"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Seven Biblical Principles of Unity #5

Principle 5: The Strategy of Unity: A Ministry Partnership

My previous blog addressed the fourth biblical principle of unity, The Model of Unity: The Mind of Christ, based on Philippians 2:4, “…in humility regard others as better than yourselves…” In retrospect it occurred to me that, while there are loving, edifying ways to debate and resolve conflict, in the humility that typifies the Mind of Christ, a first consideration always will be, “What if I’m wrong?”

I understand that some people just can’t comprehend that concept. In an overwhelming majority of times when I confront someone with the question, “What if you’re wrong?” the response is, “But I’m not.” Without the humility to consider—honestly—the possibility that he or she may be wrong, no person can participate effectively in the satisfactory resolution of any conflict.

But, on to the fifth principle:

I Corinthians 1:8-9 (NLT) (God) will keep you strong to the end, …for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I’m flirting with the edge of meaning when I choose the New Living Translation, which says, along with four other English translations, “…he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In the original language the word is koinonia, which usually is translated, “fellowship.” Forty-two of the English versions available to me say, “…he has invited you into fellowship with his Son…”

The word literally means, “common”—as in common property. It is the basis of English words, like “community” and “communion.” The Amplified New Testament uses two words: “companionship and participation;” while the Easy to Read Version says, “(God) has chosen you to share life with His Son…”

I think the word, “partnership”, is totally appropriate.

Another word captures my attention: “…he has invited you into partnership.” It is the same word used in…
* Galatians 5:13: “…you were called into liberty…”
* Ephesians 4:1: “I … urge you to live a life worthy of your calling.”
* Colossians 3:15: “And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, be-cause it is for this that you were called together as parts of one body.”
The noun form means “those who are called,” and is most often translated, “church.” It is within Scriptural integrity to say we are called into partnership with Christ, and that constitutes a valid definition of “church.”

Again, like humility in the previous blog, this is a “hard sell” in a consumer cul-ture whose mantra is “the customer is always right.” The world defines “membership” as “paying your dues and getting your benefits.” The New Testament defines membership in the Body as “being called into partnership with Christ.”

From the greatest figures in the history of Israel and the church, to the most anonymous person on the back pew of some tiny congregation in the remotest part of Appalachia, all of God’s servants are called to personal roles and functions in the Body of Christ.

The calling of God is unique for each person. Some are dramatic: Peter Mar-shall, Saul of Tarsus, Convicted Watergate felon, Chuck Coalson. We can get so distracted by wide-screen, Technicolor celebrity calls that we completely miss the “still small voice” God may use to call us.

Jeremiah, Isaiah and St. Paul (among others) say God called them “from their mothers’ wombs.” In a sense God’s call is embedded in our DNA—not so much “event” as part of our identity as persons created in the image of God. It’s a kind of “Calling by Self-Discovery”; and some of us just kind of “grow into it” as we pay attention to the things we love to do and the things that bring us a sense of fulfillment and the things that other people affirm in us.

Some of us are less self-aware, so it takes something a bit more theatrical to get our attention. For some of us it takes a 2 x 4 upside the head; and some of us actually go through life blissfully oblivious to our calling. But all of us are called—every life has divine meaning and purpose, and those who discover it rarely demonstrate symptoms of depression or aimlessness or emptiness.

So, the callings of God’s servants vary greatly, but the calling is never to a merely private faith or piety. Isaiah’s call was not simply to restore Israel, but to extend God’s salvation to the “end of the earth.” In the opening lines of the Corinthian letter, when Paul says “you are called,” the “you” is plural—it’s “y’all are called!” It is not enough for us believers to cherish only a private faith; our fellowship with one another and our witness to the world, if faithful, will reflect the partnership with Christ into which God has called us.

Partnership. Here’s the IRS definition: “the relationship existing between two or more persons who join to carry on a trade or business. Each person contributes money, property, labor or skill, and expects to share in the profits and losses of the business.” And Wikipedia defines it as “an arrangement in which parties agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests.”

Let’s consider one more New Testament image of partnership: the church as the bride of Christ. The traditional marriage vow is a promise to love and to cherish… “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.” Remaining faithful only as long as we agree with each other does not fit any definition of partnership—or unity. 

The good news is that our partnership is not dependent upon any of us being right, nor upon any of us being in agreement on any specific issue. It is God alone who "will keep us strong to the end, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has called us into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And that’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Friday, November 28, 2014

Seven Biblical Principles of Unity #4

The Model of Unity: The Mind of Christ


Philippians 2:8-11 (RSV) Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 


 “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” Some versions say, “…have the attitude of Christ.”

Here is an early litmus test for being Christian: it’s not doctrine or creed or sacrament or ritual or moral living. It’s aligning one’s mind with the mind of Christ.

So, how does one “have the mind of Christ?” Is it a matter of having a Positive Mental Attitude? Can’t hurt. A poster making the rounds on Facebook says: “Whatever you Feed Will Grow: Faith or Fear; Worry or Confidence; doubt or belief. It’s your choice”

Proverbs (23:7) says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” The late Zig Ziglar said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” [And, by the way, my favorite Zig Ziglar quote is, “There’s no traffic on the extra mile.”]

So, is having the mind of Christ a matter of filling our heads with nice thoughts? In winding down this beautiful, joyful letter to the Philippians Paul writes (4:8),  

“…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Will that give us the mind of Christ? In I Corinthians (2:7-16), Paul again mentions the mind of Christ:

No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. 12And we have received God’s Spirit, so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us.
Then he quotes Isaiah 40:13:
“Who can know the Lord’s thoughts?
    Who knows enough to teach him?”
And he concludes: “But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ.”
So, we don’t develop or achieve or work for the mind of Christ. Like virtually everything else in our relationship with God, it is a part of God’s grace: we simply receive it.

But in context, it’s relatively clear that “the mind of Christ” is more than pretty thoughts. The church at Philippi is conflicted, and the aim of this passage is to persuade the Philippians to lead lives in which disunity, discord and personal ambition are dead. Thus, “the mind of Christ” is set before them with five distinct qualities:

1.       He did not exploit his divinity. He was in the form of God. There two Greeks words we translate form. One indicates a shape—an appearance, like when we say a cloud looks like a Teddy Bear—it has that form. The word used here signifies essence—basic nature, like when we see a Teddy Bear: “it doesn’t just “look like” one; it IS a Teddy Bear!” That’s how Christ Jesus was in the form of God. But, he didn’t exploit that status. Instead, he…

2.      emptied (literally, “poured out”) himself; and he…

3.      took the form (same word) of a slave. This is not like the Prince and the Pauper; the Prince could take back his status any time; but Jesus “emptied himself”. He didn’t put on a disguise (as The Living Bible puts it). In the same way he was in the form of God, he took on the form of a slave; and he...

4.      humbled himself. Humility thus becomes the key quality in what Jesus did; and he did it voluntarily. He “emptied hmself.” And he…

5.      became obedient. There are two possible understandings of this obedience.

a)     Many commentaries understand that he was obedient to God; and, all the Gospels affirm that. His obedience to God was the primary quality that defines Jesus as the Christ—the chosen one.

b)     But from another valid perspective, being found in human form he was obedient to that form. And what one experience is universally human? Death. Once found in human form he maintained that form all the way to the end of the line. He didn’t bail out when the going got tough. He was obedient to his chosen form and identity as a human.

And why is that important? Paul called his readers to “have the mind of Christ.” But, how is that humanly possible if Christ remains only divine?

I guess every kid loves a circus. I always admired those daring young men on the flying trapeze. Wow! But, I couldn’t identify. What were they thinking?

Then there’s the clown: down on the sawdust tripping over his own feet, stumbling around… Yeah. I can identify. I know what that’s like.

I can’t have the mind of the circus aerialist; but, I can have the mind of the clown. I can’t have the mind of a divinity; but, when another human faces death in a special way, that means it is humanly possible to do so; and I have hope. I can identify with and trust that way of thinking. It's almost the definition of faith.

This whole passage is summarized in verse 4 above: “…in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Humility: Greek philosophers discounted humility because it implied weakness, inadequacy and worthlessness. But Jesus redefined humility by accepting that by ourselves we are incomplete (1 Corinthians 4:7). It is God alone, through Christ, who completes us in order that we may live as God created us to live.

And so, to the divided church in Philippi, here is Paul’s model for unity: “Have the mind of Christ: in humility, put others ahead of yourself.”

Think of persons you have deeply admired. I suspect your admiration emerged form their humility; the way they were always putting others (including you) first. To live in Unity, model your life after theirs, but even more importantly, model your life after Christ: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”

And that’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Seven Biblical Principles of Unity--#3

The Foundation of Unity: Love

I Corinthians 13:4-7 (RSV) Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8Love never ends.
These four verses often can be found inscribed in lovely calligraphy, framed and hung in homes and offices. “A hymn to love,” it’s called. But the beauty of the language may obscure the practical, compelling force of the words. The setting and context: a conflicted congregation caught up in a distorted spirituality, engaged in intense power struggles… all that may be lost in the admiration of the beautiful poetry.
The biblical preacher’s first task, then, is to anchor the text solidly in its context. Of course, the words are beautiful; but they are not written to rhapsodize love. They were written as a remedy for a church that was quarreling over whose spiritual gifts are more important (the gift of speaking in unknown tongues seems to have risen to the top of the pecking order). They’re boasting about how “spiritual” they are; and these words tell the Corinthian Christians that their fervent religiosity isn’t worth a plugged nickel apart from a new relationship with one another. Apart from love, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
The conflicts at Corinth emerge from a loveless spirituality. The remedy is not to further hone the gifts, but to practice—not to theorize or theologize or idealize, but to practice“a still more excellent way” (12:31).
The spiritual gifts are not unimportant. They are essential to the full manifestation of the Body of Christ; but their end will come. Love, on the other hand, is the supreme quality of God’s reign and therefore “never ends.” As such it participates in and describes the unity that is that “Mystery of God’s Will” (the first biblical principle of unity). Rather than discount the exercise of spiritual gifts, love transforms their practice into a positive endeavor.
If the world’s population would live by this “still more excellent way”, there would be no problems. These four verses describe fifteen qualities of love:
1.      Love is patient, 
2.      and kind.
3.      Love is not jealous,
4.      or boastful;
5.        it is not arrogant. 
6.      or rude. (NIV says, “It does not dishonor others,” MSG says, “…doesn’t force itself on others”)
7.      Love does not insist on its own way; (NLT says, “…does not demand its own way,” NIV says, “it is not self-seeking,” GNT says, “…it is not selfish,” MSG says, “…isn’t always ‘me first’”)
8.      it is not irritable “NIV says, “…easily angered,”) 
9.      or resentful; (NIV says, “…it keeps no record of wrongs.” MSG says, “…doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,” and the ERV says, “…does not remember wrongs done against it.”)
10.  does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
11.  Love bears all things, (The variations are very interesting here! NIV says, “…always protects,” NLT says, “…never gives up,” MSG says, “…puts up with anything,” and ERV says, “never gives up on people,”)
12.  believes all things, (NIV says, “…always trusts, NLT says, “…never loses faith,” MSG notes, specifically, “…trusts God always,”)
13.  Hopes all things, (MSG says, “…always looks for the best,”)
14.  endures all things. (NIV says, “…always perseveres.” MSG says, “…never looks back, but keeps going to the end.”
15.  Love never ends.
Whew! Are you exhausted? How can one ever love in the way this passage describes? Had we read the remainder of the chapter we would find a clue in the contrast between the passing, incomplete present and the permanent and fulfilled future. The images are powerful: like the difference between the way a child thinks and the way an adult thinks; like the difference between a distorted view through a flawed pane of glass and a face-to-face meeting.
Things get complicated when we begin with ourselves. But, I remember reading or hearing somewhere that love is best received when you do something for another that is a blessing to him or her "as she or he sees it."
No man ever loved a woman more than Jo Lynn’s dad loved her mom. They met when he was 13 and got a paper route and started delivering papers to her house. From the first moment he saw her, he was a goner. Never was there a more beautiful love story.
He loved to surprise her with romantic gifts—and she loved it (especially when it was cash!) In their later years Joe wanted to take her on a train trip across the country, and he made all the arrangements. He envisioned them holding hands in the club car, watching the Great Plains slide by. He envisioned sunset dinners in the dining car, with the Rocky Mountains majestically saluting as they rode by.
But there was a lump in the gravy. She didn’t like trains. She told him so. She didn’t want to take that trip; but, he wanted it so bad; and he was just sure that once she got aboard and the trip was underway, she’d love it.
The only harsh word I ever heard from either of the about the other, was her resentment about being pressured to go on that train trip. Truly loving someone means that he or she gets to decide what is the "loving way" in which to be treated.
Which is just another way of saying, Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them(Matthew 7:12 KJV).
And that’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Jim

Friday, November 21, 2014

Seven Biblical Principles of Unity--#2

The Tools of Unity: Words that Build Up and Give Grace

Ephesians 4:29 (RSV): Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is useful for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.

“Evil talk” is the RSV translation. The NIV says “unwholesome talk;” the NLT says “abusive language;” and other versions say “corrupting talk,” “foul language,” “filthy talk,” “hateful words” – basically useless talk that is harmful in some way.

One obvious application of this verse is Gossip—idle talk or rumor, especially about the private affairs of others. Gossip often implies the spreading of dirt and misinformation (especially if scandal is involved).

A second, less obvious application is Opinion. Wikipedia, the online Dictionary, says, ”In general, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, i.e. based on that which is less than absolutely certain, and is the result of emotion or interpretation of facts. What distinguishes fact from opinion is that facts are verifiable, i.e. can be objectively proven to have occurred.”

We love our opinions! And we all have a right to our opinions; but none of us is obligated to share them. By Definition, “opinion” is an unproven idea. We cling to our “opinions”; we treasure them and defend them; but, opinion doesn’t necessarily serve truth, and by practical observation, “opinions” have very little intrinsic value. In fact, all too often, opinions are divisive.

We have become a script culture: “Talk is cheap.” “If you really mean something, write it down.” Will Rogers said, “The only thing I know is what I read in the newspaper.” (I wonder what he’d say about today’s “news” media, much of which carries more opinion and commentary than the simple reporting of news.)

And in our script culture we devalue verbalization: “Show me a picture.” “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one, any day.”

But if you think words aren’t important, spend an hour with a middle school child who’s been called names at school. “Sticks and stones may break my bones; but words will never hurt me.” That’s a lie.

Words are important. Words can build up or tear down. Jesus said, “…by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37 NIV).

Let’s review the text again: Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”

In this verse I find four litmus tests by which we can judge the use of our own words—four ways to help “the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to (God), our strength and our redeemer” (Psalm 19:14 KJV).

(1) Is it useful? One of my primary social incompetencies is that I don’t like small talk. I’m not good at it. No, I’m not suggesting that every conversation should have some deep significance. There’s value in chatting with a friend over lunch. It has a purpose: it shares information of mutual interest, it is a part of living within a relationship.

But the writer of Ephesians qualifies the usefulness of our words: are they “useful for edifying?” (2) Do our words Build Up? Do they make things better?

Once again, I’m not calling for sugar-coating every conversation or avoiding controversy and disagreement. There are valid times for constructive criticism. Constructive. And whether a criticism is received as constructive probably has more to do with how it’s presented than with what is said. Does it build up?

And there are valid times for debate. Disagreement is not, in itself, a bad thing; but in the midst of disagreement, words that are useful for building up are aimed at working together to discover a resolution that meets everybody’s needs (not necessarily everybody’s preferences). Words used to “win the fight” will never build up. Does it build up?

And the writer of Ephesians continues in his cumulative construction: (3) do our words “fit the occasion?"  The Amplified New Testament puts it, "as is fitting to the need and the occasion..." The New American Standard Bible says, "according to the need of the moment..." In other words, is what we are about to say necessary? Will it benefit the situation?

Which brings me back to “opinion.” Yes, we have a right to hold and to share our opinion; but is there a need for it? Will it be useful? Will it build up? Whatever our intentions may be in any situation, the words we choose will have one of three effects:

They may be effective (sometimes the most effective way to respond is simply not to respond. Let it go.) Will it be useful for building up as there is need?

They may be Ineffective. Will our words prolong the need?

They may be Counterproductive. Will our words make things worse?

The text has one final litmus: Will our words (4) give grace to those who hear? 17th century poet, François Fénelon, wrote, "Learn to imitate Him who reproves gently..."

Grace is more than passive refusal to condemn. Grace doesn’t let someone “get away with something.” That’s not grace; it’s permissiveness.

In permissiveness, something is overlooked; in grace, something is overcomesomething is transformed. Grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Henry David Thoreau said most men live lives of “quiet desperation.” Grace transforms quiet desperation into bold determination, fate into meaningful destiny, guilt into confidence and courage. There’s something triumphant in the word, Grace.

And our text calls us to let our words be useful for edifying, as fits the occasion, so that (our) words may give grace to those who hear.”

While I haven’t been active for a few years, I have been strengthened by my association with Rotary International. Rotarians are guided by what we call a “Four-Way Test" of the things we think, say or do. It’s an ethical code for personal and business relationships. 

1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned? 

In the work and fellowship of Rotary we attempt to sift what we do and say through the sieve of these four questions and, if the answer to any of the four is "No," then it probably doesn't need to be said. I see a connection between the “Four Way Test” and this verse from Ephesians. And in the three local Rotary clubs in which I have participated I have experienced more unity than in most of the churches I served over the past fifty years.

When faithfully used, these tools of unity are quite effective.

And that’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Seven Biblical Principles of Unity--#1

The Priority of Unity: It Is the Mystery of God’s Will


Ephesians 1:9-10 (RSV) (God) has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

When your kids were growing up, my guess is that the most frequent question they asked was, “Why?” Well, I never outgrew that. I’m the kid that took his parents’ alarm clock apart to see how it worked. (But I was going to put it back together…)
I was a curious kid. I remember a Sunday School teacher responding in exasperation to a barrage of my questions, “Jimmy, there are just some things we’re not supposed to know.” And when I responded, “Then why did God give us a brain?” she slapped me—right across the chops. She told my father I’d been disrespectful and, back home he got right to the seat of the problem! Well, the questions didn’t go away, but I stopped asking them to her.
I still don’t believe her comment: “There are some things we’re just not supposed to know.” Really? Then why DID God give us a brain?
The text above lets us in on ‘the mystery (a better translation is “secret”) of God’s will!” Privileged with that information, what else do we need to know? The only information withheld—which also was withheld from Jesus, himself—is the day and hour of his return.
So, what is this secret? The RSV says it is “to unite”; the KJV says, “…to gather together in one…” And the text modifies the idea with the words, “…all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”. All the vital forces of the universe are brought into focus in Christ. And when “all things in heaven and on earth” are brought into their true relationship with Christ, they also are brought into their true relationship with each other—into an all-embracing, universal harmony. One way to know if we are in true relationship with Christ is to examine our relationship with each other!
Nothing is more important to God than the unity of all God’s creation. It is the mystery—the secret—of God’s will. Consider:
·         1 Corinthians 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
·         Ephesians 4:11-13 It was (Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
·         Colossians 3:13-14 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
·         Psalm 133:1 How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
·         Romans 12:16 Live in harmony with one another.
·         Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And in the garden Jesus prayed this for his disciples:
·         John 17:20 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” 
I could go on and on with verse after verse of Scripture. Nothing is more important to God. Unity is the mystery—the secret—of God’s will.
But a clarification is necessary. Unity is not uniformity—it’s not “same-ness.” It was never intended to be. We’re not called to be alike. Each of us unique with our own unique set of spiritual gifts.
Nor is unity found in agreement of opinion, philosophy or ideology. It’s not demonstrably possible to experience agreement at those levels. Democrats and Republicans will never agree totally—on anything. Nor will Baptists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Disciples and Methodists and Catholics and entrepreneurial independents…
God created free choice! I can’t believe God expected or even desired that humans agree on everything (although God intended humans to disagree with integrity, respect and love, and in the process to discover new truth in each other’s’ perspectives).
God created us differently so we could mutually enrich each other. A choir singing in unison produces beautiful sounds; but a choir doesn’t reach its greatest potential until it produces wonderful, rich harmony—beautiful precisely because the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses all are singing different notes at the same time!
In Paul’s body metaphors of Ephesians and Romans it becomes clear that the church lives up to its full potential precisely because each of us is different!
So, having establishing the theme of the epistle, the writer of Ephesians moves through the metaphor of the Body to this literary masterpiece, summarizing the unity that is the mystery—the secret—of God’s will: “…speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4:15-16 (NIV)
And so, the cat’s out of the bag! It’s no longer a secret!
And that’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Seven Biblical Principles of Unity--Introduction

[Today I begin a series of eight blogs on “unity”. At its core is the closing series of sermons I delivered at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Introduction and Epilogue have been added for the blogs.

Disciples were founded out of a desire to see Christ’s Church united. “Unity is our polar star”, has long been our still elusive aim; although, disunity remains too much our reality.

I offer these “Seven Biblical Principles of Unity” in the hope that individuals, families, groups and congregations may find in them a path to unity. I offer them in absolute confidence that to the extent that these seven principles are applied faithfully by any congregation or group, the result will be an experience of the unity we humans long to have.]

“Seven Biblical Principles of Unity”: Introduction

If I had to choose one word to describe today’s North American culture, it would be a real challenge: but high on the list of possibilities would be the word, “disunity.”

From the halls of congress, to Wall Street and Madison Avenue, to our systems of economy, education, jurisprudence and health care, to the board rooms of the corporate world—and yes, even in the church—disunity too often is a primary trait.

We humans long for unity; but too often by unity we mean uniformity—conformity to specific ideologies and traditions and moral standards. And when we confuse unity with uniformity we virtually always set ourselves up for failure.

Nor is unity the same as agreement, although those who are in agreement also will experience, within the limits of that agreement a level of unity.

Humanity is broken. The Bible calls it “sin”—a condition in which people generally have placed their own needs, desires, preferences, ideologies, etc. as the ultimate reality, and then essentially have made God in their own image (so to speak) and placed God in position to provide and sustain those personal needs, desires, preferences, etc. That particular expression of brokenness/sin is called idolatry, and it can be manifest at an individual level, but it also has shared manifestations in families, groups and nations. And, yes, it has infected the church, as well.

Given that human brokenness, in which individuals and groups place their own ideologies as ultimate reality, agreement is virtually impossible. But, where agreement is not possible, understanding still remains a valid pathway to unity. 

When we confuse unity with agreement, we broken humans don't want to understand or to be understood. Too often we don't want to resolve differences. We want to win the fight. In our brokenness, about the best we can hope for is overlapping needs and preferences, with emphasis on the “preferences.” Then people divide up into groups with similar preferences and exert massive quantities of energy attempting to convert other individuals and groups to affirm and support their own preferences.

We set ourselves up for failure because when we broken humans don’t find the level of conformity or agreement we desire, we too frequently resort to familiar patterns of manipulation and confrontation (some to the point of violence) in order to enforce our own perspectives—to inflict them on everyone who disagrees.

Those familiar patterns of coercion are rooted in what theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.” To sustain that myth we first must locate all evil outside ourselves and assume that our ideology is “right”. By extension, then, anything else is “wrong”. It’s only a short journey from identifying other ideologies as “wrong” to calling them “evil”. By ignoring or even denying our own evil, we can easily scapegoat others: the commies, the gays, the straights, the blacks, the whites, the liberals, the conservatives, the President (whoever happens to be in office at the time), etc.

The next level in “the myth of redemptive violence” is the conviction that, since other ideologies are wrong, and thus evil, they must be eliminated at all costs, and since our perspective is right and good, it must prevail, no matter what. The result is an “ends-justify-the-means” ethic. And when the good guys finally win (no matter by what means—whatever it takes, regardless of ethical or moral considerations) we humans are then able to re-establish a sense of goodness (however the good guys—that’s us—define goodness) without coming to any insight about our own inner evil.

That’s not unity. Nor is it peace. It’s domination and intimidation and forced conformity.

Of course it’s an extreme scenario!

Or is it?

It’s extreme only by degree, and to some degree since the emergence of the conquest empires of the late fourth millennium BCE, it has been a dominant pattern of human interaction—and especially a dominant pattern of resolving conflict and resolving the eternal question of who will control a given relationship, be it one-on-one or global in scope.

Control: possibly the sine qua non of all human disunity. It at least is the opposite of unity. Yet, lacking an effective model for unity, we humans too easily settle for conformity and then spend our energies enforcing that conformity.

While I have not yet found a comprehensive biblical model for unity, I have found seven biblical principles which can be organized in such a way that their cumulative effect is at least a foundation for such a biblical model.

And that's how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim