The Key To Unity
I was excited as I received the opportunity to write for lesson number four this quarter. The scripture verses are some of my favorite ones and it is a joy to dive deeper into this subject. I must admit that the timing of this quarter’s studies and the proverbial elephant in the room/church conversations that seem to be consuming so many can be seen as either exceptionally providential or purposely planned (possibly even both). Either way I do not plan to jump into the fray regarding this elephant but keep us discussing principles from this week’s lesson that can change and touch all of our lives regardless of our views on current events. Words and ideas are simply vehicles and can be used to go many different directions, depending on where we steer them. I pray that our time together will be fruitful and a blessing to each of us.
The key to unity could be considered as the joining of three things: knowing who we are; knowing our purpose; and knowing who we believe in. In fact, that last one can redirect anyone as they allow the God of all grace and mercy to reveal Himself fully in each of our lives (shining in the face and life of Jesus, through the Bible, being led and transformed by the Spirit, through nature, etc.). As we come to know God more, through communion and connection, then He clearly and intentionally reveals who we are and why we are here. As God does that He brings us more and more in unity with those traveling that same direction (see Ephesians 4). Unity is a directional focus, not an external conformity.
Going back to humanity’s beginning, we were united together with a specific purpose to live and glorify God in the garden. Since sin, God has been working throughout history to get us back to that place, both physically and experientially. In short, God’s mission is that we would all be reunited in Christ, redeemed from wherever sin has taken us and reconnected with heaven being put back on God’s mission to live our lives worshipping God, ministering to one another, and being a blessing in the world. Therefore, ultimately, unity is based in mission. When we forget our mission we inevitably destroy unity as we will be fragmented in our many different directions.
Interestingly, when sin entered humanity three distinct things changed. Communion and relationship with God were fractured, we lost our identity as children of God, and we derailed our purpose in life as stewards of this world. In the place of those pristine realities the vacuum was filled with fear, shame, brokenness, loss of community, pride, and self-centeredness that have expressed themselves in a myriad of painful ways throughout history (both individually and corporately). Different authors have described these facts in various ways. History is replete with the undeniable evidence.
This week we are studying how God chose all the world in Christ Jesus and has adopted us back into His royal family. We have received exceptional promises and are even reigning with Christ now in the heavenly places (see Ephesians 1-2). When we accept our new relationship with God we are also in a new relationship with others. There is no longer a layering of people. The walls and distinctions are all gone and we are each invited to a unity of purpose (direction) in our shared identity as children of God participating with God on His mission. Galatians 3:26-29 describes this new transformative position in Christ. What amazing promises! God’s goal in the full plan of salvation is to bring all three lost realities back into our lives: our position, purpose, and united worship. Hallelujah!
Yet, here is the rub for unity. Those are the realities in heaven’s eyes, as they were in the beginning and are even greater in Christ now. Yet, for many of us (either in the church or out, labels notwithstanding), these promises have not been realized. The discord of self continues to shatter the unity of heaven. In the place of God’s glorious provisions, we continue to clothe ourselves with sin’s three counterfeits: seeking approval from others, judging others, and controlling others. Why?
Without the truths that I have been describing of knowing who we are, whose we are, and what our purpose is, we will desperately seek to find meaning and purpose in other ways. If we are not secure in knowing that we are loved by the great God of love, we will try to find that approval from others. If we have lost our purpose of blessing others then we will change our focus and try to control others in order to mask our lack of self-control and purpose. If we are not worshiping the God of love and knowing that He is God and we are not, then we will naturally live our lives judging others in order to feel good about ourselves. Sometimes our ideas and beliefs can become our idols in the place of God. These three counterfeits of self rise up over and over in our lives and constantly lurk beneath the surface of even our best external actions. Wherever they are held they will invariably destroy unity because they are seeking to gain control in going different directions instead of submitting to God and one another in going His direction.
The key to unity is being set free from these lies. “We are to enter the school of Christ, to learn from Him meekness and lowliness. Redemption is that process by which the soul is trained for heaven. This training means a knowledge of Christ. It means emancipation from ideas, habits, and practices that have been gained in the school of the prince of darkness. The soul must be delivered from all that is opposed to loyalty to God.” Desire of Ages, page 330. This emancipation process defines the direction of life where we can find unity. All those desiring this freedom and purpose will be able to find the refreshing gift of unity journeying together.
Yet, in this freedom, we will not necessarily all look and act the same. Unity is moving in the same direction under God’s leadership not external uniformity in action. Each have different gifts and will serve in the uniting purpose of God’s mission in different ways. The challenge for us is to constantly watch for self rising up with the need to judge or control others as God leads them in their lives in a way that we may consider different or opposed to our understanding. We need to keep from having our approval come from humanity but to always be anchored in God. Like Paul, we need to die daily to the insidious lies of self.
One last line of thought before we leave this important subject of unity. Sociologists reference two different ways of looking at groups: centered set thinking and bounded set thinking. Dr. Bruce Bauer has written about this in greater detail in the Journal for Adventist Missions, but I will simply summarize the differences for your convenience here. Centered set groups are focused on their purpose and like the spokes on a wheel they all go to the center. The closer they get to the center the closer they get to each other. The directional focus is the same though the locations and placement on the wheel can be very different. Bounded sets are more like boxes. The important questions are who is in and who is out? What are the criteria for determining membership or uniqueness from others? The boundaries become the ultimate focus.
The obvious question when one looks at those two types of groups are: which one can have true unity? Can the bounded set ever truly agree on the exact boundaries in a way that will fit with all cultures? Or, will there end up being a lot of judgment and even control to make sure that one box can fit all? Bounded sets naturally lead to many smaller boxes with their own particular locus of control. I have trouble seeing unity in that model. On the other hand, centered sets by their very definition have the best chance for unity as they are moving in the same direction. As long as the goal and purpose remain primary then the other differences can be subsumed by the continuous pursuit of the center.
As you study this week’s lesson on the key to unity may the powerful words of Ephesians bless you and invite you even closer to “Christ the great center!” Desire of Ages, page 680. Please join me in praying that Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1 will be realized in our day as the church recaptures its focus on God’s mission. Eugene Peterson captures this prayer powerfully in his paraphrase: “But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing Him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is He is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life He has for Christians, oh, the utter extravagance of His work in us who trust Him—endless energy, boundless strength! All this energy issues from Christ: God raised Him from death and set Him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from His rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ's body, in which He speaks and acts, by which He fills everything with His presence.”
May Paul’s prayer centuries ago help us find the key to true unity.