Thursday, May 24, 2007

Striving for the Ideal of Unity

An ideal, according the Oxford American Dictionary, is a standard of perfection; a principle to be aimed at. I believe that the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ should be a goal that we have, an ideal to shoot for. Sure it may seem to be unrealistic given the variety of beliefs and theology that are held by Christians (those who have put their trust in Jesus as the Lord, Savior, and Son of God and who believe that Jesus died for our sins and physically rose from the dead as the assurance of our hope of eternal life with God). We should never water down the core doctrines of the Church in hopes of avoiding conflict or to make following Jesus more "attractive," but we should be mature enough to realize that there is room for personal opinion within the frame work of Christianity.

The Church, if we are being honest with ourselves, has not always cherished unity. History tells us that there were times when it seemed like Church leaders were more interested in division than in unity. They hijacked the early creeds, which were written to summarize the essential doctrine of the Church, in order distinguish what made them right. This attitude can be seen in the following story:
A man was about to commit suicide by jumping from a high bridge, when a second man ran up to him shouting, "Stop! Stop! Don't do it!"
"But I have nothing to live for," said the first man.
"Maybe I can help you," said the second man. "Are you religious?"
"Yes, I am," said the first man.
"Me too! said the second man. "Are you Christian, Jewish, or Muslim?"
"I'm Christian," said the first man.
"Me too!" said the second man. "Are you Calvinist or Wesleyan?"
"Calvinist," said the first man.
"Me too!" said the second man. "Are you liberal or conservative?"
"Conservative," said the first man.
"Me too!" said the second man. "Evangelical or Fundamentalist?"
"Evangelical," said the first man.
"Me too!" said the second man. "Charismatic, Reformed, or Baptist?"
"Baptist," said the first man.
"Me too!" said the second man. "General Baptist, Conference Baptist, or Northern Baptist?"
"Conference Baptist," said the first man.
"Me too!" said the second man excitedly. "Conference Baptist of the 1932 Conference, or Conference Baptist of the 1946 Conference?"
"Conference Baptist of the 1932 Conference!" said the first man.
"1932? Then die, infidel heretic scum!" And the second man pushed the first man off the bridge.
(Taken from Still More Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks; pg. 115)
We have a tendency to overlook our vast similarities and focus on the small differences of belief that we hold. Even the difference between and Calvinism and Arminianism, though substantial, can be overcome if we kept the basis for a relationship on the essentials that we believe. I can see the value in having such differing points of view. One of the benefits I have received from my Calvinist friends is the reminder of the Supremacy of God. We should not overlook the value of different opinions in our pursuit of the truth.

We also need to remember that unity isn't about total agreement, but about sticking together and working with each other. If unity is about total agreement then the Church has never been united. There have always been a difference of opinion in the Church, even from the very beginning such as what to do with Gentile Christians. What I would love to see take place in the body of Christ is to be able to tolerate our differences, celebrate our similarities, and encourage each other as we seek to carry out our Lord's Great Commission. There is not a force on earth that could stop the growth of God's Kingdom if that type of unity existed within the Church.

The Apostle Paul realized the necessity for unity within the Church. He wrote:
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is an consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-4; NASB).
As we strive for this ideal of unity I think the Apostle Paul has provided us with three aspects that we need to constantly consider.

The first aspect we need to consider is the reason for unity - Vs. 1
Paul stresses the value of relationships. Encouragement, love, fellowship, affection, and compassion are all benefits of being in a relationship. Whether that relationship is with Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or other people there are benefits that we receive through being around and relating to others. The bottom line is that if we want these benefits from relationships then we need to seek unity.

A life absent of relationships or a life filled with relationships of conflict make life unbearable. The absence of other people from our lives makes life lonely and hopeless. A life that has to endure the constant drama of relationships filled with conflict steals away the happiness, purpose, and excitement that makes life worth living. Unity allows us to enjoy relationships to their greatest potential.

The second aspect we need to consider is the request for unity - Vs. 2
In this passage we have the Apostle Paul making the request to the Christians at Philippi, and so one could argue that the request doesn't apply to us. I would argue that Paul's request for unity is extended to all Christians who read his writings. Why do I thing this? Because it is apparent that Paul understood the importance of unity on the ministry of the Church. This unity wasn't just essential for the ministry of the Philippian Church, but it is essential for our local churches as well. In this age of easy travel and communication unity also becomes essential to the ministry the Church has on our nation and our world.

Aside from the fact that Paul requests the Christians to strive for unity Jesus also requested that His followers be united. In the prayer He prayed the night He was arrested Jesus prayed:
"I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even 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 sent me" (John 17:20-21, NASB).
Jesus wants His followers to be united so that we can enjoy fellowship with each other and with God as well as demonstrate to a unbelieving world that Jesus is the Son of God sent by the Father to free us from the eternal consequences of our sins. We should be motivated to strive for unity because it is the request of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The third aspect we need to consider is the requirement for unity - Vss. 3-4
How to we bring unity about? It begins with humility. Too often unity is destroyed because some person of group wants to prove they are right and prove other people are wrong. Too often our pride and selfishness creates an us against them attitude. This is a death blow for unity and fellowship within a church family. Humility is the important attitude to hold on to as we strive for unity. Seek to help others, even if you disagree with them, listen first and speak second, and try to actually get to know people. Many conflicts could be avoided if we just took the time to listen and get to know the other person.

If we are going to be full of pride and conceit unity will never be able to exist. We have to come to realize that other people have the ability to teach us, help us, and to get us to look at things from a different perspective. For that to happen we have to be humble enough to put aside our interests and to develop a friendship with a person that has a different set of opinions and interests than what we have.

Will there ever be unity in the world wide Church this side of Heaven? I don't know, but probably not. We are just too good at letting our personal opinions and agendas get in the way of what is really important. Though we have to realize that just because it isn't likely to happen doesn't mean that it isn't worth striving for. It is the growth that takes place on the journey to the destination that really makes the destination worth visiting. Striving for unity now will make us all the more ready to enjoy unity once we get to Heaven. Isn't time to start getting ready to have a good time?

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