"Unity of the Spirit"
"Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So, one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become "unity" conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship."
A. W. Tozer, "The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine."
My father paints an interesting image of unity. He has said, "You can take two cats, tie them together by their tails, and hang them over a clothesline. You have union. But you don't have unity." T.H. White, in his comedic take on the Legend of King Aurthur, writes "The Destiny of Man is to unity, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees." (T.H. White "The Once and Future King"; 1958) Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted, saying, "Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer. We must not let that happen here." What you read today is written from the heart of one who is a Bible believing and truth standing Christian. I have anchored myself to the timeless truths spoken of the "Church's Jubilee." "The Bible is [my] rule of faith and Christ alone is Lord. All we are EQUAL in His sight when WE OBEY His Word. No earthly master do [I] know, and to man-rule [I] will not bow. But to each other and to God eternal trueness vow." (Charles Naylor, "The Church's Jubilee") Prior to the 2020 election, we all heard a campaign promise from our current President, Joe Biden. He said, "My whole soul is this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation." He promised to be a bridge of unity, rather than one who drives the wedge of division in further than his predecessor(s). Whatever side of the argument you, or I, stand is not a matter of concern here. That promise always frustrates me because I do not believe any president can bring about unity, regardless of their party affiliation. Unity cannot be achieved by policy; by haphazardly "tying" people together "by their tails." Unity is nothing that can be forced or coerced. Division is a symptom of a far greater evil and cannot be cured by any human means or methods. Division is a worldly problem. Division is a "fleshy" problem.
Carefully read Paul's words to the Corinthians, a church that was heavily divided. "I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ." He says, "for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way." (1 Cor. 3:1,3) It seems pretty clear to me. Jealousy and strife, which will always result in division, are problems of the "flesh." These are some clear indications that one is not living according to the Spirit, but still living according to the flesh and still in their sins. Paul appeals to them, "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement." (1. Cor. 1:10) Paul even warns the Christians at Rome that there are actually people who "cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them." (Rom. 16:17) Jesus warns of false prophets coming "in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." (Matt. 7:15) There are people, they might be pastors, or leaders, who look the part but inwardly have the spirit of division and it is always the aim of a wolf to divide the flock! Matthew Henry writes, "Nothing so much prevents men from entering the strait gate, and becoming true followers of Christ, as the carnal, soothing, flattering doctrines of those who oppose the truth. They may be known by the drift and effects of their doctrines. Some part of their temper and conduct is contrary to the mind of Christ." (Matthew Henry's Commentary; Matthew 7) God takes division seriously and He takes it so seriously, in fact, that Paul warns that "those who do such things," that is "works of the flesh," which include "rivalries dissensions, divisions," etc., "will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Gal. 5:19-21) And anything that is going to keep someone out of the kingdom of God is a serious matter!
We are often commanded in Scripture to pursue peace (Heb. 12:14), to make for peace (2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Pet. 3:11; Rom 12:18), to work and to strive for, to maintain and preserve unity. We are instructed to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (Rom. 14:19) It is wildly apparent that we live in a deeply fractured and divided world. Around the world there are roughly 2 billion professing Christians, but those 2 billion are separated by nearly 45,000 different denominations. Recently, I sat in conversation with one of the local ministers, who pastors two United Methodist Churches in my area. I asked her, "Do you think that when God envisioned the church that He had all of this in mind?" She quickly responded shaking her head, "No. Not at all. This is not going to be what Heaven is like." So true! And I am thankful! Just as man was intended to be a reflection of the image of God (Gen. 1:27), I believe that the environment of the church is supposed to be a reflection, at least in part, of the environment of Heaven. Our reflecting of God's image has been marred by sin. We are no longer perfect in holiness, righteousness, love, goodness, kindness, justice, mercy, longsuffering, and graciousness. Just as sin marred our ability to reflect perfectly, sin has marred the church environment. And as the Holy Spirit has been sent to "transform us into the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29), and is progressively restoring the image lost in Eden, the Holy Spirit has been sent to transform the environment of the church. Sin is a disruptive force. It always divides. It always separates. It always splinters. It divides a man against himself. It has produced the constant fight and struggle that generally results in fractured relationships and fractured churches. And when a church is fractured, when God's people are divided, Satan rejoices!
The stress of Paul's letter to the Ephesians is to emphasis our union in Christ. In chapters 1-3, Paul lays out the Gospel for us. He begins with Christ; by establishing our newness in Christ. Notice in chapter 2, particularly. "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is not at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived......" (Eph. 2:1-3) Before Christ, there was no difference between us and the rest of the world. As the world is, so was I. So were you. Now comes the power of the Gospel - "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which we loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Eph. 2:4-6) I believe what Paul is doing is establishing a baseline for Christian unity - "in Christ." You can't hope to achieve unity apart from being "in Christ." Therefore, unity is a natural product of the cross and God's work in Christ. Unity is the result of God's work in Christ on our behalf. It is not something that we are to aim at for the sake of unity. We aim at unity for the sake of Christ! In Jesus' priestly prayer, He says, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in my 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." (John 17:20-21) The reality of Jesus Christ depends on the unity of His people. He says, "The glory that you are 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."
And as Paul turns to chapter 4, having established the baseline for unity, he says that we must "walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called." (Eph. 4:1) Suffice it to say, for the born-again of the Spirit of God believer, there is a new way of walking. A number of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The changing of the guard is particularly special to observe. I learned that every day this soldier will prepare for this duty in the same way. He will get the same haircut every single day. He will prepare his uniform the same way every single day of his duty. No matter the weather, no matter the hour, whether people are watching or not, ever since 1926, a guard will carry out their duty. He will walk 21 steps across the tomb, and then face the tomb in a salute and stay there for 21 seconds. He will turn again and walk 21 steps in the other direction, and then face the tomb in a salute and stay there for 21 seconds. The process will repeat for their entire posting. Whether in the heat of the summer or cold of winter, for 24 hours a day, there will be a guard at the tomb and the steps will remain the same. It is safe to say that if wish to join their ranks, you will have to learn a new way to walk. When you enlist, by faith, in the army of the Lord, there is a different "manner" of walking - one that is in step with the Holy Spirit and not the culture and the two rarely ever run parallel. And I am of the mind that believes they were never intended to. What if God intended for Christian unity to be seen, not in the absence of division, but against the backdrop of division? It is against the backdrop of a division that a unified and Spirit-filled church shines the best and the brightest. Perhaps in a world and culture so divided, the church has the opportunity to show the world some true unity in Christ.
Paul describes the nature of unity using the image of the human body. He writes, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many." (1 Cor. 12:12-14) Paul speaks of specific parts of the human body that may have a different function but are "no less a part of the body." (1 Cor. 15) Three times Paul attributes this to God; "But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose." (1 Cor. 12:18) "But God has so composed the body, giving great honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another." (1 Cor. 12:24-25) "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues." (1 Cor. 12:27-28) To sum it up - God has done this! God has arranged the body as He chooses. God has composed the body in such a way that inspires unity rather than division. And God has equipped each member, as He sees fit, enabling us to maintain unity. Of course, this leads us into Paul's "more excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:30), "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol." (1 Cor. 13:1) Paul says later in Ephesians 4, "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which is it equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that is builds itself up in love." (Eph. 4:15-16) Our responsibility is not to create it, but to maintain it; to repair it when it breaks; to strive for it; and to work for it. Unity is a product of our "newness in Christ." We can't create it. We can't make it happen. When we come to Christ, we are "grafted in" by the Spirit into "one body," (Eph. 4:4; 1 Cor. 12:27). We don't create unity. Instead, we show it to the world! And in our current climate, we have a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
But if unity is such a foundational teaching in Scripture (which it is!), so paramount to the overall health and well-being of the church and the testimony of Jesus (which it is!), and so vital that our eternal destination hangs on it (which it is!), why is it so hard to maintain? (Which it is!) I often think where we struggle the most is not on the theoretical side of unity, but on the practical side of unity. We all understand that we are "one in Christ" through faith in Him, but how do we, as Paul encourages, "keep the unity of the Spirit" with eagerness? Nowhere do we find a promise of God that says the pursuit of unity is going to be easy. Though I believe every believer is "one" in Christ, this doesn't mean that we are the same. Christian unity is a bit of a paradox. We are "one", but we are "individuals." We are "united in Christ" but also "diverse" in our ideas and thoughts and even our theology. I don't think the world stumbles much over doctrinal disagreements as much as they do over the way we treat others in light of those disagreements. Paul also writes, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, alone with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph. 4:31-32) This is where our energy for unity should be expended.
In my first pastorate, I was asked by a couple in the church if I would deliver the eulogy at her mother's funeral. I never knew the mother, but I happily agreed. I asked that the family just let me know about the funeral arrangements as they had not yet spoken to the funeral home. The funeral was scheduled for the following Sunday afternoon. But I was not aware of it. The family did not call me. The funeral home did not call me. People in the church knew but did not think to say anything about it to me. So, after morning worship, I went about my day as I normally would. Later that evening, I received a phone call from one of the men in the church who was a good friend of this couple and instrumental in getting them into the church. He was understandably upset. The couple was understandably upset. I had missed the funeral. I felt about as low as one could feel and I wore it on my face. I was so ashamed of myself for adding to the pain of the family. But then I began to do what most people do - I start to shift the blame so that I might feel better. "The family should have called me. The funeral should have called me. It's their fault!" I behaved like Adam. I had made plans to sit down with the couple and talk about it. Thankfully, before I met with them, I shared the experience with a fellow pastor who took the role of Nathan for me. He asked me, "did I call the funeral home?" My hearted melted. "No. I didn't even think about doing that." "Did you call the family?" Again, "No, I didn't even think about doing that." And he said words I'll never forget, "Often t is better to be reconciled than right." And when the time came to meet with the couple, I didn't let them say a word. I apologized profusely and said, "I should have called you. I should have called the funeral home. I am so sorry." And they were utterly disarmed. I was in tears. The couple was in tears. And there was forgiveness. Striving and maintaining unity is often the table where the Holy Spirit performs His surgeries.
I wholeheartedly believe that we have all the tools at our disposal to "keep" unity. We have the Word of God. I do not need to be "woke", nor do I need a "theory" (CRT) to tell me how to treat someone of another race or gender. The Word of God has plenty to say on that matter. And the only "investigation" that ought to take place is on the part of the Holy Spirit to investigate my heart as I submit myself to God's Word and His sanctifying surgery, to rid my heart of everything that is not of Christ. Which is one of the reasons I believe unity is so hard to maintain. It often requires that we "put off the old self, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Eph. 4:22-23) Paul tells us that "this is the will of God, your sanctification..." (1 Thess. 4:3) Maturity in Christ is the ultimate goal. Being conformed to the measure and stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13) is the ultimate aim. And the more we possess His character and mind, the more we will experience the unity of the Spirit. Perhaps what we need today in the church, and in the Church of God as a whole, is not some "new" thinking or theories created by man, but the sure and concrete formula from the very mind of God, who created unity in the first place - "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." (Ps 51:10) You can't have "unity of the Spirit" without the Spirit of unity. Perhaps our energy would be better spent submitting ourselves to the potter's wheel. Complicated problems do not necessitate equally complicated solutions. I believe that we ought to set our sights on being Biblical, devote our energy to being actively engaged in the process of sanctification, and strive for holiness, "the unity of the Spirit" will take care of itself.
"Christians should all dwell together in the bonds of peace,
All the clashing of opinions, all the strife should cease;
Let divisions be forsaken, all the holy join in one,
And the will of God in all be done.
Oh, the reformation glory!
Let it shine to every land:
We will tell the blessed story;
In its truth we e'er shall stand."
"The Reformation Glory" Charles Naylor (1922)