I’m taking a short break from the ROOTED series to work on something for the church here in Narnya. One of the absolutely essential tasks facing the expat worker community and the local believing community here is the recovery of some ways to live out the unity of the Spirit practically. In another post sometime I might unpack why that is so mission-critical here (and, I’m increasingly convinced, everywhere). But today I thought I’d post some of the first section of something I’m writing to strengthen the disciples and fellowships here in my city. I’d love your feedback if you have any – you can contribute to something that might prove very helpful here.
What I’m working on is a brief treatment of the concept of the unity of the Spirit and how to keep it, working mostly from Paul’s letters (as he’s the one who coined the phrase), but also engaging John and maybe James on the topic. I’m thinking I’ll talk in terms of “the Spirit and Unity,” “Christ and Unity,” “the Father and Unity,” “Deviations from Unity,” and “How to Keep it.” Something to give readers handles, and something that follows the relational nature of the Triune Godhead, since the unity of the Spirit isn’t a doctrine to agree with, but a relational reality to be protected and practiced. Below is an early version of an early chapter. The tone and word choice will be slightly different from my usual voice on this blog, since I’m writing to a very different audience, culturally, and because I will have to translate this before publishing. Again, I’d love your thoughts.
In a coffee shop
I want to start with a story that I’m ashamed of. Ten years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in the United States, drinking my coffee and reading my book. Two guys were sitting at a table nearby, discussing something from the Bible and talking about a sermon they had heard that week. I started to listen in, and found myself thinking some pretty terrible stuff.
Wow, what he’s talking about is pretty shallow. That wasn’t much of a sermon. We do a lot better in our fellowship.
People really should come to our Sunday morning meeting, because it’s so much better than the other meetings in this area.
I mean, it’s great these guys are believers, but they really need to experience real spiritual community and solid teaching like we have in our fellowship.
I’m so glad our Sunday meetings are better than the one I’m hearing about right now, and I’m so glad God is working uniquely in our fellowship so we can fix these other churches and set everything to rights.
To be honest, none of these thoughts fully formed themselves in my mind, but I remember feeling these thoughts. I believed these things were true. Such pride. Such foolishness. I’m still ashamed of what was in my heart as I remember that day.
But it gets better. I’m telling the story because the Lord met me at that table. He quietly chastised me. Did I really think that he was working uniquely in my fellowship, and not all the other ones in my city? Did I really think I had some kind of inside line on Jesus? What is wrong with me that I can look at two brothers – my brothers in Christ – two meters away from me and not rejoice that they are attending carefully to their hearts and to the teaching they are receiving? The problem wasn’t the shallow sermon they were discussing; it was the shallow love in my heart for people who are Christ’s.
In that moment the Lord touched me and I had an experience that marked me. I don’t chase experiences, but a discipleship with no experiences doesn’t get far. On that day, at that table, I felt in my heart my connectedness to all the saints everywhere. I sensed in my bones how we are all one – all of God’s people, all those in Christ, are one body, and I felt that. And with it I received a sense of responsibility to care for and serve the whole body, never valuing one part of the body more than another. From that moment on, my relationship to Jesus has been intrinsically tied to my relationship to the saints, and the force and skill with which I love them. On that day, for just a moment, I touched and felt the unity of the Spirit.
The Spirit’s unity
But I want to be clear that the unity of the Spirit isn’t a feeling. It’s not ‘spiritual unity’, but rather ‘the Spirit’s unity’. We’re not talking about a vague idea that we give assent to, nor a mysterious feeling we sense when we like another believer; we’re talking about an objective reality created, maintained, and owned by the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of God has made us one – he has woven us into one fabric, and that fabric comprised of every believer of all times is the Church. What holds that fabric together in reality is the unity of the Spirit – the oneness created and perpetually maintained by the Holy Spirit. It’s a real thing, whatever we believe about it. And this reality is his. We did not create it so it does not matter in the least if we want to be one with a particular person or group of believers. He did not ask our opinion on the matter. We are one.
Oneness is ONEness, not twoness, not manyness. Paul goes to great lengths in a few passages to make this very clear. Let’s explore them.
“There is one body and one Spirit just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
This is a hymn that Paul’s readers would have already known. Apostles in the early church often left hymns with the churches they planted or helped to plant, in order to make certain that core doctrines were preserved whole and in one piece among churches who might not be highly literate or might not have much of the Scriptures available to them. The hymns were the means of preserving teachings the apostles thought were absolutely central and essential to the life of the church.
He quotes this hymn, not to tell them what to believe, but to tell them how to live. He expects them to PRACTICE what the hymn preserves and teaches. What the hymn teaches is the absolute centrality of practiced oneness to the way of Jesus and the life of the church. The clear emphasis is unity.
There is one body. Not 2, not 3, not 7, not 70. In the whole world, there is one church, comprised of all the believers everywhere. In your city, there is one church, comprised of all the believers in your city. One body.
There is one Spirit. We will explore this one a little later, but for now it is enough to say that to offend the unity of the Spirit is to offend the Spirit of God himself. It is not a small matter.
There is one hope. We will all be together in the new heavens and new earth. We are all on the same journey now to the same destination, and our current silly divisions won’t matter then. So why do they matter now? Why do we intentionally live life with Jesus in ways we know we will never live when he appears again? Why do we tolerate divisions now that he won’t tolerate then, and why do we think he is happy with them now?
There is one Lord. There is one King, with one kingdom. Not many little fiefdoms feuding with each other, or ignoring each other. One kingdom, with one King, and none of us are him.
There is one faith. There really aren’t lots of different ‘kinds’ of Jesus-followers. There is one faith. Why do we gather like there are many?
There is one baptism. Baptism is the pledge of allegiance to our One King, and there is only one such pledge. You are HIS, and you belong to no other. There is one chief shepherd, and all the sheep are his. You are no one’s sheep but Christ’s. Submission to him means mutual submission among the saints. In your baptism you pledged allegiance to Jesus, and to all the people who are His. You owe your full allegiance to him, and to all the saints – not just the ones you like or agree with.
There is one Father. So there is one family. He is above all of us, and in all of us. Even those you disagree with, and those who have hurt you. And he is at work through all of us, even the ones whose decisions you don’t like.
There is but one of all of these. One. Paul did not say there should be one Father, one Lord, one faith. He said there is. There is only one church, one God, one Christ, one Spirit.
Paul says that living in this oneness is what it means to live worthy of the gospel, worthy of the Voice that called us.
What would happen if we actually lived like that?
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
Paul paints a vivid picture. Imagine a valley. Down in the bottom, a small band of soldiers stands silently, side by side, shields interlocked, spears hovering over top – locked in formation and standing firm. No cowardice, no chaos. No one running away, no one running headlong at the enemy. Perfect, disciplined unity.
Maybe some of these soldiers have problems with each other from time to time. Maybe they had a fight last night and some harsh words were exchanged. But today, on the battlefield, they will die for each other before they break ranks. Each man’s shield protects the man to his left, and he trusts the man to his right to protect him, whether they are blood brothers, dear friends, or not. Because they are soldiers, and this is what soldiers do.
At the other end of the valley the enemy army has begun to advance. They outnumber our brave friends 20 to 1. As they march on this little band of sword-brothers, our friends still don’t break ranks. They don’t move. They don’t waver. The enemy commanders begin to wonder about their plan. We outnumber them 20 to 1, they think to themselves. Why are they not running away?
And a suspicion grows in the enemy commanders’ hearts. What if this little band of soldiers knows that reinforcements are coming? What if this isn’t going to end like we hope? What if their discipline holds, and they don’t break ranks, and they can hold this ground long enough for their King to arrive with his cavalry, and cut our lines to shreds? What if today isn’t the day they die? What if they hold, and we fall?
As the first lines of the enemy horde descend on our friends, they hold. They fight. They bleed, and some die. But the shield wall holds. They fight as one – as one man with many spears, many shields. They are unmovable, because they move as one. And their enemy’s hearts begin to melt.
This is the image Paul is giving to this church in Philippi – a military city with a long military history, and a church with many soldiers in it. He says that he might be able to come to them, and he might die in prison before he can. But whether he comes and sees for himself, or if he just hears, he wants to hear that they are living worthy of the gospel. Again, worthiness is defined by the apostle as living in practiced unity with all the saints in the city.
The church at Philippi was experiencing conflict, likely driven by disagreements between the leaders (see chapter 4, verses 2-3). Paul doesn’t tell each group to live as one, while they live divided from each other. He says that he wants to hear that ALL the saints in that city are living as one, “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind fighting side by side for the faith of the gospel.” He wants them to fight – not against each other, but alongside each other, for the furthering of the gospel.
When the church lives like that, the enemy (spiritual and earthly) have reason to fear. When she lives broken apart, the enemy always wins, and the church always has reason to fear. Always.
But how far does this one-mindedness need to go? Can we just agree to disagree?
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
When Paul writes letters to churches, he writes to all the believers in a city. Never to one group or another. He will carefully greet each group when that’s necessary, but always the saints in a city are the church at that city.
The letters to the Corinthians were written that way – to all of them. When Paul wrote 1Corinthians, the city church there was broken into factions around their favorite teachers or leaders, the way churches in the States and in Narnya are broken up. Paul writes to them – to ALL of them – in the name of Jesus Himself, saying he wants:
ALL of them to agree
All of them UNITED in the same mind and the same judgement (to come to a shared conclusion)
As you read that, I’m sure you’re saying, “That’s impossible.” And you’re right. Without the Spirit of God, it is impossible. So what?
One more story
I was talking with a dear friend of mine last year. We were discussing this very thing, and I was sharing with him my burden to see the church everywhere live in the unity of the Spirit. He looked at me and said, “It will never happen. Too many people who think they are right. Too many pastors who won’t give up the power they’ve worked so hard to protect. Too many good believers and pastors who just don’t know how to live as one. Too many believers have been taught to fear each other. It will never happen.”
“Maybe not,” I replied quietly, “but I can see only one choice in front of me. I can look at the terrible, sad mess we’ve made of things, and I can accept the current state of affairs as normal – all the while feeling the heartbreak of the Father and watching the world he loves burn down while we busy ourselves fighting each other or marketing our fellowships so people will like us better than the next bunch of believers down the street.
“Or, I can obey the Scriptures. I can decide that I won’t participate in the destruction of the Temple of the Living God. I won’t sit by while God’s beautiful and beloved children defile his table with their hate and unforgiveness, or their simple neglect of each other. I won’t quietly let spiritual leaders nurture bitterness and resentment toward each other, while their cities burn down around them. I will, instead, with all my might, endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and I will beg others to do the same. I will succeed or die in the effort.”
I can say, “It’s impossible; it will never happen.”
Or, I can say, “It’s impossible. Let’s get it done.”
I have made my choice, and what I’m writing to you now is an attempt to help you as you make yours.
Come, let’s live worthy of the gospel. Impossible is what we do.