The epistle talks about unity and the work that is necessary to maintain it: “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).
The cause of disunity and the means of unity.
Unity and peace are popular and sentimental topics, but they are extremely hard to achieve and maintain. It is easier to sing songs about unity, to wax poetic about the prospect of all people being one, than it is to actually be united with other people in a real and enduring way.
As Christians, we understand that unity is a work of restoration and reconciliation. God is three in one. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exists from eternity is as a peaceful, ordered and beautiful unity. God created the world to reflect this unity. Genesis tells us that rebellion against God by angels and man destroyed the unity of the creation. This is Christianity 101. God made the world good and unified. That goodness and unity was destroyed by sin. The Son of God became man to redeem the world and restore the creation to union with God.
This is a basic point, but it requires emphasis in our time. Many Christians, who ought to know better, end up supporting schemes for peace and unity that ignore the basic truths of the biblical revelation. If the problem with the creation is sin, then any scheme for unity that does not address the reality of sin can never fully and finally solve the problem.
Fallen humanity attempts to achieve a unity that ignores human sin. The Tower Babel is the earliest recorded effort. We will erect a monument to ourselves; by human labor we will build a pathway to heaven so that we may all be one. The end result was a confusion of languages and people were “scattered abroad over all the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:1-9). Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel: God came down to us by means of the Spirit. God unified the different languages so that all proclaimed the wonderful works of God. God made the many to be one (Acts 2).
Of course, there is need for temporary solutions. Treaties, military alliances and court ordered settlements are needed to protect people and maintain some kind of external unity and peace. We ought not to oppose provisional means of keeping people from killing each other. But we must always know these are not the final answer. Ultimately, unity will be achieved when the prayer, “Thy kingdom come thy will be done” is fully answered.
We must work for unity right now.
However, this is not an excuse to be content with things as they are. We are called to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom now. We are called to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice that we work to maintain, not create unity. Unity is God’s gift to us in Christ. By the gift of the Spirit, we have been restored to union with God, and we have been united with each other in the Communion of the Saints. We must fight to maintain this unity and bring others into it.
We have a universal hope, but a local and personal vocation. Sometimes the quest for unity is presented as a policy decision. If we can establish the right plan and make everyone to follow it, all will be one. The biblical model for unity is Incarnation. God became man. God did not begin the work of reuniting the world to himself by making a policy statement. He began the work by entering into the human story. Unity began in a Bethlehem manger and spread outward from there. Jesus called people to enter into the unity of the kingdom by calling people to repentance and faith. His followers, in turn, called more people into that unity.
What about the complaint that the church itself is divided? The answer is the same. We can’t solve the large picture policy problem. We can only work for unity in the places we actually have influence: in our actual church, family, friendships and work. Debating how to reunite east and west, or trying to figure out how to reunite the churches that were divided in the Reformation never really promotes unity. However, being faithful Christians who labor with longsuffering, forbearance and love to maintain unity in our actual churches, families and relationships does further the work of unity. Being a faithful Christian who interacts with Christians from other churches in charity and truth does actually promote unity.
There are certain foundations for unity that we must fight for if we want to maintain and spread the unity that comes from God.
The first foundation is Truth. There is one faith, one Lord, one baptism. This truth is enshrined in the Creeds. We are one because we all profess a common faith. We face a common altar. We say all say “amen” together to the prayers.
Heresy and false teaching undermine unity. Heresy results when one rejects God’s revelation and says: “I choose to believe my own doctrine.” One cannot experience the Trinitarian unity if one rejects the Trinity! This is why promoting unity sometimes involves contention. We must fight against false belief. Priests take a vow in ordination to “be ready with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away from the church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s word” (BCP 542). The idea that everyone can have his or her own truth is attractive in our time; but it is false and undermines genuine biblical unity.
Another foundation for unity is repentance: We must recognize, and continue to confess, that we are all sinners in the process of being saved. We are forgiven and we are being changed. We are unified in our common opposition to sin within ourselves. If a member of the church refuses to acknowledge his sin, or regularly practices something that is contrary to God revealed will, that person undermines the unity of the church. Willful disobedience promotes disunity.
Repentance means that I will always be aware that my own sin is always a threat to unity. It means that whenever there is a dispute that threatens unity, I will begin by asking what my own actions and faulty motives have contributed to it. Reconciliation that restores unity almost away involves mutual confession.
Another foundation of unity is a common mission. We are all working towards the same thing: We all follow Christ, worship God and work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom. We each use our gifts in service towards that common goal and aim. Together we discuss our mission, share our strong opinions and reach a common sense of what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. Then we work together with others in the church so that more can be accomplished together than by any one of us alone.
Personal agendas and lack of commitment undermine unity. When someone wants to accomplish something other than the mission of the church and when work with faulty motives, it undermines the unity of the church. When someone gossips or privately sows seeds of discord among brethren, it undermines the unity of the church. When people lack the commitment to live the life of prayer, be faithful stewards or use their gifts in service, it undermines the unity of the church. That is to say, the non-committed undermine the army of God in the same way that uncommitted soldiers undermine the unity of a regular army.
A final foundation for unity is simply putting up with each other—loving each other as we actually are. The great and attractive idea of unity and peace most often fails because petty animosities and personality differences fester and become cancerous. Promoting unity means being willing to love the people in church that I have the hardest time loving; it means putting up with them, forbearing them and suffering long with them. It means desiring what is best for them. It may be helpful to remember that “I” may be the person that someone else has trouble loving!
–A rule of engagement. Be quite about anything that you are not willing to openly and lovingly confront with the other person.
Unity requires humility. Humility, like unity, is a divine attribute. It can only be fully developed by those who know God and are being made whole by him. Genuine humility has nothing to prove and does not need the approval of others. It is able to serve and take the lowest place because it is confident of its gifts and standing with God. Thus, it is able to freely give itself for others.
We work for the goal of unity and peace when each of us strives, to “walk worthy of the vocations with which you were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”