By Tyler McKenzie
I love the principles of the Restoration Movement. I was raised in one of our churches, educated at one of our schools, and lead one of our churches. I know all the one-liners:
• Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.
• We have no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no name but Christian.
• We’re Christians only, but not the only Christians.
• In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.
But the most compelling principle to me has always been our commitment to live in the tension between truth and unity. Perhaps it’s time to call for a restoration of that ideal in our movement, because I believe we are out of balance. Honest question: Do we fight for unity with the same enthusiasm we fight for truth? I see this movement’s leaders fighting publicly for truth or sometimes with one another over truth, but I see few fighting for unity. Why is this?
Perhaps preachers have mistaken unity for uniformity. Perhaps ministers confuse changing methods with changing mission. Perhaps theologians elevate an exhaustive list of doctrines to the level of being absolutely essential. Perhaps leaders have allowed our autonomous approach to the local church to turn into a competition rather than a kingdom.
From what I read in the New Testament, unity was an undeniable essential for the earliest church. We desperately need to swing the “truth and unity” pendulum back to a more balanced place. Here are four principles that I hope will move us in the right direction:
Humility—The calling card of the humblest people I know is a willingness to listen. Listening generates empathy and understanding, the key ingredients for peaceful disagreement. It’s saying to your counterpart, “You talk first.” Through listening, we earn the right to be heard. Listening is acknowledging that no one has all the answers.
I’m not suggesting humble people are passive or lack confidence. In fact, passivity often is just a different form of pride. The student who fears raising his hand to answer a question is just as prideful as the one who always raises his hand. Both are self-absorbed. Both care too much about how their peers see them. Humility isn’t about having high self-esteem or low self-esteem. Humility is having no self-esteem, but rather esteeming Christ alone. If you esteem the One who gave his life for his enemies, you will certainly be willing to listen to your fellow Christians.
Accommodation—By its very nature, unity demands joining with people whose views differ from yours, and yes, that is possible to do. It requires making a calculated decision to prioritize common ground over personal opinion, mission over method, Jesus over generational difference. It’s much like the accommodation Paul described in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”* It’s the kind of unity James articulated in his letter to Gentile Christians when he asked them to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled” (Acts 15:29), so they might be in fellowship with Jewish Christians.
Truth—Unity is not uniformity, but it can cultivate it when we lead with humble listening and accommodation. The trick here is sharing the truth in love. We need both in equal measure. Love without truth isn’t love at all. It’s enablement. Truth without love will never be heard because it’s self-righteous. But when we balance both truth and love, suddenly we find ourselves on common ground with a common goal. Suddenly we find ourselves fighting like family rather than enemies.
These first three principles all point to the final one . . .
Cross-shaped love—This is the cruciform love Jesus selflessly embodied and which we bear when we choose to carry our own cross. On April 17, 2016, Bob Cherry, the founding minister of Northeast Christian Church, handed me the baton of leadership. Bob planted the church in 1977, and over 39 years grew the body to about 3,000 people. He’s a living legend, and he handed the baton to me . . . Tyler . . . a 29-year-old kid who was (and still is) overwhelmed and underqualified.
As church succession planning becomes an increasingly hot topic in our movement, most leaders have come to realize transitions are always messy. Several consultants told us one of two things would happen: (1) If we transition wrong, the church would split, or (2) even if we transition well, we should expect a 15 percent loss of people and giving. We took their word for it, did our best to prepare, and braced for the storm. But, I’m humbled to say, no storm has come. In the year since, we’ve grown more than 20 percent as a church, and our culture is healthier than ever.
Why? One word, unity. Not strategy—we aren’t doing a whole lot of things differently. Not staff—it’s basically the same staff. It’s certainly not me—I have no clue what I’m doing. It’s the unity we fought for. And that unity started with the willingness of one man to choose cross-shaped love. From the moment a few years back when Bob told me I was his successor, he made it clear he would have two priorities until transition day—to put the church’s interests and my interests over his interests.
I don’t know if you have ever experienced that sort of radical, selfless, cruciform love in your life, but I did, and its effects were supernatural. I think cross-shaped love either repels others or transforms them. You either run from that love and resent it because it’s just so strange, or you can’t help but reciprocate it. In our context, Bob’s love was contagious. His servant leadership trickled up the organizational chart. My leader chose love, so how could I not? I chose love, so how could our staff not? And our staff chose love, so how could our congregation not?
OUR GREATEST APOLOGETIC
Full disclosure, if I’m being honest (and I am), we aren’t more spiritual than you. We kind of stumbled upon this recipe for success, but we should have known! We should have known all along God would bless unity. Jesus told us this much in John 17:21: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me” (New Living Translation). Jesus said our unity should be so different that it seems divine. It should be so irregular, it’s irresistible.
Perhaps this is the greatest apologetic the American church today has to offer in the United—or, maybe more accurately, the Divided—States of America. Perhaps this is our greatest evangelistic tool. I can’t help but think in a country so clearly divided along political lines, in a day when families and marriages are failing more than ever, in a culture where racial tensions are high, in a time when the old have lost hope in the young and the young have lost respect for the old . . . I can’t help but think we have an opportunity. We have an opportunity to shine the countercultural light of unity and give the watching world a glimpse of the presence of God and reconciling power of the gospel.
How irresistible would it be to see all races, colors, and cultures worshipping together? How strange would it be to see Democrats and Republicans praying together? How awe-inspiring might it be to see a community where the young heed the wisdom of the old and the old encourage the young? Would people not notice if our marriages never dissolved? Would they not wonder about a group that is “one”?
Our Trinitarian God is One because of his commitment to unity. His essence could not be love without his commitment to selfless unity. And so, let it be with us! We know we cannot always be right, but we can unite. We know we cannot always win, but we can be one. And oneness will evoke wonder in this divided day.
*Except as noted, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
Tyler McKenzie serves as lead pastor with Northeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. He is the husband of Lindsay and father to Palmer.