One of the things I love about my Stone-Campbell heritage is its emphasis on unity. I’ve grown up hearing sermons about unity, participating in classes about unity, reading books on unity, articles about unity, and surrounded by people who are genuinely passionate about unity. This is good, after all, as we are quick to point out that Jesus claims the world will know who he is by witnessing our unity.
For all this talk of unity, however, there is one particular danger we have sometimes fallen into. Namely, we are often guilty of promoting unity without first understanding what the New Testament means by the notion, which can lead in some unhealthy directions in spite of our (very) good intentions.
We often want to talk about unity as if it were a horizontal thing brought into being when we agree with one another. This view of unity is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that agreement with one another does nothing to guarantee we’re agreeing on the right things. On the whole, if our view of unity entails us agreeing on everything we’re talking about uniformity, not unity.
For Paul, we didn’t create unity and it was rooted in something rather more robust than fanciful notions of comprehensive agreement. For Paul, Jesus creates unity on the cross and it falls to us to live in light of the reality he created.
This is a major theme in Ephesians. For instance, in 1:9-10, Paul says God is revealing the “mystery of his will … a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and that he is doing this in Jesus. He returns to this theme, discussing it at more length beginning in 2:11-22. Jesus enacts God’s plan by going to his cross. Take a moment and read this text slowly. Take note of the division language in the text (e.g., “… aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise …”) and notice the language of unity (e.g., “For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall …”). Who reconciles? Who makes peace? Who tears down the walls of hostility? Who reconstitutes disparate groups as one new humanity?
On the cross, Jesus unifies his people, tearing down walls and bringing them together in a new reality. In chapter 3:9-10, Paul discusses his role in God’s plan climaxing with the declaration that the very existence of God’s unified people – Jew plus Gentile, plus slave, plus free, plus female, plus male, plus rich, plus poor, plus young, plus old, plus “blue collar,” plus “white collar,” plus Republican, plus Democrat, plus, plus, plus … – is the demonstration of “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” to the divisive powers of the world.
This discussion is prerequisite to understanding the more explicit discussion of unity beginning in chapter 4. (After all, it begins with the crucial word therefore.) Having already established that Jesus creates unity, note carefully what Paul says. With humility and gentleness and patience, we are called to bear with one another in love. In so doing, we make every effort to maintain the unity we have in the Spirit.
This union is not the same thing as uniformity. It is more robust. Notice again that Paul says the sort of unity that Jesus creates among his people will require humility and gentleness and patience with one another. Perhaps even more tellingly, he calls us to bear with one another on the basis of our unity in the Spirit. In Tennessee, we say “bear with one another” this way: put up with one another.
That’s exactly what we’re called to do at times. We are not united because we agree on everything – or even on a smaller number of essential things. (And this is a notoriously difficult list to make, these essential things.) We are united because we are all in Christ – because we’ve each given ourselves to Christ. He is the one who tore the walls down. He is the one who ushered us into a new reality. He is the one who left us with the Spirit that holds us together. That’s perhaps especially true when we are disagreeing with one another. For Paul, unity can’t be reduced to agreement, but it does shape the way we treat one another in our disagreements.
Oh, and about agreement. I think agreement’s fine even if it isn’t the primary way of talking about unity for Paul. If you think about it for a second, when we’ve each committed ourselves to Jesus and we move toward him each day we also move closer to one another. A good many of our disagreements will be worked out over time because of this mutual movement toward Christ. Other disagreements won’t – and some won’t need to be. Either way, Jesus will teach us how to be agreeable and that makes a difference as we maintain the reality Jesus has brought us into.