As the flames disappeared atop Notre Dame Cathedral, questions and arguments flickered to life. “Can this grand old building be saved—should it be rebuilt?” “Are there people living today with the skill to recreate Notre Dame?” “Can we afford to start over?” “If we reconstruct Notre Dame, shouldn’t it look more contemporary, more relevant?” Thought-provoking questions for the American church today in character and mission if not architecture.
Is unity a priority for the American church? Is unity relevant for today? Why would the church be interested in unity?
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he spoke to a church battling over what it meant to be a Christian. Christians from a Jewish background claimed the law had to be followed rigorously after meeting Jesus while others vehemently disagreed. Paul described the superiority of faith over the law (beginning in chapter 3), clarified the role of the law, and described in greater detail the appearance of being “clothed with Christ” including these verses, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).
The law served as a babysitter leading people toward faith in Jesus Christ. God doesn’t leave us home alone but adopts us as children through Jesus and clothes us with Christ through baptism. Then Paul described (for the rest of book) what being “clothed with Christ” looks like with the new garments in place. Through this wardrobe racial distinctions disappear, social and employment scales are balanced, and gender distinctions and biases fade away finally. This, Paul says, is what it looks like to live as a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ and this is the maturing growth of Abraham’s seed. Clearly this relationship with God through Christ redefines earthly relationships, divisions, prejudices, and hatred transforming the character of Jesus’ followers and his church.
But when it comes to the mission of Christ, Paul’s words in Galatians 3 should remind us of the powerful, high-priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17. In these verses, Jesus first prayed for himself, then his disciples, and for all future believers. He pleaded,
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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).
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Jesus’ prayer speaks volumes. He prayed for complete unity of a sort the world cannot duplicate—oneness that points to God! He prayed that all future believers surrender to God and Jesus so the world would believe and unity would grow, affirming the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice. Here, the character and the mission of Jesus Christ are inseparably interdependent—dividing them destroys both. The transformational character of Jesus produces unity and draws others to God’s holy throne of grace. We’re reminded of God’s desire for his children, Israel, centuries before. God still calls his people, the church, to become and remain a “light to the nations,” and unity (from Jesus’ prayer and Paul’s teaching) is of paramount importance.
In America today, how brightly does this “unity light” shine? For decades, at least, the American church has emphasized individuality. Tent revivals, crusades, television and online experiences encourage salvation decisions apart from any corporate connection—“every head bowed and every eye closed” often means “secret salvation.” Special interest small groups, unique worship styles, and even the identification and use of spiritual gifts lead to multiple individual preferences. The American landscape features churches we might label “character” churches emphasizing discipleship and spiritual growth set against “mission” churches emphasizing inviting, volunteering, and evangelism. Some national church leaders argue and fight publicly to defend their preference and denigrate others. A staggering sense of individualism exists corporately within churches and culturally outside the church and between churches competing locally and nationally in similar “markets.” While it would be foolish to dismiss all these efforts, few would disagree that the American church struggles to embody the character and mission of Acts 2:44-48 where “the believers were together and had everything in common,” when they “enjoyed the favor of all the people,” and “the Lord added to their number daily.”
In Paul’s day, the church in Ephesus stood out in a large, secular city, yet not surprisingly, struggled with unity and maturity. Even though we’re often tempted to treat Ephesians 5 as “the marriage chapter,” Paul addressed submission to Jesus and church unity when he wrote, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:31-33).
Does reverence for and submission to Christ produce a healthier, more unified marriage and a healthier, more unified church? “Yes,” Paul says, “both!” This is the miraculous prayer of John 17 lived out in a home between husband and wife and in the lighthouse of Jesus’ church when submission and reverence for Christ lead to being clothed with the Son of God! This unity, made possible by Christ, embodies God’s Living Word, respects differences, and values every individual inside and outside the church.
Politically, socially, and culturally, flames of division roar through the country. In this midst, can the church build and rebuild unity? Are there artisans capable of this type of makeover? Shouldn’t unity look more contemporary today? Let’s “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), displaying through his church that Jesus’ mission is truly Christian in character and that the unifying character of Jesus is thoroughly missional as well. Few things appear more needed or relevant for our nation today than displaying and teaching the character and mission of Jesus through real, durable Christian unity.
Steve Slack is Chaplain Manager with GraceMed Health Clinics in Wichita, Kansas.