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UNITY

A FRAGILE STRENGTH

by Mike Robinson


Imagine the scene. The light of the Passover moon is filtering through the trees of the garden of Gethsemane making strange patterns on the ground beneath. To one side a small group of men are sleeping fitfully. Some distance away, a lone figure is engaged in a desperate prayer battle. As we draw near to the man who is pouring out his soul in what can only be described as agony, we listen intently for any clue or insight into the burden of his prayer.

"Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name - the name you gave me - so that they may be one as we are one...My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through there message, that all of them may be one...I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me..." - John 17:11,20-23


Our hearts are filled with a wide range of emotional responses as we witness this powerful and disturbing scene. But there is no escaping the burden of the prayer. The heart longing of this man who is soon to be executed is that his followers should experience and express a deep, lasting unity in their lives and service in the years before them. Further, that unity is meant to overflow into the generations ahead for as long as there are those in this world who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Does it not seem both strange and tragic to you that, despite the passion and fervency of that prayer, the followers of Jesus Christ are now noted for their disunity and division? An unbelieving world looks at the fragmentation of Christianity into countless sects and groups and understandably dismisses them as hypocritical and, therefore, irrelevant. And who can blame them?

The greater tragedy is that, in dismissing those of us who make up the Church of Jesus Christ, they also dismiss our message and our Lord.

The fact that we seem resigned and even comfortable with that fragmentation of Christianity in our world today leads to at least one conclusion: the significance of unity is of much less importance to us than it is to the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that there are other matters higher on our agenda. Perhaps that anomaly can be explained in that we have yet to recognise the centrality of unity and the importance of it in giving credibility to our ministry and message in a world that is itself fragmented and divided.

The necessity for unity cannot be allowed to stay in the realm of abstract theological discussion or debate. To be of any value, it must ultimately come down to the local Church where you and I belong. The time has long since come for us to ask ourselves some hard questions about unity. Is it really that important? What does unity look like and how will we recognise it if we see it? What practical steps can we take as individuals to "maintain the unity of the Spirit" in our local congregation?


UNITY: A PRECIOUS GIFT

It is not possible to objectively evaluate the teaching of Jesus and avoid the fact that love and unity among His disciples are of supreme importance to Him. We have already noted the passion of His prayer in John 17. If we had nothing else but that revelation into the heart of Jesus, that alone should make us pursue unity with a single-minded passion. But, added to that, we have the kind of teaching found in passages like Luke 11:17, "Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall".

We turn back into the Old Testament to a passage like Psalm 133 and we read,

"How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head.....it is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forevermore." - Psalm 133


A quick visit to Proverbs 6:16-19 reveals seven things that the Lord hates and among them we find reference made to

"a man who stirs up dissension among brothers".


We return to the New Testament and examine the record of the early church found in Acts. The fact that this first community of faith was one in heart and mind seems to be noted as being of great significance (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). Chapters 5 & 6 reveal something of the commitment of the Church to seek and maintain unity, especially in the issues that could create tension and division. We turn across to 1 Corinthians and discover that, with all the specific issues Paul needs to address in that vital but troubled church, he moves very quickly to expose, challenge and correct the disunity and division in the Church. Across in Ephesians 4 we again tap into the heartbeat of the great apostle as he urges the Church to place unity high on their priorities.

Even to the casual reader, it is evident that unity is a very precious gift to be maintained constantly, guarded jealously and handled with great care. I cannot escape the fact that, if we have the heart and mind of God, we will have a passionate commitment to the maintaining of unity in the Body of Christ. Why? Because unity gives great strength to the life and witness of the Church. A company of God's people who are committed to maintaining the unity of the Spirit will enjoy the fruit of strong fellowship and witness. There will be a credibility about their ministry. However, unity itself is very fragile and delicate. That's why we are urged to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph.4:3)

UNITY: A MISUNDERSTOOD TRUTH

True unity is the exclusive creation of the Holy Spirit. We are never called upon to create spiritual unity. What we are commanded to do is to maintain the unity that the Spirit has created. The underlying truth of that command is that we are one. All those who have been born into the family of God by grace through faith are one in Christ.

If we do not understand or accept that basic truth, we will never know or experience true unity. All those who are members of God's family are our brothers and sisters. They may not all believe or act as we do but that does not change the fundamental truth; we are one because we have one Father.

It might be helpful if we first look at what unity isn't! If we can expose and dismantle some of the myths that have taken root in our understanding concerning unity, we can then clear away the debris and make room for a more accurate understanding. Because we have often been ignorant of the Biblical basis of unity, that ignorance has led to many attempts to establish a form of unity built on other foundations. Let's look at two myths that have crippled our understanding.

MYTH No.1 - Unity & Uniformity are Synonymous

This myth is very widespread in the Body of Christ. In effect, it says that, if we can "clone" people so that they all believe the same truths or doctrines, all behave in the same manner, all worship in the same form or style, all dress within certain parameters of 'acceptable' style and fashion, all accept specific codes of behaviour and lifestyle, then we will have achieved unity - unity of belief and behaviour.

[N.B.Please understand that, in making the comment about truth and doctrine, I am not challenging the necessity of correct belief in the foundational doctrines of the Christian Faith eg. the deity of Christ, the centrality of the Cross and Resurrection, the necessity of the new birth etc. Rather, I am speaking of those truths that might be considered as not essential for salvation but important in Christian living: truths that are understood by various groups in different ways and where there is no general consensus as to interpretation and application].

In exposing the above myth, I am firstly challenging the prevalent idea that theological agreement on all issues can be equated with unity. That is not to say that doctrinal agreement or, at least, compatability is not desirable or enjoyable. However, it is most certainly an inadequate basis for unity. As members of God's family, we are all at different stages of spiritual growth, development and understanding. New Christians are presumably in the 'kindergarten' of doctrinal perception while older Christians (should be!) much further along in their doctrinal insight. Yet, despite the disparity between their respective understandings, surely they are meant to be one and to enjoy the fruit of that unity in their relationships together. So to say that theological or doctrinal agreement is necessary for unity is to deny that newer and older Christians can ever know unity because of the differences in their understanding.

The same holds true in other areas of theological comparisons. If we could wave some doctrinal 'magic wand' and suddenly make all believers pre-millennial.....or evangelical.....or charismatic....or reformed or whatever, we would still not have an adequate foundation for unity. Our theological knowledge is incomplete and still 'in process'. No matter how much we may know, there will always be a sense in which we "see but a poor reflection" (1 Cor.12:12)

I am also wanting to challenge the equating of unity and uniformity as it applies to external organisation or structure. If it was possible to create just one denomination to which all Christians belonged so that we all wore the same label, we would not then automatically have unity. I am not commending or advocating the proliferation and further division of the Body of Christ. But organisational conformity cannot be equated with the spiritual unity for which Jesus so earnestly prayed. Even if it was possible to create that external conformity, we might present an outward expression of oneness to the world but it would only be skin deep!

MYTH No.2 - Diversity and Differences Threaten Our Unity.

It's strange but true that we are generally threatened by the differences that exist in the Body of Christ. Diversity is usually a factor that makes us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. However, I submit that diversity and differences are essential components of true Biblical unity!

[Please note the distinction between 'differences' and 'divisions'. We ought to be able to relax with differences but divisions are destructive to the Body of Christ. Divisions usually come about when differences are handled immaturely! An overview of the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians gives some insight into the birth of divisions. In that situation, there were those in the Church who, in their immaturity, focused upon human leaders & teachers in a way that set up a spirit of competition rather than complementation]

Can you recall the last time you watched an orchestra perform? If so, you must have noted how different the musical instruments were one from the other. Different shapes and sizes, each type needing to be played in a different way and each producing a different sound. But suppose the orchestra consisted only of 76 trombones all playing the same note at the same time? What you would see and hear would be conformity and uniformity. It would be colourless and meaningless. The wonder of a moving orchestral performance can be caught up in three key words - diversity, harmony and unity.

If you have attended a live performance, you may have listened to the various musicians tune their instruments before the actual programme commenced. What you heard then was diversity with all kinds of strange and unrelated sounds as each performer 'did their own thing'. Then the conductor came to the podium and, under his baton, harmony was added to diversity and the end result was a unity that gripped the attention of the listeners. The key to that kind of unity is diversity of instruments drawn together in harmony under the conductor. When the Head of the Church 'conducts' and all our differences are placed submissively under His leadership, the result is a unity that arrests the attention of the world.

If we want a biblical example of the same truth, we need turn no further than to 1 Corinthians 12 and listen to Paul explain unity in diversity as he uses the analogy of the human body. What an amazing illustration! The human body is not threatened by the differences and diversity that exists within it. On the contrary, it is dependent on those differences for effective functioning.

Note how Paul argues for diversity within the Body of Christ in vs.14-20. The body is not one part but many and all parts co-ordinated together equals harmony and unity. Sadly, we often feel that differences have to be eliminated rather than harmonised and, in so doing, we exclude the possibility of true biblical harmony. To use Paul's analogy, we try to make the whole body an eye or an ear! (v.17) I believe that many of the secondary issues that create tension between Christians do so because we have this immature need to reduce every issue to being either right or wrong. Why do we find it so difficult to allow for a third category - different! Why can't we simply allow for the presence of differences without them having to be right or wrong?

If differences and diversity are inevitable among Christians who, at best, now see only a poor reflection (1 Cor.12:13) and if true biblical unity pre-supposes those differences, where can we turn to find the basis for our oneness in Christ? We have already considered theological and structural conformity and found them to be totally inadequate foundations. What, then, is the key to our unity? UNITY: ITS TRUE FOUNDATION We need to turn back to Ephesians 4 and the first 6 verses of that instructive and powerful chapter. You will remember that Paul uses the expression "unity of the Spirit" and, in so doing, directs our attention to the LIFE of the Spirit and the LOVE of the Spirit. In vs.4-6, as Paul spells out the basis of unity, he does not mention structural conformity. Rather, he underlines the spiritual nature of our unity - one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

However, from that point, Paul acknowledges the diversity of life and ministry within the Body of Christ (vs.7-12). Unity in the Spirit is NOW and we are meant to maintain that. Unity of the faith (v.13) is still future and we are growing towards that as we grow up into Christ in all things (Vs.15,16).

Again, I cannot escape the conclusion that, as believers in Christ and members of the Family of God, WE ARE ONE. Were that not so the command to maintain that oneness would be meaningless. We are one because we share the life of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit who lives within me is the same Spirit who lives within my brothers and sisters. We have one Father. We are family! We are one!

Our struggle with unity most often relates to the second dimension of our unity dynamic - the love of the Spirit. I simply draw your attention again to the critical importance of love in our life together as God's people. When we recognise that the LIFE of the Spirit is within us and allow the LOVE of the Spirit to flow through us, the unity for which Jesus prayed among us will be increasingly a reality. We will begin to relax with the differences and diversity knowing that they are not a threat to our unity - unless we begin to again make them a basis for unity.


UNITY: A PRIMARY TARGET

Given that the unity of the Spirit equips us with spiritual strength and solidarity but is itself very fragile, it follows that our unity will be a primary target for our enemy as he seeks to neutralise our effectiveness. We cannot discuss the matter of unity without the reality of warfare quickly becoming part of the discussion. An enemy secures a huge advantage if he can divide the forces that oppose him so that they feud and fight among themselves. Such a tactic is a classic military strategy. 'Divide and conquer' is more than a cliché; it is a strategy as old as conflict itself. As those who belong to the Kingdom of God, we ought to pay close attention to Jesus' observation,

"A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand." Luke 11:17.


An overview of Church history reveals that our enemy has used this tactic to great advantage over the years and he is most adept in its application. If he can destroy our essential unity by getting us to fight among ourselves, he has largely succeeded in negating our power and our purpose.

There is no greater tragedy in warfare than for a soldier to die at the hands of his own comrades because they mistook him for the enemy. We call this "friendly fire". There's a lot of that going on in the Church these days! You see, unity is a matter of spiritual warfare before it is a matter of diplomatic ability. I heard a preacher say recently, "Your brother is never your enemy! Sometimes he may act and speak in ways that suggests he is...but your brother is never your enemy!"

There is perhaps no more instructive passage on this subject of warfare than Ephesians 6:10-20. In the midst of the great teaching found in that section there is this statement, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood...but against spiritual forces of evil..." (v.12). It is a passage we know well and have read and quoted countless times. But, if our behaviour towards each other at times is any indication, we don't really believe it! We too often act and react towards fellow Christians as though we do wrestle against flesh and blood....as though they were the enemy. If we are going to engage in warfare, let's do battle with our real enemy; not among ourselves.

Now, all this is not to suggest that we must never disagree; that there must never be debate and discussion - even of the heated kind! I am not for one moment advocating that we become insensitive to what is right and what is wrong. I am not pleading that we sacrifice our convictions on the altar of expediency or we accept peace at any price in the name of unity. My plea is that, in the midst of our differences, we ask ourselves certain basic questions as we learn and grow together.

[a] Is this issue of a primary or secondary kind? ie. does it have far-reaching implications that could compromise the gospel and the kingdom of God or is it something of lesser importance where differing points of view can happily co-exist if love prevails. Such an atmosphere is just right for developing Christian maturity! I believe that there are some issues that will never be agreed upon this side of heaven and that's not a problem if we continue to relate lovingly together. To be loving in our differences is a more powerful witness to the world than to agree for the sake of agreement.

[b] Am I speaking the truth in love? In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul identifies the maturing process as we grow up into Christ or into Christlikeness. One of the hallmarks of maturity is the increasing ability to speak the truth in love. Some people are so truthful they don't know how to be loving. Others are so loving, they don't know how to be truthful. Both those extremes are destructive to true unity. Speaking the truth in love enriches and purifies our unity in Christ. But in the 'heat' of the situation, how can I monitor if what I am saying honours this command? Here are three key strategies that, if consistently applied, will go a long way to safeguard our unity

First, we need to make sure it is the truth. Let's check the accuracy of what we believe to be true so that we do not unwittingly become part of the enemy's strategy of dis-information and de-stabilisation. And let's check it with the source!

Second, we need to say it where it counts. It is of no value if we speak truthfully and lovingly but we are speaking to the wrong person. For example, if I have a problem with my secretary or chairman of Deacons over some particular matter and I speak to everyone else about my problem but not to him, I am not saying it where it counts and I am almost certainly aggravating the situation rather than solving it.

Third, say it with love. My attitude is as important (some would say more important) as the content of what I am saying. If I am truly speaking in love, I will not be trying to justify myself, defend myself or prove myself right. I will be seeking to build up and bless the person or persons to whom I speak and to contribute to the welfare of the whole Body of Christ.

When a group of Christians (a local Church, a home group, even a denomination) begins to experience change and upheaval, pressure is placed upon whatever degree of unity they may have.

But if that particular community of believers has developed a love relationship between its members and they have been learning how to maintain the unity of the Spirit as distinct from creating a uniformity, they will be well prepared for the discomfort and upheaval when differences emerge because they will give priority to love and unity over form and structure.


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