Monday, March 12, 2012

Unity As Witness. Or Not.

At the close of the Last Supper, as Jesus prepared to face the cross, He prayed what is known as His High Priestly prayer (John 17). It is one of the greatest utterances recorded in the Bible and one of His last recorded acts before His arrest and trial. As such it should hold a particular importance to us. Of course everything that Jesus said and did is important, otherwise He wouldn't have done it, but when the end was coming and He had just a few hours left with the disciples that would be the servant leaders of the new church, His words and deeds hold special importance. I want to look at one portion in particular, His prayer for unity...
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)
Ponder that for a moment. In the waning hours of His earthly ministry (and He clearly knew the end was right around the corner), how did Jesus spend His time? Well obviously He spent it with the disciples but what was He doing? Not giving them an exposition of the Five Points of Calvinism or a lecture on the importance of liturgy. He didn't have any words for them about the correct mode of baptism or the proper form of church government. No. He spent His last hours with His disciples breaking bread with them in the form of a meal, washing their feet as an example for them to imitate and in prayer for them, specifically for unity among the brethren.

I want to focus specifically on something Jesus is saying here, namely that unity is a form of witness to the world. I would point out that Jesus is not merely speaking of unity within His “inner circle” of the twelve but “also for those who will believe in me through their word”, in other words those who would in the future believe in Jesus, whether those who would believe on the day of Pentecost or a new believer who came to Christ this morning.

Jesus taught and prayed in His High Priestly prayer that as the church we are in Christ as Christ is in the Father, and through our community we are witnessing to the truth of the Gospel to the world and proclaiming Jesus as king. More specifically our unity with one another is one of the ways that people will believe that Jesus lived, that He came from the Father and was who He said He was. That is a pretty powerful and sobering statement and it really ought to be something that trumps our own personal preferences and pet peeves. Apparently it doesn’t because even among highly similar groups the notion of real, functional unity would be laughable if it weren’t such a sign of rebelliousness. We like to think that annual conventions or bi-annual conferences touting how “Together for the Gospel” we are suffices to override the fact that most of the time we see each other not as fellow redeemed sinners on a common mission for the Kingdom but as competitors who are doing something wrong on Sunday morning.

The flip side of the issue is far more troubling and often more pertinent in our day. If being one in the church is a witness to the world, doesn't it hold true that division is also a witness? Imagine that someone sincerely seeking to know Christ comes to a typical Christian and asks what they should read in the Bible. If they are like me, I would recommend the Gospel of John. Now imagine the confusion of this sincere seeker when they read what Jesus prayed on behalf of His disciples in His High Priestly prayer. Jesus prayed for one thing and those who claim to follow Him do precisely the opposite. If you needed further proof of God’s sovereign election in salvation it would be that anyone comes to Christ at all when faced with the splintering and division that the world sees when it looks at the church.

What does our division and disunity say to the world and also say to Christ?

It says we either don’t believe Him when He says that our unity is a witness or it says that we might believe Him but we don’t care, that our boundaries and creeds and denominations, our notions of doctrinal purity, are more important to us than winning the lost to Christ.

I am not sure which is worse. I do know this, in spite of the frustrating and seemingly Quixotic nature of the pursuit of Christian unity, we have no other choice. I will not be a party to the division of the Body of Christ and I cannot in good conscience sit by without doing everything I can to see the walls that divide the church torn down. I may never see even the smallest result from these efforts but I cannot do otherwise. There is nothing more important than taking the Gospel to the lost and therefore there is no excuse to not remove every barrier that we have the power to remove between the lost and the Savior.


Don G said...

Unity is a great thing, but sometimes I believe that we have to ask, at what cost?

Jesus was all about unity for his disciples, but he was unafraid to confront when the time was right. He confronted the pharisees, and even the masses who only came to him to get their bellies full.

I believe that unity is important, but the we must be unified around the cross, or our unity is in vain.

What does our division say to the world? It says that we disagree. It says that counterfeit gospels are something we take seriously. It says that sometimes we are idiots and can't agree on the color of carpet in the sanctuary. Division says we are human.

So what issues are important enough to take issue with? I think that is the bottom line, and a tough question to answer sometimes.

Arthur Sido said...

Don, I understand your line of questioning and I have struggled with these same questions. I have also realized that most of what we divide over does not rise to the level of heresy or counterfeit gospels. In fact I would wonder if a church that preaches the "gospel" but refuses to live out the reality of the life of a gospel transformed people might be guilty of a counterfeit gospel just as much as a known heretic.