Father, I pray that they may be one as we are one—Jesus (John 17)
The vision of the early church expressed in this prayer from the lips of Jesus is that followers of Jesus would be so knit together as brothers and sisters that their loving actions towards one another would show their ultimate allegiance to those outside of Christian communities of faith.
- The “sharing everything in common (Acts 4)” ethos of the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem permeated that faith community to the extent that a new social ethic developed.
- The hallmark expression of this love make actual is Galatians 3:28—There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. This bold and countercultural declaration cuts across ethnic, economic, and gender divisions. This is the call upon the church.
- This ethic was seen in the actions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) where hearts and hands were extended to gentiles.
- This ethic was expressed in the words of the Apostle Paul who spoke about a tearing down of walls (Ephesians 2) and commitment to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5).
- This ethic was demonstrated in the early church’s commitment to the least of these (Matthew 25).
We speak of unity. We pray for unity, but there is a scandal of disunity. Look at how we relate to each other:
- Pastors and church leaders do not meet together because of doctrinal and practice differences.
- Churches speak ill of each other rather than working together.
- People abandon congregations over relational conflicts or when it seems that another church can better entertain and meet needs.
- We are so fearful of the criticism of compromise, and so certain of our narrowed views that we will not extend a hand of friendship towards another leader or church.
- We conflate Christian ethics and partisan politics.
- We fight over secondary doctrinal issues
How do we expect to make a difference for good when we cannot even sit at table together? How can we expect to be agents of reconciliation when we cannot join hands with each other? We continue to extend the violence of religion with our “who is in, who is out, who is right, who is wrong” rhetoric.
We proclaim a generous God, and yet we do not demonstrate that same generosity towards each other, and so we have no compelling message with which to bless our communities and our world.
So what might we do?
First, we need to acknowledge our failing here. We must recognize that we lack unity that we create and live in division and disharmony. We engage in heated debates over minor issues and in the process we lose our voice.
Second, we must sit with each other. We need to listen to each other, talk to each other. There will be differences. We need to dialogue and debate and we will learn from each other. Some of our preconceived notions will crumble. We will see that there is more that draws us together than separates us. These discussions lead to fresh and more faithful understandings. We should be grateful for these differences; they remind us that none of us has the corner on the truth, that God is much bigger than any church, tribe or denomination.
The church is wonderfully diverse. We are too quick to create boundaries that exclude and categorize. We need to embrace our diversity in Christ, and at the same time embrace our unity in Christ. We need to enter into seasons of fresh theological thinking. While it is messy we must seek unity in essentials, freedom in non-essentials, always surrounded by a sense of love.
This is not a call for a watered down faith. We oppose free-for-all theological experimentation and accommodation to culture. We must live out our convictions, but with a spirit of humble and generous orthodoxy.
We need to generate a more generous spirit among church leaders who have hearts wide enough to embrace all who call themselves followers of Jesus, without ignoring the reality that all do not make that claim.
We will always have disagreements about what is essential doctrine and what is secondary, but might we approach these questions with a willingness to listen and learn, and open arms that embrace rather than exclude?
Three, we wait and see what happens. Maybe there will be a fresh breeze among churches and church leaders, as we demonstrate what peace might look like, and we regain a compelling and provocative voice in our society. Maybe church leaders will discover ways to worship together and work together.
Then, the church once again might be able to express and demonstrate the generosity of God in our actions towards each other, and in this action, we might offer gifts of blessing to the city where we live and worship and become a credible voice in a world that knows too much intolerance and hate.