It's tempting to see the church simply an organization, similar to a business, a non-profit, an alumni association, or a club. Is the church just another association of like-minded people? Is it simply an organization whose commodity is religious goods and services, and whose clientele are "spiritual people"? The distinction between an organization and a movement is critical. While the church does possess organization, it is first and foremost a movement - God's great movement in Christ among his people.
What are the marks of a movement that make the church more than just another organization? Over three weeks, I'm preaching on three characteristics that distinguish her from the average organization. Prayer. Unity. Gospel-centrism. Here's week two on UNITY.
In 2012, a group of 20 researchers did an analysis of words and phrases in more than 750,000 books published in the past 50 years. One of their most significant and controversial findings was the increasing use of the pronoun “I” over and against “we.” They found that since 1960, there has been an increasing use of words focused on the individual as opposed to a group, or a community. One of the researchers, from San Diego State Jean Twenge said, “These trends reflect a sea change in American culture toward more individualism.”
While there is controversy over this specific study, I think we would all agree that individualism is a prominent value in our society. We place a high value on being self-made and independent, self-reliant, and self-sufficient. Dependence upon others is seen as weakness, something to be ashamed of. “I don’t need anyone else.” “I can do it myself.”
In a society of individualism, the unity of the Christian community is counter-cultural. It makes us distinct. In I Corinthians, Paul speaks of the church as a unified body. Every part is connected to all the others. No part stands alone. No part can be apart without being amputated.
Paul combated disunity in many of his epistles, notably in his letters to the Corinthian church. No church is perfect, but the Corinthian church was a twisted mess. It would have made great reality TV. So it is nearly scandalous that Paul would say this about them, “You are the body of Christ” (I Cor. 12:27). What's so odd about this statement is that Paul had been chastising them for their disunity, dissension, and overall immaturity. In spite of all their drama, he still calls them the body of Christ!
What Paul is saying is that ultimately unity is not something achieved by people, rather it is created by God. The body is unified because it’s HIS body, not because all the parts decided to get together and make a human being.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes it this way in his book Life Together, “Christian community is not an ideal we must realize, it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” It is only in Christ that we are one, even when there are no other good reasons for us to be unified. You may have very little in common with some people in this assembly. But your unity is not dependent on your affinity.
A bicycle wheel is a good picture of this. There is a center hub which connects everything. Every part of the rim is connected to the center by a spoke. Jesus Christ is the hub of the Christian community. He unites everyone in and through himself. And by virtue of our connection to him, we are connected to everyone else. Everyone is united to one another because they each have a spoke that goes to the same hub.
While Christians are ultimately unified in Christ, you might ask, "Why doesn't it look like it?" We can do a faithful job of living out this unity, or we can do a poor job. This is part of our sanctified life, to strive for harmony and concord in the unity created by God. Please note that their is true disunity when we believe certain people or groups to be outside of the Christian faith. To distinguish who is and isn't a part of the one, true church is another discussion.
So how do we participate in this unity? How do we live it out? Here are four important marks of Christian unity that can help us be faithful to the unity we've been given. .
Many people expect the church to be a place where nice people come together and do nice things. A guy who worked in the business world came to me and said, “I’m thinking about going to the seminary to be a pastor. The business world is just crazy. At least in the church, people are kind.” HA! I told him, “Do NOT pursue pastoral ministry.” Many expect that the church is nice and friendly. There’s no controversy, fighting, or contention. Christians know better.
Unity requires honesty. We don’t claim perfection. We don’t cover up or gloss over our issues. We recognize the sinner/saint dynamic. Augustine said, “The church is a hospital for sinners.” While many are disillusioned and disappointed by this hospital, Christians expect a triage with blood on the floor. Honesty means that we confess together, we repent together, and we forgive together. We are not perfect, but healed. We are not flawless, but restored.
I once sat in on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I was humbled by the honesty and vulnerability that I saw. Grown men willing to uncover their worst and most shameful parts. It made me realize that confession and absolution is a key mark of the Christian community and we often take it for granted. It is the great surrender, an act of humble honesty before God and one another. Often we blitz through this part of our service, unwilling to be really honest about our sin. Can we recover a posture of great honesty? Unity means honesty.
God said of Adam in the beginning, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God knows that men should not be alone. That’s why he created woman. We were built from the very beginning for communal life. God has made us for mutual sharing of life. We are built to be interdependent. Life can’t be lived apart. Martin Luther says, “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
I’m not referring to community in a weak or generic sense. As Paul describes the Christian community as a body, it means that we share life together. It means we belong to one another. It means that without each other, life is something less than it could be. I spent three years at an African American congregation in our city. They would frequently close the service with the same gospel song. During this song, they would hold hands, or put arms around one another. And the last lines of the song were, “You are important to me. I need you to survive.”
The Lord’s Supper is the clearest expression of our community. Communion isn't for you. It’s for us. Communion can’t be done alone. It demands the plural, “Jesus gave it to his disciples.” It’s a communal meal. We eat together around the table, not alone in front of the TV. Is the church a place you go to? Or a community you belong to? Unity means community.
A culture of individualism is ultimately a self-centered culture. Here is where the church has a call to live out a selfless unity that makes us distinct from any other community. In unity, I selflessly set aside my agenda, my desires, and my will. I set aside my desire for others to be the way I want them to be.
Paul says, “that the members may have the same care for one another. If one members suffers, all suffer together, if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Cor. 12:25,26). The call to unity demands that the members of the body care for one enough, show selfless love, and suffer with one another. Suffering with someone might be the ultimate form of selflessness. It certainly was for Christ.
Radical selflessness leads us to suffer with one another. A particular mark of this is found in how we treat our weakest. The “alien, the fatherless, and the widow.” The aged, the young, the handicapped. Bonhoeffer says, “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.” This is a convicting statement. How do we treat our weakest, the "seemingly useless"? Are we suffering with one another? Unity means selflessness.
This may seem obvious, but cannot be overlooked. Bonhoeffer says, “Christ stands between me and others.” What he means is that we relate to fellow members of the body only in and through Jesus Christ. Anytime I look at a brother or sister in Christ, I see Jesus attached to them. Jesus standing next to them. It’s like the bicycle wheel. I relate to Christians because they also have a spoke that goes to the same hub.
This is critical especially in the midst of disunity. When I’m angry at a brother or jealous of him. When I'm tempted to lust after a sister in Christ. When I’ve been hurt by another, or when I’m annoyed with a fellow member. The only way I can be unified with them and NOT explode, the only way I can call them brother or sister and NOT punch them, is because we have the same Christ. We share the same Brother, the same Savior and Mediator.
This only magnifies Christ in our midst. In fact, when we experience tension in our congregations, we begin to see that Jesus is even greater than we once thought.
He’s the great Mediator when everyone’s apart.
He’s the great Unifier when everything is disjointed.
He’s the King of Glory when all seems lost.
He’s the Prince of Peace when there is war all around.
And he is the Head of the body. He is the Chief Bishop of the church. He is THE Senior Pastor.
Unified in him, as one body, the church has the powerful capacity to impact the world. We are the "muscle of God on earth." God forgive us when we're unfaithful to our calling. And God help us to more and more faithfully live out our unity.