Thursday, February 09, 2012

Repost: How to change a culture of accepted disunity

I was thinking about unity in spite of differences this morning and thought back to a post I wrote in March of 2009, How To Change A Culture of Accepted Disunity. I grieved me then and it grieves me now that we seem to spend more time trying to find ways to divide from one another than we do trying to find ways to cooperate with one another in pursuing the command and commission of Christ. Perhaps worse is the shoulder shrugging that accompanies our disunity, like we are just saying "Oh well" to something that I am certain grieves our Lord Jesus Christ. This post was the third in a series, the first two are Sundering What God Has Put Together and The Fruit Of Sundering What God has put together and together they form some early thoughts on the topic of unity for me.

Our basis for fellowship in the church is our common salvation. That is it. We did not choose God and we don't get to choose the other people God has chosen if they meet our approval for fellowship. We are the Bride of Christ, even when we disagree vehemently with one another but we seem to think that we have license to divorce one another while keeping the same Bridegroom. This must not be so. Division in the church, even for the most pious and high-minded of motivations, serves the cause of the Enemy, not the calling of the Lord.

I guess the question comes down to this. What is our identity based on? Is it based on being "Reformed"? Is it based on our position regarding baptism? Is it denominational, "I am a Methodist" or "I am Baptist"? Or is it based on our identity in and through Christ? Unity in the church is not a nice add-on if we can work it out. It is not an option. Our willingness to be unified in spite of differences speaks at a fundamental level to our understanding of the Gospel and the resulting church. Again, if God has chosen a people from out of the entirety of humanity to purchase, redeem and adopt by the blood of His Son, then we don't get to decide who is unworthy of our full fellowship. Jesus knelt and washed the feet of His disciples, in spite of their deficiencies and errors (remember this "Get thee behind me Satan"?). Who do we think we are to tell God that we won't even associate with others that His Son died to redeem?

Anyway, take a look at this post (and the two post preceding it) and think it over...


Talk is cheap. Complaints and hand-wringing over disunity is one thing, finding practical ways to overcome it is another. In this third and final post about unity in the church, here are some ideas I had to help us move past a culture of accepted disunity and into a culture that actively seeks fellowship among believers in spite of denominations and doctrines.

Number one, change our understanding of the church. Our view of the church has a direct impact on our acceptance of disunity. When we reduce the church to a strictly local gathering that erects barriers based on secondary doctrines and views itself as distinct from every other local church, disunity is sure to follow. Some of the notions that go along with that include the unspoken belief that if you attend a different group than the one you usually attend, you are somehow being unfaithful to your “home” church. We need to jettison this view of the church as a bowl of marbles and start seeing it as a single loaf of bread, made up of lots of different kinds of believers but all part of one united Body.

Number two, actively seek opportunities to meet even while recognizing (as has been pointed out) that you are going to have to meet people where they are. Waiting for others to come to you so you can be unified is not going to work. Unity is important and requires work and it requires sacrifice. We have hundreds of years of tradition that go back to the founding of this country, traditions that see nothing unhealthy about our division even though it runs in clear contrast to the teachings of Christ. The cultural church landscape most of us grew up with must not be allowed to continue driving our understanding of the church. We must instead take our cues from Scripture.

Number three, be willing to place unity at the same level as other doctrines. In other words, unity in the Body is something that needs to be given priority even when it runs up against traditionally divisive doctrines like baptism, church government, soteriology and eschatology. More often than not, unity takes a back seat. It is something that just happens by default after we have sufficiently divided ourselves from every other Christian who fails to adhere to our list of distinctives. Unity cannot be something relegated to the back bench because when we do that, disunity is always the result. How important we consider a doctrine will often drive our actions and as the church has demonstrated by its indifference for hundreds of years, we just don’t consider unity to be all that important and our witness has suffered immensely for it.

Number four, stop the name calling. I am not talking here about ignoring wolves among us or not calling out those who proclaim a different Gospel. I am thinking here about charges of heresy when what we are discussing fails to rise to that level. A prime example is found in the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. It is common, and I will admit to having engaged in this as well, for Calvinists to imply or outright claim that Arminianism is a heresy. I have also heard the opposite be claimed by Arminians. Many Calvinists seem to have a permanent sneer when speaking of Arminians and I have seen more than a few books and tapes being hawked that claim to debunk the “heresy” of Calvinism. As an unapologetic Calvinist I have to ask “Is the Arminian my brother?”. If he is a believer, he absolutely is my brother even if I think he is wrong on this crucial issue and I am his brother, even if he disagrees with me about Calvinism. In fact it is precisely because I am a Calvinist that I must recognize that I no more choose who is my brother than I chose who is my Savior!

Number five, and perhaps most importantly, stop being afraid of other Christians and other churches! We seem so afraid of other Christians and the churches they attend. Maybe if people from our church go to their church they will like the preaching or the music better. They may go and not come back! It is fear that drives much of our disunity, fear of one another caused by a belief that churches are called to compete with one another. If someone goes from church A to church B to serve, praise God! Find out what the other group is doing, see how you can be in fellowship with one another and encourage each other. How often do you pray for your church versus how often you pray for the other churches in town? They might not meet as you do and they may not have any interest in being in fellowship with you but many of them are brothers and sisters in Christ, no different than the people you see every Sunday or the believers we pray for overseas.

What are some other thoughts? I know I have raised this same topic in the past but it is on my mind again. The splintering of the church is simply unacceptable and every Christian, one believer at a time, needs to take concrete steps to rectify this wrong and pray for the unity of God’s people.


Arlan said...

I'm not comfortable with the question, "What can we do to fix the problem of disunity?" It's an institutional church kind of question - or, if I can avoid that IC buzzword, it's a works of flesh kind of question.

We only need to ask that question if we recognize the worldly distinctions in the first place. That is, some of the points you raise certainly have bearing on us individually, such as not pushing people away based on name-calling and labeling; we shouldn't disassociate from someone merely because a bad label is applied to them. On a personal level there is always reason to ask if our judgment reflects the winnowing of Christ or the empire building of man.

But therein frequently lies the rub. Empire-building is often behind the call to unity. The impetus is a notion that we ought to all band together so that we can be more effective at doing things -- various noble causes, but all amounting to some kind of Tower that aspires to bring us up to Heaven.

When Paul wrote that Christ is not divided, he wrote both a rebuke and a statement. Christ is not divided and he is not dead and he is not absent. It is not a matter of Christ wishing he were not divided or of wishing that after 2000 years (give or take) the church finally "return" to its right mode of expression. While we individually are always called upward to a better expression of Christ, corporately, as a people of God, the life of the whole is hidden in Christ. It is not subject to the mistakes of men.

The division we see and lament in the church is largely the result of looking at the worldly things. We want the same kind of Christ that the disciples wanted, a Messiah who will reform our system so that our society will be Right.

It should not bother us that Christians belong to different "churches" any more that it bothers us that churches live in different countries. It should bother us when Christians believe that the "church" or the country is people of God (and I think that was a large part of your point). But if we diagnose the patient as dead, then the body we are examining is not Christ's. We are looking for life in the wrong place.

To me it seems more fruitful to contemplate how Christ is one united life in spite of all of the apparent disunity. We should look for the fulfillment of the Word of God the same was as the Israelites had to during the many times when things seemed to be the opposite of the promise.

Arthur Sido said...

Arlan, the unfortunate reality is that institutionalism is the name of the game in the church and proper doctrine aside it is true that most Christians, virtually everyone that I know, is involved in some sort of group that is exclusive and divided, even people in non-institutional settings. My intent is to simply ask others to recognize and question this sorry state.

I do recognize that in many places, "unity" is a call to "be unified with us" or "unity on our terms" and that is not really the point at all.