The Psalmist quips, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there The Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
In reading the book of Acts, I cannot stop thinking about the potential of the church to turn communities, cities, states, countries, and nations upside down. Although the potential is there, I believe it is necessary to understand the elements (or ingredients) necessary for the church to realize her potential. [I have spoken of four elements present throughout the book of Acts that lead to the church being used by God to turn the world upside down. They are: a Revolutionary King/Person (Jesus), a Revolutionary Kingdom/Purpose, a Revolutionary Power (Holy Spirit), and a Revolutionary People (The Church).] In regards to the church being God’s revolutionary (transformational) people, there are numerous qualities that we see present throughout, not only Acts, but the entire New Testament. One of those qualities is unity.
I think that one of the reasons—noticed I stated “one”—why the church is weak, fragmented, and unhealthy today (particularly in North America) is because of the lack of unity. Scripture teaches a vital principle in regards to unity: unity strengthens, and disunity weakens. This principle not only plays itself out within the body of churches, but in any body, organization, or team.
If you have ever seen a family, team, organization, business, or church unified it is something beautiful and powerful to watch. A contemporary example would be the World Cup. The unity possessed by these teams and countries exemplifies the beauty and power of unity. What if local autonomous churches possessed this type of unity? What if the numerous local churches in an area, region, community, or city (across denominational lines) embodied this type of unity? Maybe we would see, experience, and be used to ignite a revolution—a drastic and far-reaching change of ways of thinking and behaving in our world.
Thus, a great question to ask is, “What is unity?” Unity can be defined as “an undivided or unbroken completeness or totality with nothing wanting” (Wordbook Dictionary). It’s important to note that unity differs from uniformity, which is the lack of diversity or variation to the point that everything is regular and unvarying. This confusion of many churches resides in this difference—they confuse uniformity with unity. So, how can a church be unified, be undivided or unbroken in their completeness, totality, and existence?
They need to be unified around four areas. First, they need to have a center by which all of their life, and church’s life, orbits. The center for our church (Western Oaks) is the glory of King Jesus. We owe our existence both physically and spiritually to him. Everything we do, all of who we are, pivots, orbits, and revolves around King Jesus. We have come to believe that we are not inviting Jesus into the story of our lives or of our church, but that he has invited us back into the story of his life and of his mission in the world.
This leads to the second area the church needs to be unified. Not only do we need a center, but a purpose, a mission. The purpose and/or mission of the church needs to flow from the center. Thus, every church must ask this question and seek the Scriptures and direction of the Holy Spirit for a real answer—not an assumed one. At Western Oaks we believe that God has always been on mission to create a people for himself that would be in right relationship with him reflecting his glory—his kingdom, his life, his characteristics, his attributes—throughout the entire created order.
However, because of man’s treason, rebellion, and sin man has been damaged and broken incapable of living as God intended. Therefore, God has been pursuing man and his created order seeking to redeem and restore them, thereby once again creating a people who would be in right relationship with him reflecting his glory in all of life. We see this mission from Genesis through Revelation, but it finds its culmination and apex in Jesus. And it is in Jesus, the Gospel, that God is reconciling the world to himself. We have summed up God’s mission, our purpose as a church, as follows, “Western Oaks exists to reflect the glory of God to Springfield and the world by living and sharing the Gospel spiritually, socially, and culturally.” If a church will be unified they must have a purpose that unites them.
Third, it’s not enough to be unified around a center and a purpose, a church also needs to be unified around their priorities. A church’s priorities can become a little tricky and a little messy. For starters, I believe many people confuse preferences for priorities. They also confuse “my” church with “his church.” When people’s preferences and their perceived mentality of being a stockholder/owner of the church embed themselves within a church, a buffet of priorities is created. When a buffet of priorities is present, it will be nearly impossible for a church to fulfill the mission to which God has called them. Priorities are supposed to reflect the mission, as well as aid in the advancement and fulfillment of the mission.
Thus, it is always helpful to go back to Scripture to see what the priorities were of the early church. I believe they had (at least) three priorities that were enacted that led them to be the conduit that advanced God’s mission in the world. With great devotion they committed themselves to: grow in their walk with the Lord and with one another, give of their time, talents, and treasures to the Lord and one another, and go for the Lord to the nations. With these as their priorities the early church can be seen devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, observing the Lord’s Supper, and meeting regularly from house to house. In addition, they can be seen giving their treasures to the body by selling their possessions or sending aid to struggling churches, giving their time to encourage one another, or using their talents in serving the body in some capacity. Furthermore, they can be seen sending out missionaries to spread the gospel throughout the world.
And finally, if a church is to experience the beauty and power of unity, they must be unified around a proper understanding of their roles and responsibilities as a body. Again, this is where it gets a little dicey and messy among churches. Who is suppose to lead the church? Who are the one’s responsible for the church’s mobilization, health, and reproduction of disciples and churches? What is the role and function of every believer, or disciple? In my understanding of the New Testament’s teaching on the roles and functions of every member of the church, I believe that a church should be Christ ruled, elder/pastor led, deacon served, staff supported, and congregationally affirmed and active. There may be others who have a different understanding on the model of a church’s role and function; in any case, if a church will be unified they must be unified around an understanding of the roles and functions of believers who comprise a local church.
When unity is present within a church the glory, beauty, and power of the gospel is clearly seen. But once again, unity doesn’t mean uniformity. Unity doesn’t mean that everyone will be in agreement on what the dress code should be, the music that should be played, the songs that should be sung, or how loud or soft the music should be. It doesn’t mean that everyone will agree on what version of the Bible is used, if there is Sunday School or small groups, or Sunday night services or no extra services. Unity doesn’t mean that everyone will agree on whether to hire an executive pastor or a children’s director, to take out a loan or to pay cash, or whether or not to open a daycare. Nor does it mean that everyone will agree on how to observe the Lord’s supper, the timeline of Christ’s future return, or who to partner with in regards to mission involvement. That’s uniformity, not unity! And God has not called us to uniformity, but unity in and through great diversity!
My prayer is that the church will embody this beautiful unity as God powerfully uses us to turn the world, our communities, and cities upside down, or (as I like to say) right-side.