Why Unity Is Complicated

This post is a follow-up to  Standing Together As One.

In Philippians 2:1-2, Paul encourages his friends in Philippi to remain united with each other by appealing to the unity they enjoy with Christ.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:1–2, NIV)

The unity of believers is one of the core teachings of the faith passed down to us in the writings of the New Testament. Unity is a doctrine and should be taken just as seriously as baptism, communion and justification by faith. If Jesus saves, if Jesus forgives, if Jesus renews, then Jesus also unifies his followers. We can’t be one with Jesus and not be one with each other. See why the progress of the gospel depends on Christians standing together as one?

But unity is also complicated and difficult. If it were simple and easy, Paul wouldn’t have needed to address it in so many of his letters.

So let me offer a few clarifications on the nature and limits of the unity of believers.

First, as important as unity is, it is not the the ultimate goal of the church. Making Christ known, contending for the faith of the gospel is the ultimate goal. The mission of the church and the unity of believers are connected, but the unity of believers serves the mission of God, not the other way around.

Unity is not always positive. The Nazis were unified for a disastrous season of history. Plenty of armies, cults, and even churches have demonstrated the downside of unity, by showing how much damage people can do when they unify around the wrong the things and head off in the wrong direction.

When disconnected from the mission of God, unity becomes an idol. Something Christians can rally around to resist God’s call to keep moving forward into his new world. How many churches use unity as an excuse to minimize change, avoid risk, and maintain the status quo? We see the early church struggling to manage this tension in Acts 15 when church leaders discern how to maintain the unity of the church without hampering the mission to the Gentiles.

Second, unity is not uniformity of thought.

If all Christians have to agree with each other on everything to be unified, we have no shot of conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. We might as well stop trying.

I recently saw a blog post listing things Christians don’t have to agree on in order to be unified. What was on the list?

I don’t remember.

I didn’t agree with it.

I thought it could have been much longer.

I wasn’t the only one who disagreed. There was lots of push back. Most seemed to think the list was too long. That’s okay. Christians don’t have to agree on the list of the things they don’t have to agree on in order to be unified, in order to be unified. (You may need to read that last sentence several times before it makes sense. I did, and I wrote it. I told you unity can be complicated.)

Depending on your religious heritage, this may be a challenging concept. Some of us were raised believing Christian unity was based on everyone in the church agreeing on a long list of beliefs, inferences and interpretations. The longer the list, the smaller the church

In Philippians 2:1-2, when Paul says to be like-minded or to be of one mind, he’s not saying we should share the same brain or only unite with those who see things exactly as we do. He’s saying followers of Christ should have the same mindset, the same focus, the same goal, which he will describe in Philippians 2:3-11.

Even Paul allows for his friends in Philippi to see things differently than he does.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15, NIV)

After making his case, Paul leaves room for disagreement. Its not his job to make sure everyone thinks the same way he does. He trusts God to show others what others they need to know, when they need to know it.

Sometimes the best way to preserve unity is to stop talking about our disagreements and instead wait for God to show you want you need to see, while trusting he’ll keep showing me what I need to see. If someday God brings us to agreement, then the church flourishes and the gospel wins. When we keep forcing our positions on each other, trying to win an argument, the church suffers and the gospel loses.

Third, unity is not the absence of diversity.

Slide14Remember the three-fold friendship in Christ diagram?

Because we are united with Christ (1), we are united with each other (2).

One of the reasons unity is such a challenge is that Christ draws us into a friendship with people whom we would otherwise never be friends with. Christian unity grows out of pre-existing diversity. Sometimes the only thing Christian friends have in common is Christ. And that is enough. Our friendship in Christ, created by the gospel, overcomes the diversity that would otherwise divide us.

And that’s why, to pick up a thread from a previous post, church reminds me of Zombies.

Christ-followers have been drawn together from diverse racial, economic, social, religious, political and philosophical backgrounds. We are held together by the one thing we have in common: our salvation in Christ. We believe our survival depends on Jesus.

We are surrounded by forces of darkness, which seek to destroy our humanity and turn us into the walking dead. Having been saved and united by Christ, we have to stick together.

Because we live in a culture that will eat us alive if we don’t.

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