How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. Psalm 133:1-3
British preacher Charles Spurgeon once said that “wherever it can be said of an assembly, ‘the Lord is there’ unity will be created and fostered. Show me a church that quarrels, a church that is divided with personal ambitions, contrary doctrines, and opposing schemes, and I am sure that the Lord is not there”. As wise as Spurgeon was, I think this is one of his finest insights. If we say that the Lord is there, and we are marked by division, then something is wrong. When trouble or hardship comes, when things are said that we regret, when mistakes are made, what do we do, do we point fingers and blame, or do we move against each other? In the past, this has happened; both here, and in many other Baptist churches. No denomination is more known for fragmenting than us Baptists. We are known for fighting and splitting over everything, from the color of a rug, to who looked at who funny. But here’s the thing, sometimes, we lack unity for another reason. Sometimes, it’s just that we don’t get to know and understand each other well, or have the same focus and goal. Sometimes the issue is that what was once a integral part of the church for one generation doesn’t attract or even make sense to the next. Sometimes, the issue is that the church reflects the trends of the culture around it, and act with the same unfettered, self focused, radical individualism of our culture, to our shame.
When we look around, we see a society that reflects unfettered, self focused radical individualism, and the result is that we live in an increasingly fragmented society, a society that struggles to understand each other, a society that struggles to get along. All you have to do is watch Washington. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, it seems consensus can’t be reached over anything. Each wants what it wants. And this fragmentation is happening in every area of our society, as people are pulling further and further away from each other.
In 1995, Sociologist Robert Putnam put his finger on this fragmentation in his book, Bowling Alone, when he said"Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighbourhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness." Through this book, Putnam uses a mountain of data to show just how fragmented we are becoming, as he charts the grievous deterioration over the past two generations of the organized ways in which people relate to one another and partake in civil life in the U.S. For example, in 1960, 62.8% of Americans of voting age participated in the presidential election, whereas by 1996, the percentage had slipped to 48.9%. here’s another one, this one, painfully close to home. While most Americans still claim a serious "religious commitment," church attendance is down roughly 25%-50% from the 1950s, and the number of Americans who attended public meetings of any kind dropped 40% between 1973 and 1994. Even the once stable norm of community life has shifted: one in five Americans moves once a year, while two in five expect to move in five years. Putnam claims that this has created a U.S. population that is increasingly isolated and less empathetic toward its fellow citizens, that is often angrier and less willing to unite in communities or as a nation. "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered," Putnam writes, "and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." Putnam concludes his analysis with a concise set of potential solutions, such as educational programs, work-based initiatives and funded community-service programs. He offers a ray of hope in what he sees as a dire situation.
I don’t know if his solutions are the right solutions on a cultural level, I think that more is needed. I think only a deep, landscape altering revival of gospel centered Christianity will do the job. But he’s on to something big, and thinking about the issue as it pertains to the church, this is a problem, both in our church, and in the body of Christ at large. We reflect this fragmentation. And it’s not just us. The issue of fragmentation is hitting many churches.
I was speaking with one of my mentors, and he said that unity is one of the biggest challenges of our era. The focus of the church, the direction of the church, the role of the church, the way people interact with the church and the church community, is all shifting in this postmodern, electronic age, and we are having to figure things out by diving into the Bible and re-examining how the Bible speaks to this cultural setting. What idols does it hit? What things does it say to us as we seek to follow Christ here and now as we live through this period of cultural transition?
One thing I know is that in this time, more than any time in our memory, we must be intentional about fostering unity; unity in mission, and as a church community. Now, that’s a word I have not used much. Community. When I was in college, I heard the word community thrown around till I got sick of it. all the resident life people talked about was community. It was a huge mantra. And I got numb to it, and came to disdain it. But in retrospect, I think they were on to something. Community doesn’t just happen. The church is to be a distinct, deep specific type of community, a family. That doesn’t happen easily. But it’s something that we must aim for. When we have unity as the people of God, when we know each other more, when we seek to have a shared mission and vision in life, and are involved in each other’s day to day lives, we are less likely to be divided by things like personal ambition, contrary doctrines, and the like. We are less likely to fragment, to follow the well worn Baptist paths, and the path of our culture. We are less likely to break up over little things, or no reason at all. We are less likely to lose track of each other. And we are more likely to seek each other’s good, to choose to love, to disagree to disagree about the little things, and to seek the glory of God and the furthering of his kingdom together.
So what’s the source of our unity? Is it just unity for unity’s sake. Community for community sake. No! It centers in the gospel. The gospel leads to unity and community. Christ’s life, death and resurrection changes our life. It makes us one body, one family, one in Christ. Apart from Christ, and his finished work we have no unity. We’re too fragmented, to different, but in Christ, Jew, gentile, slave, free, man, woman, all are one in Christ. And this should lead to two things. Shared life, and shared foundation and focus.
First, it leads to shared life. As Christians, we are to be sharing life together. More than just going to church on Sunday, but really getting involved in each other’s lives, spending time together. Visiting with each other, having meals together as a church family, checking in on one another, asking each other “how’s your walk with God”. Its spending life together in large gathered groups of Christians, and in smaller, scattered groups, meeting as smaller segments of the church family. It’s spending time together, and serving alongside each other on projects that further the gospel, projects around the church, and projects that help each other out, as we seek to obey the word of God and bear one another’s burdens in love.
But it not only leads to shared life; second, and far more importantly, it leads to shared foundation and focus. The gospel plants us all on the same foundation. Christ. He is the source of all unity. He gives us a new identity, in himself. He gives us a new mission. Our mission is found in his mission, in furthering his kingdom and righteousness, in bringing Glory to God, and bringing his peace to the world around. The gospel gives us a shared foundation and focus. Think of all that scripture says about unity. In Philippians, Paul says, in contrast with the pagan world around that was focused on self pleasure and the world around, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers...stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers." (Phi 3:20-4:3)
In Ephesians he writes, "Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism;one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (Ephesians 4:1-,6, 11-20)
Notice some things from those passages. We are citizens of heaven, not of this fragmented world. We are to agree in the lord. If we can’t agree for any other reason on things, agree in the lord. And we are to make every effort to keep unity in Christ. And it’s a unity that is rooted in Christ, one lord, one faith, one baptism. It’s not in some nebulous sense of unity, or community, or peace. We are to have unity, community, life together as the family of God, because we have a new identity as followers of Christ, as people who have been called to one hope; hope in Christ. Because of that we are one. And notice three things. First, the gifts God gives are for the unity of the body so that we will mature as a community, as people who have knowledge of the Son and have the full measure of the fullness of Christ. Second, we are not to be schemers, instead, we are to speak the truth in love as we grow into him who is the head, Christ. Third, see what flows from that. We grow into Christ, and from him support comes, and the result is love, love for each other, as each part does its work.
And it's not just Paul that says this. Peter jumps in on the action as well, writing in First Peter, “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9). His unique contribution to the subject is this reminder that unity requires us to act in love even when we’ve been wronged. As Christians, you are called to forgive and show love when wronged, remembering that Christ forgave you,. And the early church was known for this. The church father Tertullian writes that the statement of those around the church was, “look how they love one another”.
The gospel gives us true unity, love filled unity. Unity rooted and grounded in Christ. Now here’s the issue, ultimately. The desire of the Lord is for his church to be united. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around us, he wants us to be united. We are to be a counterculture marked by unity. In his great high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples, and for those who will believe in him through their word, praying “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”.
When the church is united, when we stand together in unity, it is a powerful expression to the world of what the gospel does, and a wonderful experience of life in the kingdom of God. When we are fragmented, when we don’t have unity, we fail to live out the gospel, we damage our witness to the world around, and we miss out on something wonderful. We’re making progress. I see many signs of unity. I see some signs of disunity. we’ve got allow done, and we have miles to go. My hope and prayer is that 2013 be a year where we make many strides towards keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, as we connect to the gospel, grow in the gospel, serve from the gospel, share the gospel, and are together changed by the gospel.
Now, one final thought. it’s not enough for me to write something like this. A big data dump, and it’s over, thank God. My hope for things I write, is that they will create discussion. Talk about this with each other. We are going through momentous changes as a culture, and we feel them in the church. How are we uniting and failing to unite. What piece of this article stands out to you ? What piece do you find yourself most challenged by? What piece of the article do you identify with the most? What things have I missed. What are the areas that we don’t have unity, and how can we really truly work through these things? What steps can you take to grow closer to those in your church family? Talk about these things, talk about them with those you are closest with, and pick a couple of people that you are not with, people from a different generation, people that you don’t know as well, and share your thoughts. Talk about it, and lets seek to grow together in unity for the glory of God.