After listening to two of our bishops speak at the Connectional Table’s discussion on human sexuality which happened in Chicago this week I was astonished. I couldn’t understand how the teachers of our Church could so easily distort the concept of biblical unity.
Bishop Dorff offered an opening devotion based on Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17. To illustrate he described an Episcopalian worship service he and others attended as a way to foster ecumenism in his conference. All the vestments and processions and incense and so forth were strange to him and he wondered what in the world he had gotten himself into. But then it dawns on him. He explains,
In the context of that service it came over me. We were brothers and sisters in Christ. We were no where near together on lots of things but we were brothers and sisters in Christ. Is that some kind of unity? At the end of this morning will we all be of one mind? I doubt it. Will we all be of one church? I sure hope so. Will we all be brothers and sisters in Christ? I sure hope so. That is what unity is all about.
Bishop Arichea talks about the unity of love. He enlists the help of Paul and his analogy of the body being of many parts yet still one (see 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12). In Romans, Bishop Arichea reminds us, Paul says that the different parts of the body all have different functions and yet it remains one body. And therefore, the bishop reasons, we too should be one even though we are all different.
Both of these bishops believe that unity is important. I think everyone would agree that it is. But they seem woefully out of touch with the reason our unity is being threatened!
Bishop Dorff seems to think that being united despite our different modes of worship is the same as being united despite our different views on immorality.
Bishop Arichea seems to think that Paul’s example of the body being comprised of many different people with different spiritual gifts is the same as a body comprised of different people with different views on what is and is not immoral.
Is that what biblical unity is all about? I believe our bishops are selling us a false-unity, one that has very little to do with the sort of unity Jesus prayed we would have in John 17. If we are going to pray along with Jesus for unity I think we should understand what sort of unity God wants, and what it often costs.
A quick journey through the Old Testament reveals that God desires Israel, His chosen people, to be one. They are to be a witness to the world that God is one. This witness to unity came at a high price, however. Numerous times those who rebelled or refused to honor God were wiped off the face of the earth. Only the faithful were allowed into the Promised Land after their deliverance from Egypt. Even Moses, their leader, was disqualified. Time and time again God judged Israel, using even pagan armies like the Assyrians (Isa. 10:5) to scatter and destroy them for being unfaithful. Throughout the Old Testament God is seeking to refine His people, to ensure their unity as a holy people, set apart for God’s purposes.
The unity God desired of Israel was far more than a structural unity. He had no desire to have a people who merely “agree to disagree.” Unity in spirit and in truth was the goal, and God was willing to shatter whatever Babel’s the people erected in order to purify His people and prepare for Himself a spotless bride.
Jesus said as much when he said that the Father is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Jesus confounds the Samaritan woman who believed true worship must take place in a place, dismissing even Jerusalem in favor of worship which takes place in spirit and truth. Spirit and Truth is what unites God’s people and says to the world that God is one. Not a temple on a hill. Not a denomination held together by people agreeing to disagree. It’s always a unity in spirit and truth.
Let us remember that the same Jesus who prayed for unity in John 17 also said this:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matt. 10).
And Jesus taught that when one of the member’s of our body is in sin, we must call them to repent, and if they refuse, we take it to the church, and if they still refuse to listen, they are to become to us as a “Gentile and tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). Why? Because unity based on spirit and truth is important to God.
Paul also believed strongly in unity, and called the church to be one time and time again. Like Jesus, his call to unity was a call to be of “one mind” around truth. We are to guard our doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16) in large part so that we can all attain a “unity of faith and of knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). Unity is about spirit and truth, not structure. So important is this unity that Paul commands that anyone who would call themselves a “brother” while continuing in sexual immorality must be dismissed from the assembly. “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). Why? Because unity is important. And costly.
Which brings me back to our bishops’ longing for unity mentioned above. Bishops Dorff and Arichea seem to confuse unity in spite of differences in modes of worship and spiritual gifts with a biblical unity in spirit and truth. Most certainly there are many gifts and functions within a church, and the hand should never say to the foot “I don’t need you.” But at the same time, Jesus said that if that hand causes you to sin, cut it off, for it’s better to go into life maimed than to enter hell with both hands.
It has been common as of late to invoke Wesley, who said in his sermon On Catholic Spirit, “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” But it is terribly misleading to use this quote to defend a unity for unity’s sake apart from some form and substance, spirit and truth. Wesley was speaking to differences in modes of worship, which is evident in the full context of the quote:
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.
Further on in the same sermon, Wesley describes at great length what is essential for a people to be “of one heart,” which includes this:
Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence?” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?”
If that is you, Wesley would say, then place your hand in mine. But this is not the case for us as a church today. We do not simply disagree over modes of worship or functions within a church but over spirit and truth. We disagree over what displeases God and what constitutes a holy life. God desires those who would worship Him to do so in spirit and truth. Jesus will get the unity He prayed for, but it will come with a price. The current conflict over sexual immorality should not be seen as something we need to band-aid in order to maintain some semblance of wordly unity. Perhaps it should be seen as the judgment of God purifying His Bride in spirit and in truth. The sort of unity Jesus prayed for His church is coming to pass, I believe. Be careful what you pray for, church, for judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
Finally, the last chapter of our Bible describes the consummation of all things, which would include, I believe, Jesus’ prayer for unity, and any nods toward his desire for unity must take into account this end, and answer the question, “Was his prayer answered?” It goes like this,
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:12-16).
Unity in spirit and truth will come, I believe, but not without a price. Be careful what you pray for, church, as you might get it.