(Read “When Brothers Dwell in Unity,” a companion article by Rudy Hagood’s brother, Fate Hagood.)
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore (Psalm 133, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version).
I have always been passionate about unity. While it might be a manifestation of middle-child syndrome, I think it’s actually because I grew up in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, which is a unity movement at its core. Of all my core convictions, unity may be my strongest!
I wonder, what would happen if unity were our strongest conviction as Christ followers?
UNITY IS IN OUR DNA
Paul wrote, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3, emphasis added).
Notice, unity isn’t commanded, it is assumed to be in the DNA of believers. It is expected—it’s at the core of Christian convictions. It is as if unity is the nature of one who has been touched by the Holy Spirit.
Divine assumptions are even stronger than biblical commands. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “And when you pray.” He doesn’t ask them to pray. Praying for the Christian should be like breathing to a regular human. We can learn to be better at breathing, but breathing is what humans do. I believe the same to be true of unity. It is why Joni Eareckson Tada says, “Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it.”
Paul highlighted the nature of our unity and the correct disposition for unity. We are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, which is the same as saying we are passionate to keep the Spirit’s unity! We could say, “welcome to the house of God,” or we could say, “welcome to God’s house.” This literally means the Holy Spirit is the possessor or, more strongly stated, the owner of unity. Unity is the prized possession of the Holy Spirit. By this I mean, we have no right to steal from God that which never belonged to any one of us. Unity is God’s. “Unity is already in existence,” Doug Foster says, “we do not create it.” It both exists, and it belongs to God. Tampering with it is to burglarize the bond of peace.
In all of our convictions, unity must be one of our core convictions, a “dogma” even!
Eighteenth-century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Whatever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man.” If we disunite from God, we walk in disunity with man, and if we disunite with man, we trouble the unity we have in Christ.
J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop,said,“Unity without the gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell.” I include Ryle’s words to highlight that I do not speak of a unity without divinity, neither do I speak of a unity without doctrine.
So, let me say it plainly, we do not have a right to walk in disunity. Disunity is not merely sin, it is a sin against the DNA of who we have been created to be in Christ. We, the body of Christ, reflect not only the unity of being in Christ, but the Triune unity of the Godhead.
UNITY IS PERSONAL
This is not just theological for me, but also sentimental. My roots run through two of the three major streams of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. To me, being one is personal. I love this beloved body of believers. I adore our unity movement!
As a kid, I didn’t know the names Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, but now I am grateful for both of them. I grew up running the halls in the noninstrumental Churches of Christ. I not only grew up singing a cappella songs of worship, I also served as an associate minister for seven years at the Metropolitan Church of Christ in Carson, California. My brother, Fate Hagood, continues to serve as lead minister there. (See his article, “What’s Wrong with Our Movement?”) If that is not enough Church of Christ love for you, I have traveled the country raising money for Southwestern Christian College of Terrell, Texas, a Church of Christ school, where I received my first college degree.
My roots don’t end there! I currently serve as lead pastor at University Christian Church in Los Angeles. In the recent past, I have served in supportive pastoral roles at Independent Christian Churches such as Shepherd Church (Porter Ranch, California), Discovery Church (Simi Valley, California), and others. I have two degrees from Hope International University, an Independent Christian Church school in nearby Fullerton. One of the most rewarding things I get to do is speak to hundreds of kids at HIU chapel services. Is that enough Independent Christian Church love for you? I told you, I adore our unity movement! This is not just theological for me, this is sentimental.
I want you to know the depth of my roots within our beloved family of churches and the deep places of my heart that yearn for the essence of who we are. We are a unity movement!We are founded on the oneness of the church, reflecting the Triune unity of God within the one body of Christ!
UNITY IS A DOCTRINAL DISTINCTIVE
I now speak to you as one of two brothers who pastor churches from different streams of one movement. The irony of that is palpable. Let me be clear, it is not the streams that separate us, it is the fish who refuse to swim against the current of division to travel in unity with each other. The pursuit of unity is a main reason our movement exists. Yet, my brother Fate and I have both experienced the pain and stress of division within our movement, and I assume you have, as well. If you haven’t, maybe it is because you refuse to swim against the current in order to return to the source of our streams.
Certainly, this season of aggressive bipartisanship and racial division threatens to further fracture our glossed-over divisions. If you, like me, are a true “Restorationist,” division violently tugs at your convictions. Our Lord Jesus Christ’s prayer of unity absolutely wrecks me!
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20-23, emphasis mine).
Step back and we all can see that we are the objects of division Jesus cries out to God about! Jesus is like a father on his knees praying for his missing children. Yet it’s Jesus praying to his Father for his little brothers and sisters. Jesus is praying due to oxymoronic Christian division. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus had 2020 in mind as he prayed. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” I write with love that we might be one in Christ, that we might fully live, and not be fools.
Considering my own story, as a product of distinct streams of our unity movement, I have experienced the stress of being shunned based on secondary theological convictions. One of our earliest mottos was, “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians,” yet I know what it feels like to be looked on as “less than” or even “not a Christian” based on debatable Christian doctrines. Still, I cling to unity as one of my core convictions.
As an African American, I have experienced the trauma of racial tension within the Restoration Movement. Some look upon my God-given ethnicity as a minimizer of my competency. I share the same story as other pastors of color who had to wade through the discussion of whether a church was “ready” for a Black pastor. Yet, with these disparities in experience, I cling to unity as one of my core convictions.
Jesus prayed for oneness even though he was fully aware of the mosaic of our humanity. Distinctiveness is not divisiveness. Color blindness is a myth. Rather, we require vivid cultural awareness to better view the canvas of God’s fully expressed creativity. Distinctiveness is the full expression of the beauty of the image of God. Yet, distinctions have often led to divisions.
Theology has been a reason to divide. Yet, theology must be our primary reason for uniting. Regardless of political, cultural, or theological distinctions, true followers of Christ are eager to maintain unity! That is the reason I haven’t given up on all of us. I don’t have a right to steal from God that which never belonged to me. Unity is not mine to put down. Unity is a core doctrinal distinction of our Christian faith. It is partially what it means to be a “Restorationist.”
Don’t forget J.C. Ryle’s words (“Unity without the gospel . . .”). I am not preaching a flimsy unity that disregards the gospel. Yes, convictions are necessary. Yes, we must stand on convictions. Yet, among our various convictions, unity must be one of them. Unity is not about some of us. Unity is about all of us.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”