The Foundation for Christian Unity
Key Verse: "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly
united in mind and thought." 1 Cor. 1:10 (NIV)
Purpose: To describe the foundation for Christian unity in a time when denominations are dividing over worship styles, mission direction, and social issues.
Focus: To explain what Paul means when he says that we should agree with another and be perfectly united in mind and thought.
Answer: The cross of Jesus Christ and Baptism in the Name of Jesus Christ is the foundation for Christian unity.
As a student minister in a Presbyterian church I witnessed a church get ripped apart in a dispute over a controversial minister. When the session (board for us Disciples) could not resolve the issue, the matter was taken to a congregational vote. Wherein, 181 voted to retain the minister, while 180 voted he be dismissed. In the days that followed, the minister resigned and half the membership left with him.
What I witnessed is just a mirror of the church at large. Historically, the church divided over theology and doctrine into four major traditions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, and Free Church.
But the carving up of the body of Christ did not end here. Within each of these groups, the church divided even further into smaller camps behind personalities; like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Alexander Campbell.
Drive through rice and grain fields of north Arkansas to the little town of Wiener, Arkansas and you will see it in the flesh. On the main street you will find 6 different churches fighting for the souls of less than 500 people. Imagine that: six mimeograph machines, six organs, six P.A. systems, six paved parking lots with 100 spots, and six sets of flannel board for a town of less than 500 people.
Still, the division does not end here. The body of Christ is still dividing. But this time over worship styles - drums or organs; social issues - homosexuality and abortion; and mission - local or international. Two weekends ago our new area minister was featured in the religion section of the Houston Chronicle. What do you think was the first question the reporter asked him? "Dr. Lynsky, what is your position on the inclusion of homosexuals in the church?" The journalist knows how to sell papers. Go straight to the issues people are fighting about. Is there a foundation for the unity of the church?
The Church in Corinth
In 54-56 A.D., a young congregation was fighting over a myriad of issues in Corinth, Greece. Cliques were forming behind strong personalities within the congregation placing the mission of the church in serious jeopardy. When the founding pastor heard about the quarreling within the church he sat down and wrote a letter, which we now call the first letter to the Corinthians. In the first chapter, this founding pastor and veteran of other church wars, urgently pleads with the young church to put an end to their bickering.
Paul does not begin his letter the way I would begin such a letter to you. I would have begun by asking, "what's wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?" Instead, Paul begins by reminding them what it means to call your self a church. "You are God's church," he says, "and you have been sanctified". (1:2) For those of you who don't know Bible speak, sanctified is just a fancy Bible word that means you have been called by God and set apart by God for a special use. Sanctified - called by God and set apart by God for a special use. That's what it means. And for Paul the unique purpose of the church was the same in Philippi, Ephesus, Rome, and Corinth. They were set apart to preach the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ. Nothing else!
So he reminds them that everything they need to fulfill their calling is in their possession. God has equipped them by:
· Blessing them with his grace in Jesus Christ. (1.4).
· Enriching their speech and knowledge to get the job done. (1.2)
· Providing them with every spiritual gift they need. (1:6-7).
· Calling them into the fellowship of Jesus - a community, the church. They have a team to assist them. They're not in this alone. (1.9)
How can they fail their calling then with everything God has provided them to succeed? They've been graced, enriched, gifted, and fellowshipped. By turning inward upon themselves and bickering with one another. That's how! The book of Revelation describes the great adversary of the church as a dragon licking its lips to devour it. But history has proven many times over the greatest threat to the church isn't outside its walls, but from within them. You will remember from your English courses that Dante reserved the deepest levels of his Inferno for preachers and popes.
Addressing the Division
After 9 verses of undeserved (at least I think so) thanksgiving and praise, Paul finally addresses the issue in 1:10. But the English translations fail us here. They don't really describe the situation adequately. The word division is the right word to describe the situation. But the Greek word used here is much more colorful. Moreover, it is a better reflection of what Paul was feeling when he wrote the letter. The word Paul uses here in the Greek is the word schismata, which has as its English equivalent schism, or factions. Were you listening to the opening hymn The Church's One Foundation? In the third verse we sang; "Though with a scornful wonder the world sees us oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed…" Now that's the idea.
But the word schismata has an even more violent meaning than this. It's the same word used to describe what happens when you rip a fabric into pieces. The church in Corinth didn't just have factions quarrelling within it; it was literally being ripped into shreds by the conflict. And as everyone knows, when a fabric is ripped it can never be restored to its original condition. You can sew it back together, but the scars will always remain. Hence, Paul asks, "is Christ Divided?" in 1:13. Which can mean "Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?" (The Message).
Inevitably, three things happen when a church turns inwards, divides up, and takes sides. 1) One party leaves to establish another congregation. 2) The congregation dies spiritually then numerically, and the doors are closed. 3) The congregation resolves the conflict, knits itself back together, and moves on. But as I have said, should a church discover the resolve to patch the tear, you can't hide the seam. That's why the history of many congregations resembles more of a patchwork quilt than anything else.
The Apostle's Proposal
Of course, the guy who was blinded, beaten, thrown in jail, and shipwrecked for the gospel wasn't one to back down when challenged. He's wasn't the kind of pastor who hides in his office hoping it will mysteriously blow over. (All I got when I tried that method was an ulcer.) Paul was bold. After reminding them of who they were and describing what they were doing to themselves, Paul throws a proposal out on the table. Remember what Rodney King said when L.A. broke out in riots "Why Can't Just Get Along?" That didn't work for L.A., and it wouldn't do for Paul either. So, Paul writes; "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
What Does This Mean?
Wow! Does that mean what it sounds like it means? It sounds like he's suggesting unity can be reached through theological uniformity. And you know what that means. It involves getting everyone to believe the same things. Here's the way to unity then - write a set of creeds on all the issues, get everyone to agree to them, and you'll have the unity you desire. Is that what he's talking about? I certainly hope not.
If that's what he means in this proposal were in big trouble! There's no hope for us. We can't even get everyone to agree on what color the carpet should be. Do you know how hard it would be to get everyone in this room to agree on every important theological and social issue? Take any 10 people in this room, give them a Bible, tell them to write a position paper on Baptism, and you'll get 10 different view points on the subject. We come from so many different backgrounds we will never get everyone to agree on everything. It's a pipe dream. Besides there are those among us who like being disagreeable for the sheer enjoyment of it - and you know who you are.
More than this, our denominational history tells us this is a dangerous quest. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) began with a call to bring unity to the church through the restoration of the New Testament Church. The theory went something like this: use the Bible to determine what we are supposed to be and do as a church. Organize the church then like it's organized in the New Testament and you'll have unity. We can all agree on the New Testament right? Right?
Once again, how do you get everyone to agree on what the Bible says about every subject? Especially when the Bible itself does not have uniform viewpoints on every subject. On some issues there are a diversity of opinions. You can't and the Christian Church split three different times in hundred years because of it. How ironic? A church that began with a clarion call for unity ends up just starting three more denominations that refuse to even acknowledge each other exists, much less share the same history.
Corinth itself is the best argument against this possible interpretation. The city was a major seaport on an Isthmus, which made it a major trade route. This meant that people from many different ethnic backgrounds lived there. It was a hodgepodge of races, religions, and socio-economic groups. Corinth was more like San Francisco than The Woodlands. And the church was no different. It was made up of poor and rich, slave and free, gentile and Jew. Getting the church to a place of theological unity would have been a hopeless cause. Besides we've all seen the emotional and psychological damage that occurs when it's attempted. Remember the Taliban? Obviously, this is not what Paul means here!
The Foundation For Unity
What is he talking about then? Two things really. 1) When Paul says that they should agree with one another he has something very specific in mind. When read in the context of the four chapters of the letter it becomes clear. He's talking about the name of Jesus. We should all agree on the name of Jesus. The message of the church is Jesus. He's saying that's something we should all be able to agree on and build our common life together around. Not a uniform position on the practice of the Lord's Supper, or baptism, or the second coming, or divorce, or the relationship of works to grace - but Jesus. In Romans he puts it this way, If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Ro 10:9). And, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Ro 10:13). That's it for Paul. Nothing else is required to be saved. The Name of Jesus is all.
2) When Paul encourages unity of mind and thought he's not talking beliefs either. He's talking about the mind of Christ. He's saying the way to be united is through having the same mind as Christ. Paul explains what this means in his letter to the Philippians. In the second chapter he writes: (Phil 2:1 NIV) If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 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 interests of others. Your attitude (mind) should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:1-8)
Unity is achieved by considering others better than yourselves, putting the needs of others first, humbling yourself. Our willingness to love and serve one another in humility makes unity possible. In many respects, when he talks about the foolishness of the cross at the end of the reading he means exactly this. He's talking about how the world views people who are servant and other oriented. Its the conviction the world can redeemed by giving your life for someone else, through vulnerability, as opposed too using force to get your way. What a contrast to the self-righteous attempt to get everyone to agree with all your theological positions. We tend to see Paul as more of a Pharisee. But we should never forget there is a very strong ethic for love and tolerance in all of Paul's letters. Faith and hope and courage are great gifts. But the greatest gift is love. Without it you are nothing. (1 Cor. 13).
So the foundation for Christian unity is built on two basic principles. 1) It is the Name of Jesus Christ. 2) It is humble, selfless, love and service. As opposed to forcing everyone to believe the same things. I hope you can hear this. Because this is radical. And most of Christendom has failed to hear it.
With this in mind, we need to remember there was never a golden age in the early church when everyone agreed on everything. Flip through the book of acts to the and you will see Paul and Peter arguing over whether or not non Jewish Christian had to be circumcised. Flip through the book of Acts and you will see Paul and Barnabas cite irreconcilable differences and head their separate ways.
With this in mind, remember there isn't a theological uniformity found in the New Testament either. On many of the important issues of the faith you will find a diversity of opinions and beliefs too. There is diversity present that many fail to see because of the unconscious attempt to harmonize them into a coherent whole.
With this in mind, beware of anyone who says this is the literal word of God (their interpretation anyway) and you must subscribe to it, or you are not a Christian. Not only is this contrary to the mind of Christ, and the spirit of the New Testament, it is also the worst form of spiritual abuse imaginable. Not to mention, it fails to take into account the many varied ways the New Testament has been translated into the English.
When someone says the literal Word of God I wonder which one they are talking about. The NIV? The RSV? The KJV? The NASB? The Greek text? If the Greek text, then which one? The Koine Family. The Western Family. The Alexandrian Family. It's just not that simple.
The history of this church looks like a patchwork quilt too. But God forbid we ever need someone to write such a letter to us. Lest we should need one, let us build our church on the only sure foundation available. 1) The name of Jesus. 2) The mind of Christ. Humble, selfless, love and service.
The naiveté of the early Disciples of Christ may have resulted in three new denominations, but they got one thing right. In the essentials, unity; non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity. Now there's something you can build a church on.