Sunday, March 02, 2008

The pain of unity

It continues to pain my heart to see disunity among Christians. When Narlin and I went for a short mission trip three years ago, I attended a Baptist church in Nonthaburi. We met a couple who were worshipping and working in that church. They were also from the same place where we were living back home. We had a nice chat. Without thinking I asked what denomination they belong. I was mildly rebuked by the answer. They said that Christians should be in unity and in the mission field denominational identification is not important. Holding to your denominational distinctive are causing a lot of confusions to the people we are trying to reach. I agreed and was actually glad for the small lecture.

After two years, I learned that unity among missionaries just an illusion. An illusion we are trying to impress to the people from home who are coming for a short visit. The differences among Christians are just too many that unity is impossible. I thought that focusing on commonality (and there are lots of them) would help missionaries to work together. But the few differences are stronger than our commonalities. It seems to me that Christians have new issues to disagree with each day. New issues accumulate and the old issues escalate. In my opinion, however, the main cause of the division springs from differences in interpreting the Bible. As long as particular denomination or group thinks that theirs is the only right interpretation and all the others are wrong, the situation is hopeless.

I don’t mind Christians being divided because of denomination and doctrinal differences for example in a country like USA. It is inevitable and sometimes necessary. But in the mission field, this division is uncalled for. Why could a handful of Christians in a non-Christian country not see each other eye to eye? It is bad enough that missionaries couldn’t get along together but it is worse when local believers learned that some missionaries despise one another. One of them gave me unsolicited advice. “If you couldn’t agree, it is better for you to stop working together. But I don’t think you’ll not have a good testimony if you claim you are missionaries sent by God.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Jesus Christ desires unity among his disciples. It is clearly expressed in his own prayer to the Father just before his passion. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. I hope that there will come a day when I will see God’s answer to this prayer. This is a prayer that is addressed to the Father but Jesus wants his disciple to know and be acted upon.

I was contemplating about this when the following words jumped out of the Moltmann book I was reading—The Church in the Power of the Spirit.
The unity of the church is experienced first of all in the gathered congregation. The congregation is gathered through proclamation and calling. It gathers for the one baptism (Eph. 4.5; 1 Cor. 12.13) and for the common Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 12.13; 10.17). It lives in the spirit of mutual acceptance (Rom. 15.7) and maintains the unity of the Spirit through ‘the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4.3). In the church people of different social, religious and cultural origins become friends who ‘forbear one another in love’ (Eph. 4.3), do not judge one another, but stand up for each other, especially for the weak among them.

The unity of the congregation is a unity in freedom. It must not be confused with unanimity, let alone uniformity in perception, feeling or morals. No one must be regimented, or forced into conformity with conditions prevailing in the church. Everyone must be accepted with his gifts and tasks, his weaknesses and handicaps. This unity is an evangelical unity, not a legal one. The charismatic congregation gives everyone the room he needs to be free in his dealings with other people and to be at their disposal when they need him. Because it is Christ who gathers it and the Spirit of the new creation who gives it life, nothing that serves the kingdom of God and the freedom of man must be suppressed in it. It is a unity in diversity and freedom.

But the congregation’s unity is also freedom and diversity in unity. Where old enmities flare up again in it, where people insist on getting their own way and want to make their perceptions or experiences a law for other people, not only is the fellowship between people threatened, but so (in a deeper sense) is the fellowship with God himself. Through claims to domination and divisions of this kind Christ himself is divided (I. Cor. 1.1 3). Anyone who uses freedom in order to destroy freedom is not acting in accordance with that freedom. Freedom can be destroyed through the mania for uniformity, just as it can be killed by ruthless pluralism. In both these dangers, the important thing for the committed congregation is to return to the foundation of its unity in diversity, and to experience the open fellowship of Christ in his supper. For the committed congregation is his people and it is only in his Spirit that unity and diversity can be so intertwined that they do not destroy one another.

Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 342-43.


PresterJohn said...

James dealt with this plague of division when the Church was still in its infancy. But he also gave the cure. James 3:14-18 But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.
May God grant that you be known as a sower of peace. Shalom.

Joey said...

Hi John,

Indeed! Thanks for the comment and the prayer.