Monday, January 4, 2010

The Essence of Christian Unity

Awhile back there was a guest blogger on internet monk who talked about Christian unity. The guest poster was a Catholic and he summarizes the Catholic position on the nature of Christian unity quite nicely. This post is one of the ones that got me thinking about Christian unity. Today I'm going to be supplying my own thoughts on what it means for Christians to be united.

In my last post on Christian unity I talked about how important it was to Jesus that His followers should be united. I also talked about the deep divisions that Christians today face, especially in America. Now I'm going to start talking about solutions.

First of all, we need to decide what it means to say that Christians are united. In the article I linked above, the author describes how the Roman Catholic Church answers that question. The author writes that Christian unity consists of three things, unity of faith, unity of sacraments and unity of government. In other words, we are united when we all share the same faith, participate in the same sacraments and are under the same church government.

It's not a bad definition. In fact, I think it represents a compelling vision for what a unified church should look like, but I don't believe that this definition captures what Christian unity is all about. I believe that Christians are united by their shared connection to God through the Holy Spirit. That is the essence of Christian unity.

We can see that this was true in the early church by looking at the book of Acts. Starting in chapter ten, the church encounters its first major division. In the beginning Christianity was exclusively a Jewish sect, but in chapter ten of Acts God calls Peter to preach to a Roman soldier named Cornelius. Cornelius becomes the first gentile to convert to Christianity, but many more soon follow.

This creates the first major conflict in church history. The first Christians are reluctant to welcome gentiles into the movement. They see it as a betrayal of their Jewish heritage to share fellowship with people who don't follow Jewish practices and customs. This debate nearly tears the church apart. In Acts chapter 15 they have a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the issue and settle the matter.

In the end the church decides to allow gentiles to join the church. Despite the vast cultural differences that separated Jews and gentiles and despite the strong traditional beliefs that the Jews held that required them to avoid mingling with gentiles, those early Christians chose unity. The question we must ask ourselves is, why did they make that difficult choice?

The only answer is that they made that choice because of the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that called Peter, Paul and other Christians to witness to gentiles in the first place. When they preached to the gentiles, the gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit, just as the first Christians had been. The early Christians were persuaded to accept gentile believers despite the difficulty, because they recognized that the Holy Spirit was at work among them.

So we can see that the Holy Spirit serves as the motivation for Christian unity. We seek fellowship with others because we see that God is working in their lives just as He is working in our lives.

Additionally, the Holy Spirit is the thing which makes Christian unity possible. The Holy Spirit demolishes the barriers that divide us and gives us the ability to be patient and humble and show love to one another. In this way the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to be unified with people in even the most trying circumstances.

For a moment I want to go back to the three part definition of unity we saw at the beginning; unity of faith, unity of sacraments and unity of government. I think that the definition still holds, but only if we see that God and the Holy Spirit are at the center of it. We share the same faith because the Holy Spirit has revealed Jesus to each of us. We share the same sacraments because, through the Spirit, Jesus' forgiveness is given to each of us. We share the same government because we all submit ourselves to God with the help of the Holy Spirit.

That is what I think it means for Christians to be united.

The question remains, however, how do we live that out?

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