Reflections on the Universal Church
Unity within diversity sure sounds good, but it is oh so hard to actually live out. It sounds so good until you have to work closely with someone who is very different from you. It sounds so good until the wife realizes once again that there are many times when opposites don’t always attract! It sounds so good until our insecurities or pride get the best of us and we resort back to our judgmental and prejudiced ways of comfort and ease. And this prejudice we have against those who are different than us is nothing other than a camouflaged hatred.
One could not know the pains and devastation this hatred causes more than the late - Dr. Martin Luther King: Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.
But I am not writing about social reform and racial unity, though I am very grateful for Martin Luther King’s work. No, I’m writing about a type of unity that wouldn’t even make racial hatred and animosity an option.
I’m referring to the unity we are called to work toward within the Body of Christ.
One of the greatest enemies to the body of Christ is discord. And dissensions amongst Christians go right against the heart of Christ as revealed in his prayer in John 17:10… “Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one. “ Dissension is listed as one of the sins God detests in Proverbs 6:19. Above any other activity, God wants genuine unity and love amongst his people:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) is a portion of Scripture where Christ is describing what the community of God’s people should live like. He repeatedly uses the word “brother” to signify that God’s community of people is much like a family. And this is very helpful because family is very different than friends. We choose our friends; we choose them on the basis of commonality and social class or sub-culture, age, sex, etc…. But we don’t choose our family! You are family because you are simply born into one, not because you have all these wonderful common interests or likenesses.
Preaching on the Sermon of the Mount not too long ago, Pastor Tim Keller said (more or less), “One of the truths that Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount is if you want to have an unconditional relationship with your Father above, you will need to be in an unconditional relationship with the community of God’s people.”
We are, indeed, supposed to be a family and we are to have an unconditional, restorative kind of love for one another just as any family ought to have for one another. There is no room for hatred, dissension, and condescending judgment in the family of God.
However, judging and condemning each other is, and always has been, one of the church’s biggest problems. Christ mentions the whole problem of judging others several times in his Sermon on the Mount. One of which can be found in Matthew 7:1-6. The first five verses are pretty clear on the humility needed to not cast judgment on others. We must remember that we too fall short and that we fall short frequently. We must not look down upon others as if they are worse than us (7:1-5) or expect them to be just like us (7:6). Forgetting this will lead to us tainting the situation in which everyone else looks worse than they actually are and, of course, when we do this we look at ourselves as something much better than what we actually are. We become arrogant and our understanding turns to ignorance as it is clouded by our pride (1 John 2:11).
Something I learned early on from being involved in miscellaneous ministries and continue to learn as I rub shoulders with ministers from different denominations is this – the church is much deeper and much broader than we have a tendency to think.
But what about truth – isn’t there a right way to believe, a right way to live, a right way to worship? And if so, isn’t truth divisive? Should we throw truth out the window to avoid divisiveness? Well, that would be easy, wouldn’t it? But then we wouldn’t have any kind depth or authenticity in our relationships because they wouldn’t be built on anything; and we didn’t have to work through truth together and end up unified on the other side.
Untested relationships are an inch deep. And if postmodernity has its way in our culture (and world) that is exactly the type of unity and relationship we will all have with one another – inch deep and unauthentic.
We live in a culture that loves moderation on all things intellectual. We toss moderation to the side while shopping at the mall, or drinking at the bar, or eating the bottomless chips and salsa at Chilli’s. But when it comes to thinking about truth we are oh so moderate. Sadly, you can believe anything in our culture so long as you do not believe it too strongly. Well, for the Christian, truth is not an accessory; it is something that is to define our lives.
For Christians, truth is something that is to define our lives. We believe in one God, one hope, one salvation and our view of God radically shapes our ethics and every other facet of our lives.
Postmodern liberalism is really not new at all. And the Bible deals directly with the loosey-goosey notion of doing whatever feels right to you. For example, Paul had to deal with it in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians were actually commending themselves for being so tolerant of one of their members who was having sex with his mother-in-law. Paul came down on their liberal thinking very hard and instructed them to deal with the situation and to deal with it now.
The Bible is not a namby-pamby book of shallow love and peace; it is full of explicit and exclusive truth claims (e.g. John 14:6 and Exodus 20:3). But some of the strongest words of corrective truth used in the New Testament are not used to those who are living wildly or misunderstanding basic Christian truths. They are actually geared toward those who are bringing division to the church (e.g. Titus 3:10 and Galatians 5:19-22).
The goal of this truth, the truth Christians all around the world are called to pursue, is to unify us, not divide us (1 Timothy 1:3-6), and we should always defend and explain Christianity to those who disagree with soundness mixed gentleness (1 Peter 3:15-16).
So what’s the secret? How do we pursue love and unity by not judging others and at the same time believe and live out these objective truths?
Well, it would be nice if the Scriptures laid out a little easy step-by-step formula for us, but it doesn’t. Oh, it lays out a formula alright, but there’s nothing easy about it and it’s not so step-by-step’ish. The formula we must look at is Jesus – the Jesus Formula! Jesus didn’t hesitate to call people out on their sin; but he could also sit across the table from them and authentically enjoy their company. How? How did he maintain this sincere unity amongst severe diversity?
The Jesus formula is loving others rather than judging others.
- Judging others is when we belittle them in our mind and affections; loving others is when we begin to see them just as we see ourselves – flawed.
- Judging puts everyone else down and raises us up; loving lowers our perception of self and raises our perception of others to an equal plain of value and worth.
- Judging always destroys; loving always seeks to restore.
- Judging imposes our experience and personality on others; loving is always mature enough to welcome and value diversity within unity.
How does this work itself out in conflict? What does this look like in real life? Maybe something like this: “Man, I think you may be wrong here with this new idea of yours; but you know what, I may not understand what you’re saying correctly and/or I may be wrong myself. Let’s talk about this and see if we can understand each other more and figure out the truth together.”
Wow, it sounds so easy. However, when you mix our pride, hurt feelings, or other emotions together, solving conflicts and pursuing truth like this are very difficult. But this is exactly what Christ calls us to do: first, “take the plank out of your own eye” (be humble), and then “you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (speak truth objectively and humbly); and then, for Christ’s sake, pursue reconciliation and truth together. This was, after all, his prayer in John 17:10.
The body of Christ is a beautiful miracle of God and we should love her and strive to make her all that she is called to be! We are all part of one body, diverse and distinct, but yet one (1 Corinthians 12:14-20). We should treasure all of her distinctions and love all of her parts.