The aftermath of contentious elections is typically followed by calls for national unity, calls to heal the divisions exposed by the electoral process. Will it be so in the aftermath of this election? Early returns are not very good, as the parties seem girded to embrace battle, not unity for our nation. What will it mean and what will it take to reunify a badly splintered body politic in the United States? That is a question far beyond me, one for better minds and those more trained in the political world. Can our nation even be reunified? I do not know.
But this election has not just split our country. Whoever the winner will be – unclear at the time of writing this article – Tuesday marked an election that split churches and families. And whether or not the nation can heal and unify, the church must. Jesus gives us no choice:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20–26, ESV)
Why can the church of Jesus Christ not maintain this unity? We fail to maintain unity in Christ because other things are, in the moment, more important to us than the unity Jesus prays. If you study missiology, you uncover what is called the “homogenous unit principle.” Any group of humans will have something that gives it unity. Otherwise it will fly apart. With any group you study, you can find a homogenous factor, something that holds it together, that gives it unity. Even groups of non-conformists, where everyone is determined to be different, have this, too. It is simply that the homogenous unit is the desire to be different. The question is never “is this group unified?” It would not be a group if it weren’t. The question is “unity in what.” In missions, when the gospel gets inside such a homogenous group, it tends to spread quickly, like a wildfire, running through that group. The challenge is that gospel movements usually stop dead when they get to a cultural boundary, whether that boundary is social, economic, political, or other. It takes something far more for the sparks of the gospel fire to jump to a new group; such is the challenging task of cross-cultural missions.
A variant of the homogenous unit principle is true for churches as well. There is something that unifies each church. That something should be Jesus, of course, but there is usually also something else. And that something else will always try to displace our first union with Christ, becoming – in the words of Paul from the book of Galatians – another gospel instead. If our first union is not because of Christ, we will instead find union in something else, something that will subtly but surely try to replace the gospel of Jesus Christ as our ultimate allegiance and unity.
Here is what happens – most Christians would instantly agree that as Christians we have oneness in Jesus first, as seen in the Word (v.20) and modeled in the Trinity (v.21). But then someone says something, or something occurs, or something comes across our phone/FB/Twitter/cable news network, especially something that another Christian did or said or advocated. And we are swept up in disagreement and disgust. How could this person be so blind as to take that political position? Can she not see how idiotic that is? Or how in the world could he listen to that type of music? Or how dare he not wear a mask? Or how dare he say something about the fact he did not wear a mask? And on and on.
We say we want unity in Jesus, but then when the moment occurs, other things sweep us away – we have no self-control. And here is what that shows us – it shows us that our unity is not really in Jesus. When those other things run away with us and we curse other Christians, whether out loud or in our hearts, something else is more important in our hearts than what Jesus prays in John 17. When we can’t imagine even being in church with someone who would believe or do that, when we are ready to question if that person even has faith because they disagree with us on this issue… What that indicates is that we would rather have unity in that other thing than unity in Jesus. What we find is that we Christians have not actually done a good job of maintaining this oneness that Jesus is talking about. We have followed our culture instead of leading it.
Christians are given oneness in Christ. Jesus gives two foundations for oneness, both from God, not us – oneness in the Word (v.20) and oneness in the Trinity (v.21). That means our oneness is centered in what God has done, not what we have done. We ARE different people because of Jesus, by his grace, and because he has made us different people, he has also made us one. When Christ saves us, we are swept into that unity that is true even of him and God the Father, the unity within the Trinity. “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 he world may believe that you have sent me” (v.21). Jesus is not saying that we become unified with him and with the Father in the sense of becoming divine. We do not become part of God, but we DO have a unity with each other that mimics the unity God has within himself as the Triune God, the Three in One. What happens is that we are unified with Christ, and that makes us unified with each other.
One of the best examples I know of this is the strange phenomenon of being a sports fan. It is truly wild the unity fandom creates. If you are a sports fan, you can feel it. If you are not a sports fan you see it and shake your head, but the reason you shake your head is because you can see that a real unity DOES happen when people become fans of the same team, especially if they are deeply passionate fans.
Think what happens – we, at least many of us, adopt a team, we decide to root for that team, we become a fan. And what becomes true of that team starts to become true of us – honestly, in even strange ways. So, whether your team is in the NFL or college, the NBA or WNBA, your hometown’s team, wherever you went to school…. When you root for that team, how they did starts to fundamentally impact you. Think even about the language we use. We start saying things like, “Did you hear? We won last night,” or “We got completely shelled in the third quarter.” “Yeah, we got crushed.” Wait a minute? I didn’t play the game. I just watched it from the couch with a beer! You and I, we didn’t put in hours in the weight room and the film room and the practice field. We didn’t leave blood and sweat on the field. We didn’t play a down or an inning or a series. But we start saying, “WE won last night.” No we didn’t! THEY did! Except when you are a sports fan, you start to become unified with that team in such a way that what is true of them really does start to become true of you. You really do feel terrible with the loss and overjoyed with the victory. We adopt a team and become so unified with it that it really does change us. And that is a pale reflection of the unity we have with Jesus. The bible says that we are adopted into the body of Christ, unified with him, and that really does change us, so that what is true of him starts to become true of us. In a legal sense, his righteousness becomes ours. And in a behavioral sense, the same transition should start to occur, even though often slow and halting and incomplete even until the day we die.
But notice that something else happens, too. We do not just become unified with a team’s fortunes, our common unity with a team starts to create a unity with each other. When we meet other people for the first time, we always find ourselves searching out topics of unity. Our first conversations are things such as, “So what do you do? Where are you from? What’s your family like?” We are searching for points of connection. And if we find out the other person is from the same town and roots for the same team, it creates a real bond. We now not only have something to talk about, but we have something that binds us together, even if we are from radically different backgrounds. You see people who would never get near each other, but because they both follow the Pack, or both follow Tech, or both follow (ugh) the Yankees, they suddenly have a bond. When we find a common fandom, it unifies people who would not otherwise get near each other. Now they are jumping up in celebration and giving each other a hug. Why? They are each unified to that team, and that unifies them to each other. It is the same with music groups, folks that follow(ed) around The Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, pick your band. These are just bands, but our fandom makes them more – it makes us part of a group. Likewise, people who love the Office, or the Wire, or any other TV show find a unity in their common love. Or what type of BBQ you love. We all look for commonality, unity in something.
And so it is with Jesus. We are first unified with him. One of the major ways the bible talks about our salvation is by terming us as being “in Christ.” And when we are in Christ, what is true of him by right, because he did put in the blood, sweat, and tears – and I mean all three literally – becomes true of us. Because on the cross he purchased redemption, because he lived truly rightly before God, we are given his righteousness. Our sins are counted no more because Christ died for us and rose from the dead, we are considered right before God – only by grace and only by being in Christ. But that unity does not just connect us to Christ, it connects us to each other. It OUGHT to be the most important unity in any of our lives, and certainly in our church. Back to John 17, v.22 – “The glory that you have given me, I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.”
I have been in Washington, DC for most of the past three decades. If you follow DC professional football, we REALLY do not like the Cowboys. It is one of the only things that unifies red and blue in this town. If our team loses almost every game in the year but beats the Cowboys twice, it was not that bad of a year. But I dearly hope we would feel silly if you found ourselves saying, “Oh, but they’re Cowboys fans, so I can’t be in church with them. Or if I am in church with them, I’m going to keep them at an arm’s length and be sullen about the fact that they’re even here.” I trust that our fandom of professional football would not create a unity more important to use in practice than our unity in Jesus Christ. And I actually do trust that.
But I am worried that many of our other unities are actually trying to displace our unity in Jesus Christ, and sometimes doing it far too successfully. God has given us unity in Jesus Christ, and precisely because God has done this – made us one – we are called to fight to maintain it. Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 4:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6, ESV)
God gives us a unity in the spirit, and He calls us to work to maintain it. Our job is to keep that unity and work at it. And things that destroy a unity in Jesus are, at some level, sin – at least if we let the secondary things start to become paramount. Verse 3 is arresting – that Christians are to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We are eager for many things these days, but eagerness for unity does not typically describe us. The bible calls us to care about unity far more than we do.
Yet here is exactly where the peril of unity comes in. Calls for unity have historically been employed as cover by those who want to move a church away from orthodoxy. “Unity!” has been the cry of many who are systematically moving their churches away from biblical orthodoxy. If they can keep unity, not be cast out, they can gradually build and wield power until the point at which they can control the institution and lead it astray. Many churches and many denominations have departed from biblical belief because unity became paramount, leaving orthodoxy in its dust. The body count is long, and it is crucial to recognize this dynamic.
And it is precisely for that reason that most of us, when we are destroying unity in a church, instead think we are fighting for truth. Because our unity – think back to John 17:17 – is in the truth, as given us in God’s Word. So, we focus there, on our understanding of truth, and we are convinced that is what we’re doing – fighting for truth, and we shatter the unity of our church. Most of us who destroy this unity Jesus talks about think we are actually fighting for a true unity – the unity we really ought to have, a unity in the truth of the Word.
Here’s the thing – you might be. You might be. But we are all so easily deceived. How do I know if I’ve taken some of these other things – even often other good things – that would become a different gospel and let them inappropriately displace the gospel of Jesus Christ as our source of unity? How do I know if I’ve been letting a different homogenous unit principle win out, even one disguised as a very good thing, one that might even BE a very good thing?
Well let me suggest the need for a bit of a pietist gut check. How do I know if I am actually grieving Jesus by shattering unity, even though I think I’m fighting for truth? We will know it if we fail to walk in the words Paul gave us in Ephesians 4:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
No one should enjoy shattering unity. No one should have glee about its destruction. Any loss of unity, even if necessary, should be a grief. So, am I full of pent up anger, ready to explode? Am I always blowing at people, either in email or in person or even just in my own heart? Do I care? Am I gentle, or am I a terror? Do people duck or steel themselves when they see me coming? Am I temperate? Am I patient and kind? Would other people say that about me? Am I eager to see unity (v.3)? Am I a person of peace? If we are not, then that is often a sign that we have gotten out of whack. Jesus gives us unity; we are called to fight to maintain it; and we often do not, because other things – even good things – become more important to us than unity in him. Back in John chapter 13, v.35, Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If that love is missing, then we might ask ourselves if we have become misguided, if we might be the ones grieving Jesus’ heart.