There is something transcendently unifying when a group is engaged together in a singular, heroic cause. For instance, historians have often highlighted the camaraderie and esprit de corps they have found among the members of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps embodies, perhaps more than anything else in American public life, a brotherhood–forged in the forest of Belleau Wood, on the sands of Iwo Jima, through the bitter cold of Chosin Reservoir, and in the streets of Fallujah. The Marine Corps represents an ethos which has gripped the American imagination since our nation’s inception. And that ethos centers around the fact that Marines fight America’s toughest battles. When I entered the Corps in 2007, it was at the height of our involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan War. As Marines we shared a common enemy and a common mission and our success depended on our unity as Marines. In this war-time environment, it was normal for Marines from every socio-economic background in America to forge close friendships with each other. I served with Marines who loved those of different ethnicities as much or even more than their own families, and they were willing to lay down their lives for each other. It really did not matter whether you were white, black, Asian, Republican, Democrat, poor, rich, or something in between (not that these identities and distinctions are unimportant), what mattered was that you were a Marine and that we needed each other to win the fight against a formidable enemy.
By way of contrast, our ethnically, politically and socio-economically diverse nation is currently rift with division. Rod Dreher and many others predicted that this is exactly where we would be, after President Trump was elected. It is also not surprising that the wider divisions in the culture have seeped down into the Church. What is surprising is that rather than seeking to maintain biblical unity by the means outlined in the New Testament, some in the Church are turning to secular social constructs and methods–advocating for their use in the Church. It seems that the sufficiency of Scripture is being compromised by many who continue to give lip service to its inerrancy and authority.
That being said, in the midst of all the political and ideological division in our nation, the Church has a golden opportunity to achieve and model true Christian unity. Our unity should be a central part of our prophetic witness to this culture. We need to turn back to the Scripture to discover how that unity was achieved and how it is to be nurtured and maintained among the members of Christ’s body.
New Testament Unity in the Gospel
The New Testament emphasis, over and over again, is that true Christian unity is only built on a right understanding of the gospel. No matter our national allegiance, economic background, political party, or ethnicity, the gospel unites believers in one faith, one ‘body’ (1 Cor 12:12, 17). This is why Paul, a devout Jew, called Titus, a young Greek, “my true child” (Tit 1:4). To what does Paul attribute this close relationship (which, incidentally, contradicted the social boundaries of the ancient world)? He called it the “common faith” (Tit 1:4). It should not be lost on us that it is the gospel and a unity in orthodox doctrine which enables a once prejudiced Jew to call a former godless Greek his own legitimate son. It is also the gospel which enables Paul to write to the Romans, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you–that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mind” (Rom 1:11-12). Our common Christian faith is to bring us together above everything else and cause us to give encouragement to one another. The true gospel and the true gospel alone must be our primary focus–as Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasized so well at the height of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century.
It is our knowledge and love of God and the Lord Jesus Christ which transforms our relationships with one another. As Jesus taught, it is those who obey the gospel who are His true “mother and brothers” (Matt 12:49). The family of God outstrips all our other allegiances and affiliations. This includes our allegiance to a political party or ethnicity. Identity, and therefore unity, in the New Testament is almost always linked to the fact that we have been united to Christ in faith through the gospel. This is surely Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:26-28, where the Apostle wrote,
“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul was not insisting that these other identities do not matter (indeed he makes a great deal about Jewish identity in Romans 9-11 and male and female identity in Ephesians 5); rather, he is highlighting the fact that these identities are inconsequential when it comes to our standing in Christ. Nor should they be the primary emphasis in matters of Christian unity and fellowship with one another. This is also Paul’s point in the second half of Ephesians 2, but I am not going to belabor the point.
On the flip-side, the gospel is also an equal-party offender. Paul’s point in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians is crystal clear. Both Jews and Greeks were confronted by the message of the cross because it grated against their pre-conceived expectations of God–the Jews could not stand that their messiah could die the death of one cursed by God and the Greeks thought it foolishness that a powerful God would allow himself to be abused and killed. But the message of the gospel, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks” is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). This is why it is a travesty if our local church congregations do not reflect the ethnic diversity of our surrounding communities. For example, an ethnically monolithic church in a diverse geographical community is an affront to the unity the gospel produces among believers. For God is also an equal party elector and Savior. I could say a lot more here, but I think the point is made. The gospel is meant to break into diverse communities and bring a united people together who, by the world’s standards, are not supposed to be united.
The New Testament Mission of God
The second principle of New Testament unity is a resolute focus on the mission of Christ. Christ charges us to “make disciples” through the proclamation of the gospel (Matt 28:19-20). Paul emphasized over and over again the necessity of gospel preaching in cultures, rife with issues of injustice (e.g. 2 Tim 4:2, Tit 1:3). It was this focus and the spiritual battle against the forces of darkness, which oppose this mission, which united the Church together.
In our day, many issues of justice such as abortion, slavery and human trafficking, or the treatment of refugees are important…very important. But they are not the primary mission of the Church. Nor are those issues what the Church is to be united around. Not that the Church cannot speak to those issues or that individual Christians cannot engage those issues of injustice with great success, but cultural transformation is not the primary mission of Christ’s Church.
In the pages of the New Testament we discover that the early Church rallied around its primary mission, which was and is the proclamation of the gospel. As Christ’s Church we have been commissioned with the most important mission in history. It is Christ’s mission. And this mission demands all of our effort and energies as well as our unity in the gospel. We also have the most formidable enemy that has ever existed: Satan himself. Satan would love nothing more than for Christ’s church to be divided against herself arguing about privilege, power, and political affiliation. Such discussions, in light of our daunting mission, are like stopping to debate about who is holding the fire hose and who is cranking the ladder in the midst of a five-alarm fire. We can be sure that when the Church leaves her primary mission behind and leaves her flank exposed in division that Satan is rejoicing.
When We Sin Against Each Other
Even when we are unified in our identity in the gospel and thoroughly engaged in Christ’s mission, there will be times when we sin against one another. Christians will inevitably offend, and sadly sometimes grievously hurt, one another. Sometimes we offend even when we do not intend to do so. This leads to the third principle of Christian unity. Believers are called by God to relentlessly love one another. 1 Peter 4:8, Peter says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Our love for one another is an overflow of Christ’s love for us (1 John 4:7). Our hearts are to overflow with love for one another inn such a way that our “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). We are to think the best of one another and we are to be quick to extend forgiveness to one another (Col 3:13). This is key to our preserving the unity that we already have in our mutual union with Christ.
There is no room in the Church for harboring bitterness against a fellow Christian. There is no room for demanding that wrongs be repaid or ‘reparations’ be made–as some have recently been suggesting. There is no room for continually harboring doubt and distrust towards those who indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. Rather, we should be defined by a spirit of love and forgiveness. This love for one another, even when wronged, is what will stun our embittered culture.
In our divided culture, unity in the Church will be only nurtured and maintained, using the methods and principles that Jesus and the Apostles have outlined for us in the New Testament. If all of the members of our churches would commit to holding fast to our unifying identity in the gospel, relentlessly engaging in Christ’s mission of gospel proclamation, and being clothed in Christian love for one another, our churches will be those that effectively maintain unity. These bodies of believers, from diverse backgrounds and ideologies, will serve as beacons of unity in a divided world. I’m hopeful that the Holy Spirit will do a great work among us to this end. This is our time and our opportunity to maintain and model unity God’s way.