Why is Christian Unity so Hard?

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Why is Christian Unity so Hard?

14 October 2015 Hits:5774

In Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 He said, “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. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

His prayer was simple but profound – that His people would be brought to complete unity. For this purpose Jesus has given every Christian believer the same glory that the Father had given Him. The word “glory” refers to “dignity and honour resulting from a good opinion”. Jesus has a good opinion of His people – all of them regardless of denomination, culture or race – and treats them with dignity and honour. Herein lies the basis for our unity as believers. Do we dare to have a different opinion of a fellow Christian to the opinion that Jesus has of them? If Jesus views us with dignity and honour what right do we have to view each other any less?

When we look around the Church today, however, we get the idea that Jesus doesn’t always get His prayers answered! Christians in local congregations often have trouble getting along together, to say nothing of reaching across denominational boundaries. And how tragic it is when we consider the results of unity and love amongst believers:

“… that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
“… to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them …”
“… All men will know that you are my disciples that you are my disciples if you love one another.”

Christian unity is the single most powerful key to reaching a world that God loves – no wonder it’s always under attack; no wonder it’s so hard! The world around us is supposed to get an understanding of how much God loves them by looking at the way God’s people love one another. The tragedy though is that the non-church world often looks at us and says, “I have enough problems of my own; why would I want to join you?”

So what causes us to so easily divide? In my opinion there are two main reasons for the lack of unity in the church today, namely, differences in doctrine and style.

One of the greatest passages on unity in the Bible is Ephesians chapter four where Paul exhorts Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” This is a life that is characterised by humility, gentleness and patiently bearing with one another because we love each other. Paul encourages us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This unity already exists but our job is to maintain it. However, later in the chapter Paul speaks about a unity that we have to reach for – “Unity in the faith,” (v.13). “The faith,” refers to the body of Christian truth which pertains to salvation; truth which Christians agree on; truth which I’ll refer to as “non-negotiable.”

If something is negotiable it means that there is room for discussion in order to reach an agreement. If a cheque is marked “not negotiable” it means there is no room for discussion about who the payee is – it has to be the person the cheque is made out to and no other. I have found the distinction between negotiable and non-negotiable truth to be very helpful in establishing unity between Christians. The fact is that Christians in general agree on the non-negotiable truths of our faith – those truths that are outlined in the great creeds of the church. There’s no room to talk this over to reach an agreement because belief in these things is essential to Christian faith and salvation: Belief in the existence of God; belief in the deity and humanity of Christ; belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus; belief in Jesus’ current ministry where He continues to save people completely by making intercession for them; and belief in Jesus’ return when “He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28). These are all essential Christian truths that all Christians believe, and it’s on the basis of this body of truth that we can enjoy unity.

It is a sad reality that instead of focusing on the non-negotiable truth we hold in common, Christians invariably focus on the negotiable truth in which we differ. Negotiable truth includes all the aspects of our faith that are not essential to salvation. They are negotiable, not because they are unimportant, but rather because there is room to discuss them, and differ in our opinions, without affecting our unity, love and respect for one another.

Next to doctrinal differences Christians seem to divide most over church style and expression. This is nothing new and was in fact one of the many problems the apostle Paul had to correct in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). The Corinthian Christians divided over the style of ministry they preferred and that unfortunately, has tended to be the case right down through church history. For example, there was a huge controversy surrounding the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in London. The Bishop of London announced that it was blasphemous to utter such sacred words in a theatre. The Irish did not have any problem with it, but the English certainly found it very hard to take and the argument raged on for nearly a decade! There was a similar disagreement over the introduction of Sunday Schools in the 1780s. In more recent times, during the charismatic renewal of the seventies, there were disputes over styles of praise such as dancing, lifting hands and clapping. Christians divided from one another because of these things – how sad! Do we honestly think that on judgment day God is going to say, “I loved the way you lifted your hands to me” or “Why didn’t you dance in church?” I have a feeling that He will be more concerned with things like, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

So, is it wrong to prefer a certain style of ministry? Is it wrong to have a favourite preacher or teacher? No, it’s not. But it is wrong to be sectarian and unappreciative of all Christ’s gifts to His church. It’s vital that we learn to “appreciate” all styles of church ministry and worship, even if we don’t personally “enjoy” it.

Unity does not equal uniformity. We may never see all churches join together and denominations cease to exist this side of heaven. That is not the issue. The important thing is for all of us to learn to appreciate the diversity that exists across the Church. There is one body with many members and we all need each other (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). We can disagree without being disagreeable. We can love and respect each other despite our differences. We can enjoy unity in the midst of great diversity and variety. The gospel message never changes but the methods of communicating and expressing it are as diverse as the people God has made. There is only one way to God, and that’s through Jesus Christ, but there are many ways to express our love and worship to Him. Let us give one another the freedom to do so.

Rob Buckingham

Senior Minister

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9 replies on “Why is Christian Unity so Hard?”

Leah Psays:

Insightful as always
thanks Ps Rob

Daniel Bodleysays:

Mate you make me well up brother. Im so proud to be part of your church and i will be clapping at Church Unite.

Rob Buckinghamsays:

Awesome Daniel 🙂

Raysays:

Wonderful !

Raysays:

Wonderful!

David Perrysays:

My mother was Church of England and my father Catholic, viewed then as an inter-racial marriage!. The churches and families were not united and indeed often at loggerheads. Hence those silly schoolboy ditties/songs sung by the Catholics about the protestants, and vice versa. What a terrible waste. What divides the churches is so minor compared to what unites them but alas too many are focused on the pathology of the negatives. Go Rob/Bayside. When I am asked what religion am I, I say Christian (of the tolerant/respectful variety) and when I am asked what sub-religion am I, I say Christian.

Darrensays:

The thing I can’t get my head around here is that if you truly believe in the infallible Word of God, there are no “negotiable” truths. Human nature wants to “negotiate” and “argue”. But you can’t argue “truth”. The Word is truth! Am I missing something?

I agree that in the interests of unity in the Body we must focus on the “non-negotiables” for salvation.

How does one “choose” the non-negotiables for salvation?

Do we imply that the “faith” (as referred to in Eph 4:13) includes all things such as keeping from lying, thieving, sexual immorality? How granular do we go? Do we take the Word at face value regarding sexual immorality for example? Or do we say to our brothers and sisters, so long as you love one another and keep “the faith”, God will let you know what he defined “immorality” as on Judgement Day.

I find it too grey when we start to define what is required for salvation. Sure, God’s grace is sufficient for a repentant heart. But if someone is living in immorality due to his “version” or “interpretation” of “negotiable” truth then wouldn’t this have an impact on salvation?

Rob Buckinghamsays:

Hi Darren. I agree that God’s Word is infallible, reliable, trustworthy and Inspired. It also needs to be studied and interpreted correctly in its historical, cultural and grammatical context. For example, some Christian denominations still include the Old Testament food rules from Leviticus in their beliefs while others, who interpret Leviticus in the light of New Testament truth, consider themselves free from the food rules. Thus Christians differ on this – and lots of other matters in the Bible. Whether I eat bacon or prawns, and another Christian does not, has little to do with the issue of salvation. We can talk about these things (negotiable) but they should never lead to disunity.

I have focused this blog on the nonnegotiable doctrines that affect a person’s salvation. I have not focused on a person’s behaviour although if we love Jesus and His Holy Spirit is in us then godly behaviour should follow, However this side of eternity none of us will achieve sinless perfection – that’s why grace is so – gracious! That does not mean we should sin deliberately of course and, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1). Sometimes the restoring process takes a lot of time and patience. That’s why it’s a hallmark of those who live by the Spirit (a spiritual person). In someone persists in a sin unrelentingly they will probably get to the point where they no longer consider themselves Christian. Our job is still to love them. We “must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” The reason for this is to demonstrate this person’s need of repentance. The separation from church community should signify the possibility of separation from God Himself. I hope this helps to clarify this matter Darren.

James Crown (@JCinthehousett)says:

Definitely agree Ps. Rob, we get so caught up in the line of negotiable truths when in reality it’s the absolute truth of the bible that matters the most. I like C.S Lewis’ analogy of this situation, and I’ll quote him directly from his book ‘Mere Christianity’ which you probably have read:
“…It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that maybe) is, I think, preferable.
It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.
In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?”
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those Who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

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