Church Unity: Is it Even Possible?

So, I sat down yesterday to write a heavily researched blog on Romans 16 that I was planning on posting today… and then two things happened: 1) I had a good conversation with a friend about culture and church unity and 2) I heard a few people dialogue about culture and church unity. So naturally, I felt inspired to talk about…culture and church unity.

Of course, since “coming out” with where I stand on issues like women, inequality and social justice, I’ve thought a lot about this “Christian unity” thing. My mental struggle goes back and forth between, “Do I share my story? Do I talk about what I’ve learned? Is it worth it? Do I speak up about certain issues? Am I being divisive? Is it worse if I’m silent? Is it worth it? Should I say something? Am I wrong? Am I right? Is it worth it?” This has been my struggle for a really, really long time. You can ask my husband. I’ve been/am a hot mess.

As I’m sure you figured…my final conclusion was something along the lines of: I don’t have all of the answers, but it’s worse if I stay silent…and…I hope it’s worth it.

The conclusion of my conversation with said friend yesterday pretty much ended with, “It’s hard. Figuring this unity thing, while still trying to stand up for what is right is…hard.” So, for this post, I’m just going to ask a whole lot of questions that I don’t have the answers to…and do some reiterating of the things I heard in the dialogue among the Christian thinkers, because they summed up some of what I was wrestling with…

These days, unity amongst the Church is difficult to see, as there is an endless amount of opinions on (and thanks to) the Internet.

I’m no exception, as I too am another Christian sharing another opinion…hoping for unity amidst a world of disunity.

Disunity has been found in the Church since the (literal) first century (think of the Jerusalem church vs. the church at Antioch fiasco in the beginning of Acts!) What makes it so difficult is that since the first century, so many “tribes” have formed under this one large umbrella “tribe” of Christianity, each with radically different beliefs. The funny thing is that most of these groups consider themselves to be the One True Christianity, so in an attempt to seek unity, each group tries to convince everyone else to believe their particular brand of Christianity is true.

So really, which “tribe” is true? What does it even mean nowadays, anyways? Christianity began with Jewish followers of Jesus and then eventually, Gentile-believers, with disagreements about which customs to keep (purity and table-fellowship) and which customs to get rid of (circumcision). Many schisms happened around this time, even Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement during their missionary journey. Fast-forward to a major rift in church history in the 11th century, the East-West Schism, where Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox traditions divided. And then from there we see another huge and relevant schism—the Reformation. But even within the Reformation we have Luther’s beliefs and Calvin’s and later Wesley’s and Whitefield’s…

Interestingly, all mentioned considered themselves part of the Church.

So what do all of the Christian denominations have in common, anyways? Well, it certainly is Jesus. But within that, people (who aren’t a part of the “tribe”) can’t help but wonder what Jesus each is talking about.

Is it the “TURN OR BURN” Jesus?

The snake-handling Jesus?

Is it the Catholic Jesus?

The feminist Jesus?

Or the Calvinist Jesus?

Of course, we know there’s only one Jesus. But when the rest of the world looks upon us, what Jesus do they think we’re affirming? I’m sure we all agree that it’s the same Jesus that tells us to love God with our whole mind, heart, strength and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves…

So, then…does this mean we’re all going for the same thing?

If this is true, how do we reconcile our differences?

When considering “tribes” it seems people usually hang on to what one believes as the telling factor as to whether they’re “in” the Christian circle or they’re not. And no, I’m not talking about belief in Jesus. I’m talking about things like what one believes about God’s sovereignty, or hell, or women, or alcohol, etc. (as my friend, Dakota, mentions in her blog post, these things are in fact important, but should they be the means by which we judge how someone stands before God?)

I noticed that one thing most people don’t tend to look for to gauge whether someone is “in” or not is the fruit in their life. I can’t help but wonder what unity would look like if we determined where someone stands according to how much of this fruit they bear—how loving, faithful, patient, kind, peaceful, gentle, self-controlled they are, and not what their view on the book of Genesis is?

Naturally, I also think: how about Jesus? How does He tell us to identity one another? Well…

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 15:35

And then there’s grace. Does grace not apply to belief? I hear so many people say that there’s NOTHING I can do that can separate me from the love of Christ—there’s no specific thing that can get in the way of His love for me…but then these very same people tell me that I’m not “in” because of a certain thing I think differently than them. Where do we draw the line on grace? Can the adulterer be shown forgiveness for his trespass, but the “Arminian” cannot for his stance on sovereignty?

Is it doctrine vs. deeds? Fruit vs. belief?

In my conversation yesterday, my friend and I brought up unity, and Jesus’s plea for such when he prayed in the garden. This led me to wonder: does unity mean we never disagree? Does disagreement automatically mean disunity?

What must be considered when it comes to unity among a diverse and fragmented Church? Does unity mean uniformity? Does reconciliation happen only when we’re on the same page, think the same theologically, have the same culture and background?

I think we can all agree that this is impossible. I also think we may confuse unity with uniformity. When you mix slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, Asians and Africans, Hispanics and whites, rich and poor, you can’t help but get a beautifully diverse and broken Church with disagreements and conflicts. But even within that beautiful mess…is there a possibility that the Church can be united? I choose to believe the answer is yes. The fact of the matter is: we’re a family. And families fight from time to time. But like family, no matter what, we have each other’s back. So no, we will never be unified in our beliefs, in our culture, in our worship; but yes, we can still have unity…if we try.

So, why don’t we come to the table together and break the bread of communion? At the end of the day, saints, we’re all in need of the same grace. Now, it doesn’t mean we don’t call out abusive behavior, or stand against injustice. These are all results of the brokenness, and as much as I absolutely love the Church, I recognize her imperfections. I can’t help but think of Bonhoeffer and his wrestle with the Church he so loved. I think of his struggle with those in his “tribe” who silently stood by Hitler as he rose to power. I think about what it took for him to stand up and fight against the injustice in his beloved Church…to the point of being executed. I think of Luther, and his turmoil against the abuse in the Church during his time—his decision to fight for reform—his calling out corruption. I think about MLK Jr. and his sacrifice, his refusal to stay silent and the impact this made.

Just as previous saints did, we recognize the Church’s brokenness… and on her behalf, with arms open, we reach out and we heal. We embrace those with different beliefs among the body, and in our world, and together, we love.

Coming to the table together doesn’t always have to mean, “I stand for everything you stand for,” but it can mean, “I am broken in the way that you are broken.”

So let us agree, Church, and let us disagree; let us be united in our un-uniformity; and above all, let us love.