When we construct our spiritual concepts, we often begin with basic, accepted definitions that are never questioned or examined. For example, we all agree that unity was one of Jesus' priority concerns. Just before he died, he prayed for the oneness of all who believed in him. We all agree that Paul taught the churches to reject division and to accept oneness. We all agree that the church in the New Testament period suffered terribly from problems created by an absence of unity. We all agree that the church today suffers terrible problems created by the absence of unity.

Every congregation here has made a concerted effort to encourage Christians to move toward greater unity. Yet, all of us would honestly acknowledge that the harder we defend and promote unity, the more divisive our reality becomes.

Congregational divisiveness is not just a local problem. I am not aware of any geographical region in our nation where divisiveness is not a significant congregational problem. And I can assure you that it is not a problem only in churches of Christ.

In the churches of Christ, congregations find themselves in traumatic transitions. Currently, congregations seem to find themselves in one of two situations. They are in traumatic transition, or they are in serious decline. Where traumatic transition is occurring, good people, sincere people, committed people, devout people either find themselves on opposite sides of the transition, or they are caught in the middle.

We try to make unity work. We make good faith efforts to emphasize and promote unity. We make these efforts with prayer and Bible based appeals. But often our efforts are ineffective. Often these efforts are reduced to one of three stances.

Stance number one: "The churches of Christ have always taught X; X has always been our position in the churches of Christ." If this is our stance, we need to be concerned about two things. First, we need to be concerned about our use of the word "always." Second, we need to be concerned about sanctioning the idea that the position of the church determines what the individual Christian must accept and defend.

Stance number two: "If group B within the congregation would just agree with group A, everything would be fine--there would be no problem. Group A has studied the matter seriously. Group A's conclusions are consistent with what the churches of Christ have always taught. Just look at the list of sound Christian brothers who have supported group A's position."

In this stance, there are two additional concerns. First, it infers anyone who disagrees with group A has not made a serious study of the matter. Second, it affirms unity is achieved if there is agreement by surrender. If group B agrees by rejecting the conclusions of their own study and by ignoring their own consciences, unity is achieved. Thus, a congregation can achieve unity by insisting that some Christians reject their study, reject their understanding, and reject their consciences.

Stance number three: "If group B refuses to agree with group A, then group B bears total responsibility for the division." That infers that group A is 100% right. The question I must ask is this: is any group of Christians ever 100% right? Is any group of Christians ever 100% wrong?

These three stances frequently disintegrate into a conflict between strong personalities and power struggles.

In this whole process, we assume our definition of unity is the biblical definition.

  1. So let's ask the essential question: from biblical, comprehensive information, what is unity?
    1. The biblical, comprehensive definition of unity has at least three components: a positive component, a negative component, and a component of mutual responsibility.
      1. We are very familiar with the negative component of the definition: unity is the absence of division.
        1. That is the easy one to understand.
        2. However, just the absence of division does not produce unity.
        3. There can be absence of division when there is complete indifference--no one cares enough to be divided.
        4. There can be absence of division when a congregation is dead--there cannot be division where there is no life.
        5. The absence of division is a part of unity, but unity is more than the absence of division.
      2. For unity to exist, there must be the positive component of oneness.
        1. Unity exists where there is life.
        2. Oneness exists where there is life--oneness exists where there is living relationship.
        3. In oneness, a congregation shares mutual purpose, mutual activity, mutual involvement--where there is unity there is activity.
        4. As a congregation, we are a living body--there is interaction, interrelating, and productivity.
      3. The third component: where there is unity, there is the mutual responsibility to be forbearing.
        1. Forbearance is a whole study within itself.
        2. For unity to exist, we must allow the New Testament to define forbearance and to educate us in the work and expressions of forbearance.
    2. Unity is oneness; unity is not uniformity.
      1. The most accepted definition of unity in churches of Christ is uniformity.
      2. The demand of uniformity is for all Christians to be identical.
        1. In uniformity, Christians are spiritual clones.
        2. They think identical spiritual thoughts; they have identical spiritual ideas; they hold identical spiritual convictions; they come to identical spiritual conclusions; they have identical spiritual emphases in their lives.
      3. Uniformity allows no individuality--I must think what the congregation tells me to think; I must believe what the congregation tells me to believe; I must take my spiritual stand where the congregation tells me to stand.
        1. Even though we all have different levels of knowledge, understanding, insight, experience, and wisdom, we will still be identical.
        2. Even though we came from different family backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, and different regional backgrounds, we still will be identical.
    3. Why have we accepted uniformity as the proper concept of unity? Is uniformity a biblical concept?

  2. I want you to consider three things that I would affirm to be true. (I do not ask you to agree with me; I only ask you to consider them.)
    1. First, oneness does not imply uniformity; unity exists without our being alike.
      1. A key statement that emphasizes the importance of oneness was made by Jesus in a prayer in John 17:11; speaking of his disciples, he prayed, "That they may be one, even as we are."
      2. Often from that statement we infer that unity is uniformity.
        1. God was in Jesus, and Jesus was in God.
        2. Just as God was divine, Jesus was divine.
        3. Jesus told Thomas that if a person saw Jesus, he saw the Father (John 14:9).
        4. Jesus and God the Father are identical in their divinity.
        5. Therefore, we should be identical if we are to be one like they are one.
      3. Consider this: when Jesus prayed this prayer, when he affirmed that he and God the Father were one, he and God the Father were not identical. They were one, but they were not identical.
        1. Jesus was human flesh; God was eternal spirit (John 4:24).
        2. Jesus could be tempted; God cannot be tempted (James 1:13).
        3. Jesus could die; God could not die.
        4. Jesus' personal, human will did not want to die--"Let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39).
        5. God's will wanted him to submit to death; Jesus yielded his will to the will of the Father (Matthew 26:42).
      4. They were one, but they were not identical.
      5. Being one as God and Jesus were one when Jesus prayed that prayer does not mean that we are identical.
    2. Second, unity is a gift; it is not a human achievement.
      1. Galatians 3:26-28 is a much used Bible statement in churches of Christ.
      2. In the letter called Galatians, Paul wrote several congregations in the Roman province of Galatia.
        1. The majority of the Christians in these congregations were non-Jews.
        2. After Paul established several of these congregations and left, Jewish Christians followed him as teachers.
        3. They taught these young Christians that they were spiritually inferior because they knew little or nothing about the law of Moses and they had not been circumcised in keeping with Jewish ordinance.
        4. In essence they informed these new Christians that their baptism was questionable or invalid because they had not been grounded in the law of Moses prior to their conversion.
        5. As a result, many of these new Christians turned away from the good news of Jesus to submit to the message of these teachers.
      3. Paul made one primary point in his letter to them, and he made it powerfully in numerous ways: non-Jews who, in faith, were baptized into Christ were 100% children of God; they were as genuinely children of God as Jewish Christians; and they were not second class citizens in God's kingdom.
      4. Look at the points that Paul made in Galatians 3:26-28.
        1. All of you non-Jewish converts are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
        2. All of you were baptized into Christ, and as a result all of you were clothed with Christ.
        3. For all those who are baptized into Christ as a result of their faith, there are no spiritual distinctions: not between Jew and non-Jew; not between a slave and a free person; not between a man and a woman.
        4. Jew and non-Jew, slave and free person, and man and woman who are Christians are all one in Christ Jesus.
        5. Belonging to Christ makes every baptized believer a descendant of Abraham.
        6. Belonging to Christ makes every baptized believer a full participant in the promises that God first made to Abraham.
      5. When a baptized non-Jew (a person who knew nothing about what we call the Old Testament, a person who had worshipped idols, a person who had not known or worshipped the living God) was lifted out of the waters of baptism, was he suddenly, at that moment, made identical to baptized Jews?
        1. Did he suddenly know the Old Testament Scriptures?
        2. Did his complete concept of God suddenly change?
        3. Did he suddenly understand everything the Jew understood?
        4. Were all background and cultural differences suddenly removed?
        5. Were all his religious views and understandings instantly, dramatically changed to be exactly like baptized Jews?
        6. Of course not.
      6. Please notice:
        1. Paul did not say that when they learned enough, when they understood enough, when they were properly educated in the scriptures, when they eliminated all their differences, then, at that point they would be one.
        2. Paul said three things happened the moment that they, with faith in Christ, were baptized.
          1. They became God's children.
          2. They were clothed in Christ.
          3. They were made to be one with all others who in faith were baptized.
      7. An act of God:
        1. Destroyed their sins.
        2. Placed them in Christ.
        3. Made them children in God's family.
        4. Clothed them in Jesus.
        5. Made them one.
      8. Their responsibility was to preserve and promote oneness, not create oneness.
    3. This is the third thing I want you to consider: this oneness exists even if Christians do not realize or understand it.
      1. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul again revealed the concept of unity.
      2. In chapter 1:15-23 he stressed that Christ is the heart, soul, and core of their spiritual existence as God's community, God's church.
      3. In chapter 2:1-10 Paul said that before Christ died, these non-Jewish Christians were spiritually dead; only because of the grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ could they be spiritually alive.
      4. In 2:11, 12, Paul said that before Christ:
        1. They were excluded from the nation of Israel.
        2. They were excluded from God's covenant promises.
        3. They were without hope.
        4. They were without God.
      5. In 2:13 he stated that the blood of Jesus totally changed that situation.
      6. In 2:14 he declared that Christ is "our" peace (Jews' and non-Jews' peace not only with God but with each other).
        1. Christ made both groups one; he made both Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians one.
        2. Christ destroyed the barrier that separated Jew and non-Jew.
        3. Christ made them both into one new man, in himself, and established peace (2:15).
        4. Christ reconciled both to God in one body through the cross (2:16).
      7. Questions:
        1. Did Jews and non-Jews still have problems after baptism? Commonly!
        2. Did they treat each other as though Christ had created peace? No.
        3. Had they realized that the division had been destroyed? No.
        4. Did both converted Jew and non-Jew understand that they were one, one new man in Christ? No.
      8. That is Paul's basic point--they did not understand and had not accepted what had already happened, what existed as fact.
        1. The key to improving the situation was to understand what God in Christ had already done--He had already made them one.
        2. Until they understood and accepted what Christ had done in making them one, their problems would continue.
      9. Notice verse 14: Christ, our peace, "made" both groups one.
        1. Not "can make."
        2. Not "will make."
        3. Not "wants to help them achieve."
        4. But "made"--accomplished fact; it has already happened.
      10. They must understand what already had occurred.
      11. They must respect each other because of what had already occurred.
      12. Their respect for each other would reflect what God in Christ did when God made them one.

If we are to make meaningful progress in preserving the oneness that God in Christ gave us, we must allow the Bible to teach us what God and Christ do for everyone of us when, in faith, we are baptized into Christ. We must allow the New Testament to teach us the concept of unity. The necessity should be obvious. When our concept of unity declares that in the name of unity we split, separate, and divide, something is seriously wrong with our concept.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Wednesday Evening Sermon, 23 April 1997

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