Growing in Unity

If we jump up and leave our brothers and sisters at the first sign of conflict or pain, we will never grow in the ways God wants us to grow.

There’s probably at least one thing we can all agree on, and that is the lack of unity everywhere we look. Nations against nations, ethnic groups against other ethnic groups, husbands against wives, children against parents, church members against their brothers and sisters. Seems like everybody these days has a problem with some other human being. And most of us have come to accept that this is just the way it is; these are the times we live in. It’s understandable.

The problem is that within the church, the body of believers, Christ-followers have yielded to this same level of acceptance. Whatever happened to “the communion of the saints”? Although we read those words aloud in our confessions, we don’t seem to live them out. Rather than growing something that is near and dear to God's heart, we're diminishing it. This really makes me sad.

Jesus prayed in John 17 three times that we would be one like he and his Father are one. He prayed that the rest of the world would believe as a result of the unity that could be seen in his followers. I can’t help but believe that Jesus knew all too well that this would be one of the biggest challenges his followers would face. So why has this unity been such a difficult thing to achieve?

From the time Jesus prayed that prayer, the enemy of God set in motion an environment that espouses factions and divisions. These divisions are based on every imaginable line of distinction, including denominations, ethnicity and race, socioeconomics, and gender.

In addition, our North American culture is characterized by a kind of rugged individualism. We wake up in the mornings driven by the desire to achieve whatever will make me—and mine—content and happy. Many of us would go further and assert that it is our God-given right and responsibility to act on this. Instead of trying to discern God’s will, this kind of individualistic thinking makes us think we can draft the plan for our lives and simply present it to God for his co-signature—and then barrel down the path to make it happen. And if our lives do not happen to unfold the way we have scripted our plan, we’re likely to get mad at God or start accusing God of being absent or distant.

This individualistic approach actually offers more opportunities than we care to admit for pushing others out of our way. It allows us to devalue those we don’t think are worthy so that we can carry out our own will, our own plans.

It is an attitude that carries over into our relationships with our brothers and sisters at church as well. Many of us go to church on Sunday morning with a shopper’s mentality―even to the point of making a mental checklist: Did I find a good parking space? Was the music to my liking? Did the pastor deliver a message that made me feel good about myself? Did my children have fun in the nursery or children’s church?

We rarely go to church with the expectation that God is going to present some troubling circumstances that will force us to grow in areas that he knows we need to grow in, and then thank him and come back next week for more. Instead, if we answer “no” to several of the questions on our mental checklist, we’ll probably decide it’s time to start church shopping.

The truth is, as long as we believe that everything—including church―has to cater to our own individual needs and concerns, we’re not likely to experience the blessing of the communion of the saints. And we’ll lose sight of  the fact that it takes time and intentionality to seek out Jesus’ plan for our lives.

In order for us to make headway in the damage to our unity that the enemy is causing, we need to address our own relationship with God. Establishing a right relationship with God starts with having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. God promises that when we invite him in we will possess his Spirit at that very moment: “You . . . are in the realm of the Spirit if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you . . . ” (Rom. 8:9).

The next step is establishing the habit of spending daily time with Jesus: reading God’s Word, listening to his voice, and coming to him in prayer. For those who cultivate this kind of relationship, the Spirit of God works in surprising ways. Unfortunately, a survey conducted in the United States indicated that only 20 percent of those who identified as Christians read or listened to the Bible four to seven days per week.

Finally, we need to continue working out our prayer life. Perhaps you can ask a trusted spiritual leader to recommend a good resource on prayer that teaches the basic essentials: praise and thanksgiving, confession, petition, intercession, and meditation. Setting out a laundry list of our wants and needs without confessing sin and a willingness to repent avails very little, no matter how long we sit there with Jesus. On the other hand, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

The Holy Spirit of God demonstrates the sweet results of the joy we can experience within the community of the saints. You may find yourself seeing how a brother or sister’s differences bless you beyond measure. You may find yourself noticing the vastness of a God who is able to orchestrate harmony in all of the varying personalities and styles of the people who are members of your congregation. And you may begin to look back and reflect that staying in your own church community and growing with fellow believers—even those you disagree with—is really worth it.

That’s been my own experience. I remember a time when I was in a battle with others around issues of race relations. I knew I was right, and I wanted to be vindicated. I remember writing out Scripture passages in every translation I had available to me: passages like “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19). I had to write these passages over and over again until I finally got to the same place in my heart as what my hand was writing. Ultimately it was God’s Word and his Spirit that gave me the peace to let God do what he was doing—not what I wanted him to do.

Looking back, I marvel at how God has repaired and restored those relationships. I believe God uses difficult situations like this to prune away our self-centeredness and bitterness. If we jump up and leave our brothers and sisters at the first sign of conflict or pain, we will never grow in the ways God wants us to grow.

Growing is painful. Just watch a child learning to walk. But the more we get familiar with Scripture passages that tell us who God is and who we are, the more inclined we are to allow God to shape our lives for his purposes.

At least 40 years ago, when I was going through a major crisis, a Bible teacher told me that this life was full of class instruction by God. He said I needed to pay attention, take copious notes, and pass the class. I could fail if I chose to, but God had plenty of time for a repeat. I’ve decided I’d rather stay put and learn what God is teaching me within the communion of the saints. The communion of the saints, I believe, is part of God’s master plan to draw the unbelieving into the fold.

It’s God’s gift to us.

 

Web Qs

  1. How does our culture of individualism inhibit our participation in the communion of the saints?
  2. Jesus himself prayed for unity within the body of believers. What are some of the blessings that come when brothers and sisters work toward unity even within the areas that divide them: denominations, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic levels?
  3. How does a lack of unity hamper our discipleship?
  4. How do you experience the community of saints within your own congregation? What are some of the things that may stand in the way?
  5. “If we jump up and leave our brothers and sisters at the first sign of conflict or pain, we will never grow in the ways God wants us to grow.” Can conflict or pain actually help us experience the communion of the saints? How?

About the Author

Victoria Gibbs is co-director of discipleship and relationships at Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., and interim executive director of Tall Turf Ministries. She is actively involved in issues around race.

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Comments

Thanks, Victoria, for an interesting article on unity in the church.  I think most of us would like to think that unity is a worthy goal and something to strive for.  But in my mind it seems impossible.  Within our denomination big changes have taken place that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to feel a solidarity with others in our churches.  I’m not taking sides on any particular issue.  That’s not the point.  The point is that there is such a wide divide between members on some of these issues.  For instance, there was a time when women were not allowed to serve in our churches as office bearers.  But when the denomination (synod) made the decision to allow women to hold all the offices, including minister, that was such a such a significant change it was hard for many to feel comfortable in our denomination.  Or now that this new third wave movement is taking hold in our churches, it is difficult for members of this movement to feel comfortable with those not taking hold of it.  Here again, the differences are just too great. There are other issues as well.  Yes, Jesus did pray for unity among Christians.  But did he anticipate the changes, disagreements, and very different perspectives that would take place in the church over the centuries and years?  Jesus came to minister among the Jews of his day to present a new way of relating to God.  Did Jesus accomplish unity among the Jews he came to minister to?  No, they killed him instead.  What really is the likelihood of accomplishing unity this side of heaven?

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