Yesterday I shared with you an illustration from Ravi Zacharias. We are using that illustration to ask ourselves, in light of the damage that has been done by the church in human history, How do WE wear Christ’s coat? If you haven’t listened to or read that devotional, that would be a good place to start.
Today, with the question “How do you wear His coat?” in mind, I want to wrestle with the topic of church unity.
Though I grew up in a pretty good church environment, as I shared in the sermon on Sunday, there were some problems. One of them was the thinking that our church had the truth and that people who attended other churches with different a teaching than ours were probably going to hell. No, this wasn’t taught from the pulpit. But I did hear it from members of the church. And, it’s an idea that has grown with time and the internet.
Where we used to be critical of the other churches in our town, now we are critical of churches online. We tear apart pastors of large churches in a thousand different ways. Some we tear apart for being too “Seeker-sensitive” and for preaching a watered down version of the gospel. I have listened to thousands of sermons of the years from many different pastors. Do you know what I’ve found? Most of the time, when you listen to their whole sermons in context, they are neither being too seeker-sensitive or watered down. They quite often preach a very challenging message.
And that’s a part of the problem. I shared a quote last week from Carey Nieuwhof that perfectly summarizes the predominant way of life for people in our time. He said, “we live in the era of strongly held, poorly formed beliefs.” I said it before, I’ll say it again. THAT IS SO TRUE!!!
We think that because we watched a YouTube clip of a pastor, we know what they really said. I have seen clips from sermons I listened to myself come through my Facebook feed that totally distorted what the pastor said and meant. We read an article on a topic that we agree with and then speak as though we are experts about that topic. We find articles that support our theological ideas, find articles about pastors who have different ideas than ours and then we start to publicly tear them down. I guess it makes us feel better about ourselves, “power to the people” and what not. But I will tell you, I have had to unfollow some of my friends on Facebook who do this on a regular basis.
But, in the process of doing this, we are doing great damage to the name of Christ.
In the garden, a few hours before his betrayal, Jesus was praying. In that prayer he prayed for the 11 disciples and for all believers. What did Jesus pray for? He prayed for the Father to “Protect them [the eleven] by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” (Jn 17:11) And then he prayed, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message (that’s us), 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.” Jn 17:20-21.
Wait, I’m kidding. I just made that last part up. That part about “may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” That’s not really what Jesus said. Except, that it is. Those really are Jesus’ own words. The unity of His followers was so important that it was a major part of Jesus’ prayer hours before he would hang on a tree.
I have been doing a lot of thinking, reading and teaching about unity lately. And I am absolutely convinced that unity isn’t just a major theme in the gospels, it is the gospel itself. Because of sin we are separated from God. Jesus becomes the curse for us (Gal 3:13), and we are to consider ourselves “dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Unity as a concept seems to be derived from the nature of God himself. God in three persons. One God, three persons. In Eph 4:11-13, Paul describes the work of the Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers as equipping us so that the body may be built up until 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.
The apostle John says: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
“But aren’t se supposed to hold those leaders accountable to what they teach? And, shouldn’t we call out leaders who are just using Jesus to get rich?” Well, Paul didn’t seem to concern about the fact that some people were preaching Jesus for the wrong reasons. He said, “The important thing is that in every way…Christ is preached.” (Phil 1:18)
“But, what about Paul confronting Peter? Surely that proves that we’re supposed to confront Christian leaders!” I’m so glad you went there. You can read the account in Galatians 2:11-21. Do you know what happened? Paul opposed Peter TO HIS FACE! What Peter was doing was wrong, he was showing favoritism and by his example, he was leading people to be hypocrites. Sure, Paul eventually shared it with the church in Galatia, but not as gossip. He is sharing it as a part of an account of what he had done. The church at Galatia had sent Paul to Jerusalem to help bring relief during the famine. The letter to the Galatians is, in part, his accounting for his trip. So, Paul sharing about Peter is more like a missions report given in a church than it is like one of us getting on Facebook and criticizing a famous pastor.
As a general rule, we shouldn’t be critical of God’s bride. That’s not our job. Our primary job is unity. Not uniformity, but unity. We have to agree on Jesus and the resurrection. We have to agree on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. (What exactly that looks like can be different, but the Holy Spirit is a key teaching.) Outside of the primary parts of the gospel, we can disagree. As Rupertus Meldenius said in the sixteen hundreds: “In essentials unity, in not essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
Back to our illustration. We are all wearing Christ’s coat. (Another illustration of unity.) As Jesus said, the purpose of this unity is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The unity of the church is supposed to be a sign to non-believers, testifying to the fact that Jesus came from the Father. How have you been wearing Christ’s coat when it comes to the unity of all believers?
More precisely: Why would a non-believer want to be a part of such a divided organization? If we’re constantly tearing down people who are different than us, why would someone who isn’t a believer want to have anything to do with us?
We are unified because we were all bought with the same blood of Jesus. That makes us one. We are all unified because we are all in Christ – there was only one. We are all in the same Father – the only one. So, we are all one and we will be spending eternity in communion with one another and the Father. Let’s start eternity now and wear the coat of Christ’s unity a lot better than we have been in recent history.