Can the pursuit of unity undermine its own gospel foundation?
6 MINUTE READ
Every now and then you have one of those conversations that changes the way you think about the world. A few years ago I had one such conversation. It was one of those rare conversations that can only happen in the context of deep mutual respect and trust. It was high-stakes as it went to the core of our beliefs – the thinking behind major life decisions we had both made years before.
I was talking to a faithful brother who I deeply love and admire about why I had left full-time medical work (I still dabble to this day) in order to pursue full-time Word ministry.
My main reasoning was (and still is) that God grows His kingdom through the preaching of the Word. As a doctor, I was frustrated by the limited opportunities to do just that. I found my energy was used up caring for people’s medical needs, and my chances to share my faith, even with colleagues, were few and far between.
“As a doctor I was frustrated by the limited opportunities to do just that. I found my energy was used up caring for people’s medical needs, and my chances to share my faith, even with colleagues, were few and far between.”
On the other hand, this brother had left a lucrative law firm and had spent the past decade in some of the poorest countries of the world, rescuing people from terrible injustice, all in Jesus’ name. He had opportunities to share his faith in that context also, however, the bulk of his work was not evangelism or preaching of the Word, but being a voice for the voiceless, caring for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
There were many thoughts I had had prior to this conversation about this brother’s work, about the dangers of a ‘social gospel’, that mission isn’t ‘mission’ unless its primary aim is gospel proclamation, etc, etc. I knew we had theological differences but as the conversation progressed, I came to realise that I had assumed certain things ungenerously. I wasn’t expecting this brother to be so carefully thought out and biblically sound in his reasoning.
The conversation became tense and heated at times. At one point, another brother watching on felt the need to intervene in an attempt to shut down the conversation for the sake of maintaining the ‘unity of peace’. But we persisted, and remained relatively calm and respectful throughout. We worked hard to make generous assumptions and not label the other or put them in a box or ‘straw man’ the other’s arguments.
We both knew we had to tread carefully because of what was on the line for each of us, how invested we were in our position. There were decades of hard work and big sacrifices we had both made as a result of our position on these things.
So what did this conversation change in my thinking? Well, I didn’t quit ministry and return to a medical career, or move overseas to offer my medical skills for those who desperately need them (all in Jesus’ name, of course). What I realised was that God and His kingdom is bigger than gospel proclamation. There is a great diversity in the body of Christ, and God is using us all for His kingdom. Good works done for Jesus’ sake, such as setting free the captives, caring for the practical needs of the poor, being a voice for the voiceless, bringing justice where there is injustice – far from being a replacement of the gospel or a distraction from the gospel, these can be an adornment of the gospel and an embodiment of the love of Christ for humanity, living out of gospel-shaped love. God doesn’t need any of us, but He uses all of us – in a diversity of expressions of Christ-shaped love that exists globally, a diversity that He Himself ordains.
The body of Christ is diverse. And God will build His kingdom both through us and despite us. The Pharisees loved their theology. The blind man whom Jesus heals in John 9 was no theologian but still he puts them in their place, dwarfs their faith and exposes their error of constraining God to a box. Let us not make the same mistake. God is far more honoured by a heart that loves Jesus and seeks to share that love with others, than He is by a carefully argued case for justification by faith alone by a theologian with a heart of stone.
Having said all this, as we think about unity and diversity in Christ’s body, let’s also be clear what gospel unity actually is, and what it’s for. We love the idea of unity. Bearing with one another. Avoiding conflict. Not getting caught up in petty differences. But we won’t achieve unity by pursuing unity itself. We will only achieve true unity by pursuing Christ – or, more accurately, as He pursues and unites us.
“Christian unity is something far more profound than having a shared perspective, or trying to get along with each other. The unity of the body of Christ is unique.”
Christian unity is something far more profound than having a shared perspective, or trying to get along with each other. The unity of the body of Christ is unique. In fact, the church is the only place on the planet where true Community can be found. Not because we’re better than anyone else. Not because we’re communities of shiny, perfect people. Definitely not because we agree on everything, or always get along. But because we’re the only community that’s united in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because the gospel is the good news of relationships restored, beginning with our relationship with God.
Our relationship with God is broken. None of us treat God as He deserves. But Jesus restores that broken relationship. Rather than treat us as we treat each other – using us for His own selfish gain, Jesus instead gives Himself for our gain – so that we can be forgiven, reconciled to God. And as we receive this grace – this free gift of forgiveness from God, His Holy Spirit comes and dwells in us, and He completely transforms us, uniting us to Himself. This is the gospel – God reconciling us to Himself in Christ. Transforming us into a new people, united to Him, and united with one another in Him.
This is where our unity as the body of Christ comes from. Jesus saves us into a community of gospel-transformed people, united together as recipients of His grace. A community of saved sinners, forgiven by him. And so, as I’ve been forgiven, I can now forgive others. As I’ve received grace, I can now show grace to others. We love, because He first loved us. That’s what unites us.
Many who bear the name of Christ around the world are moving on from unity in Christ and in the gospel to unity for unity’s sake. And it’s appealing. Tolerance, love, acceptance and peace rather than old-fashioned, fundamentalist, authoritarian bigotry. The call is strong for us to let go of our differences and focus on loving one another; searching until we can find something we can agree upon rather than highlighting differences. But unity for unity’s sake is meaningless. Unity by mere association dishonours Jesus. Christian unity is only Christian if we are united in Christ. We first need Jesus to wash us clean and reunite us with God. Only then can we find true unity with the other broken sinners around us.
So let’s not get carried away. Unity is not the gospel, any more than caring for the poor is the gospel. Like other good deeds can adorn the gospel, so too can unity.
As Jesus said – “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
But just as any good deed can distract or replace the gospel, the pursuit of unity as an ultimate goal can actually undermine its own gospel foundation. We must never pursue unity for unity’s sake. We must never pursue unity at the cost of what it is that so miraculously unites us. The transcendent power of the unity of Christ’s body is found in the one who unites us.
“And if it is not Christ, then, rather than feign some kind of superficial unity for unity’s sake, we must take a stand, stand with Christ and His gospel, or risk losing the rock on which we stand.”
So we must always ask what is it that unites us? And if it is not Christ, then, rather than feign some kind of superficial unity for unity’s sake, we must take a stand, stand with Christ and His gospel, or risk losing the rock on which we stand.
What was it that united me with the brother in the conversation I mentioned earlier? It was not our polite discourse, our respect for each others’ point of view, or the accountability of others watching on nervously. What united us, in our diversity of opinions and in our place in the body of Christ, was our brotherhood in Christ. Our desire to see His kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and our recognition that we were both sinners saved by grace. Unity in the gospel is our only hope.
Dr Andy Williams
Dr Andy Williams became a Christian at the University of Newcastle in NSW, whilst studying medicine. He and his wife Claire now live in Wellington, NZ with their two boys Jack (8) and Charlie (6). Together they job-share on the pastoral team at City on a Hill Evangelical Church. Andy also locums as a medical registrar at the local hospital.