We have a saying in our family: “That makes opposite sense.” It means something is so absurd it goes beyond nonsense and causes sense to be reversed.
This happens in church families, too. For example, followers of Jesus have battled—with words and fists—on the very ground where they believe Jesus died and rose again. In 2002, 11 monks were injured in a fight because one moved his chair into the shade, placing him into another faction’s “territory.”
We think, “Wait, is that possible?” It is when followers of Jesus are more concerned about their territory than proclaiming the good news as one.
Immediately before he was arrested, falsely accused, beaten, and crucified, Jesus prayed for what was to come. He included a plea for his followers to be united so that people would be drawn to God’s irresistible, transformational love.
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—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23).
Acting Like Jesus
His followers began living out that prayer after Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended. As the chapters and years of the book of Acts unfold, we see believers setting aside traditions and preferences to be united in purpose.
Acts 2:42-47 identifies a few unifying elements: the disciples were together in doctrine; they experienced life together; they sold their possessions to help others; they worshiped God. Their unity and love for each other drew people to their community—and to Jesus. Every day, more people were saved. Their example compels us to ask, What possessions do I hold on to that could help someone else? Do I sincerely praise God, or am I more concerned with my personal music preferences?
Acts 13:2-5 shows that unified worship, fasting, and prayer created an environment for the Holy Spirit to guide the believers. They responded as one, and the good news spread. Here we might ask, Does our church pray and fast, asking the Holy Spirit to direct us? If not, how is God leading me to be part of the solution? Am I willing to be a “helper,” or do I seek the limelight?
Acts 16 tells the stories of three people in Philippi who were impacted by God’s power. Lydia, a business woman; a slave girl, freed from demonic influence; and a jailer, overwhelmed by God’s grace. Their backgrounds were diverse, yet they likely ended up in the same local church. Later, when Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he made a plea for them to care for each other, and for two women who were squabbling to be united (Philippians 4:2). Is our community made up of people from different backgrounds? Are we united in Jesus, or do we tend to congregate with those who are most “like us”?
In Acts 19:18-20, new believers destroyed the things that had been destroying their relationship with God (which cost them the equivalent of one day’s wages for 50,000 people!). Their confession created solidarity, not division. Am I part of a community that admits our struggles and celebrates how God is changing us? Am I willing to give up things that keep me (and others) from Jesus, no matter the cost?
Still, the early disciples weren’t perfect (no person is). In Acts 6, they argued about food being distributed along prejudicial racial lines. In Acts 9, the church was divided over welcoming former enemy Saul (Paul) into their community. Barnabas reminded them that Saul had been changed by God, and they were on the same team. Paul and Barnabas became a missionary dream team, but later separated over a coworker (Acts 13:13; 15:36-41). In Acts 15, believers were divided over whether Gentile believers needed to embrace Jewish traditions.
Unity Is Hard
Let’s be honest: unity is hard. We all have strong beliefs, and we’re convinced ours are correct. So we look for people who share our “intelligent” positions, while we disparage those “unintelligent” people who disagree. It’s problematic in the political arena; it’s devastating in the church.
As followers of Jesus, we must stay committed to the non-negotiables of our faith. Yet most divisions are over opinions, not vital doctrines. I once heard a well-known pastor say he left seminary with a list of his “ten non-negotiables of faith.” After serving in ministry for decades, his list stood at three. He didn’t compromise God’s truth; he simply realized some of his essentials were really opinions. Unity doesn’t happen when people align with my beliefs; unity happens we align with God’s truth. “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.”
Unity Is Mission
If Jesus told us to make disciples and taught us that unity was vital for people to know him—and he did—then followers who are not unified will struggle to make disciples. Unity requires a radical shift in our independent, self-serving nature. Being one means we are committed to making sure people know Jesus, not making sure people know we’re right.
But one doesn’t mean identical. “The Lord our God is One,” yet God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Deuteronomy 6:4; Matthew 28:19). Each part of Christ’s body is different yet created to serve an important role (1 Corinthians 12:14-31). We are being conformed to God’s standards (Romans 12:2), but we’re not being cloned. As image bearers, our diversity, experiences, and gifts working together bring glory to God in ways we can’t individually.
As missionaries in Costa Rica and Venezuela, some of our closest friends were from diverse streams of Christianity. United by our common faith in Jesus, we cared for each other, much like the early Christians. Despite danger, discouragement, and spiritual challenges, the loving unity among the believers in Venezuela continues to impact thousands for Jesus.
Recently, a few evangelical pastors were invited to a local multi-faith prayer breakfast. We prayed about it and chose to attend as Christ’s ambassadors. I ended up being seated with the school superintendent and the mayor, and we had some good conversations about Jesus. If you want a seat at the table when people are talking about truth for their lives, it helps to be at the table.
As Christians, we are to make disciples. That’s hard to do when our internal conflicts repel people. A lack of unity means they won’t hear about Jesus, who is the only way to a restored relationship with God (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). Whatever is creating division is almost definitely worth less than a person’s soul—so get over it!
In our self-centered, divided world, living and loving like Jesus makes “opposite sense.” By being together as we offer mercy, forgive offenses, put the needs of others first, and love our enemies, Jesus will use us to change the world. May we be one, so people may be won.
Steve Murphy is truly blessed to be married to Theresa, to be the father (or father-in-law) of five children: Carmen, Aaron, and Nathan; son-in-law Mike, and daughter-in-law-to-be Ariel), and to serve with Discover Christian Church in Dublin, Ohio.