United we stand, divided we fall. I learned this proverb back in elementary school. My teacher told us a tale of an old king who tested his three sons to find out who was worthy to succeed him on the throne. He asked them to try to break a small bundle of sticks. The first two sons tried with all their strength to break the bundle of sticks but failed. The third son chose to untie the bundle and break each stick one by one—thus proving he was smarter than his brothers and worthy of the throne. The sticks on their own were vulnerable, but together they were an unbreakable force.
Perhaps that early lesson is why I developed a strong affinity for unity and peace. Part of me longs for what Jesus prayed to God the Father: “May [Christians] be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). That prayer seems far from being a visible reality today.
I know I am not alone in this desire for reconciliation and unity. Some Christians seem to advocate for peace and unity at all costs—even at the expense of silencing dissent, for instance. (And, some may say, at the expense of truth.) And then there is Christ’s own claim that he comes to bring division (Matt. 10:34). We live in an increasingly polarized and divided world.
What are we to make of all this?
Unity in Diversity
First, the Bible suggests that unity is a creational good. God created a world of unity, harmony, and peace. But this unity is not the same as uniformity. Rather, God delighted in creating diverse creatures, each according to its own kind. These creatures lived in unity and harmony under God’s rule, represented by God’s mandate to human beings made in his image (Gen. 1:26-28). Ancient kings in biblical times would erect images or statues of themselves in their territories to announce their dominion and rule. As God’s imagebearers, humanity was to represent God’s rule on earth by stewarding God’s dominion. In God’s good creation, we see that unity is by nature a unity in diversity—reflecting God’s own triune nature—and united by a common purpose to serve and glorify God.
From the New Testament we learn that this creational unity was also rooted in Jesus Christ: “For by him all things were created . . . all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). Unity in Christ is a unity in diversity from its very beginning.
Distorted into Division and Uniformity
When sin entered the world, it distorted both the nature of unity and the common purpose for unity. First, sin aggravated diversity into division. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, we see alienation and division between God and humanity, between man and woman, and between humanity and creation (Gen. 3:8-19). Where these diverse relationships were once marked by peace and unity, sin brought conflict and enmity. Difference and diversity are part of God’s good creation. But division and enmity are sinful intruders, not part of God’s original design.
Sin also distorted the goals of unity and turned unity into uniformity. The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 suggests this. The Babel builders were united in a common purpose—but a purpose that was in rebellion against God’s purposes. Their uniformity in language was not inherently positive. Rather, it facilitated their rebellion against God. God’s introduction of diverse languages to thwart their efforts was a blessing in disguise.
The problem with uniformity becomes clearer when we reflect on what God did at Pentecost in the New Testament (Acts 2). Instead of using the already common tongues of Aramaic (used in Jewish synagogues) or Greek (used in the Roman Empire’s marketplace), God blessed the diverse human tongues of various cultures as vehicles of his truth (Acts 2:8-11). And instead of uniting the various Pentecost pilgrims by erasing their cultural differences, God united them in Christ by transcending those differences while blessing their specific cultures and languages.
Furthermore, the apostle Paul employed the metaphor of one body with many parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31) to explain unity in the church. He distinctly warned against envisioning unity as uniformity in all things, emphasizing instead the necessity and enrichment of the diverse gifts God has given.
Thus Scripture suggests that uniformity is a sinful distortion of God’s unity. And unity is not always good in and of itself, as people could be united for evil purposes. Unity is good when we are united for godly purposes.
Reconciled in Christ
Because of sinful divisions and humanity’s alienation from God, God embarked on a mission “to reconcile to himself all things” through Christ by “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20). As the CRC’s 1996 synodical report “God’s Diverse and Unified Family” states, “The uniting of all things in Jesus Christ is at the heart of God’s eternal plan for the ages” (p. 16).
In this mission, God not only set out to reconcile humanity to himself but also to reconcile people with one another. Jesus made peace between Jews and Gentiles by breaking down “the dividing wall of hostility,” creating “one new humanity out of the two” (Eph. 2:14-16). “Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another are inseparable in God’s saving work” (“God’s Diverse and Unified Family,” p. 17).
Reconciliation is first and foremost God’s mission and work. It is not our political agenda, and it is definitely not rooted in our efforts alone. But God did entrust us with his “ministry of reconciliation,” and God sends us out as “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). The church is integral to God’s mission of reconciling all things. It is reconciling people into a unity that is neither simply “getting along” with each other nor enforced obedience to rules.
Unity in Christ is much deeper and harder than either of those. It is a unity of unconditional love rooted in our faith in Christ. It is a unity that transcends, not erases, many of our differences. And it unites us in a common mission of reconciliation.
Mistakes to Avoid
Viewed from a biblical perspective, some of our common ideas about unity may be mistaken. For example, unity despite differences is not necessarily an act of compromise that betrays faithfulness to the gospel that divides “us” from “them.” Matthew 10:34 alone should not overshadow the other New Testament passages that emphasize peace-making as part of our Christian discipleship, including “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). In its context, Matthew 10:34 spoke to the inevitable conflict between gospel proclamation and the message of the world as Jesus was sending out the twelve disciples as “sheep among wolves” (Matt. 10:16).
Some Christians seem to take Matthew 10:34 as license to be divisive and belligerent, insisting that anyone who disagrees with their “tribe” or their biblical views are “them”—that is, enemies of Christ. But bracing for inevitable conflict should not equate to embracing conflict as a goal. Keep in mind that division is a sinful intruder into God’s good creation. So our goal should not be creating or sustaining an “us versus them” reality but rather the creation of one new humanity in Christ, where there is only “we.”
This “we” cannot be artificially created by enforcing rules or even creeds. It cannot be manufactured through uniformity. It ultimately results from the Holy Spirit’s work of transforming hearts and minds. This is why unity and reconciliation in Christ are, first and foremost, God’s gifts.
In many ways, God has already united us, despite our differences. We have only one Lord, not many.
A well-known saying goes like this: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Our problem, of course, is determining the essentials. And, as one friend remarked to me, our list of essentials keeps getting longer.
Unity in Christ will always revolve around God’s Word (which includes God’s truth and justice), God’s mission, and God’s love. If we do not first find our unity in God’s love, it’s unlikely that we will ever come to an agreement about God’s Word and God’s mission. I believe that our embodiment and practice of love, not our intellectual prowess, will help us better arrive at the essentials that unite us. Fertile soil for the Holy Spirit’s seeds of truth and justice to bear fruit requires humble hearts and minds that have drunk deeply from the living waters of God’s love—not simply intellect and study.
First Step to Unity
I suggest, therefore, that humility is the first step toward unity and reconciliation. Writing to a divided congregation (Phil. 4:2), the apostle Paul appealed to the Philippian Christians to be like-minded, calling them to love and humility: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
If there is a serious disagreement in a church council, for instance, humility is being willing to lay down one’s ambition or pride. It is willing to not have to win an argument. Humility is willing to learn from even those we disagree with.
To emphasize the point, Paul drew on Christ’s example: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Can we follow Christ’s example? Jesus gave up his privileged divine status in order to bring reconciliation between us and God. Are we willing to give up our privilege and power in order to bring peace and unity among each other? Or do we proudly and stubbornly hold onto our agendas and demands?
True and False
But what about distinguishing between the true church from the false? Surely true Christians cannot be united with false ones?
Jesus suggested that the difference between true and false Christians may not be easy to determine, humanly speaking. In his parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus implied that the world will always have bad weeds and good wheat growing together. Instead of God’s servants trying to root out the bad weeds, they are to leave that to harvest time, most likely a reference to Christ’s return and Judgment Day.
Perhaps it is really not up to us to identify and uproot the bad weeds. After all, it is hard for us fallible and sinful creatures to tell the difference between immature wheat and weeds. This is the point of the parable and why we wait until the harvest. What if we uproot by mistake immature Christians who are still growing spiritually? It is best left to God to do the weeding. Meanwhile, we’re called to mutually encourage one another toward holiness and strive for collective godly obedience.
Does this leave the church vulnerable to infiltration and corruption in our quest for unity and reconciliation? I believe this is where we should humbly trust in God’s protection rather than in our invisible walls and boundaries.
Ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation destroy walls of hostility not by using force, hostility, or intimidation, but by being vulnerable cross-bearers. They are willing to be vulnerable for the sake of God’s gospel of peace. They are willing to suffer pain and hardships, even turn the other cheek, in order to further God’s kingdom. They know that God’s kingdom cannot be established through violence, division, hatred, fear-mongering, stereotyping, or human coercion over others. Any so-called unity or victory gained from such sinful means can never justify the end.
Above all else, we become vulnerable cross-bearers because our Lord Jesus Christ was a vulnerable reconciler. Jesus, the Son of God, became vulnerable to the point of death. Through his steadfast obedience and faithfulness to love and peace, God gave him the victory over sin and death.
Likewise, the humble and vulnerable way of the cross, relying on God’s power rather than our strength, is the path we take toward receiving God’s gift of unity in Christ.
- How would you define “unity in Christ”? What does that look like to you?
- “Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another are inseparable in God’s saving work.” What are some ways we can join in God’s saving work in our various relationships with others?
- “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” What would you include in your list of “essentials” for Christian unity? Why these and not other potential items?
- What do you think and feel about humility as the first step to unity?
- Do you think that our churches have “invisible walls and boundaries”? Why or why not? What is good or bad about them?
- What does being a “vulnerable cross-bearer” look like in your Christian life and context?