Posts Tagged ‘Christian unity’

Friends,

I have been posting a lot lately about the essential oneness of the church and why it is so important for us to be one in the Spirit of peace. I have also been preaching such sermons to my congregation on Sundays during Lent.

Last week, as I prepared for my last sermon in the series, I came across the following article by David Faust, president of Cincinnati Christian University. The essay is brilliant and lays out our motivation for Christian Oneness quite succinctly.

He begins by talking about some things that are not the glue of our unity:

In a 1910 lecture at Yale, Charles E. Jefferson described the difference between a church and an audience,

It is to be regretted that we have come to judge preachers by the number of persons who listen to their sermons. A superficial man is consequently tempted to work, not for a church, but for an audience.

An audience, however, is not worth working for. An audience is a group of unrelated people drawn together by a short-lived attraction. . . . It is a fortuitous concourse of human atoms, scattering as soon as a certain performance has ended. It is a pile of leaves to be blown away by the wind, a handful of sand lacking consistency and cohesion, a number of human filings drawn into position by a pulpit magnet, which will drop away as soon as the magnet is removed.

An audience is a crowd, a church is a family. An audience is a gathering, a church is a fellowship. An audience is a collection, a church is an organism. An audience is a heap of stones, a church is a temple. Preachers are ordained, not to attract an audience, but to build a church. Coarse and ambitious and worldly men, if richly gifted, can draw audiences. Only a disciple of the Lord can build a church.

If strong personalities don’t hold God’s people together, what does? To ask the question more narrowly, what holds the Christian churches and churches of Christ together? (My emphasis

Faust goes on with an important reminder:

Maybe we have been looking for glue in the wrong places. I love our colleges and conventions, our camps and conferences, and I hold our publishing houses in high esteem. I admire the founders of these ministries, and I’m thankful for the faithful believers who have led and supported them, often at considerable personal sacrifice. I don’t want any of them to go away.

Years ago I worked for Christ In Youth. Today I serve as president of a Christian university and write a weekly column as executive editor of The Lookout, published by Standard Publishing. My life has been powerfully impacted by these and other parachurch groups. I want these ministries and others like them to thrive and grow—as long as they clearly fulfill God’s will.

None of these worthwhile endeavors, though, can hold all of God’s people together. As important as our favorite parachurch organizations seem to us, they aren’t essential to the body of Christ. The church is God’s forever family, not our colleges and conventions.

Can we find within ourselves the humility to admit that, good as they are, these institutions we hold dear are human expediencies, not biblical necessities? Even more, are we willing to boldly declare that if God so willed, and all of our favorite manmade organizations suddenly disappeared, we would still possess everything that matters most as long as we have the Lord? Can we see through the fog of the familiar and recognize that God’s kingdom and his reign, his gospel and his grace, will remain intact and unmoved no matter what happens to our favorite ministries?

Despite all the good they have done and no matter how much we value them, manmade institutions can never hold us all together. We need to look to a higher place to find the glue.

So where does Faust suggest that we find the glue that holds us together? How can we recognize it? What will it be?

What really pulls us together? It’s simple, really. So simple that we tend to miss it altogether.

The Savior sticks us together. We are one in Christ—stuck to him like branches on a vine, like skin on a body, like flames on a candlewick. Unity finds its focus in him.

The Spirit sticks us together. We aren’t united because we share the same political views or personality types, the same opinions and preferences, the same nationality or language or skin color. We’re one because “we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Holy Spirit’s “bond of peace” is strong glue indeed (Ephesians 4:3).

Scripture sticks us together. Not that we all understand every verse exactly the same way. But Scripture gives us a common starting point, a common language, a common compass. The Bible pulls us together when we read it personally, preach it powerfully, teach it faithfully, interpret it carefully, and apply it practically. Sound doctrine is manna for the hungry heart. It makes the church healthy and strong.

Service sticks us together. Mission trips and new church plants prove it. Benevolence projects demonstrate it. It’s hard to fight when you’re working side by side to serve someone in need. It’s hard to put your brother down when you’re already down there with him, praying together on your knees. Unity becomes visible, even tangible, when we “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Do you want your favorite college, convention, camp, or other cause to thrive and grow? Then make sure it’s subservient to the mission of the church! Make sure it’s helping people connect with the Savior, the Spirit, and the Scriptures, and engaging them in meaningful service. A parachurch ministry that does those things will thrive. If it doesn’t do those things, we’re probably better off without it anyway.

What is the glue? Savior, Spirit, Scripture, Service—not a flashy formula, but somehow it kept us glued together in the past.

I suggest we stick with it.

Well, I’ll probably get in trouble for quoting so much of his essay here, but I’m willing to risk it just in case you don’t follow the link. These are beautiful words. There is too much that divides the body of Christ, too much that separates us, too much that effectively ruins whatever witness we may have for him and his grace.

We should continue to fan the flame of Christian unity and essential oneness. We must continue to work to preserve the unity already forged for us at the cross.

Be blessed this Resurrection season. Ask yourself: Am I the answer to Jesus’ prayer for Christian Unity or am I the problem? Am I working for peace or fostering division? Am I part of the solution or creating more problems?

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Friends,

I’d like to share a thought or two on the subject of Christian Unity. I am a preacher by calling, and as such, lately, I have been preaching a series of sermons to my congregation on this ever so strange idea of Christian Unity or as I prefer to call it, essential oneness. I have been preaching this series of sermons because my congregation has been going through some difficult times lately and we needed to be reminded of what Scripture says about our oneness in Christ.

It’s no small thing for a church to be one in heart, mind, and ambition. If you think about what Christ did when he brought us together it is really quite remarkable. He pulls people together who are different races (although we all belong to the human race), people of different colors, people of different nationalities, people from different religious backgrounds, people from differing social backgrounds (‘rich’ and ‘poor’), men, woman, young, old–the list could go on–and he throws us all into one great big bag that he calls ‘church’ and says: “Find a way to make it work.” Find a way to make it work?!? Seriously? Seriously.

Jesus knew, knows, what he is doing; doesn’t he? I mean, no two people come into the church with the same history or motivation or even theological ideas. For that matter, no two people ever even retain those original theological ideas. As few as 10 years ago, I would never have considered an Anglican preacher to be among my best of friends–simply because of theological ideas. You know what, today I can; and I am glad for it. The problem we have, I think, is that we in the church are far too concerned about the baggage that people carry with them after they become Christians. We sort of seem to think they ought to drop it all right away and get on board the Jesus train. When it takes longer, we get frustrated, irritated, angry, and begin to lack patience; love might slip.

That is, we think that people need to be remade into our image. You know what I mean, right?

That’s when problems creep into the church–when we forget to love. So we believe things like this:

  • Those people who are not maturing at the same rate as I am are bothersome.
  • Those people who are not thinking like I am theologically are weaklings.
  • Those people who do not see things the way I see them are troublemakers.

We think that anyone who is not ‘like me’ is, clearly, not a Christian at all. Or worse. You know what the problem with all this is? We are not being remade in the image of other human beings! That’s the glory of it all! I don’t have to stack up against other humans, because they are not the template; they are not the standard; they are not the goal. Jesus is. Paul wrote in Colossians 3 that we are being recreated in the image of our creator who is Jesus. And none of us is there yet. We are all still on the way. Only those who fail to recognize this ‘on-the-wayness’ lack the courage to be patient with others. Those who think all baggage must be left at the door are those who do not believe Jesus came to ‘save the sick’ and the ‘sinners.’ We might sing ‘just as I am’ but there are a lot people who don’t believe it for a minute. They think it is something more like ‘you better get the way I want you or even Jesus won’t help you.’

So, then, what does all this have to do with unity in the body of Christ? Well, consider these words from Paul’s pen to the Ephesian church:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Be patient with others. Be humble–they may be more advanced than you think. Work at unity in the body. It won’t be easy: work at it. And here’s the thing, if we have a proper view of ourselves (humility) and a proper view of others (patience and bearing with them) then working at unity in the body will be our goal. But if we are not working at maintaining peace, then are we working at war? Even a casual indifference (not working towards unity) is an example of not working at maintaining unity in the body. We must work at unity in the Body of Christ. Work. We cannot afford to not work for peace in the Body because if we don’t work at it war will break out among us.

Growing up is the goal: the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Along with self-sacrificing efforts at unity comes maturity in Christ as we are patient with one another and understand that God has apportioned his grace to us. Unity in the body and maturity in the individual somehow go hand in hand. Then there’s that grace word again! It’s so intrusive isn’t it? So how do we ‘make it work’?

It’s not complicated. He says three times: Bear with one another in Love. Speak the truth in Love. Build up the Body in Love. Do you think we can overstate the case for how much we must love in the Body of Christ? Do we have enough room to love? Can we humble ourselves and love? For the sake of the essential oneness of the Body of Christ can we love one another? Can we recognize that all of us are ‘on the way’ and none of us has arrived?

It’s that love thing. It’s that grace thing. It’s that patience thing. It’s that humility thing. Paul wants us to grow up, yes, but he is saying to the people that growing up takes time. It is the goal. It is the point. But it is not accomplished overnight. And it is not done in isolation. Maturity is an ‘all’ issue. We work together in unity so that we might worked together for maturity. We do it! We won’t become mature on our own. We need each other and this is why we are patient, speak the truth in love, bear with one another, think of ourselves in humility, understand that grace has been poured out in Christ, he gave us teachers and preachers and prophets, and this is why we should make every effort to maintain peace in the Spirit.

Do you really think for a minute that people can grow up and mature in Christ when there is fighting and arguing and carrying-on happening in the church? Do you think God will tolerate new babies living in a hostile place, in an environment of warfare? I don’t think so. How can people who persist in immaturity think for a minute that God is going to entrust them with babies who need to grow up in their faith? Not. Gonna. Happen.

So we must work at unity in the Body of Christ for the sake of our maturity. Christians need an environment where healthy interaction can take place and folks can grow up in their faith–into the Head who is Christ. Love will go a long, long way towards this goal. If we truly desire unity in the Body of Christ, love is the place we must start. Apart from patient, humble, bearing-with-one-another love–maturity is not likely to happen.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Friends,

During Lent, I am preaching a series of sermons on the essential unity and oneness of the church, forged in the cross of Christ. I will be providing excerpts of those sermons here and also links back to my box.net account where they might downloaded in full. The sermons are drawn from 1 Corinthians. These sermons are born also out of the experiences of my current congregation and include historical references to the Restoration Movement church of which I am a member. The congregation is also reading a book called Together Again by Bob Russell and Rick Atchley. Thanks for stopping by. May you be blessed in the Lord’s Word. I will update this post each week. jerry

1. A Common Plea, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

The problem is easily identifiable. People. People were the problem at Corinth. Their quarrels and schisms were nothing more than power plays, power grabs. They were the human attempts to accomplish something in the church that could not be accomplished by the means of power. Paul lays this out for the reader in verses 10-12. People were elevating other people over other people. It became a matter of territory, a war cry of ‘my guy is better than your guy’ or ‘my guy has more authority than your guy’ or, worse, ‘I was baptized by a guy who is far superior than the guy who baptized you.’ Paul is quick to the draw: Such an attitude in the church is wrong.

There were people who were trying to construct a church community on the basis of externals. In this case they were trying to build upon the idea that baptism by one person was more important than baptism by another. What ended up happening? Well, what happened was certainly not the betterment of the church, the growth of the church, the expansion of the kingdom, or the filling up of the cross. All these external building blocks did was contribute fuel to the quarreling and divisions that were and had formed in the congregation.

What we see here is a stark, cold reality. There will be times when we have issues in the church that cause us discomfort and pain. There will be times in the body when we, let’s not sugarcoat it: There will be times when we fight. There will be times when we simply do not get along. The apostle wisely confronts the issue right out of the box: I hear there are divisions among you. This shall not be because quarrels and divisions never get the church or those involved what they think they want or what they hope: power.

2. A Common Savior, 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5

You and I, we have this in common. We are bound together under the weakness of a foolish message, a foolish word. This is what he is saying here. One group looks for signs and wonders; another group looks for wisdom; but all that we have to offer is what God gave us: Christ Jesus crucified. This word is a stumbling block to some; it is foolishness to others; but this is all we have. We cannot preach or proclaim something we have not been given. (And as a side note, I would say that we need not offer anything else. The Gospel has more than enough to offend everyone.)

And this is the confounding part of our message: It is not our message. It is God’s message. It is his word to us and this is why Paul cannot speak of anything else: He has nothing else to say. This message goes out to the world and it draws in all the misfits and losers. “Think of what you were when you were called.” We were called. We were called. Then it says this: “God chose…” God did! Thank God that he did the choosing! He chose all the weak, broken, battered, un-things. He chose the despised things and gathered them all up and together he did this: “Because of Him you are in Christ Jesus.”

And this is the message: It is the same for everyone. We preach Christ crucified because we cannot preach anything else. We are bound together in this common Word, by this common Savior. We preach Christ crucified and some will stumble, others will scoff, but all will be called. But we have only one message to proclaim

3. A Common Truth, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

Apart from the Spirit of God there is no communication between Gospel and human. Apart from the Spirit of God there is no growth into maturity. Without the Spirit of God the very truth we claim to have in common is incomprehensible. But for all this, Paul writes, ‘we have the mind of Christ.’ We. We. We have the mind of Christ. The Spirit Paul said earlier who searches the mind of God and reveals his thoughts to us is in us and has revealed to us the mind of Christ. This is the Spirit in us. In We.

Is it any wonder that the apostle is frustrated with this church? Paul writes that we have the very mind of God, revealed to us by the Holy Spirit of God, the deepest mysteries of the heavens are ours in Christ, it is the power unto salvation…and we? We are bound together in Christ and by His Spirit. Those who love God are those who have been brought into fellowship and who have received the wisdom of God as revealed in the cross of Christ…and we?  Those who have submitted and acted unto the obedience of the message spoken have understood the deep things of God, have heard things spoken that the wisest and most advanced among the human race cannot fathom, are those who are among the wisest fools on the planet…and we?

“There are quarrels among you.”

And do you think the apostle was disappointed? And do you think God is?

4.  A Common Gospel, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Third, see the grace of the Gospel (8-9). The grace of the Gospel is that it may accept us as we are, but it doesn’t leave us that way. This is what he said in the sixth chapter: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Yes we might sing ‘Just as I am’ but our song of triumph is something more like, ‘He’s changing me.’ Takes us from persecutors of the church and makes us into promoters of the church.

5.  A Common Mission, 1 Corinthians 3:1-23

Why would nations want to flow to a place that is ravaged by the same problems that men in the flesh are ravaged by? We can go anywhere for quarrels and jealousy and division. Where can people go for unity, oneness, and brotherhood?

We are the temple of God which means that we are the habitation of the Holy Trinity—the essence and completeness and perfection of Unity and essential oneness. So when we are jealous and when we quarrel do we seriously consider God among us? God in us? And when we are jealous and quarrel and follow mere men do we consider how we are destroying God’s temple? What do you think it means that we ‘destroy’ the temple of God?

God’s temple is holy. We are the temple. We are holy. How can God make other holy people, add to his holy temple, when we are acting in a manner that is contrary to a holy God? God’s spirit lives in us so how can we act and live and behave in a manner that is contrary to the Spirit of God? The temple is the very place where the Oneness of God is on display before the world. What does the world think when they see a divided temple, a divided church? A divided God?

6. A Common Bond, Ephesians 4:1-16

Fifth, again Paul states that the purpose behind such gifts is that the church might grow up into Christ. This is really the only sort of maturity that is required or necessary or the goal. He writes, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ.” You see, our goal is Christ. He is the goal of the unity we are preserving, he is the maturity of the unity we are preserving. We are not growing up into some man made idea of what it means to be one and unified and united and whole. We are growing up into a Spirit driven, grace provided, Christ called, humanly preserved unity and oneness.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Thoughts for Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2009

I’m preaching a series of sermons from 1 Corinthians to the church I serve during Lent. We are focusing on the essential and necessary oneness of the church that was forged in the crucifixion of Jesus. Part of the goal of these sermons is to introduce the congregation to some of the history of the so-called Restoration Movement while exploring the basis of our oneness in Christ. ‘We’ have a long history and I thought it would be appropriate to share some of that wonderful history that is so often overlooked when official church history is discussed.

Back in the day, there was a small publication that existed simply called The Plea. It was published in Tennessee by a Christian church and edited by Fred W Smith. I’d like to share a quote with you from the August 1951 editorial. He wrote:

“The Christian world is divided, not simply into congregations of believers for mutual benefit and service, but torn and rent by parties, factions, and schisms which claim exclusive rights to the promises of sacred Scripture. This is the ‘falling away’ which the Apostle Paul referred to in his epistles. (Fred W Smith, The Plea, August 1951, volume 7, #6. p 2)

The Restoration Movement was born out of a desire for Christians of all denominational stripes to recognize that unity has already been forged for us by Christ and that we need to but recognize and maintain it. The ‘founders’ of the movement came from Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and other denominations. Some were Pentecostal, some were not. Some believed in instrumental music, some did not. Some practiced infant baptism, some did not. Some believe in mission societies, some did not. Some believed in conventions, some did not. Some believed in weekly communion, some did not. Sometimes they got along and worked hard at being one. Other times they failed and became two.

For the most part, I think the Restoration Movement has been a failure, at least in practice. Instead of bringing together the denominations it has, sadly, created yet two or three or four or five or more denominations (depending upon how you count the various churches who claim as their heritage the work of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W Stone among others). Nevertheless, the ideal still prevails and should be recognized for what it is: A call to recognize what Christ has already declared in Scripture to be true. If we failed in practice, perhaps we haven’t failed in theory. Perhaps the theory is still a good idea. We may not forge it, but we can at least recognize and honor it.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6, NIV)

Or:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6, NASB)

So what is our goal? Are we as the people whom Christ has called walking in a manner consistent with our calling? Are we walking with humility, gentleness, patience? Are we showing tolerance in love for one another? Are we making it our ambition, as people of Christ, to preserve or maintain that unity that has been forged for us in Christ and worked out in the Spirit? Are we making it our goal to live in peace with one another? Seriously? We really need to ask ourselves these questions continually.

Are we wise enough to recognize that no matter how many different denominations we create, no matter how many theological systems we construct (all theology is a matter of opinion anyhow), no matter how many blogs we write (each one no doubt claiming exclusive rights (and rightness!) to the interpretation and proclamation of God’s truth!), no matter how much we fight and argue about who is right and who is wrong–at the end of the day: There is ONE body. We cannot change this. Christ has declared it to be so and nothing we can do will alter that declaration. There is ONE body. It is unfortunate that this Biblical fact causes so much upheaval among people. It is even more unfortunate that some have made it their life’s ambition to narrow this field as much as they can and cause as much division as they can in whatever way they can. Our goal, thus, should not be causing so much division that the expanse of the church is narrowed. Our goal should be recognizing and maintaining what Christ Jesus forged in his own blood.

That Body includes people that do not think like I do. That Body includes Democrats and Republicans and maybe even some Libertarians (I jest). That Body includes people who do not take communion every week like I do. That Body includes people who do not believe in a literal 6-Day creation like I do. That Body includes people who immerse as the first act of obedience instead of, as I do, the last act of conversion. That Body includes people who are monergistic and not synergistic like me. That Body includes Calvinists and Arminians and Calminians and Arminiasts. That Body includes pre-millenialists like John MacArthur and amillenialists like me and maybe even post-millenialists and pan-millenialists. That Body includes so-called Emergent types like Rob Bell and so-called hyper-Calvinsts like Mark Driscoll. Believe it or not, that Body even includes some Baptists, Lutherans. Methodists, Catholics, Nazarenes, Church of Christ, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox (and others; many others). And so on and so forth. My point is that who can number the Body but Christ? Whose job is it but Christ’s?

Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (Revelation 7:4)

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)

What he heard and saw corresponded in some way. He heard a perfect number; he saw a massive heap. And yet:

And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:10)

They sang together. They worshiped the Lamb as One! Do you see? Do you understand? They had one thing in common and it was Christ Jesus!

Practically speaking, the Restoration Movement was doomed before it started. Who, to be sure, could ever decide what is opinion enough for there to be liberty and what is essential enough for there to be unity? ‘We’ were stumped in those two places before we ever got to the ‘in all things love’ part. Still, I think there is hope and we are not outwitted just yet and I don’t think that our un-oneness has caused the Lord great consternation or upheaval. Could just be that our un-oneness exists also for his glory.

Maybe this is why he specifically told us to Love one another. Maybe this is why he said we are saved by grace. Alone.

“Christianity also is not intolerant because anyone can believe, regardless of race, gender, or social status. No one is excluded. Christianity is the most inclusive and exclusive of all religions. Anyone can believe, but it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that a person is saved. It is that glorious message of salvation through Christ alone that should be our banner and that which unites us. Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me.” Let our churches [and, I might add, our blogs] be known, then, for their strong and unwavering message about the crucified Christ, the very Son of God.” (Bob Russell & Rick Atchley, Together Again, 53)