Welcome to the first installment of the Adult Education Archive Series!
Below is Bethlehem member Jeremy Solomon’s summary of his series on “Unity”, given in the fall of 2019.
Unity isn’t just convenient for the Gospel. It’s essential.
“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
Unity between believers may be the most underappreciated message of the Apostle Paul. In his letters scattered across the world of the first century, Paul pleaded for his readers to set aside the issues that were causing divisions among them. If the churches achieved this, Paul saw the Kingdom of God as thriving on Earth, standing together against powers determined to bring the world into pride and despair.
For Paul, the presence of unity was the most powerful symbol of the reconciliation between God and man. It was not only a reconciliation between God and individuals, as we so often imagine in our faith. Rather, the hope of the Gospel included the unification of believers to one harmonious unit, with Christ as the cornerstone of this majestic work. Unity wasn’t a simple convenience for Paul, crossing his fingers and hoping the congregants would get along. Instead, it was a critical work of the ministry, bringing true fulfillment to Christ’s death and resurrection.
Unity is an intentional act while isolation creates contempt.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Unity, as with any creation of beauty, requires work. In this case, the work requires our active engagement with others. If we consider ourselves to be part of the Kingdom of God, then we can’t ignore or dismiss believers we disagree with. Think of someone who this applies to in your life. Maybe you had a political argument over Thanksgiving dinner, or maybe there was an awkward Bible study with heated words over interpretations. Or maybe you just read their posts on social media, made instant conclusions, and you now hold silent judgements of the writer. The influence of the Gospel is diminished and tarnished with these behaviors.
Living in disunity is nothing new to life in America. In the decades after the Civil War, veterans of each side had regular gatherings to prop themselves up as the virtuous side of the war. At the same time, they condemned the other side as traitors, murderers, conquerors, etc. All of this occurred in private social clubs, having no dialogue with those who disagreed. The same isolation happens today as our single source of news may come from Fox or MSNBC, depending on your point of view. Hearing only one perspective, and associating only with those who agree with us, we’re likely to dismiss others as stupid, a joke, or even worse. In any case, isolation breeds contempt in each of us as we condemn others and forsake any camaraderie with “them”.
Arthur Brooks, the author of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, provides a powerful definition of contempt. The nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined contempt as “…the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” Our lives of self-isolation, whether passive or intentional, allows contempt to grow within ourselves. We come to see ourselves as righteous while others are not only wrong, but not worth talking to. This is the mindset that most of us passively come to accept in our lives, and we will never bring ourselves to the unity that Paul pleaded for churches to reach.
Unity isn’t easy, but we can do it.
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
You may think of unity as an unassailable goal, and indeed, centuries of church history could be evidence for it. But as with all our efforts to conform to God’s will in life, unity isn’t easy. However, the level of difficulty in doing something isn’t indicative of God’s desire for us to do it. Unity is among the actions of charity and love that we should all be striving to achieve in life.
Having interactions with others is essential to unity, but it is critical to bring yourself to a place of having humility and openness. When someone expresses an opinion contrary to ours, the immediate instinct is to roll our eyes, make judgements, and organize counter arguments in our minds while the other person is still talking. We should instead think of listening as more than a simple courtesy. It’s an intentional act of love, and a starting point for building any relationship. It is difficult to have this intentional mindset, but it should be the first goal of our interactions.
In this process, recognize that the person you disagree with, more than likely, has a positive goal that inspires their opinion. If we can learn what motivates another’s opinions, we can find that they’re not coming from a place of malice or evil intention. This will bring us to better impressions of them, regardless of our opinions. Consider Romans 14 with the issue of whether or not it was okay to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods. Was it blasphemy to eat the food? Side “A” said that it was, but side “B” didn’t believe it betrayed allegiance to God. Side A saw those on side B as unfaithful, and B saw A as judgmental. But in the end, both sides loved God and wanted to pursue the goals of the church. If each side had worked to see this of the others, there would have been much less strife for Paul to deal with. In short, try to appreciate the goals of the other person(s), which will build camaraderie.
Also, make some measure of room within yourself for an opportunity to learn something new, or to even change your mind on an issue. This is a frightening notion, and indeed, fear is at the heart of the anger and bitterness of countless examples of church divisions. But as the Apostle John wrote, perfect love casts out fear. If we have the intention of listening, with an openness to perhaps learn something we didn’t know before, we will fulfill our duty to love others. We can be steadfast in our views without having contempt for those who don’t agree.
Do your best, come what may.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
If we are to be the true embodiment of God’s Kingdom, then unity must be much more to us than a way of making family holidays easier. It is a duty of faith that Paul called on us to strive for. At the same time, it’s fair to say we won’t be successful finding harmony with everyone. People will behave as they will, no matter how we approach them. In the times when others are unresponsive, or even antagonistic, take comfort from Paul’s words to the Romans. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We can’t control how others will respond to our attempts at unity and reconciliation. But there is a divine charge on each of us to do what we can to reach for this goal. As a sports fan might say, just do your best, and leave it all on the field. You did what you could.
In any case, we can’t think of our modern differences as being any more intense or divisive as those of the first century. No matter what the context, unity brings the Gospel to a greater fulfillment as we love one another. It’s not just a happy atmosphere that we hope someday comes to pass. It is a duty to seek out, with the results having as much of an impact on the Kingdom of God as any other virtue in life.