By Rubel Shelly
How can you and I “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? Here are 10 practices each of us should consider:
• Pray for the unity of the church. If Jesus prayed for the unity of all who would believe in him through the apostles’ message (John 17:20-26), how dare we not pray for it as well? Pray for Christians you know from various backgrounds. Pray for the “tribes” other than your own. Don’t pray for them to change but for God to let you love them.
• Repent of any “tribal elitism” in your own history and heart. Everyone seeks for and (probably) finds a group of churches where they feel comfortable. So, your tribe believes the solid biblical view is X about the millennium, Holy Spirit, worship, baptism, or female pastors. Excellent. But please don’t think it would be impossible for you to be mistaken. We all have blind spots. And if you are correct on everything, the rest of us will more likely be able to learn from you as a humble person rather than as someone sitting in judgment on us from a posture of perfectionism.
• Refuse to caricature or make fun of others. Do you know someone who is “ultra-fundamentalist” or “super-liberal”? Know any jokes about Catholics, Baptists, or Presbyterians? Are you good at imitating Pentecostals or health-and-wealth advocates? It doesn’t have to be limited to religion. The act of making fun of males/females, Blacks/Whites, Southerners/Northerners, and gays/lesbians dehumanizes them and drives a wedge between you and them that prejudices them (perhaps forever) against your Savior.
• Make Jesus the center of your thoughts. Don’t read the Bible to find a novel argument or to answer someone’s position. Read it to grasp the flow of the great story of redemption that leads to Jesus of Nazareth. The more you learn of his lifestyle, teachings, and way of relating to others, the more the indwelling Spirit will imprint his very likeness on you. Jesus saves you, not your scholarship or ability to play Bible trivia and/or win arguments with your neighbors or family members.
• Look for evidence of God’s activity in others. Buzzards fly over thousands of acres of pasture or cropland only to zero in on a rotting carcass. I can fall into that temptation with groups or individuals. If you see what appears to be the fruit of the Spirit in someone’s life, affirm and nurture it with everything in you. Don’t discourage or alienate someone by zeroing in on the wrong in her thinking or the failure in his life. Because you have received grace upon grace, pass it along to others.
• Affiliate with a church that exalts Jesus by a strong and healthy focus on Holy Scripture. “Brand loyalty” used to characterize people in buying cars or appliances. Most people now look for the best value. There is not much “tribal loyalty” left in religion either. The issue is not the name on the sign but the consistent call to the Word of God, faithful exposition of its content, and Jesus at the center of all things. Be faithful in supporting that church with affirmation, money, and time.
• Study what the Bible says about love, acceptance, and reconciliation. These are “doctrines” of the church—just as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, evangelism of the lost, and compassion for the needy are doctrines. No, love doesn’t cancel your obligation to believe and live the truth of the gospel. But your doctrinal soundness is incomplete without a commitment to breaking down the barriers that have worked to fragment his people. The pursuit of the unity for which Christ prayed begins in love for one’s neighbor that allows respectful conversation that can lead to either agreement or a grasp of the other’s point of view. Difference is not deviance, and diversity is not an alternative word for disunity.
• Take “baby steps” toward reconciliation and unity. Ultimately, the unity of the church is not achieved by some sort of institutional realignment or by the establishment of a new, larger entity into which two or more smaller ones may merge. Unity is first and foremost among people. When intelligent and sincere people have an honest disagreement that does not deny an orthodox confession of Jesus Christ, their ability to treat one another as brothers and sisters is a testimony to the power of the gospel to be reconciled to one another. Maybe your “baby step” is to work with Nazarenes, Catholics, and Methodists at a nonprofit homeless shelter or crisis pregnancy center. Maybe you need to cross a racial-ethnic barrier by having a neighbor family in your home for dinner. Find out where a Bible Study Fellowship or Community Bible Study group is meeting and sign up for the next unit of study.
• Know that deep convictions are necessary to unity. There is no authentic unity among people who don’t really care about these things beyond what is “true for me.” A relativistic view of truth is simply a don’t-really-care posture. Our diversity of personalities, understandings of Christian doctrine, and worship preferences should not divide us into warring tribes. Even if we grant that denominations form around interpretations of certain primary doctrines (e.g., infant baptism by Presbyterians vs. adult baptism by Baptists, affusion by Methodists vs. immersion by Churches of Christ), surely there is a point at which we must stop the fracturing. The kingdom of God is not one-dimensional, and there are too many evidences in Scripture that wide spans of difference are supposed to enrich rather than destroy us. The dull homogeneity of enforced agreement is a poor substitute for the rich tapestry of color, ethnicity, gender, and interpretation among Christ followers.
• Don’t be bullied by others’ narrowness. If you choose to seek peace and pursue it, someone will criticize you for it. You will be accused of compromise, although you have not abandoned a distinctive point of view; you will be called liberal, for you have extended your love to someone with whom you do not agree. Pray for your critic rather than abandon your attempt to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Without condescending or quarreling with your critic, draw your circle large enough to include both that person and those he or she cannot accept. It is God’s will to present the broken fragments of the church to the world in visible unity for the sake of answering the prayer of Jesus.
This list of 10 practices was adapted with permission of the author from a handout at Harbor: The Pepperdine Bible Lectures.
Rubel Shelley serves as teaching minister at Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tennessee, and as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Lipscomb University in Nashville.
I have a problem, people preach and teach, making good points with relevant Biblical references; but they are blind to the fact that the applications of the words they shared have to begin with them. Obviously, they are not on par with their teachings and preachings
They deny others of freedom and access to things belonging to others or groups and because those involved are tolerant and seem to apply scriptures more and better than them, I think they concluded that God is with them and blessing them.
But they do not practice what they teach, preach and not considerate about others.
They want others to do God’s will, following their teachings so as to take advantage of someone’s tolerance and obedience to continue hurting others consciously or unconsciously!