in other tangible, unifying, Jesus prayer answering ways. 

In a few weeks its Easter and with a sweaty hands you thumb the following text to the guys you fragmented from:

"G’day guys. Sorry if this is a shock but it's on my mind for this Easter and it's big. What would it take for us leaders to wash each other's feet at a combined Easter Friday service? For will we not, despite our differences, together shout for joy when The Lord returns? Isaiah 52:8  "Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; TOGETHER they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes." (my emphasis in capitals) and 1 Corinthians 1:10 "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Oh that God's precious name would be lifted high this Good Friday as we his sons together follow Jesus example and wash each other's feet...It would be beautiful my brothers, would it not? In His strength, in His will I'll do whatever it takes. Just tell me... I'll call in a few days. Would you pray about it?"

In the fog, at the top of the hill, it seems so beautiful. And it is. 

Of course then the reality of ‘real issues’ comes home but at no time does the crazy beautiful feeling completely fade. It’s always there: that something very cool could happen. Especially if we fragmented guys would make every effort - do whatever it takes - to maintain the unity. The text is met with silence at first. But then the answer comes that perhaps we should just meet first. So we do and as we do a few things become clearer to me about this whole ‘make every effort’ thing and how tangible unity might be seen. 

Firstly it might be seen by just showing a willingness to try because surely insomuch as trying is obedience - obedience to ‘making every effort - the God in the power of His Spirit might do a magnificent sign and wonder, a spectacular miracle, and actually re-form the church. 

Secondly it might be seen by just simply meeting together and asking God to do the restorative unifying work. Not even necessarily having an agenda or a plan but just a hoped for outcome - tangible, billboarded ‘they will be one and the world will know I was sent from the Father’ oneness.  

Then, maybe, hopefully it might be seen by being able to proclaim a new chapter on the church split chapter which was one of bitterness and hurt. To be able to say to enquirers ‘you know what we did split because of arguments over Calvinism or Issue X or Issue Y and although we are now separate congregations let me tell you what happened last Easter - we washed each others feet! We proclaimed gospel forgiveness to one another’ 

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean the grating edges of Calvinism and Non-Calvinism might be smoothed over or reconciled (although it might if it was speccy enough) but it would mean we had all made every effort. From there ongoing visible unity might be a willingness to swap pulpits on occasion. To come a preach and proclaim the magnificent Lord Jesus Christ and our raw need for Him and for His gospel. Or to come and run non-confrontational sessions (for surely we agree on 95 percent more than we don’t) on each others church camps. Or to pool resources - both human and financial - in gospel actions in the community. And then, as we work out we can actually get along, with lungfuls of prayer and supplication, and with gracious 'ground rules', we get into some ‘twinkle in the eye’  (not ‘glint in the eye’) debates about the issues that we are concerned about and that have divided us in the past. 

And when it is all said and done, we can say ‘yep we have our differences but let me tell you about our unity!’ We can say, without half-mumbles about ‘well Christians aren’t perfect’ and ‘people are people’ we can instead say ‘let me tell you what we did last week together’  and ‘come and see yourself what we are doing next week together’. Come and see our love and see our Saviour is real.

And then one day, when it really is all said and done, we all shout for joy together when the Lord returns to Zion. 

I don’t know about you but sure that is worth whatever it takes.

So will you, make every effort? It would be beautiful my brothers, would it not?

 © pastoringpilot@reformplease.com