The Hard Work of Unity
I think it can be said for anyone who knows Jesus, the longer you’re a Christian the more aware you become of your sinful nature. I know for me, the closer I get in relationship to a holy and personal God the more I understand how miraculous it is that any human being (including myself) remains unified with other people. The longer I live in relationship with Christ I see the miraculous nature of unity. I see the importance of maintaining unity in light of the fact that the unity of believers in Christ was purchased by the blood of Christ. But let’s be honest people – unity is hard work! Let me share a few thoughts about the importance and practice of unity as I am learning.
UNITY IS ONLY CONFIRMED WHEN IT’S TESTED
Can unity really be called unity when you’re a part of a group of people that never disagree with you? Paul wrote to the Ephesians church to endeavor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). I believe Paul chose his words very carefully under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Paul tells us that the unity that was given to us as a gift and fruit of the gospel is to be maintained by willful obedience to this very exhortation. He also tells us that it will be agonizing! The word “endeavor” in the Greek literally means to “agonize over.” If I’m honest the natural tendency of my heart is not to agonize to maintain relationship with those that have offended me or that I disagree with. The natural tendency of my heart is to gravitate towards those that share my similar tastes, preferences and who won’t get in the way of me living out mine. I think we can all relate to that. But unity is not really confirmed in a group of people until it is tested with potential disunity. It’s only when one has rejected the temptation to be ripped apart relationally and choose to maintain relationship that one can truly say they are unified. So what would motivate me to agonize toward this when people have offended me?
UNITY IS MAINTAINED BECAUSE IT WAS PURCHASED BY JESUS
When I hear the word “agonize” I think of the cross. I think of Jesus agonizing in obedience to The Father’s will to save my soul by dying in my place, by being nailed to a cross. Also seen in the command to agonize over unity is an opportunity to mirror the gospel of Jesus, to agonize in my relationship with Jesus and receive my brothers and sisters in Christ when they’ve offended me, hurt me or I don’t agree with them.
Let’s be honest, I’m not a perfect picture of this. I usually find myself praying the precatory psalms toward people that have offended me, “break their teeth in their face!” (Psalm 58:6) But like a good Father, God is a willing and open ear to my crybaby screams (so is my wife). He then gently points me to his Son who agonized to save my soul when I was his enemy. He points to his love for me when I didn’t deserve it. He quiets my soul with this love and then I realize that me responding in my natural dis-unifying and dysfunctional ways would not glorify the Jesus who saved me or lead anyone understanding the nature of the gospel. Are you in a place where you are tempted to make a mountain out of a molehill in relation to the things that have happened to you at the hands of your brothers or sisters in Christ? Let’s face it, the issues are always mountains to us. The problem is that we don’t see them as molehills, we see them as mountains. Are you tempted to take the mountain sized issue and break unity and the relationship that Jesus paid for with his blood? If so, welcome to the human experience. For me it seems to be a weekly one. But breaking relationship is not the solution, maintaining gospel purchased unity is.
UNITY IS MORE IMPORTANT WHERE CHRISTIANITY IS SPARSE
In my experience disunity in the Christian faith is most prevalent in areas where evangelicalism is essentially non existent. I grew up, got saved and church planted in Utah where the evangelical population was below 1% (when I got saved) and is now at a whopping 2.2% according to the North American Missions Board (that’s actually really good growth, but still very low). What I saw in such a low population of evangelicals were high levels of disunity. I know they are probably prevalent anywhere but in lower evangelical populations you can’t just go to the church down the street. I saw the greatest amount of disunity in many churches making their secondary camps the hills on which they would die (Calvinism, Arminianism, Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Women in Ministry, etc.). Even though these are important issues I also saw the necessity in low evangelical areas for unity, not just for pragmatic reasons, but for reasons of obedience to Christ and subsequent gospel progression. Jesus said the unity that he has with the Father has been given to believers and the display of this unity will prove to an unbelieving world that we have relationship with Jesus (John 13:34-35;17:20-23). Maintaining unity in low evangelical populations is not only important because Jesus told us to maintain this unity but it is also a sovereign means God has chosen to prove the reality of his resurrection. There is no greater proof that Jesus is alive than taking a group of people who are naturally hostile to God and others, reconciling them to Himself and others and seeing those people agree to maintain relationship under circumstances that the rest of the population would sever ties over.
UNITY DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO AGREE
We often think that in order to maintain unity we need to sweep everything under the rug and never talk about the elephant in the room. This is far from the case. Just like my first point that unity is only confirmed as unity when it’s tested, unity is tested when you don’t arrive at the same conclusions in your convictions. Unity is confirmed when after you’ve gone toe-to-toe over your disagreements you make the gospel the main thing and unite over it’s progression into a world in needs of God’s grace.
I find myself in this situation right now. I was part of the planting team of Refuge Church in Ogden, Utah. I pastored there for 5 years, two of which was at the “helm” as lead pastor. I poured countless hours into the hard work of relational conflict, painful discipleship, fending off wolves and many other hardships I don’t have time to go into. I did – and continue to do pastoral ministry – because Jesus paid for my sin, saved me from hell, invited me to have a relationship with him calls me his own and will never let me go. But the church that I was part of starting is not the same church I left 2 years ago when I moved my family to Eastern Europe. We planted as a Calvary Chapel church, they have since left Calvary Chapel. We intentionally planted a non-Calvinistic, non-Arminian church, they now fly under the banner of Calvinism. Refuge Church has undergone a lot of changes, some of which I don’t agree with at all. I fight daily personal attack from the enemy for some of the very theological statements that come from behind the pulpit I spent years behind. I fight personal temptation to call the elders on a regular basis and “set them straight”. Why don’t I? Because at the end of the day, it’s not about me. At the end of the day, one of the hardest things for me to do is rest in the sovereignty of God and the love of Christ towards others. Even as I type this my prideful heart wants to fight every keystroke! At the end of the day I don’t want to break relationship with those whom I call brothers in Christ even when I don’t agree with them and I have told them. At the end of the day I believe in something bigger than my agenda, I believe that the spread of the Gospel is directly linked to our maintenance of the unity that Jesus purchased on the cross.
QUIT YOUR RAMBLING – WHAT’S YOUR POINT
God called me to pass the church off to one of our elders – who is doing a great job – and moved my family to minister in Eastern Europe. God called me from a low evangelical populace to a part of the world that has a low evangelical population (Hungary-1%). He called me to be a part of a team that I don’t always agree with in Eastern Europe under the umbrella of Calvary Chapel which is going through a season of intense disagreement. I know I carry in me the temptation for disunity wherever I go because I carry my heart with me wherever I go. Yet as I see in myself the greatest potential for disunity, I find the Holy Spirit lovingly displaying the reconciling nature of God as displayed in the Person of Jesus and stirring me to be obedient because of what he purchased on the cross – Unity.
You may read this and think, “But you don’t know how bad I’ve been offended. You don’t know what I’ve gone through. This issue is of utmost importance and unless they see things the way I do, well…” You may be absolutely right. You may be absolutely wrong. But because Jesus hasn’t returned to transform your heart completely and remove you from the presence of sin you carry around in you the greatest potential for disunity. Does that scare you? It should. But because of the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus we carry in our hearts the the Holy Spirit who provides every ability to agonize in unity with those who are purchased by Jesus by putting Jesus on display in our hearts. I think God would tell us that anything short of maintaining relationship and unity over secondary issues while calling ourselves followers of Christ is to trample on the blood of Christ.