January 23, 2021

All the Little Reasons That Matter Too Much: Thoughts on Christian Unity

unityicon3.jpgWhen you’ve been in the same ministry for fifteen years, experiences tend to repeat themselves. It’s deja vu, only for real.

I’m going to tell you about one of those experiences.

New staff are always excited about being in Christian service with other believers. Sometimes in those first few weeks, they will look me up. They see me leading worship, they hear that I am the campus minister and they come to talk to me about their excitement in being a servant of Jesus in our ministry.

Those conversations almost always go well. We’ll be friends. They will come to the things that I lead. They will say good things about my sermons. I’ll be encouraged. Partnership in the ministry is a good thing.

Then something will happen. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but it happens so many times that I live in the strange feeling of a repeating cycle.

It goes like this.

They see me reading a John Piper book and they don’t like those Calvinists. (I’m not one, but so what?)

They discover we do blended worship, not just contemporary, and they don’t like it.

They discover that I’m not charismatic and I don’t especially encourage (or discourage) charismatic worship, and they don’t like it.

They compare our ministry to their home church, and we’re not the same.

They decide that we don’t pray enough, and they want us to pray more, preach less.

They want us to cast out demons, and we don’t so they are unhappy.

I don’t do intense, manipulative invitations, and they think we should put more pressure on the students to “accept Christ.”

They have ideas for ministry that worked at their church, but which we can’t do in our setting, and I look narrow and controlling.

They find out that I use a bit of liturgy (Call to worship, Lord’s Prayer, Doxology, responsive Psalm) on Sunday mornings and they say it’s dead, formal worship.

And our relationship changes. No fights or arguments. No quitting or warzones. Just a distance. Steps back and away.

I don’t like the feeling, but I’m used to it. It doesn’t change how I lead or love, and I’m realistic about what happens when diverse Christians work together. Still, it’s painful and unfortunate.

I’m a very catholic and ecumenical person in ministry. That’s how God made me in my own salvation experience and journey since. Working with Christians from different traditions is a joy and a pleasure for me. It energizes me, even when I disagree.

But I don’t like seeing how easily Christians separate over preferences (not essentials), and I don’t like seeing that tendency in myself.

One of my biggest supporters is a brother named Kyle. We couldn’t be more different in temperament, background, spirituality, style and general personality. But Kyle and I have worked closely together for more than ten years with genuine appreciation, cooperation and friendship. It’s a joy to have him on my team.

Why is Kyle able to look past my reformed leanings, my definite non-charismatic spirituality, my comparative prayerlessness, my cynicism, my overall sinfulness and my many other issues in order to be a great part of our ministry?

Here’s the most likely reason: The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (Rom 8:16)

I’m not saying it’s the job of the Holy Spirit to make people like me. I do believe it’s a ministry of the Holy Spirit to love the children of God purchased by the death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that when we listen to the Holy Spirit, we’re drawn toward the Body of Christ.

I also believe the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and that differing perceptions of truth are one reason we can’t feel the same way about every person who claims Jesus as Lord. I believe God gives us differing personalities and none of us can respond to every person in the same way.

I’m not some idealist who thinks that the Body of Chris has no diversity, or that God isn’t about the business of producing some more drawn to prayer and others more drawn to study.

But I do believe the ways we are alike are more important than the vast majority of ways we are different.

I’m very sure that American culture sells all of us on the idea that we should get exactly what we want, and that our discomfort with those different than ourselves is a problem God wants to solve by leaving us comfortable and changing the other guy.

I’m sure that the church in America has spiritually formed millions of Christians into loyal customers of their brand of Christianity with almost no attention paid to the great, diverse, global, historic, very-different-from-us Body of Christ.

And the result is that we will walk away from one another for reasons that are consumeristic and trivial.

Southern Baptists will refuse to have anything to do with a guy who has wine with communion or a beer with his burger.

Charismatics will avoid and denounce as unspiritual people whose hands aren’t in the air.

Liberals will call regular evangelicals names that you usually hear applied to radical Muslims.

We’ll separate over music, instruments and technology. (Yes, I’m preaching to myself and lots of other people. I’m far from off the hook.)

We’ll separate over our opinions of Benny Hinn or John Piper.

Protestants and Catholics will consider one another Christians….barely. A few days a year.

We’ll take ten steps away from people who don’t like our favorite radio preachers, who didn’t like the book we read, who believe Christians have to vote for a certain party or candidate.

We’ll put distance between ourselves and other Christians because….because……well….just because. Sometimes, we just don’t like those people all that much.

I’m not whining. I’m lamenting a lamentable situation.

There are necessary divisions, and there are necessary debates. Then there are divisions, separations and fractures that, in the light of Christ and the light of eternity, look ridiculous.

Augustine was haunted more by the stealing of two pears when he was a kid than he was by the great sins of his adult years.

Somehow, I’m haunted by the fact that Jesus made us his own at unthinkable cost, and we seem to keep thinking of reasons to make that mean less and less to us.

Relationships between Christians are a lot of trouble. Often it’s a lot easier to love a homeless person you’ve met on the street than the Christian you work with, but with whom you disagree over important issues.

We trick ourselves into thinking that our deeply held views on worship choruses need to be the defining issue in fellowship and ministry. We walk away from the Calvinist, or the charismatic or the Catholic because those differences are important, or seem important. But how important are they to the student we’re teaching or the homeless person we’re sheltering?

I don’t believe the Holy Spirit eliminates all differences, but I do believe he puts them in perspective. American Christianity’s current bankruptcy is evidenced by our inordinate interest in our differences, our endless labeling and our enthusiastic subdividing.

There’s a better way.

Comments

  1. Good post man! I hope all is well.
    Dan

  2. Extending grace to fellow Christians has become a most difficult task for many Christians. I am in the process of un-learning a lot of bad theology and practice in this regard.

    The cannibalism of fellow Christians, particularly of those in need of redemption through love and practical help, is a blight on the face of the Christian culture. I desire to live a different way but find that I allow “what would so-and-so think” to color my actions and non-action.

    Perhaps standing alone and allowing ourselves to be the target of others’ doctrine-guns is a way to identify in some way with the sufferings of Christ.

  3. Fremen_Warrior66 says

    Amen. I’m afraid to discuss some of my religious views with fellow Christians in my local religious community just because I’m afraid that it’ll change our relationship for the worse.

  4. Wow. Ditto. I’m starting to realize that our problems that we face as modern Americans are partly because of us being modern Americans, but also because there is an inherent divisiveness in us as humans, whether we’re Christian or not. Our culture has encouraged our particular divisiveness. The church in other times and places has done some pretty good work of illustrating its own ugliest impulses. If nothing else, this should help us to realize that grace is ‘always’ needed. Until the day when we (me too) see clearly, let’s share the tissue to help clean our lenses, knowing that the darkest spots are on the lens that we look through. Excellent post.

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