An Open Door before Us
(A message on the theology of unity)
Introduction: I read about an enterprising student at a Bible college who designed a t-shirt to sell to his fellow students.
On the front was a colorful copy of the school’s logo then beneath a long list of THEOLOGICAL DISTINCTIONS with a check box to select. Some of the possible selections included:
· dispensationalist · ultra-dispensationalist
· Calvinist · Armenian
· Pentecostal/ 1st wave · Pentecostal/2nd wave
· Charmastic · Neo-charasmatic
The list went on to provide some 40 options but you get the point. At the bottom of the list was a simple, lonely selection.
Plain Ole Christian
(Source: One Lord, One Faith by Rex Koivisto, p. 87)
The sad FACT is…as Christians, we are a divided people! Few believers are interested in becoming ONE with others. Being transparent and brutally honest with you, that baffles and frustrates me more than I can describe!
The message of the New Testament is clear. There is power in unity. Still, some Christians just don’t get it and some churches refuse to be united among themselves, much less with Christians that are unlike them. They would rather splinter into 4 groups or 5 groups or just simply stay as they are because unity is hard work and becoming a TEAM (Together Everyone Accomplishes Ministry) is challenging. Simply, oneness is so difficult that most people are not willing to pay the price.
There are some people who say that the CHURCH of Jesus Christ has come a long way in the past 2000 years. ILLUSTRATION: During the younger days of Billy Graham’s crusade evangelism ministry, a religion professor told a LA Times reporter that Graham’s evangelism methods would set the church back 200 years. The reporter shared that with Graham and he commented, “I’m sorry to hear that! I am trying to set the church back 2000 years!”
Some reason that reason that the modern church is far better educated and equipped. We’re much more sophisticated. We know a whole lot more about the world we live in, the universe around us, the microscopic world within. We have the benefit of 2000 years of thinking, of philosophy, of scientific investigation and exploration. Our ability to access information is almost beyond belief. So, they argue, that we are much better off.
Yet in many ways we’re actually far behind previous generations because we are a divided people!
And, I might add, there is more at stake over our unity in our world than you might realize. There is division in other areas as well:
These sectors of our cities should be able to look to the people of God for a model but unfortunately…THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! Why? We are a people divided.
ILLUSTRATION: J. Gordon Melton is a Methodist minister with an unusual hobby. His hobby is denomination hunting. He literally scours the country trying to count the number of major denominations in the United States. As of a few years ago he had counted over 1,200 denominations in this country.
Some of them are very interesting.
1. One of them is "The Church of the Kennedy Worshippers." It is a church which actually believes that it can pray to the late President John F. Kennedy, and can be cured both of congenital defects as well as of terminal diseases.
2. Then there’s "The Church of the Ministry of Universal Wisdom." They look for flying saucers.
3. And then there’s "The Church of What’s Happening Now." It’s obviously a more contemporary church.
But of more interest to us is the fact that in that list of over 1,200 denominations he found more than 70 different denominations calling themselves Baptist: Seventh-Day Baptist, Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptist, General Baptist, Regular Baptist, and the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, the dream of men like Barton Stone and John Wesley are far from being realized. Wesley stated that his dream was:
“I want the whole Christ for my Savior; the whole Bible for my book; the whole church for my fellowship and the whole world for my mission field.”
The FACT is we are a divided people.
· Congregations are divided. I teach my people that we are an expression of the Body of Christ. We are NOT the only or even the whole expression but a vital expression of the Body of Christ. We are a physical link to a spiritual kingdom, the Kingdom of God but we are not the Kingdom.
There are so many divided churches and congregations today.
· Denominations are divided. Denominations are a group of congregations that resemble one another and who cooperated for the advancement of the kingdom. Obviously, that is not a bad thing. Denominationalism, on the other hand, is a mindset that divides, isolates and promotes sectarianism…it’s the old my way or the highway…we are the only ones going to heaven attitude!
· Traditions cause division. We fight over our tribal theology and traditions and fail to advance the Kingdom of God. ILLUSTRATION: In 1917, when the Russian revolution was rocking the streets of Petrograd, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church were meeting a few blocks away from the fighting, having a heated debate over what color vestments the priests should wear! (From When God Builds a Church, Bob Russell, p. 167) When we battle each other over our traditions, we fail to show up for the real battle!
· Streams keep us apart. I spend a lot of time in the outdoors. As a backpacker I can tell you that there is nothing more refreshing than a quiet, cool fresh stream of water. They have their place and there is nothing wrong with small and separate streams that fed a river. But individual streams only trickle and are unable to provide the energy to turn turbines that produce power. When the streams flow into a river…that’s where the power comes from.
I long for the day when the Shoals area is known for the River that runs through it…and I am not talking about the beautiful Tennessee River! I am talking about a spiritual force called the Kingdom of God.
We are a divided people and the consequences of our divisions are obvious and painful:
1. The Body of Christ appears dysfunctional.
2. The message of grace is hidden. ILLUSTRATION: I asked our college & youth to give me a list of the spiritual issues and questions that concerned them. They responded with issues like suicide, unpardonable sin, drinking and Why are there so many different denominations and churches?
PEOPLE ARE CONFUSED ABOUT WHAT GOD LOOKS LIKE because of our division. Do you know the image that those on the outside have about God? Instead of seeing Him as a loving Father who receives prodigals (Luke 15), they see Him as the Elder Brother, a pouter with a judgmental spirit.
3. The kingdom of God is not advanced. In fact, personal empires are built instead. I am afraid that a majority of our time, talents and treasure has be spent erecting spiritual empires and the kingdom of God has suffered.
The Kingdom of God (the primary message of Jesus) is about the Body of Christ, not one single church or congregation. Ephesians 4:4 says, "We are all one body." The Kingdom isn’t a loose association of disconnected people. PAUL COMPARES THE CHURCH TO A BODY. The Kingdom is NOT one congregation over here doing their thing and another over there doing their thing. For a body to work, it has to work it has to be connected and work together. And the Church is exactly the same. We have to constantly take spiritual inventory and realize that it is the PURPOSE OF GOD, not our agenda that matters.
Churches and congregations may differ in many ways because diversity and individuality is OK, but we all have one HEAD…Jesus Christ! We follow the same command, the Great Commission which commissions us to “Go…make disciples!” The Great Commission is the marching orders of the church and Jesus did not sanction us to clone Baptist! He ordered us to make disciples.
“The Door That Is Open Before Us” is the great need of the hour…UNITY. The impact of a unified church is what the world needs to see in order to believe that God the Father sent Christ the Son ("that the world may believe that you have sent me", John 17).
Only the obvious, visible unity of believers will convince the world of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Only the sight of united disciples will convince the world ofthe truth of Jesus’ message and mission. John 13:35 says: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
What am I talking about?
Some believe if we could just get a united theology we would compel the world to believe. But there is no Bible promise that guarantees united theology will cause the world to believe the truth of the gospel. Human eloquence, a united voice, will not compel the world to believe, nor will the combined size of our churches ever compel the world to believe. No denominational program, or slogan or goal will compel the world to believe.
Only one single thing will compel the world to believe: a supernatural oneness in the family of God.
The world is so disunited that a unified church obliges the world to recognize that God is at work among us. On the other hand, a disunited church reverses all the work of Christ and renders our witness to Him powerless and without effect.
This matter of unity is the heart-beat of Jesus as expressed in his prayer in John 17:20-23. According to the words of Jesus, if we do not reflect the unity that He desires then we should pull down the cross, roll the stone back over the grave, and send the Spirit back to the Father, for the world cannot believe the Father sent the Son unless we demonstrate it in spiritual oneness! But wherever this occurs it makes an incredible impact.
For me, UNITY isn’t a secondary issue it’s a primary cause! It’s the last thing Jesus prayed about before His arrest. So it means that I must work to see that the church is a united and mighty force.
ILLUSTRATION: Mark Twain once said that he once put a dog and a cat in the same cage as an experiment to see if they could get along. They did. Next, he put a bird, pig and a goat in a cage and they, too, made adjustments and adapted. Then he put a Baptist, Presbyterian and a Church of Christ together and there was not a living thing left! (Source: What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, p.33)
Our division must be like a stake in the heart of God because the obvious TRUTH of the matter is this:
Jesus has always had only ONE body!
Ephesians 4:1-6 is clear. There is ONE Body.
A casual or serious look at this passage reveals a clear message: ONLY JESUS CAN MAKE US ONE so we MUST APPROACH UNITY ON HIS TERMS.
HOW do we do that? Take a look at the text I read earlier for here we gain understanding into the Biblical theology of unity. Ephesians 1-3 comprise the doctrinal section in which Paul convinces the readers that every believer in Christ is blessed, predestined, adopted, accepted, redeemed, forgiven, and indwelled by the Spirit of God. In chapter 4 Paul begins making practical applications to what he has just shared.
This is what we learn.
#1. Biblical Unity comes as a result of the work of the Spirit of God (4:3)
Clearly, what God desires is a “unity of the Spirit” not simply a spirit of unity. A truly unified community of people is a supernatural fact and therefore it must have a supernatural cause: the Spirit of God.
Also, notice the qualities mentioned in verse 2: humble, gentle, patient, forbearing love. Do these sound familiar? They should because they are like the fruits of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23.
Here is the point: unity is something that is a result of the work of the Spirit of God, not our efforts. Man produces ecumenicalism but only the Spirit of God can produce unity.
Your flesh can not produce unity any more than your flesh can produce love or kindness, peace or patience, etc. Unity, like the fruits, must come from the Spirit of God.
Now, I want to get personal. Before unity can happen on any level (congregation, city, etc), it must happen in individual hearts. It must happen in your heart. It must start with you.
ILLUSTRATION: Several years ago my wife and I sat to enjoy a meal with a fellow minister and his wife. He was form another state, African-American and from a different denomination than I. We could not have been any more different but yet we experienced unity. Our hearts were so blended. He asked, “How did you get to this place in your spiritual pilgrimage?”
I shared with him my journey which involved a work of renewal by the Spirit of God. I shared about the change in my life, how my eyes were opened, my heart was changed. I related how I came from a spiritual world with tunnel vision and blind spots into a vast place of seeing the Kingdom of God.
As I shared, he looked at his wife, they each smiled at one another, he looked back at me and said, “Us too.” I understood his response to mean that the Spirit had likewise done a marvelous work of grace in their heart as well.
You can mark this down: Whenever and wherever the Spirit comes in power (Example: Pentecost), He makes people one!
So, biblical unity is Spirit produced.
#2. Biblical Unity is love-driven (4:2; John 17:20-23; 13:34-35)
Biblical unity will not happen in your life until you love Jesus more than you love yourself. When your love for God is supreme, then you can love others as well.
Unity can only survive in a climate and atmosphere of love because it is a fruit that grows on the vine of love.
#3. Biblical Unity is always grace–based. (4:7)
Merit, reward, even deserve has nothing to do with it! Unity is based on the awesome GRACE of Almighty God.
From a human perspective, we want to be united with people who earn our respect and deserve our trust. We pick and choose who is to be included in the “circle of trust.” That is NOT how Jesus deals with you! You are a part of His family based on GRACE and our unity with Him and one another is also GRACE-BASED.
1 Corinthians 1:10 (Living Bible) “Let there be real harmony among you so there won’t be any split in the church. I plead with you to be of one mind united in thought and purpose.”
I believe that God’s favorite NUMBER is: ONE. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear O, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
The ONENESS of God is foundational to what we believe. There is one God and only one God expressed in the perfect community of Father, Son and Spirit. He is Almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, holy and ever present. There is none like Him. He is ONE.
There is one body, One Spirit, One Hope, One Lord, One faith, One baptism, One God…ONE!
One is God’s favorite number.