by Bob Lupton, April 2011 I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.
– Jesus of Nazareth
Unity, oneness of heart and mind – this above all would be the distinguishing mark of those who would be known as Christ-followers. Jesus would emphasize this again and again in his last private dinner with his inner-circle. A new command, he called it: loving one another, even to the point of sacrificing one’s own life. And it was his parting petition to his Father on behalf of his disciples – “Make them one even as you and I are one…so that the world will know that you sent me.”
So how is this unified community of believers doing after 2000 years of practice? Are these Christ-followers distinguishing themselves by their selfless care for one another? Listen in on the not-so-private conversations Christians are having about each other these days.
“Pentecostals are all emotion and no substance. If you don’t speak in tongues you’re not a real believer.”
“All those Baptists want is to get people saved. And then join their church. No social conscience at all.”
“Those health and wealth churches are clearly teaching heresy. They totally ignore the biblical warnings about the seductiveness of wealth.”
“The frozen chosen – that’s what they call Presbyterians. All liberal social gospel and no spiritual vitality.”
“Catholics aren’t Christians, are they? They worship idols and pray to Mary.”
Somehow on the way to becoming a reputable religion of some two billion members, these Christ-followers seem to have forgotten that their strong love for each other – not church affiliation – is what ultimately identifies them. One would think that the final instructions of their Leader would be given high priority in their teaching and conduct. But not so. At least not in the Western devolution of the church.
It began early on, this divisive name-calling. Shortly after Christ departed, believers started identifying themselves with various church leaders. I suppose it’s natural to attach oneself to a persuasive figurehead with a convincing doctrine. But in spite of the apostles’ cautioning, the practice continued and increased over time. Christianity institutionalized, power struggles proliferated, splits fractured the community of faith into competing segments. The “great schism” ushered in by the protestant reformation opened the door to all manner of ecclesiastical innovations. The fragmentation that ensued, that continues to the present time, has produced over 33,000 separate denominations (separate is the operative word here) and grows by some 300 every year. Each group, distinguished by doctrine, leadership, style and quite convinced of its own correctness, seeks to advance its own agenda, most often with little regard for the larger community of faith. Each with a platform from which to judge the others. Thus the pejorative labels.
The impact on community life is reflected on Sunday mornings. Devout Christians get into their separate cars and head out in a dozen different directions to their various places of worship. Their churches, all commuter churches disconnected from the soil of the neighborhood, have a voracious appetite for the time, talent and resources of their members. They gauge spirituality by the level of involvement in the programs and activities of the church (their church, not the Church). Rather than blessing their parishes, these religious silos deplete community vitality by extracting leaven from the neighborhoods they draw members from.
In a religious culture where fragmentation is the norm, how are followers of Jesus to understand his command about unity and sacrificial love for each other? Is unity to be measured simply by how well group members get along within their separate fellowships? That’s hardly a visible witness to the world, now is it? I suspect that the reason our Lord had to underscore unity repeatedly, even make it a “command” with capital-letter emphasis, was because it would be such a difficult practice – challenging enough for homogenous folk; incredibly demanding for dissimilar cultures. So who does it fall to, this work of unifying the diverse, splintered, name-calling family of faith? Who picks up this trampled banner from the mud of conflict and leads a unifying charge?
It is doubtful that the professional pastors we hire to lead our churches will have the time. Their mission is church growth. And like NFL head coaches, too many losses and they’ll be looking for another job. The more visionary minister may sell his congregation on the idea of reaching out to the surrounding parish, though institutional self-interest will inevitably taint these efforts. Seminaries who train our clergy are a more promising source, though solving the salary issue for “professional” graduates is no small challenge. Perhaps the most fertile leadership ground to be worked is the soil where people live their lives, in struggling neighborhoods where residents are sensing a greater need for community, in apartment complexes where property managers are concerned about tenant discontent and high turnover rates. In places where “shalom” is in short supply, the need for a unifier becomes more obvious.
Would it not be ironic if emerging out of uncredentialled people in places viewed as chaotic and dark came vision that exposed for the enlightened church an essential doctrine lost in the quest for growth? Who would such vision-casters be? Certainly they would not be church planters since what church planters plant is more division. Instead we might call them “unifiers” or “shalom seekers.” They would certainly be persons who place a high value on comm-unity. Whether or not they are church-ordained clergy would be of lesser importance than their deep internalizing of the “new command” of Christ. They would seek out among their neighbors other Jesus-followers and, ignoring church memberships and divisive labels, initiate affirming dialogue. They would spread inspiring stories of neighbors’ faith at work, correct misunderstandings, share needs, build bridges. In time, separated saints might begin to acknowledge the legitimacy of one another’s faith journeys, might even gather in homes to pray together. Even serve together.
The quest, the passion, of these comm-unity builders would be to build relationships – first cordial, then trusting, and finally inter-dependent relationships – among the fractured family of faith, right on the street, the high-rise, the neighborhood where neighbors live their lives. To the end that the visible unity of diverse Jesus-followers will bear witness to the living presence of the One sent from above.
Where are these unifiers, Lord?
“Father, make them one…so that the world will know that you sent me.” – Jesus of Nazareth