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Unity is Hard Work

Thank you for celebrating the OSJ’s offering Sunday with us this week.  Interim director Mark Stephenson offers his thoughts as we reflect together on working together as one body.

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Cor. 13:11)

In a good marriage and in any close relationship, partners adjust, compromise, make room for each other in the context of mutual respect and love. When they have hurt each other, they strive for full restoration. They encourage one another. They are of “one mind” and live at peace. 

Living in unity this way is hard enough between two people, but unity within one church, or one denomination, or among all Christians often seems out of reach. In fact, Scripture’s teaching about unity can be confusing, because it calls us to separate ourselves from others and calls us to unite with one another through the bond of peace. Can we be united with people whom we believe are leading others astray? Can we be united with people whom we believe behave in ways that harm others? Can we be united with people whom we believe compromise the core beliefs and practices of Christianity as taught in Scripture? 

Some beliefs are heretical and must be condemned. Some practices are unjust and cruel, and must be stood against. Sometimes whole communities engage in behaviors that oppress other communities of people. None of this is new to us who believe in total depravity. We confess that not only are individual thoughts, words, and actions tainted by sin, but also our collective behaviors in politics, economics, business, and church are tainted by sin. And calls for unity sometimes can be veiled efforts to oppress, as Cole Arthur Riley wrote in one prayer, “Make our community like you, . . . That we would no longer use language of unity and oneness as a veil for the suppression of voice, body, and culture.” 

Unity is hard. We don’t want to be united with some people because we don’t like them, or we believe that what they stand for is anathema (a biblical word meaning “cursed” - not much unity in that word), or they espouse beliefs and practices that we believe are antithetical to our own cherished beliefs and practices.

Being of one mind, being united, does not mean we will see eye to eye on every issue.

Unity does not mean acquiescing to false beliefs or tolerating cruel or unjust behaviors, practices, or policies. But working toward unity begins with having the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5). When people who call themselves “Christian” engage in bullying and manipulative behaviors, even when their desire is to defend the name of our Lord, then they abandon the ways of our Lord for the ways of this world. When Christians strive to win, rather than to follow Christ, they abandon not only Christ’s call for unity, but also the way of Christ. 

As a denomination, we have pledged to work toward this milestone: “Grow in diversity and unity by seeking justice, reconciliation, and welcome, sharing our faith as we build relationships with and honor the cultures of our neighbors and newcomers.” We pledge unity, but polarize over human sexuality, racism, social justice, worship styles, and mask wearing. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Christians at Corinth, he knew that they were a polarized bunch. They fought over spiritual gifts, fought over who had the most solid spiritual credentials, fought over how to understand the afterlife, fought over Christian practice. Yet, he calls them to “be of one mind.” Being of one mind, being united, does not mean we will see eye to eye on every issue. But it means forsaking a striving to win against people with whom we disagree. We don’t need to win every argument, because Christ will do his work. Instead, unity means that we will interact with each other in ways that reflect Christ’s love for us.

We can be united, without being uniform, if and only if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow our self-sacrificing Lord Jesus Christ. Unity is hard work, but not impossible. We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. 

The key word in that last sentence is “Christ,” 

  Who, being in very nature God,

  did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

  rather, he made himself nothing

  by taking the very nature of a servant,

  being made in human likeness.

  And being found in appearance as a man,

  he humbled himself

  by becoming obedient to death—

  even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8)

In that same spirit of self-denial, he calls his followers to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile, to love our enemies. In all of the controversy within our denomination and our world, I hope and pray that we Christians will engage in that controversy following our self-denying Lord. 


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