ESSAY
Seven Theses on Practical Unity
POSTED
November 5, 2019

Since moving to Englewood, Colorado, I have been blessed to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts practice of Church unity. The pastors here talk about the One Church in Englewood, and mean it. They love each other, pray fervently for each other, and long for the unity they enjoy to spread to their congregations. Among the participants are Messianic Jews, Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, nondenominational folks. It’s not every tribe, tongue and nation, but we’re getting there.

We’ve done a variety of different things to give tangible expression to that unity. On occasion, we’ve canceled our Sunday services to gather together as one huge body on the high school baseball field, because there was literally no indoor space in town big enough for us all. We’ve banded together to create an annual day of service to meet “safe, warm, and dry” needs for elderly and disabled homeowners in our city. We’ve collaborated in supporting ministries that provide a road map out of homelessness, and mentoring along the way (and banded together to fend off the slanderous assaults of a city government official on one of our ministries). The mission congregation I pastor, which is 95% homeless, is a crossroads for our congregations; it’s not uncommon for a particular night to feature volunteers from 4 or 5 different churches working side by side together.

This to say, my experience in practical church unity affords me a unique perch from which to view the broader discussion. I’m thrilled at much of the conversation, but I also see some key points being overlooked, and so I’d like to offer the following theses on the practice of unity:

  1. Jesus prayed for His people to be visibly unified in a way that would induce the world to believe in Him. Unity has been essential to our testimony and evangelism from earliest days (John 17:20-26). We got to see this one in action, in spades. Our mayor returned to Christ as a direct result of our first joint service -- and people talked about that service all over town for nearly a year afterward.
  2. Paul rebuked Peter for failing to eat with some of Christ’s people, and described it as “hypocrisy,” a failure to be “straightforward about the gospel.” Unity is essential to our confessional and practical faithfulness to justification by faith (Galatians 2:11-21). If we say we believe all of Christ’s people belong to us, but we’re not willing to pray with, eat with, or serve alongside a bunch of them, then no matter what our doctrinal statements say, we really believe that it takes the work of Christ plus [fill in your shibboleths here] to justify someone.
  3. Since practical, visible unity is so important, we must obey as far as we can. Like perfect sanctification, perfect unity will have to await the last day, but that’s no excuse for laziness and disobedience.  When some guy wants to quit his porn habit, you don’t try to slow him down with a speech about the dangers of over-realized eschatology. Don’t give that speech to some guy who wants to break bread with the charismatics, either. We can and should anticipate the unity of the last day now, as Paul insisted and Jesus prayed for.
  4. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. A mentality that defines “neighbor” as “those like me” (ethnicity, confessional agreement, denominational ties, etc.) is exactly what Jesus was speaking against in the parable of the good Samaritan. Loving our neighbors starts with whoever is physically here (Luke 10:25-37). Loving our Christian neighbors starts with whatever Christians are physically here. The Christian family across the street and two doors down -- the one that goes to that weird church on the wrong side of town? -- they are your neighbors. Start there.
  5. Likewise, your neighbor churches are the churches that, in God’s geographical providence, are right down the street. Confessionally allied churches further away are your brothers, and you ought to love them too — but not at the expense of the churches nearby. “A friend nearby is better than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10) Therefore, the task of the moment is to meet the folks in nearby churches and start getting along with them. Institutional unification of the denominations–-and all the problems that will attend it-–is not a necessary prerequisite; it will be the last thing that happens. The zipper starts at the bottom, not the top.
  6. When you dig into practical unity, you will have problems. So what? We’re all sinners, and on top of that, we have an enemy who hates what we’re doing.But I can tell you from experience that the overwhelming majority of the problems you think you’re going to have are never going to happen. (And of course, many of the problems you do have will be surprises. Such is life; we are not as good at prediction as we think.) But since when did we let future problems–real or imaginary–stop us from obeying the Scriptures to the extent that we can?
  7. Obedient unity comes at the expense of various forms of purity that have become precious to us. Let us be sure that we prioritize what God prioritizes. It’s possible to make a serious mistake by focusing on the wrong good thing. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very focused on ritual and moral purity, and that focus blinded them to God in their midst. We don’t get hung up on ritual and moral purity, and so we think we have learned that lesson--and then we get hung up on doctrinal purity instead. Purity is a good thing. But if we focus on any form of purity as the bullseye, then like the Pharisees, we will make ever-finer divisions in pursuit of ever-greater purity, at the cost of leaving more and more of the Body behind. By contrast, if we do what Jesus told us to in the Upper Room discourse and focus on love and unity, it’s been my experience that we grow toward greater purity together.

Tim Nichols is a pastor at large with Headwaters Christian Resources and a massage therapist in Englewood, Colorado. He is a coauthor of the Victorious Bible curriculum.

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