October 09, 2004

"It's too late tonight..."

"...to drag the past out into the light."

This is the latest in a series of posts entitled "One: An Extended Look at Christian Unity and Disunity," built around U2's song "One" from their excellent 1991 (God, has it really been that long?) album "Achtung Baby." To see previous posts in this series, click here.

Judging from the comments posted to my most recent entries in this series, some of you are getting a little tired of what looks like little more than complaining about the disunity of today's church. Nathan over at Fighting the Little Fights gives voice to the frustration: "All the theorizing and pondering in the world are utterly useless unless they lead us towards a workable solution." And of course he's right. So what's the solution?*

At first glance it would seem that the history of the people of God offers little in terms of practical advice on building unity. After all, our forerunners in the faith are the ones responsible for the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation**. But maybe we're just not looking back far enough into the history of God's people.

The Old Testament history of Israel is a picture of unified diversity. The nation was made up of twelve tribes, each one distinct from the others (Jacob's blessings on his sons and grandsons in Genesis 49:1-28 lays the groundwork for this). But despite their clear distinctiveness, they were still united; in fact, they were more than that, they were one in the eyes of God and the world. Their marching order as they crossed the desert (Numbers 10:11-28) and the arrangement of their camp around the Tabernacle (Numbers 2:1-31) were visible, daily reminders of this oneness. They shared one purpose and when they came together under the God's leadership, nothing could stop them. There is redemption at work here, the first signs of the redemption of the awesome power of united humanity, first seen at Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 ("If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing will be impossible for them").

Disunity occured in Israel when individuals or tribes began to compete against one another (Absolom and Jeroboam are classic examples) or when they united together to reject God's leadership (as they did on the Plains of Moab). Jesus summarizes the principle behind their fragmentation when he says, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand" (Matthew 12:25). If Israel's history can teach the postmodern church anything, it's that our problem isn't being "divided," i.e. the things that make us distinct from one another. Our problem is that we are divided "against ourselves." We get into this unfortunate condition every time we place a higher value on the things that make us distinct than on the things that make us one, or when we unite together to rebel against God's leadership. We would do well to heed Paul's warning to the beseiged church in Galatia: "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (Galatians 5:15).

Bottom line sound bite for your church marquee: Competition among Christ-followers or churches is always destructive! If we're going to (re)build true, visible unity in the twenty-first century church, we need to find a way to honor distinctiveness without promoting division.

*I feel compelled to point out here that I'm not really going to answer that question in this post or at any time in the near future for that matter. There are two reasons. First, the problem of the church's disunity isn't just "something I'm blogging about." It is shaping up to be a life calling, something I think God wants me to devote myself to for the long haul. I think it was Spurgeon who said something like, "If someone told me I had five years to live, I'd spend the first four preparing." I think there's some real wisdom there. And that leads me to the second reason why I won't be offering any substantive answers to the disunity problem any time soon: I can't. If you've been following this series of posts, you may have noticed that each one starts with at the global-historical level and ends with something very individual and personal. God is dealing with me personally right now about how my own sins have contributed to our disunity. Maybe when he's done with that he'll have produced an agent who can offer some answers to the rest of the church.

**Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to say that the Protestant Reformation was a bad thing from an holistic perspective. But when you view it strictly in terms of church unity, it's hard to see the "reforming program" as a success. It makes me wonder if there wasn't a better way...


At 7:49 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...


One of the things I find interesting is the continuity between the "diversity within unity" (to use Bishop Ware's saying) of the tribes of Isreal and the autocephalous churches in Orthodoxy; each with their own ethnic roots, customs, and atmosphere but each fully united in matters of faith, life, doctrine and practice. Orthodoxy prove to me, at a time when I despaired of having both, that diversity and unity don't have to be mutually exclusive.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger DesertPastor said...

It's always encouraging to hear about those who sense a "call" to the ongoing work of unity within Christ's body. Maybe it's because it's an endeavor very dear to me as well.

Earlier this year, reading James D.G. Dunn's Unity and Diversity in the New Testament had quite the impact on me. We moderns are so commonly guilty of over-romanticizing the primitve church and it's assumed unity. As Karl has pointed out, unity and diversity are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they represent a very challenging "tension" -- a both/and reality that demands not only our best thinking, but our best efforts (as you've already pointed out, and a great point at that).

And yet, Daniel -- I wonder, is this tension meant to be resolved? I ask this because I've become increasingly convinced that the tensions of our faith are such by design. They (graciously) force us to exercise faith -- because it takes faith to live within such tensions. I recognize however, that such a stance can easily become a "cop-out", an excuse for pulling back and not becoming engaged in the struggle. And so I'm wondering... can we live in such a state where we refuse to accept the ridiculous manifestations of "disunity" and instead fight for greater "unity", and yet through it all, refuse to become judgmental or discouraged? I believe we can. Is there a 10-point plan to help us accomplish this? Hardly. But I honestly believe that as we more deeply attach ourselves to Jesus Christ, the once impossible becomes possible.

Too many of us have a faith of convenience instead of conviction. This must change, starting with me (Lord, have mercy). When we give up "our rights", it's amazing what can be accomplished.

At 7:21 PM, Blogger mrexmiller said...


Thank you for visiting my site. I'm just getting started with the blogging. I looked at your site and am very impressed with the depth of your content. I appreciate most your blog on unity and disunity. I'll be posting a message in my "Articles and Resource" section that I've given to two churches with a similar focus based on John 17: 20-23. My bottomline is, "The Quality of Your (local church) Relationships Determines the Degree Your Community will See the Father."

The book has been fun and opening some doors to talk about the Convergence of Church, Community, Charity and Commerce. I've begun to develop a practical offshoot to help churches and communities begin crossing traditional boundaries to work together. We're calling it XFChurch and XFCommunity for now.

See you in cyberia. I'll look forward to your comments on the book.


At 11:43 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I like the connotations of "diversity within unity." (Can you give us a reference, Karl?) I'll be blogging a bit on the idea that unity and diversity are not mutually exclusive in my next post in this series. Bottom line up front: Diversity and unity are both necessary to the Great Commission. The question I'm asking myself is this: Should one be given preeminence over the other?

But as you imply, DP, I may be asking the wrong question. It's usually pointless (and frustrating as well) to try to resolve the tensions of the faith--just ask anyone who's ever spent a long night trying to "figure out" God's sovereignty and man's free will. What I've found personally is that balancing the forces which cause the tension deepens my faith and strengthens my trust in God. It makes me a spiritually healthier person.

I think there is a deep need in the church today to balance the natural tension between unity and diversity, and as Rex implies (looking forward to reading that message on John 17, Rex) I think it needs to happen at the local church level. To add a gloss to my closing remark, " If we're going to (re)build true, visible unity in the twenty-first century church as a whole, our local churches need to find ways to honor the things that make our own church distinct from other churches without promoting division between our church and other churches in our community."

(By the way, thanks for dropping by, Rex, and welcome to Blogdom! I'm eager to hear more about the XFChurch/XFCommunity initiatives.)

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

Bishop Ware talks about "unity in diversity" (and vice versa) in his book "The Orthodox Church"; particularly in Part II when he speaks on the Trinity as the model of both our anthropology and ecclesiology.


At 4:33 PM, Blogger Rick said...

Yea, the protestant reformation could be one of the worst things that ever happened to the Church. Of course, the Church has been reforming for 2,000 years. I read the Gospels and then I read Acts. The apostles seem to have a different perspective than Jesus. Amazing!


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