Unity at any cost?
Jesus prayed, in John chapter 17,
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Unity = Homogenisation?
unity n: The state or quality of being in accord; harmony
homogenise v: make equal or homogeneous as by mixing.
There is a subtle difference between the two dictionary definitions: unity is a state of being in accord, or in harmony. Harmony does not mean everyone is identical, it means that in their diversity they all blend together as a whole. There are rules for harmonies in music, certain notes that do go together and others that don’t. Similarly, a state of unity will allow for a range of differing positions so long as they all adhere to the underlying rules of what does, and what doesn’t, go together.
Contrast this with the process of homogenisation – from the Greek homogeneous meaning of the same nature/family grouping. Homogenisation is the process of mixing to create uniformity, erasing differences. Within a homogenised group, everyone would act, think and sound the same – they would be clones.
Essentials, Distinctives and Opinions
The difference needs to be drawn between essentials, distinctives and opinions to fully understand what unity really involves.
There are, generally speaking, only a few essentials (I deliberately avoid using the term “Fundamentals” as that has a lot of loaded associations in many people’s minds). We cannot compromise on the essentials of the faith – the authority and truth of the Bible as God’s revelation to us, the atoning death of Jesus and so on. Whatever our denomination, the essentials of the Christian faith remain the same.
When you get to distinctives people start disagreeing with each other; it is the various distinctives that mark different denominations as different from each other. They will vary in number from church to church, but they do exist. For example, some churches are known for praying for the sick while others don’t believe in divine healing except in a biblical context. This difference of distinctives marks the churches as different, yet take members from each and they will work together to evangelise their city without any problem.
Opinions vary from person to person, even within the same church that shares a common set of essentials and distinctives. Should hair be worn above the collar? Are women allowed to wear makeup? What colour should the sanctuary carpet be? Clearly, not issues to doubt a person’s salvation over!
The Main and the Plain
If we stick to the main message – the plain truth of the Bible – we will avoid the trap of getting too deep into the danger zones. We will generally stick to agreeing about the essentials, discuss a few distinctives and respect each other’s opinions. Another way to put it is that we need to stick to where the tire meets the road in our Christian life – what will keep us on track as opposed to arguing over the colour of the paint job.
Practically speaking, this means that we will deliberately avoid certain controversial topics that generate more heat than light and obscure passages of the bible without clear meaning/application. For example:
- End-times eschatology
- “What do you think this piece of prophesy means?”
- Everyone should speak in tongues
Unity in Diversity
There is a place and time for these discussions – we shouldn’t avoid studying the bible because it is inconvenient. What we should do, though, is to see where certain debates are going on over opinions or distinctives – places where we are fighting for homogenisation as opposed for unity – and start agreeing to disagree. We all should believe, for instance, that the bible is God’s word – the final authority in matters of faith and conduct – this would be an essential. An opinion that we could easily step away from and start directing resources to more fruitful pursuits, would be the debate over which bible version everyone should use.
I came across a nice latin maxim that sums everything up:
“Verbo dicam: Si nos servaremus IN necesariis Unitatem, IN non-necessariis Libertatem, IN UTRISQUE Charitatem, optimo certe loco essent res nostrae.”
[In a word, I'll say it: if we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both, our affairs will be in the best position.]