Why We Must Redefine Christian Unity

March 27, 2013

Before Christians invented side-hugging, they expressed Christian unity by awkwardly hugging and nuzzling each others’ faces. Thankfully, expressions of Christian unity were redefined.

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I spent two years at a small Christian college…

…before I had to get out.  I transferred to a state school to finish my art degree.

The first reason was because a Christian college isn’t really the place to learn art.

But honestly, those two years at Christian college was one of the spiritually darkest times in my life.

Now, how could a small town Christian college, with its chapel sermons and curfews and the guys playing exactly three guitar chords all over the quad, be one of the darkest places for my spirit?

It was because of how a place like that defined Christian unity. 

And the further I get away from college, the more I realize how many Christians define unity in the same way – a definition that actually creates disunity.  I have realized our desperate need to change how we think of Christian unity.

Everyone Has to Get Along

What appalled and troubled me the most at college – more than the guys who pretended to play guitar, more than the cheesy praise band with its fifteen tambourines and electric drums, was the emphasis on unity.

And when I say unity, I mean agreement.

For an institute of higher learning, the emphasis was not on tough questions, critical thinking, or deep learning.  It was assuming everyone agreed.  It was assumed that everyone was the same kind of Christian (i.e. the right kind.)  There were students who wanted to cleanse the library of all non-Christian literature, I presume because they thought they were at church camp and not at college.  Even a professor lambasted us students on how little we questioned, preferring to “get along.”

It was a spirit of group-think that made me rebel.

Enforced “Unity”

It is this same emphasis on agreement that permeates churches everywhere.  Agreement becomes another legalism, enforced by silencing questions, discouraging honest dissenters.  And pretty soon, a church becomes just another dysfunctional organization, where no one speaks up, out of fear of the group’s judgment.

I even see this same agreement enforced here at times in the supposedly open world of blogging.  We all claim to be open-minded, inclusive, welcoming of questions and deep thought.  But behind the anonymous mask of our keyboards, we have no problem angrily putting someone in his place when a blog post steps on our toes.

And thus, even bloggers have to watch what they say, for fear of how the community of other anonymous bloggers will enforce agreement.

“Unity” Is Not “Agreement”

Let’s get this straight once and for all.

Unity is not the same as agreement. 

Agreement does not produce unity, and you can have unity without agreement.

How is this possible?

It’s called love.

Love is what unifies people, even when they do not agree. 

Love binds spouses, even when they vehemently disagree.  Love is what binds Christians together.  Without love, they burn one another at the stake (or flame them online.)

We have to redefine unity to not be a synonym for agreement.  Because unity is so much better than mere agreement.  When we are unified, everyone is heard, accepted, validated and loved, despite our disagreement.

The greatest gift we can give each other is not our agreement, but our unity.

Promoting Real Unity – Despite Disagreement

Let me list, off the top of my head, a few ways that we as bloggers, as Christians brothers and sisters can be unified.

Make a Choice.  Unity is a choice we make or break.  There are plenty of bloggers I don’t agree with, some I never agree with.  But I acknowledge them as brothers and sisters, and I pray for our blogging community, that the questions we ask and the words we write would be edifying to people.

Assume the Best.  This is Christian Charity 101.  I know the news makes it look like most Christians are hateful monsters.  Let’s not believe what the news wants everyone else to believe.  Even when I wholeheartedly disagree with a Christian or blogger, I give them the benefit of the doubt.  I assume their heart is in the right place and their motivations are pure.  Once we start impugning each others’ motivations, the conversation is over, because we are attacking each other ad hominem.

Matthew 18:15.  In this little passage, Jesus talks about confronting brothers and sisters.  The key for Jesus is to confront people discreetly, privately.  Is that blogger spewing “hate” and “lies?”  Why not try emailing them privately, to see if you can come to an understanding, rather than flaming them on Twitter?  You’ll give the other the chance to clarify what may have been unintentionally provocative, and you might make a friend rather than an enemy in the name of “unity.”

What do you think?  Have we mis-defined “unity?”  How can we promote unity in our churches and online even in disagreement?

20 responses to Why We Must Redefine Christian Unity

  1. Well said. Too many of us seem afraid that if “the world” sees us disagreeing on Facebook or whatever then they’ll know we don’t line up on every single issue like we “should”. As if it’s a secret. Ha!

    I think Christians respectfully disagreeing and still breaking bread together is a better witness in the long run. This is why as one who considers himself mainline protestant beliefs wise, I still attend a Baptist church and am more than okay with that. There’s a lot of humility in that place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a safe place to disagree.

  2. Man, I’m glad we don’t nuzzle each other’s faces anymore, I can barely shake people’s hands.

    I’m struggling to understand exactly what unity means in this context. I feel like an idiot, like I’m missing something. Perhaps because I typically take the weenie way out in most situations. If I don’t agree with someone, repeatedly, then I stop reading, following, hanging out with them. That probably isn’t the best thing to do, but I think I’ve, personally, been so brainwashed by people I trusted that it’s hard for me to trust anyone now. If I find myself disagreeing with a person, I run.

    Crap, it just dawned on me that I’ve got some issues.

    Then the whole ‘assuming the best’ thing. I don’t do that at all. I almost always assume someone has a hidden agenda…until I pray about it. Then, usually, God will help me see that person from a different angle.

    Okay, clearly, I have some praying to do.

    • Don’t we all, Kate? :)
      Seriously, if unity was an easy thing to accomplish, Paul wouldn’t have spent so much time talking about it and we wouldn’t have 30,000 denominations. It doesn’t come naturally. Unity is a spiritual discipline.

  3. Assume the best is, to me, pretty much the first place we HAVE to go to practice unity, particularly online where we are are missing body language and inflection and the ability to hug after something hard.

    I think sometimes it’s okay to disengage and take a break when we’re not feeling charitable. Sometimes that’s necessary. But yes, I think we can love – REALLY love, not the crappy pretend “love” that we talk about all the time – people with whom we have disagreements. I see it all the time and while it requires vulnerability to do that, the rewards are so great.

  4. i’m a big believer that unity is not uniformity, and it is certainly beneficial to assign positive intent, but people frequently say and do hurtful things with good intentions, and i see a lot of christians not wanting to take responsibility for their words simply because they meant well. and matthew 18 gets misused a LOT online. personal conflict ought to be handled directly and privately, but public comments invite public comment. yes, we’re responsible for our words and behavior, but matt 18 isn’t meant to silence critique or accountability for public discourse. it can be a tool/weapon used to promote the kind of “unity” you’re arguing against.

  5. This conversation brings to mind a sermon I heard by Tim Keller. He was talking about how our culture elevates what is known as multiculturalism defined as all cultures’ values are equal. Rather than affirming that, he said we need to realize that all cultures have blind spots.

    If you are only with people who are like you and affirm what you think, you will never see your blind spots (sins). Only in diversity of thought and belief (individually, culturally etc.) will we know Jesus fully.

    “The work of love is hard.” -Mike Emlet, CCEF

  6. Mmmmkay…you don’t like “enforced” Christian unity, or maybe the “enforced appearance of unity”, but if Christian bloggers disagree they should just communicate about it via private emails…so as not to…what? Give the appearance of disunity?

    Color me confused, I guess.

    I don’t see how you can apply Matthew 18:whatever here, anyway. This is a blog. You are (theoretically) plastering your thoughts up here for the whole internet to read. If you get blowback about them once in a while, I think that’s more of an occupational hazard than anything else.

    • I suppose Matthew 18 applies when Christians start attacking each other (and others) personally instead of discussing the issues.

  7. Rebecca Waldenberg March 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    I love honest discussion, even sometimes misinformed and biased. As long as I’m not taken out at the knees for giving back, honest discussion, tho sometimes misinformed or biased.

    I had a mindset for many years that had a paradigm shift when my best friend asked me where I got my information from. Well everyone knew what I was talking about. Surely she was jesting…and then I realized, there are a whole bunch of Christians, who didn’t think like me, talk like me, worship like me. After my shock, I realized I preferred them over my own brand of worship. I was allowed to bring my brains back out of the closet and reintroduce myself to a life long yearning for learning.

    Now I ask the hard questions. Needless to say, I’ve lost some old friends. I feel more alive, more in touch with the ability to hear what God has to say to me personally. I had to work very very hard over many years to get over the fear that God would strike me with lightening. That idea, in and all by itself should lend truth to the matter that my faith was borrowed and not personal.

    I’m loving God with my whole heart soul and MIND. And I’m loving my life!

  8. I love this blog!

    Recently, my daughter and I read _A Wrinkle In Time_ by Madeline L’Engle. And the heroine in the story, who is thrust into a world ruled by evil, where everyone is controlled by a pulsing noise that makes them do the exact same thing at the exact same time, makes the comment “Alike is not the same as equal” which is really close to what you said. God doesn’t call us to agree with everything, but to love in spite of our different opinions. It is sometimes hard to do this, though because it is so easy to think that having someone disagree with you is the equivalent to a personal attack. Unfortunately, I think this has become a cultural belief.

  9. We do have our differences. But our commonalities in Christ ought be our focus (a bit more than we do now, anyway).

  10. This: I want this tattooed in the palm of my hand:
    Unity is a spiritual discipline.

    (okay, maybe I’ll just write it there. Lots of nerve endings in our hands).

    The one really, really valuable thing I took away from 5 or so years at one of those really.big.churches.with.a.famous.pastor was this:

    “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

    We can, and when disagreement is the order of the day, we must find ways to do it with kindness.

  11. Wow, as a seminary trained physician guitar player on a worship team, this post really struck me. I agree unity can not be forced and barriers to it (generally more personal than theological in any given individual community of worship) can be overcome. But overcoming those barriers oftentimes involves (at least for me) a willingness to check my own spirit. If 3 guitar chords can lift a church to worship, ok I will play just 3 (although I do play more than that if you care to listen to some of my classical and fingerstyle samples on soundcloud). Also I have never been in a faith situation where I was not able to ask or was not willing to listen to tough questions (secular university, seminary, med school or ministry). Ask away, the “tough questioners” oftentimes are truly seeking and the most interesting to talk to. Other times not so much…

  12. Great post!

    – Ammon
    A Mormon Christian

  13. just yesterday I was reading/pondering Ephesians 4:2b-3, “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
    …which is basically what you just described. Way cool to read it here too. :)

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