In my pastoral experience one of the most common themes in Ministerial meetings of one kind or another is that of Christian unity. Usually those who emphasize this truth envision churches meeting together more often and some even visualize all churches in a community meeting in one place every Sunday. The idea of many different churches meeting separately all over town just doesn’t seem right to many Christians and, in their view, is a hindrance to the progress of God’s kingdom. Sometimes too, I have found, that what people really mean by unity is that everyone should agree or meet together in terms of the particular perspective that they represent.
To be sure, Christian unity is a strong theme throughout the New Testament coming before us as a very specific matter in the Gethsemane prayer of Jesus, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and in the appeal of the Apostle John that Christians genuinely love each other. Jesus made it plain that true Christian love was the mark of true Christian identity(John 13:34, 35). And to love one another as Christians is probably one of the greatest challenges in daily Christian practice.
I believe it’s true that we should work hard at finding ways to affirm and resource one another in the larger body of Christ. With God’s help we should make a big effort to forgive oneanother’s offenses and even meet with one another on occasion for worship and common ministry. There is much to be gained from inter-church worship, fellowship, and the exchange of theological and ministry ideas. But there are practical as well as theological limits to this concept.
I know that to speak against inter-church gatherings in the minds of many is to speak “against motherhood and applepie!” But I think there is a sense in which too much emphasis on church unity can actually serve to minimize ministry effectiveness and to dilute community mission impact. And the reason for this is that individual churches and ministries easily lose sight of their unique vision and calling in how they are to pursue the responsibilities of evangelism and discipleship. It’s often much easier to plan inter-church gatherings for worship and mutual edification than it is to commit to finding new ways to engage culture with the message of the Gospel. And I’ve also found that frequent inter-church gatherings yield a lower degree of individual accountability. (“If I don’t show up for the larger gathering, no one will miss me!”)
It seems to me that the most missionally progressive churches find a good balance between recognizing and affirming the value of other churches and their ministries over against knowing their own identity and giving themselves to the fulfillment of their vision. There is always a tension between these two elements because of the very nature of grace and truth (the fullness of which characterized Jesus — John1:14). Grace listens, waits, yields, and genuinely emphathizes with another’s need and pain. But at the right time and in the right spirit truth speaks and calls another to account.
So it is that I believe God’s idea of church unity is that we recognize and accept oneanother on the basis of truth and grace beyond our own identities, but that we pursue our own callings with all the strength and passion that God can possibly give us. It’s important that we recognize that unity is not sameness. One of the most exciting aspects of God’s creation as well as His kingdom work is their diversity. Just as the body has many members, each different from the others, so it should be in the body of Christ: diversity properly pursued has a way of actually enhancing unity!