|Unity & the Body|
(by Chris Long)
In John 17:20-26, in some of His last words spoken before His crucifixion, Jesus offered up these words as part of His prayers to the Father:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.
The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (NASB)
The above was my Bible reading this morning. Every time I read this part of Scripture, I honestly get sad. You might wonder why. Well, Jesus shares and shows us so much of His heart in His prayer recorded for us in John 17. In the passage above, we see Jesus' heart for His followers to be One in Him, and that as we are One in Him, we thus will be One with one another. And that's what makes me sad! Because unfortunately, the Body of Christ has largely seemed to have done the exact opposite. Many parts of the Body have done just what Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 12:21 and in essence (even if just in attitude) said to the other parts of the Body: "I don't need you."
Note that Jesus not only showed us His desire for unity, but He also told us why (twice!). He said it was "so that the world may believe that You sent Me." and "so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me." In other words, part of it was/is to be a witness to the unbelieving world that this Christianity thing - this Jesus - is REAL! And note that LOVE is a central part of that.
I don't know where your church experiences have taken you. Many people have been largely in one church or denominational setting their whole life, which is fine if that's where you've been led to be. I guess I've had kind of a unique journey in that I've been around a bit. I have attended regularly either as my home church or for extra Bible studies or merely visited for an occasion or two, churches of the following persuasions: Lutheran (LCMS), Lutheran (ELCA), Lutheran (Wisconsin), Lutheran (other), Presbyterian (PCUSA), Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, non-denominational (loosely affiliated with Rick Warren's church), Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, other non-denominational, Foursquare, Pentecostal, and more. Plus I have watched/listened to loads of Bible studies and messages from those parts of the body as well as others. Fairly diverse. Having been in some of those circles for extended lengths of time, I can tell you that there is something that I have found across-the-board to be true.
Each "camp" while perhaps (and "perhaps" is a big IF here) recognizing there is a greater Body of Christ, implicitly by their actions (and often sadly by their words as well), tends to ACT as if they are the ONLY part of the Body of Christ - in other words they believe that THEY have the special revelation and everyone else is misguided (or "unbalanced") at best, and "of the devil" at worst. And note that this goes across the entire spectrum. In the Lutheran church, I witnessed and experienced first-hand the negative attitudes (some even just subtle) against other parts of the Body such as Calvary Chapel. I heard people talk about them and with a clear air of that certain things they did and said might be of the devil or that they were just too much "fluff" or whatever. But you know what I found in Calvary Chapel circles? I found the same type of attitudes and actions spoken of others - the names were different, the things that were supposedly wrong were different, but the attitudes were the same. And guess what I found in Vineyard circles? Or Baptist? Well you get the picture...I'm currently attending some specific teaching classes at a Pentecostal type church. You do know that just uttering the word "Pentecostal" around what we would categorize as "more conservative" parts of the Body of Christ translates to "of the devil" right? But while many of the more "conservative" churches might have a problem with the Pentecostal, guess what I found in the Pentecostal? You got it! Some of the exact same attitudes towards the more "conservative" churches.
It seems "religion" knows no bounds and cuts all ways. It's human nature of course. We all want to think that where we are/have chosen to "set up camp", regardless of persuasion, is the RIGHT way and that everyone else must be off. To be honest, it really comes down to pride. There are many people that in their hearts have put the denomination/church they attend in a much more important role in their heart then it should be. Instead of recognizing that all of us are frail humans saved by grace that are all just learning and growing in a process, and that none of us have it "all down", we gravitate in our flesh towards prideful arrogrance (oh we might not say it in words, but in our hearts such attitudes can be deep and extensive). Us human beings are always going to extremes, as very rarely do you find balance - even among those who claim "balance" as their "trademark." In our flesh we set up camp and say in essence (though usually not this clearly - but it's in our heart): "WE are the RIGHT way and have all the revelation!"
As an extreme example, not that many years ago I visited a church which would not serve me communion. Now, I've been a believer for many years, but they would not serve me communion unless I talked with their pastor first. I did so and they still wouldn't let me take communion because they didn't agree with the way in which I saw communion as I understood it in Scripture! From the time I walked into the church until the time I walked out, I was made to feel as someone who was not a member of "their club", rather then a member of the Body of Christ who loved the same Lord they did (or said they did, anyway!) I told the pastor that I would have been Honored to stand beside him and take communion with him, my brother in the Lord, and that I was disheartened that he would not do the same. Sadly, it wasn't just about communion - the entire "air" in the church was one of exclusivity. This was the most extreme example I've ever seen (which absolutely took me by surprise) but I've seen many others to lesser degrees. And I myself have been guilty of it to one degree or another!
As someone who's never really placed his flag under a denomination or specific persuasion, I have found something very interesting (that just happens to match with Scripture!) :) I've basically in my Christian journey just been looking to follow Jesus and grow in Him and learn of Him, and thus be led into all Truth by the Holy Spirit. And you know what I've found?
I've found that pretty much each part of the Body of Christ has something very valuable to offer. I have seen positives and negatives in each. Yes, I've seen some really BIG negatives. But even when I've seen that, I've often seen at least something that was also of value. I have seen that "camp A" has this piece to the puzzle, and "camp B" has another piece and so on. In an ideal world, there would be ONLY ONE "camp" - "Christian" - and they would have all the pieces. This is what Jesus desires. But since the Body, as it stands now, is so fractured, many of the pieces sadly are seemingly spread out among the various "camps".
I have found out that some of the things that other parts of the Body claim are of the devil actually aren't, but that claim is instead often rooted in fear and/or downright ignorance (and as I've already said, this cuts across the entire spectrum of the Body). But I've also learned that what definitely IS of the devil is all the backbiting, dissension, hate, unfriendliness, evil talk against other brothers and sisters that name the name of Jesus.
Now look, I've been guilty of this all too. I've done my share of having wrong attitudes towards other parts of the Body too. But with God's help, I'm trying to move beyond that and see a bigger picture.
Yes, unity is found in Truth - i.e. in the Truth of God's Word. And yes, some things are wrong and some are right. I am not promoting that we just blindly look past wrong things. Many of you know I have written extensively on certain issues such as homosexuality in the past. When God's Word clearly says "A", then I'm not going to have much unity with church "B" that refuses to believe what the Bible simply says. If we're not united in the Truth, then we're not united.
But what I am saying is we all need to be very very careful in this area to make sure we really are standing on solid ground. Sometimes we can THINK we know what we're talking about, but really because we in ignorance don't have a full understanding on something, we can miss the boat. A lot of times how this happens is a person can read Scripture "A" and then they'll make a doctrine out of Scripture "A". Some well-meaning Christian reading their Bible (or sadly often times not reading themselves but only what they've heard someone ELSE tell them) sees Scripture "A" and the truth of that Scripture penetrates them and they in the extreme of their flesh make a doctrine out of that Scripture. Because what they miss is that there's also Scripture "B". And guess what? Scripture "B" provides a balance to Scripture "A". But they haven't discovered Scripture "B" so they don't put any emphasis there and thus have an extreme position. Meanwhile, there's a set of people that have "discovered" Scripture "B", but they've missed "A", so they go to the OTHER EXTREME. When all the time the reality was somewhere in the middle!
If you're following me right now, on a micro-level, I am describing to you EXACTLY how so much of the division within the Body of Christ has developed. You can pick from many of the issues that cause strife in the Body of Christ: healing, prosperity, teachings regarding demons, the role of faith, God's sovereignty, our free will, the role of women, communion, baptism, the "gifts of the Spirit" etc. and it has fascinated me to see this behavior in action to some degree or another. It has fascinated me to attend church "A" and because they emphasize Scriptures A, B, and C, they emphasize one side of any of the previous issues thinking they've got it 100% right and everyone else is wrong. Then I've attended church "B" and because they emphasize Scriptures "X, Y, Z", they emphasize a different side of the same issue, again thinking they've got it 100% right and that everyone else is wrong. When the reality is they both had pieces to the puzzle and in one sense were both right and both wrong at the same time!
Along these lines, another common thing that happens is that person "A" has a certain "experience" with God in their Christian walk. Maybe God does or doesn't do something in their life based on something they did or didn't do, etc. Next thing you know, they have extrapolated their personal experience to mean that that is the way God must ALWAYS work in a person's life. Again, it's human nature to assume that all that WE have experienced is the way that it must be or is supposed to be for everyone else! Lots of church splits and division have come about because one group of people believe, based on their experiences, that because God did such-and-such for them, God must always work that way, etc. And for those that didn't have or don't (or won't) believe those experiences, there is instant friction. The reality is that God meets all of us where we are at, and "where we are at" can be widely variable from one person to the next. Some of the personal faith experiences of one person might be somewhat different from another person's experiences. And both CAN be perfectly valid - it's just that God may have applied different parts of the Word in each of their lives based on where they were each at in their faith journey.
You know what the best cure for all of this is? Reading the Bible yourself - and not just the Scriptures your church or pastor emphasize (even if they claim they "teach the whole counsel of God"). Most likely they emphasize what they emphasize because that is how THEY were taught. And note that even churches that take pride in being "balanced"/just "teaching the Word", I have found clearly emphasize certain things and minimize (or ignore altogether) others (while other parts of the Body overemphasize those things that were minimized - on and on it goes).
The more we are grounded ourselves in God's Word and depend on the Holy Spirit to teach us as we read the Word, the less susceptible we will be towards unfairly jumping on other parts of the Body that maybe see something a bit different then we do.
We all as Christians should want to know the Truth as God has declared it, not as any man or church has declared it. When we're standing before God, our responsibility will be with what we did with His Word, not what others did or didn't do. There are a LOT of religious teachings that sound good but are of men, not of God. Receiving teaching from others is good and Biblical, but we want to always be on guard to NEVER let what any man or woman says become more important to us than what God says as HE teaches us individually by His Holy Spirit. And that starts with having an understanding upfront that because we are all human beings marred by sin in the world, we all (your pastor included) have the ability - and even propensity in our flesh - to mis-understand and mis-apply the Word. This is why it is so important that you yourself ask the Holy Spirit to teach and direct you both as you are in church and as you yourself spend time with Him in reading the Word. Your teacher, first and foremost, is to be the Holy Spirit.
Even if you are reading the Word yourself, there can be a real danger in approaching it only within the "framework" you've been taught by others. There have been so many Scriptures that I have read in the past that I managed to just kind of gloss over because they didn't fit within the framework I had been taught, that later on when I really just desired to know the full truth, regardless of whether it fit in my pre-conceived notions or not, I finally "got"/began to understand. I would encourage all believers to be willing to pray this "dangerous" prayer sincerely: "Lord, I want to know Your truth, even if it's different from what I have been taught by others. Reveal Your truth to me in Your Word. I am open to what You want to show me."
By the way, this all goes for Laugh & Lift too! I hope you NEVER take something that I send or say as 100% truth without seeking the Lord yourself. I've been wrong before (mostly out of my own ignorance / "not knowing what I didn't know"), and guess what? I will be wrong again. I'm a human being too...
There are a whole host of things that I have been taught through the years from well-meaning Christians that sincerely believed they were standing on God's Word, that as I grew in the Lord, the Holy Spirit showed me from His Word that they were wrong about or didn't have a balanced understanding on! I can literally give example after example.
If it ever comes down in your life to going forward with God to what He's trying to show you or being unwilling to do so because of positions your church or pastor has taken, I hope you'll have the guts to go with God rather than the "traditions and teachings of men". Many people don't. It starts with being willing in your heart to do so. Be very careful of who has your allegiance. Many churches even emphasize the need for allegiance (often subtly, but sometimes not) to them and their doctrines. Your allegiance as a follower of Jesus Christ is SOLELY to be placed in Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul says the following: "...For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, 'I am of Paul,' and another, 'I am of Apollos,' are you not carnal?" (1 Corinthians 3:3b-4 NKJV)
In my opinion you could just as easily read that as "I am of Martin Luther", or "I am of Calvary Chapel", or "I am of Vineyard", or "I am of Assemblies of God". Many people are still doing the same thing today - and sowing discord and division in the process. Someone many years ago wrote me the following and I thought it summed things up beautifully: "The danger is that our beliefs, doctrines, leaders, denominational affiliations, traditions, 'rules' and legalism, freedom from legalism, good works, social events, missions and outreach programs, worship preferences, spiritual gifts, etc. threaten to become the basis for our spirituality, rather than Jesus Himself."
Jesus Christ is to be the One we follow. And Jesus has followers that have "set up camp" in all corners of the Body of Christ. Some are hands, some are feet, some are necks - it's all the Body. And all parts of the Body have need of the other parts of the Body! But even though the Scripture teaches there's a need, most people never explore beyond their one "part" - and actually often have a certain FEAR (or at best, a distrust) of the other parts!
I mentioned earlier that I am currently attending a teaching series at a more "pentecostal" oriented church. I just yesterday found myself having to defend this decision to a dearly loved brother in the Lord because in essence "don't I know that they're out of balance on x and y or aren't completely sound in their doctrine"? I responded that yes, I know this, and for me, I'm perfectly okay with it. :) While the specific church may be out of balance and place a heavy emphasis on only a few topics at the neglect of others, where I am at right now, those happen to be topics the Lord is working with me on and teaching me on! I'm not going to that church to get good "across the board" teaching and wouldn't recommend it for someone else looking for that - I'm going because I'm going to be taught in the areas that the Lord is working with me on right now. They are perhaps the "knee bone" in the Body of Christ. And right now, I need what the "knee bone" has to offer. They DO have something to offer. As I aluded to earlier, all parts of the Body of Christ that are genuinely of the Body of Christ DO! That is exactly the attitude that Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 12 - and it seems a perfect time for us to read that:
"If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'; nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." (1 Corinthians 12:17-26 NKJV)
For emphasis, I'd just like to call attention to the phrase: "those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary." In my opinion, you can read that just as well: "those members of the body that OUR part of the body considers not to 'have it all together' or are 'imbalanced' in x or y, or teach some things wrong, are still necessary parts of the body, and we still have need of them!"
With all the above said, even if we do feel we have grounds to say/speak regarding another part of the Body, we definitely need to remember the whole "speaking truth *IN LOVE*" thing (emphasis mine). Often times the "love" part gets seriously missed. And we need to keep in mind the Scriptures regarding arrogance & pride and the need to be humble, with an ever-mindful eye to the fact that WE just might be the one that is mistaken! Having a humble attitude in recognizing that none of us silly humans by ourselves have got this Christianity thing down pat is a really good thing. As the late musician Rich Mullins said in one of his songs, "We must be awful small, and not as strong as we think we are."
All I have been talking about today goes beyond just churches but to much more including specific pastors and ministry leaders within the Body of Christ. I have sent out a few articles by Rick Warren in times past. Many of you know that he is the author of the highly successful "The Purpose-Driven Life" book. There are few people, it seems, judging from much of the talk I've seen and read, that get the dander up of some Christians faster then uttering the name "Rick Warren". It's almost become "cool" to bash Rick Warren in certain circles. I even had a ministry leader that I have respected greatly and who's articles I sometimes send out on Laugh & Lift write me and tell me point-blank how disappointed they were that I would share something by Rick Warren, because after all, don't I know that He preaches a watered-down social gospel? No mention was made of any problem with the content itself that I shared. That didn't matter. They saw the name "Rick Warren" and because of their vehement belief that he's in essence on the "wrong side", it blinded them.
Now, I'm not going to turn my writing today into a "Rick Warren Defense Letter", but just as a quick note: I have a sneaky suspicion that many of the people that lodge stones at Rick Warren actually haven't really taken the time to READ His writings (in context!), but are merely repeating what they have been told by OTHERS. I HAVE read most of The Purpose Driven Life (and it was a blessing to me!) and much of "The Purpose of Christmas" which I actually gave as a gift-book to some unbelieving relatives because I liked the skillful presentation of the Gospel (which by the way clearly indicated that Jesus alone was the way to salvation!). I've also seen him enough other times clearly articulate that He believes faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation, that I am NOT comfortable (as some seem to be) to claim that he's of the devil in promoting some one world religion! That doesn't mean that I have agreed with everything he's done, said, or written, or all of his stylistic choices. It just means that I'm going to be very careful lodging stones against a man that claims to believe in Jesus Christ, has sold millions of books that draw people TO Jesus (as opposed to away from Jesus), and has clearly stated he believes faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation. If I turn out to be wrong, then okay, but honestly, the level of vehemence that I've seen come out from some circles in the last few years towards Rick Warren, a man who I have seen no reason to doubt is my brother in Christ, boggles the mind. It is the same type of vehemence that non-Christians have over Christians in relation to issues like homosexuality. It's sad when it happens WITHIN the church!
There are even whole so-called "discernment ministries" that seemingly exist solely to tell us who they think is legit and who's not in the Body. I wish sometimes that the critics who spend seemingly much of their time attacking fellow people that name the name of Jesus, would instead spend their effort out evangelizing the lost rather than attacking their fellow soldiers. To be blunt, I have found myself wondering just to what degree many of these "discernment ministries" actually are unwittingly doing the work of the devil all the while THINKING they are helping people discern what's of the devil! In addition to division & discord, pride appears to me to be a common "fruit" among such so-called "ministries".
In the Word of God, we are taught that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to lead us to all truth. Yes, God can work through people by His Spirit in that process. But no person or organization is ever to be a substitute for the Lord speaking to us personally in our fellowship with Him. He is our teacher. And particularly when it comes to other believers, churches, or ministries, we need to be very careful in judging others based on the words of other fallable human beings. Romans 14 has a lot to say along these lines including this succinct nugget: "But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God." (Romans 14:10)
As I'm writing these words today I honestly want to cry. My Spirit is grieved. And I believe Jesus is too. Jesus desires unity for His bride with love as the central trademark. Go re-read the part of Jesus' prayer again that I opened with, and see if with the backdrop of all I've already said, it doesn't make you want to cry too. It's really sad just how far away we are from the ideal. It's sad how much the spirit of division and slander (which is of the devil!) has entered our midst.
The attitude of exclusivity where each part of the Body thinks they don't need the others is very dangerous. And very prevalent. And getting back to what Jesus prayed, it is a major reason why much of the world does NOT believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be. If the Christian church was KNOWN for LOVE and UNITY in Jesus Christ (note, the "in Jesus Christ" is key - there are those that are not), then perhaps indeed the "world may believe" that Jesus is who He says He is because we showcased it to them. Instead, the Christian church is mostly known among unbelievers for division. It is NOT a good witness that the Body of Christ is so fractured and divided arguing about often silly things.
It's really sad when you can have a street in your city like there is near where I live (which I have termed "mega-church row") where there can be 3 huge churches of 3 different persuasions within a mile of each other, where each seems to operate as an island unto themselves and even will subtly (or occasionally not so subtly) talk about the things that are "wrong" with the others! It saddens me every time I drive down that street. It makes me want to cry out, in the infamous words of one Rodney King, "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?"
Just supposing here, but would would happen if even just those 3 churches would team up for the cause of Christ in the community? What if they got together and did things together in the community where unbelievers could see these Christians are united and can actually speak well of one another (imagine that!). What kind of impact would that have? What if that were multiplied by hundreds or thousands of churches. What would the impact be? I hope someday before Jesus comes back that we get to find out.
You know, ideally what should happen is that each part of the Body should be balanced, mature, non-prideful - looking to know the Truth, even if that Truth conflicts with long-held traditions and ways of doing things. That's the ideal - unity is found in Truth. But even where this ideal isn't fully realized and differences of opinion on this point or that point occur, there's still the "major in the majors and minor in the minors" principle. In other words, major in majors and minor in the minors, and look past the minors for the greater cause of Christ. You don't have to 100% agree on every last point to be in fellowship with other brothers and sisters!
This gets into something which I believe is very important in the whole discussion regarding "unity". I am hopefully about to offer an exhibit in what "balance" looks like. Do not for one second mistake all I have said to think that I am just advocating that we all get together and don't care what others believe. Make no mistake about it: I am not saying that everyone is "right" on everything, and we all need to pretend that what everyone else believes is OK. That's just silly - There are things that are right and things that are wrong.
There are some things with which we really are not to be in Unity with. We have unity with others through the person and Truth of Jesus Christ, and thus the Word of God. Our unity springs out of certain things - the truth of who God is, our sin nature and the wrongness of our sins, Jesus' payment for the penalty of our sin, our belief in Jesus' death and resurrection, the truth that Jesus is the only way for man to be "saved" through our faith in Him, the importance of God's Word, etc. We are not called for instance to be in unity (or fellowship) with those who openly practice sin in defiance of the clear Word of God. ("Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them." - Ephesians 5:11 NIV1984)
Where people make mistakes is when they elevate certain items in Scripture above this that were never intended to be elevated - for instance some churches elevate the sacrament of communion above this. Whereby all those who don't practice communion exactly the same way they do, are people with whom they will not have fellowship or unity with. This is wrong. A similar thing happens with "baptism", "gifts of the Spirit", and countless others. We need to be very careful that we are not elevating "pet doctrines" which are based on the way we think we understand certain Scriptures, to places where they should not be elevated. We need to watch our attitudes carefully. The devil LOVES to sow division.
This whole "unity" issue can be tough because there ARE admonitions in Scripture to be on guard against false teachings and deception. And there surely are such things. I've written about some of them before such as our culture's growing acceptance of homosexuality which has ripped apart and divided many a church in recent times. We do need to stand on the clear revealed Word of God. And there ARE charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word of God. We do need to be on guard and not be afraid to call clear wolves out as such! But we also need to be very very careful too, and very much, in humility, consider ourselves. It's a balance. But it's one that by and large we (myself included) haven't really done a very good job at.
May we all commit today in our hearts to a better job. May we strive for unity and love - with Jesus and with our brothers and sisters (our FAMILY!) in the Lord. We ARE the Body of Christ. May we watch our lips - and our lives - carefully as to how we treat that Body.
With love to you in Christ,
NOTE: There are addendums to this article. Please see http://www.laughandlift.com/articles.html
This is version 1.1 of this document (May 29, 2012).