Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Communion and Unity: Biblical Injunctions (Brock Fowler)

---verses: RSV---

I suppose one can be divisive about unity: which should be avoided. However our strong concern with unity is scriptural:

    John 17:20-23: [Jesus praying to the Father for his disciples:] I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one; even as thou, Father art in me, and I in thee so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.
Notice two things which are striking about this passage: - Jesus seldom repeats himself in the Bible, but twice Christ tells us that we are to have the unbelievably profound unity shared between the Father and the Son (3 times counting Jn 17:11). - Twice Christ tells us that a reason for unity is to spread and maintain the faith: that the world may believe/know that God sent him, so that the world may be Christian. The inverse of this statement is that if we are not profoundly united, the world will not believe that God sent Christ as his only begotten Son: indeed, Christian division has been associated with falling levels of faith in western society since the Reformation. So many claims of truth have been made with such certainty--even within Christianity--that the very notion of truth is now questioned. The anger, hatred, self-righteousness, and persecution--even within Christianity--has lent credence to the notion that religion needs to be a purely private matter: if it gets out into the public square, bitterness and even war will follow.

Christ even gives us a reason why disunity will result in falling levels of faith:

Mt 12:25: [Speaking of spiritual kingdoms, Jesus said:] Every Kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city, or house divided against itself will stand.

The increasingly secular mindset of our country has proven disastrous in terms of both the destruction of the social fabric (broken homes, drug abuse, crime, etc.) and of lost souls. We tend to be angry at those of a secular mind-set: but Christ seems to be telling is that the problem is us: Christians. We are the reason for falling levels of faith. God asked, even begged, for unity, but we spit in His face and did it our way. . .and, as always, paid the price for our disobedience. It is tragic that we hurt so many others in the process.

If this was all the Bible said about unity, it would be enough to require that we must be obsessed about unity. But unity, as one of the central principles of Christianity, is strongly expressed elsewhere too.

    Acts 4:32: [Early believers were:] . . . of one heart and soul. . .
Historically, our divisions came over differing interpretations of Paul's epistles. There is perhaps some irony, then, that Paul strongly preached unity.

    Eph 4:1-16: [Paul calls for us to be:] eager to maintain the unity of the spirit: one hope, one faith, one baptism [and says we are to be like the various parts of the body which work together].

    Phil 1:27-28: [Church members are called to:] . . .stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. [One mind, wow! We certainly don't have that with almost infinite variations in doctrine among denominations].

    Phil 2:2: [Paul asks the church in Philippi to complete his joy:] . . . by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

    Phil 2:1-4: So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

This doesn't sound like a vision of unity limited to a few "essentials" of faith--while characterized by endless bickering and division. Paul boldly confronted Peter when he thought Peter was wrong, but he never formed a breakaway church. To the contrary:

    1 Cor 1:10-13: I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement. For it has been reported to me by Choloes people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? [This is what we might now think of as denominationalism].

    1 Pet 3:8-9: [Writing to Christians, Peter urges:] Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. 9 Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.

Like the above passage, there are almost countless passages in the New Testament, telling Christians how we are view and act toward other Christians, such as:

    Rom 12:10: Love one another with brotherly affection; out do one another in showing honor.
These attitudes have not characterized Protestant-Catholic relations--or even Protestant-Protestant relations (among differing denominations)--since the Reformation (which is not to say Catholics are without sin in this regard, even among ourselves!)

But as powerful as all of these Bible citations are, perhaps even more powerful is the images that the Bible gives us as Christianity having a profound organic unity.

In 1 Cor 10:17, 12:12-31; Eph 4:4-16; Rom 12:4-8; Col 1:18; Eph 3:6: Paul speaks of Christians as all being part of one body--what happens when you divide a body?

Another recurring theme is that of Christians as being a temple or house. What happens to a building where chunks are taken out or walls come apart.

    1 Pet 2:4-10: Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; 5 and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, [remember, Jesus said that a house divided cannot stand] to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . .[Peter next speaks of Christ as a cornerstone, and then:]. . .You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.
(Nations should be united: if they are not, they are weak. The same with a people. God is almost constantly referred to as a "Father" in the New Testament: what is the Bible's view of fathers who have more than one family?)

    Eph 2:19-22: So then you [the gentiles of Ephesus] are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

    1 Cor 3:3-11: While there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? 4 For when one says, I belong to Paul, and another, I belong to Apollos, are you not merely men? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

This notion of Christ being a cornerstone, foundation stone, or foundation is found elsewhere. Isaiah prophesied it in Is 28:16, and Christ Himself in Mt 21:42.

The organic unity described by our Lord:

    Jn 15:1-21: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. . .Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. . . By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. . .
One vine.

There are also matrimonial references concerning the relationship between Christ and His church: polygamy is condemned by the Bible.

But how can we be profoundly united? We love truth, and can't compromise on it. We have different good faith interpretations of the Bible. That was my view, and then I noticed that the Bible discusses disunity a lot: and it is NEVER characterized by being the result of love of truth or good faith. It is always simply viewed as being the result of sin and Satan. Those who bring about disunity are always condemned in the Bible in very harsh terms. We are divided because of Satan--who doesn't want the gates of hell conquered.

Unity is one of the central principles of Christianity.

Copyright 1998 by Brock Fowler. All rights reserved.

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