Likely you witnessed this problem a number of times in a number of different contexts. As a listener, you listened to a discussion as two views opposed each other. You were absolutely amazed. Why? The opposing parties were not discussing the same concept. You may have tried to enter the discussion when you realized the other two participants were discussing different concepts. Yet, your entering the discussion proved pointless! Why? You were viewed as ‘interfering’. Why? Each party strongly assumed the other party and ‘my side’ discussed the same problem, the same basic concept. Each party was certain ‘we agree on the basic concept; we just disagree on the concept’s application.’ The results: (1) the thoughts of the other party were regarded as ‘flawed’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘inconsistent’, or ‘unreasonable’; (2) the thoughts of the other party were commonly regarded illogical; (3) or the thoughts of the other party were regarded as an abuse or a violation of the authority they both accepted.
If discussion parties who differ do not hold a mutual understanding of the basic concept prompting their discussion, they confront an impossible problem. If their discussion/ disagreement is founded on a basic concept they assume everyone defines identically, they never will reach an agreement that produces a resolution. Both parties assume their discussion/disagreement basically begins with a common perspective. As they proceed, each party assumes “in regard to the starting point of this discussion/ disagreement, ‘your’ starting concept and ‘my’ starting concept are identical.” Neither party mentions the discussion’s basic concept because each party assumes ‘we all are in agreement on our basic, beginning concept.’
The Concept of Unity
One topic frequently discussed among those who believe Jesus is the Christ, God’s resurrected son, is unity. To assume everyone in a discussion concerning unity agrees on the basic concept of unity guarantees the discussion will fail to reach an agreement. While everyone assumes all are talking about the same concept, each party has a very different understanding of the meaning of unity, the nature of unity, and unity’s primary concerns.
For example, when Paul condemned the division existing internally in the congregation at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10), he urged, “ye all [all of you—dwc] speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (KJV). Some seriously argue that Paul meant Corinthian Christians had to achieve total agreement in everything.
[The following are illustrations. The author understands first century congregations had no 20th or 21st century church buildings. For the sake of insight allow a discussion of today’s church buildings to illustrate the problem.]
Congregations have to reach total agreement on the carpet colors? They have to reach total agreement on color schemes? They have to reach total agreement on acoustics? On temperature? On steeples? On pew styles? Is this your understanding: “If unity is the charge, unity must be focused on total agreement—not toleration, not silent surrender, not ‘this is spiritually unimportant and a matter of personal preference, so do as the majority prefer.’”
The first matter of concern must be to allow scripture to define God’s concept of unity. Do you consider Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20, 21 to involve God’s concept of unity? Jesus prayed that his disciples be ‘one’ as he and the Father are ‘one’. If your understanding (1) of Jesus’ ‘oneness’ with God and (2) of Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be ‘one’ as he and God the Father are ‘one’ (3) involves God’s concept of unity, examine the situation. Jesus the son and God the Father were not identical when Jesus prayed that prayer. Jesus’ concept of unity [‘oneness’] was not uniformity.
When Jesus prayed the night before his death that his disciples be ‘one’ as he and his Father were ‘one’, he and the Father did not share uniformity. Jesus was a physical being; the Father was not. Jesus had limitations resulting from being human; the Father had no human limitations. Jesus could suffer physical pain; the Father could not. Jesus could die; the Father could not. Jesus and the Father were ‘one’, but Jesus and the Father were not uniform.
Calling people to Jesus Christ as the way to God through worldwide evangelism cannot and will not result in uniformity. People in any culture [regardless of how advanced or primitive; how educated or unschooled; how technologically skilled or technologically deprived] can be converted to Jesus Christ. However, differences in culture guarantees uniformity cannot exist among all those converted to Christ.
Consider the concept of marriage as an institution. I lived in a foreign culture for four years that was profoundly different from my American culture. The basic concept of marriage was different. Your reaction: “Okay; no big deal.”
Consider the roles in marriage. The roles of a husband and a wife contained significant differences. People commonly marveled at the marriage relationships between American missionary husbands and wives. The men of that culture concluded having an American wife would transform their marriage relationships! One morning my wife asked one of our workers how his wife was that morning. [They lived in an eight by eight foot room!] He replied, “I do not know. We have not yet spoken. We are not like you Americans who ask, ‘How are you today?’ when we wake up.” Your reaction: “Okay; that is a bigger deal.”
Consider communion. They made no bread. They had no bread. In many places they ate no bread. Bread was a ‘new, foreign’ food without meaning, beyond affordability, without significance, and without symbolism. Grapes did not grow in the region—in fact no regional fruit grew on a vine. The most common form of grape juice available was a cheap wine that quickly turned to vinegar after an opened bottle was stored in a hot place [no refrigeration was available to most people]. Consequently, the elements of communion there were different from those to which American Christians are accustomed. Your reaction: “Major problem!”
Question: should communion be a personal, meaningful experience that commits members of a congregation to each other and to Jesus Christ? Or, should communion be a performance experience without meaning but performed with this essential requirement: “Do what we tell you to do—even if you do not understand what you are doing!”
Lest you decide this is only an ‘American Christian versus a non-American Christian’ issue, the problem also exists in our congregations in our own culture. Our own congregational challenges are enormous! Differences in personality types are enormous! Some are visual perceivers; some are not. Some are emotion driven; some are logic driven. Some are highly intuitive; some are ‘black and white’ thinkers; some are oriented to intuitive thoughts and factual consideration. Some think and act primarily in terms of control and authority. Some think and act primarily in terms of nurturing and relationships. Some are convinced that elders should function as a board of directors who pass edicts down for compliance. Some are convinced elders should be shepherds who guide by being examples. Some love technology, considering it a wonderful friend. Some hate technology, considering it a horrible enemy.
The confrontations created by differing personality types are virtually endless. What melodies should worship songs follow? What words should worship songs have? How should worship be defined? What worship format should be followed? Should the elders of a congregation take to heart the expectations of members as the elders seek to lead? If so, what should those expectations be? Can individual members be told what translations of scripture they can or cannot study or what religious books they can or cannot read? Is the personal lifestyle of the Christian a matter of individual faith choice or a matter of congregational edict?
Consider an example. The elders of a congregation decide to be effective the congregation needs to renovate its building on the inside. The auditorium carpet is thread bare. The paint on the walls in the classrooms is peeling off. The chairs in every classroom are a variety of shapes, colors, and styles. Little or nothing has been spent on maintaining the inside of the building for decades.
A committee is formed to gather information from the congregation in order to form a consensus approach.
Some older members of the congregation want nothing changed—“If it was good enough for my parents, it is good enough for us!” They fear the building will lose its ‘character’. They are inflexible in their view.
Some want red carpet in the center aisle to symbolize Jesus’ blood flowing toward the pulpit. They are inflexible in their view.
Some want a specific calming color in the auditorium so the gathering people instantly feel a sense of peace. Yet, they are unconcerned about colors in class rooms. They are inflexible in their view.
Some want to spend all the money in the auditorium to ‘enhance’ worship. They are inflexible in their view.
Some want to spend most of the money in the classrooms to ‘advance’ education. They are inflexible in their view.
Question one: is unity in Christ in that congregation to be defined by renovations on a building? Question two: is unity in Christ in that congregation to be based on each Christian approving of every renovation? Question three: is unity in Christ in that congregation to be understood only in the terms and concept of uniformity?
It is evident in Romans 14 that unity was not uniformity in the first century church. Romans 14:4 declares the Lord can ’make stand’ Christians who were in no way uniform. God could make Jewish Christians stand and gentile Christians stand—even when their concepts for expressing faith were in opposition.
Christianity’s central element for unity in Christ is not found in an incredible human behavior that produces a profound uniformity among all Christians. Christianity’s central element in unity is based on the incredible things God did in Jesus’ death and does in us when we knowingly and willingly enter Christ. The primary focus of Christian unity is on what God does in us, not in our uniformity.
Chapter 1 Chapter 3