Note: This post was originally published in The Rivulet Collective on January 18, 2018, under the title “Can Christians Truly Be United?” Be sure to visit Rivulet and enjoy many of the other great stories they’re publishing.
The earnest-eyed man leaned toward me. “Jesus’ last prayer,” he said in a voice rippling with sincerity, “was that all his followers would be one.” We had talked for half an hour or more about the problems of the church. “Jesus weeps! He weeps to see how fractured His church has become. It’s a scandal how divided we are. The world is watching us, and what kind of witness are we giving them? We need to show the world that the church is one.”
I have no argument with the earnest eyed man. I’ve been doing this professional religion thing for a while now. Not only have I peeked behind the curtain, I’m one of the people running the machine. I’ve been through denominational political battles and I’ve ridden the storms of a church split. I’ve watched frat boy prophets build little empires by taking swipes at other Christians. I’ve seen the ministry industrial complex make millions of dollars by pandering to controversy. Our people are very good at againstness – even if it means being against one another.
The earnest-eyed man has solutions. The first time I met him, it was a Billy Graham crusade. “If we can just get all the churches in the city to unite in prayer around this one event, I believe God will hear our prayer and radically transform the city.” The churches united. Billy Graham came. He left. The churches continued to be fragmented.
The next time I saw the earnest-eyed man, he was promoting a monthly prayer interdenominational gathering that would culminate in a big worship event at a basketball arena. “If we can get the churches praying together regularly, I know that God will pour out abundant blessing.” The prayer meetings happened for a while; the worship event came and went. Churches were still divided.
I received an email inviting me to participate in a strategy group. The earnest eyed man was gathering leaders from a bunch of churches to strategize together and come up with shared projects, shared events, even a shared teaching series. They would visibly show the city that the church was united. The projects happened, the teaching series went on. Churches still went their own way.
How many times I’ve sat across from the earnest-eyed man. I’m sure you’ve met him too, for he’s a literary device. He is an amalgam arising from dozens of conversations with wildly different Christians. The earnest eyed man hides in the hearts of evangelicals and mainliners, pentecostals and postdenominationals, traditionalists and radicals, progressives and conservatives.
I am the earnest eyed man. You are, too. The earnest eyed man lies within all of us as we yearn for the church to live up to the ideals espoused in the scriptures. Deep within, we long for Christ’s peaceable kingdom to be made manifest. We have this yearning, and yet we are so fragmented. This vexes us. And we do our best to fix the problem. We whip up events; we establish institutions; we hold conferences – all in the name of unity. We pray, strategize, exhort, wheedle, and cajole – all in the service of unity.
Even so, all our efforts do not produce unity.
So I’ve started re-thinking my approach to Christian unity. I’m using the mental model of a Christian ecosystem.
In an ecosystem, there is a wide diversity of flora and fauna that are mutually interdependent and that mutually nourish one another. Though there is competition for resources among individual parts of the system, the system as a whole is vibrant and the various parts enable the other parts. Consider a rainforest: There are mighty trees forming a protective canopy and there are mid size trees and shrubs that provide shelter and food for animals and there are small ground plants that nourish the insects and microorganisms that break things down to provide fertilizer for the great trees.
Now what if we thought of the church in a given community not in terms of institutions and statements and events, but rather as an ecosystem, an organic reality that already exists, if we but had eyes to see?
In my town of Cincinnati, I envision this ecosystem as encompassing all the Christian activity: Churches, denominations, parachurch organizations, house churches, radio stations, loner christians who aren’t attached. Considered this way, I start seeing that the church isn’t dead and struggling just because my little portion has problems. From the ecosystem level, the church is teeming with life and energy.
With this viewpoint, I keep pushing myself to get out of my default circles and look for evidences of the Holy Spirit moving. I’m a Presbyterian calvinist – but once I get out of my little reformed clique, I see that the Wesleyan Holiness folks and the Pentecostals are doing some pretty amazing ministry. I’m solidly in the Reformed tradition, but when I actually converse with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox folks, I discover that a deep reliance upon grace and a desire for Christ to be glorified in all. I’m a pastor in a mainline denomination, but I find that the evangelical church planters who come to my door are filled with a passion for justice and a desire to bless the marginalized so that Christ may be glorified. I’m a theological conservative, and I find that among the liberals can be found a heartfelt commitment to the risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This isn’t stunningly original thought. In my theological tradition, we have the idea of the visible church and the invisible church. Put simply, the visible church is the collection of people on the rosters of institutional churches; the invisible church is the complete collection of all those truly united with Christ in faith, no matter their organizational affiliation. There are the seeds of the idea right there.
Then there’s Paul’s exhortation to unity in Ephesians 4: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3) Our efforts at unity do not hinge on events and organizations, but with humble hearts that bear with one another.
Patience. Bearing with one another. I think about this as giving one another space to be wrong, space to exist in the ecosystem. I don’t have to rise to battle every theological difference that I have with a brother or sister. I don’t have to turn every Facebook exchange into a contest in the arena of words. That doesn’t mean we don’t challenge one another. What it means is that we don’t have to feel so desperate to change one another’s minds. We can let go of the idolatry of “winning” the argument. We can issue the challenge, and then let the Lord do the convicting from that point.
After Paul exhorts the believers to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit,” he then makes this dramatic statement “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Notice all the indicatives there? We are to make every effort to realize a unity that already exists. The oneness is there already. Even if we don’t recognize it, it is still there. The unity Christ builds in His church transcends his people’s limited capacity to perceive it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all begin to limply hold theological convictions, assuming everyone is right. On any given issue, at the end of the day, someone is right and someone is wrong. Either we are supposed to baptize babies or we’re not. Either it is God’s normative plan for believers to speak in tongues, or it is not. To paraphrase Paul’s exhortation in Romans 14, we should each be convinced in our own mind and practice accordingly, as service unto the Lord, for what counts is serving the Lord. (See Romans 14:1-9)
No, theology and practice matter. We should vigorously grow in our theological commitment and our practice of spiritual disciplines. However, more important is that we grow in inner virtues such as kindness, gentleness, and peaceableness (among others listed in Galatians 5:22-23). We should strive to bring the small areas of our lives in accordance with God’s will, but we should focus our best efforts on the weighier matters: justice, mercy, faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).
As I view my city as a vast Christian ecosystem, I find that I can answer the earnest eyed man who cries out in my mind. I can tell him that the church is one. We don’t need to achieve it, we just need to open our eyes to it.