There are few desires greater to any group than getting along. There is not much point in gathering with others who are constantly back-stabbing, ridiculing each other, or experiencing in-fighting. Nations, clubs, churches, and families all need to find ways to sustain unity, or they will fall apart.
The irony about unity is that it is defined as a collection of diverse parts that have an “absence of diversity” (per “dictionary.com” 2/18/19). How can there be such a thing as difference without difference? Somehow, that concept is wrapped up in the mystery of unity.
As the saying goes, no man is an island; meaning, humans are not capable of existing in isolation from each other. We need community. We need each other. We desperately need unity: to develop differing parts into a functioning whole. We need help.
In order for any group to survive, be it a nation with many parts, or a friendship of two people, it needs to do certain things to generate unity.
- Common Identity. The group needs an agreed upon reason to exist, a name to rally around, a flag to wave together. The parts need to recognize that identity as something they desire to belong to, and rightfully are connected into. And, it needs to be a vision of being, a “state of being” that can be recognized both inside and from the outside of the group. This is about “who” they are above and beyond their status as individuals. It is typically confirmed by membership lists.
- Common Purpose. The group of parts needs a reason to exist and to remain together. This is about “why” they are. Since most people are part of many different groups, it is the purpose that defines why they gather at times to pursue that common desire.
- Common Values. This deals with the set of beliefs that each part uses to measure their attraction. These ideals are like intellectual money; they operate as a common tool for social exchange. Such values reflect the motivations and deep desires of people. The more one values the reasons a group gathers, the more committed they will remain when faced with conflict or other options for participation. It is like asking, How much is it worth?
- Common Rules. These are essential for removing the damaging effect of conflict as well as ensuring a commonly viewed set of boundaries in which the group of parts can exist. This is both the “where” and the “how”. Without rules, all groups will crumble into chaos, leaving the parts to find sustainable unity elsewhere.
- Common Expectation of Benefits. This addresses the question, What’s in it for me? When a person makes a commitment to a group or relationship, they inherently are considering what they will get in turn out of that connection. This is more fluid than how a group fits within the values of a person; it has more to do with moment-by-moment satisfaction.
- Common Experiences. This is the organic part of group development, where past experiences may contribute to bringing diverse parts together because of their shared experiences, like those of a common race, or those who have suffered similar pain. As the saying goes, misery loves company. Storms often bring communities together, because the parts recognize they are all in it together, and inherently they recognize that survival depends on unity. Sustaining such experiences or continuing to reference those common backgrounds are essential to sustaining a group over time. Pictures on the wall, regular celebrations of past events, liturgies and traditions all contribute to keeping the flame alive.
- Structure of Leadership. People need to know where they fit in a group or relationship. Since we all remain individually diverse from each other, the necessary collective “absence of diversity” can only occur if there is a structure of authority over the individual that is respected and supported. Committees without a defined decision-making process, and relationships that are touted as equals without select leadership, will eventually fall apart for lack of direction. It is a simple fact of nature, that complex bodies cannot exist without some kind of a head.
- Unique Clothing. Odd as it might sound, all parts—both inside and out of the group—need to be able to recognize from a distance who is in and who is not. Allowing enemies to sneak too close is always disastrous. Knowing who one ought to trust is equally essential, when the parts all recognize that they are inherently different. Patches, colors, hats, uniforms, secret handshakes, symbols, all contribute to setting participants apart as members.
- Sustained Messages. How effectively a group communicates all the above will directly impact the ability of that group to survive over time and accomplish whatever it is after. Whether this is educating and developing the participants, or identifying imposters, or the propaganda campaign of promoting the welfare of the group at the expense of the members, all companies need to market themselves or risk dissolution.
Christians who claim faith in God, and churches who aim to promote unity in Christ, let alone any form of group or relationship that wishes to survive beyond a fleeting moment, must intentionally address each of the above distinctions regarding unity. The effectiveness with which a group communicates and resolves issues in each of these categories will directly translate into a measurement of social health of that group.
However, not all groups are worth sustaining! Sadly, there are many gatherings of people that should not survive, in spite of the individual worth of the members. All people have been created in the image of Almighty God, and as a result all have inherent value, but that does not mean that every group that is formed with those parts reflects God or is honorable.
Sadly, this is true of congregations of Christians as well. As the Lord revealed, some churches are dead.
The above factors are all philosophical observations that contribute to group development and continuation, but they say nothing about the rightness of that group. In other words, groups can develop real unity among members, but not the biblical unity of the Spirit promoted in Scripture.
Godly unity cannot be developed by human invention. The trick to sustaining Godly unity among believers involves the Spirit of God. In this, all the above factors must be altered, touched, and redeemed by the activity of the Holy Spirit, or the unity that is developed will be worldly and temporary, not eternal or righteous before God.
- Scripture warns against those who claim to identify as Christians, but deny him by their activity. It cautions against membership with those who promote a “Jesus other than the Jesus” of Scripture. It even commands believers to separate from fellowship with brothers who persist in living sinfully, but still attend church, or even still minister as leaders. Identity can be faked and false claims professed, but they will not enter the kingdom of God. A Christian is only truly a disciple of Jesus if they obey the gospel defined in Scripture. To take on this identity as a Christian will require that the individual put to death their own personal identity from their past, without fear of losing their uniqueness or value as a person.
- The purpose of the church is to operate together as the Body of Christ, reflecting his truth and desires, at the intentional submission of personal agendas. The group purpose, as defined in the Bible, must supersede all other pursuits, all other relationships, and each part must do what it has been designed to do as placed by the Spirit, rather than as personally preferred. This purpose is sovereign over all other identities and groups, and is defined universally within Scripture. Sub-groups, like individual churches and denominations, must find their distinct place within that overall purpose by revelation and direction of the Spirit, while resisting the natural temptation to “run ahead of the Spirit”, by doing things by human effort, will, and desire which distort the gospel and blaspheme God before unbelievers.
- Christian values find their source in the righteousness of Christ, not in the good intentions or character of people. The shocking reality is that members of Christ are chosen by God from among the weak of the world and from obvious sinners, all of whom bring personal values that have been scared and distorted. What brings unity is the Spirit-caused recognition of personal value demonstrated by Jesus dying on our behalf to pay our penalty before God because he loved us and valued us as his own. That eternal value provides the basis to exchange our damaged set of individual values for his glorious righteousness, thereby not only drawing us closer to him, but also closer in unity to each other. Those who rightly understand the significance of what Jesus did for them, will be drawn to the Christian value of viewing others with the same selfless grace that elevates the needs and interests of others ahead of their own.
- Although Christians are not under the Law, as Paul stated, we are under the “Law of Christ”, and so believers remain bound under and governed by rules of behavior and belief. We instructed in what is right and what is not; what to do and what to avoid, what to support and what to highlight as foul. This is why Scripture says that professing believers will be judged according to their works and sustained as they “obey the gospel”. Or, as Jesus also worded it, “he who loves me will obey me”.
- Whether because of disillusionment or the fear of pain, suffering likely causes more people to turn away from unity and from staying with the group, than any other experience. When a person believes that God will bless Christians, but then they struggle, many fall away because they didn’t get what they expected. Many think God is a genie that grants wishes, and when things don’t work out, they leave, or more significantly, they are driven away by the Spirit of God. As the Lord retorted, “Do you think I came to bring peace? No, but division”, beginning in our most intimate family relationships. Our expectation of benefits must submit to what God declares, not to what we personally want now. Per Scripture that means, among other things, that we must endure suffering and hardship to enter the kingdom of God, believing that the promised benefits are more than worth waiting for to be received in the life to come. There are many benefits to faith in Jesus right now, but the most glorious and desired ones that accompany eternal life must wait until the resurrection at the last trumpet.
- Perhaps the most common experience of every Christian is the recognition of our common sinful condition and the dramatic healing offered through faith in what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. We all need a savior, and believers all have that humble admission in common. We know we need help. We know we have sinned against a holy God. We know we don’t deserve his grace, but that he loved us so anyway. That realization, and the common practices of Christian community, like gathering for church, serving shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing communion and our resources, striving to learn, grow, and obey, and celebrating each other’s baptism, propel us forward in powerful unity.
- Unlike any other group, Christians have an unchanging Leader in Jesus. All other groups must consider openly, or subversively, how to conduct the process of succession, when their leader falls. That one fact of reality distorts unity with manipulations, power struggles, politics, and changes to group values, purposes, and benefits. Not so with Christians. We all worship an eternal God, with a permanent Leader, who is both extremely gentle with the repentant and horrifically wrathful to the rebellious. He is a just God, a righteous leader, an infallible decision-maker, and he deeply loves those who belong to him. The real challenge, however, is he chooses broken, fallible, sin-stained, men to represent him as leaders who must give an account of their ministry and service. That should make such leaders tremble. It should also cause group members to interact carefully so as to honor the Lord by submitting and obeying his leaders, while at the same time separating from those who distort the words of God and mislead the members. Walking that line honorably requires complete submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
- As common as symbols of crosses and fish and doves may be to Christians, the primary clothing of the faithful are displays of righteousness. It is how a believer demonstrates genuine Christ-like love that causes the world to take notice of our distinct pattern of living. Our displays of membership are not intended to bring attention to the individual, like unique clothing or fancy hair-dos or glittering necklaces, but rather acts of grace that reflect the will of God to a hurting world. Dressing in the armor of God, and clothing ourselves with the righteous robes of Christ-likeness, and thereby shining like stars in the universe as we promote the word of life to others, will show who is in and who is not.
- We too have a message. True and lasting unity is sustained as we rightly and carefully live out and teach the biblical gospel. Those who distort the truth, who allow mixtures of the culture into the message, who try to fit in and make Christian doctrine more worldly attractive, who think there are many paths to God and that all religions accomplish the same thing, or who strive to improve the Bible with their updated theologies, develop false unity and cannot sustain good news. The word of God is flawless and cannot disappear. It is timeless, eternal, and life-generating. That is why Scripture declares that genuine Christians have been born again by the word of God that stands forever.
The trick to unity is to follow the Spirit of God in applying the Word of God according to the Will of God, in all the ways that make us One.
To this we were called. To this we are encouraged to “seek to agree with one another” in the unity of the Spirit.
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then…I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Phi 1:27-30, 2:1-5)