Each year the church I attend has a theme, a direction we choose to head for corporate growth. For instance, in 2019 the theme was “Growing Deeper,” so many of the ministry goals focused on taking us as a church deeper in our relationship with Christ than we had gone before. Another year the theme was “A Life of Repentance,” taken from one of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, and you can guess what the focus was that year. For 2020, our theme is “Going Forward Together,” or, to put it simply—unity. I knew early on that our unity would be put to the test, but I had no idea just how great that test would be. Like pretty much every other church on the planet, we were forced to remain separated from one another for a time; and, on top of that, we will be without a lead pastor soon. And beyond these major things are the smaller, but still potentially divisive, questions of the day: Mask or no mask? Hugs or no hugs? Issues that affect us all, and about which we all have the “right” opinion.
Just a few dozen miles beyond our church’s doors lies another battlefield that has left us all begging for unity, not as a body of believers, but as human beings. Minneapolis was the home of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, names indelibly etched in our consciousness; and if not the names, then the images from the protests and riots waged not just in Minnesota, but in major cities across the country. Injustice, prejudice, hatred, vindication, and outrage are on the lips of a nation. How will we get through this? Needless to say, unity has been the subject of many prayers recently. For the church. For our state. For our nation. Right now, the words of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ring a little too true:
“And in despair, I bowed my head.
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
I realize that the type of unity we desire will not come before Christ returns to reestablish “shalom,” true peace on earth. There will be wars, rumors of wars, violence, hatred, and injustice until the Prince of Peace and His kingdom come. No nation, city, church, or family will ever truly know unity until that time. However, as the body of Christ, the Church must pursue unity. This was the plea of the Savior to His Father just hours before the greatest miscarriage of justice of all time was perpetrated:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, [are] in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21).
We need unity right now. Perhaps the need isn’t greater than at other times, but we feel the weight of our need more strongly than ever. But what does that look like? What will it take? How can we navigate the turbulent sea of a global pandemic, racial injustice, a presidential election, not to mention the garden-variety disagreements and conflicts that inevitably pop up? Speaking specifically of the Church, Paul could not have put it more clearly than he did in Colossians 4:14:
“Beyond all these things, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”
The answer is simple. We have to apply the right adhesive to bond us together. If we’re honest, we try a lot of faulty adhesives. We might assume that doctrinal correctness is the key, believing that everyone must have their theological I’s dotted and t’s crossed. While I ardently support right theology and biblical teaching, there are some mountains that we just don’t have to die on—and some we do. We never ever surrender the Gospel or a doctrine that would in any way compromise it. In fact, it wouldn’t be loving to do so. To affirm a false gospel and give false hope to a person who believes it is nothing short of outright cruelty. However, many other doctrines that don’t affect the Gospel are often used as walls and shields. Disagreements and unity can coexist, for it’s not doctrinal uniformity that bonds us together.
We may also try to bond ourselves together with unanimity in matters of preference, believing that as long as we all wear the same thing, listen to the same music, worship in the same manner, and partake in the same beverages we will have unity. But that bond simply won’t hold.
We know that uniformity—in doctrine, practice, appearance, or preference—is not the same as unity. The only glue that will hold us together is love.
While we could find excellent descriptions of love in numerous places across the Scriptures, let’s not leave the context in which we began. Leading up to Colossians 3:14 come verses 12 and 13, which paint a picture of what our adhesive looks like in action:
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
If we want to be united, whether about something as trivial as paint color or something as significant as racial injustice, we must incarnate Paul’s words.
“As those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved”—All that I’m about to say can happen only because of our position in Christ. Because we are God’s special people, foreknown from the foundation of the world, made holy by the blood of Christ shed for our sins on the cross, beloved by God with an everlasting, never-failing love—only because of all this can we put the following exhortation into practice.
“Put on a heart of compassion…”—This word means we “feel with” our brothers and sisters. I need to ask myself, Am I compassionate toward those who are terrified of contracting COVID? Am I compassionate toward those who have experienced injustice in ways that seem utterly unthinkable to me? Am I willing to try to identify with them? Or am I content to live in my comfortable bubble of superiority? If we want unity, we must put on a heart of compassion.
“…Kindness”—Kindness seems almost passé in our times, but we must not neglect it! Can I be kind with my words, even my thoughts, when I disagree with a brother or sister about a matter? Can I speak kindly of them to other people? Can I reach out and help a struggling sister who can do nothing in return to help me? Even simple acts of kindness like these can help us band together.
“…Humility”—Sacrificial, agapé love is impossible if I think more highly of myself than I ought to think. When I look at my own interests and am motivated by selfish ambition and empty conceit (Phil. 2:3-4), unity will be nothing more than a fantasy. Instead, I must have the mind of Christ, who was willing to set aside the glory and majesty of heaven for the sin-cursed world that wanted nothing to do with Him. If I have His mindset, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll make some steps toward truly being united as one.
“…Gentleness”—Unity and love demand that I respond in kindness and submission even when my feathers are ruffled. A soft, or gentle, answer will turn away wrath and ultimately help move toward reconciliation, while harsh words will turn up the heat on the conflict (Prov. 15:1). Yes, disagreements will happen, but they need not be the end of our unity.
“…and patience, forbearing one another and forgiving one another, just as the Lord forgave you”—Love demands that we have long fuses with one another and that we quickly offer forgiveness when offenses are committed. Our Father’s posture toward His children is one of forgiveness. He has a hair-trigger when it comes to forgiveness-granting, and the offenses committed against Him are infinitely more egregious than what may happen to us. That’s not to slight the manner in which you may have been offended, but when compared with the cosmic treason perpetrated against the Creator and Giver of life, it will pale. And that’s the standard of forgiveness which we are called to uphold, for it’s the one we have been privileged to enjoy. Those who have been truly forgiven forgive. Those who have known the longsuffering patience of God must reciprocate it to their fellow sinners. And it’s only because we have experienced it that we can grant it at all.
The concept of love has been romanticized and minimized to a paltry tolerant acceptance of sin and heresy. That’s not what I, or the Apostle Paul, is talking about. We must deal with sin and hold fast to truth (just read the rest of Colossians!). However, those things will not bring unity to the sheep who remain after the goats have been run off. That will come only as we sheep are held together with a special adhesive—love.