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What the heck is 'Christian unity'? #RestoreUnity

Art credit: Karen Bates.

So Rachel Held Evans has her hands full this week. Not only is she trying to “restore unity,” she’s also attempting to raise 1000s of dollars for clean water in Africa. So please, let’s help her do both.

I believe one of those goals is much more difficult than the other. One involves taking your check card out of your wallet and giving a few dollars toward a good cause, and the other, well, it’s much more complicated.

As I thought about contributing to Rachel’s blog rally, my first question was this: What exactly is this “unity” that Rachel hopes we restore? I know that Jesus spoke about unity. And I suppose that the earliest follower of Christ experienced it. But I’m not sure I know what it looks like or how to pursue it or if I’d actually recognize it if it happened in a room where I was standing. To be honest, even if I did run into unity, my being there would probably disrupt it somehow.

We Christians are good at talking about “unity”. But I’m not sure any of us know what it means. Or how we should live it. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us really want unity. We talk about wanting it and we talk about the words of Jesus like we value them. But when it comes to living those words, we usually end up agreeing to disagree on what Jesus actually meant. And while that’s nice and all, it’s not unity. Not really.

Consider what happened last night when the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced. Twitter and Facebook became lit up with opinions regarding the news. Some celebrated. Some made jokes. Some chastised people for celebrating and making jokes. Some quoted scripture. Some praised God. One person said, “Burn in hell, Osama” while another said, “love your enemies.”

The only visible unity was the fact that most of us had opinions (and they weren’t unified). While I didn’t exactly celebrate Osama’s death, I must confess I didn’t love him, either. Can you really love somebody you don’t know? I mean, we can not hate them. But love them? In regards to Osama, I don’t believe that person whose status read “love your enemies” had any inkling of an idea on how to love a terrorist leader who, on occasion, sliced people’s heads off with dull butcher knives. I’m sorry; I have enough trouble loving members of my own family at times, the idea of loving Osama fails me. However, celebrating his death is hardly holy. To be honest, both reactions–celebration and crying “love your enemies”– seem to deny people of the one thing we all share: humanity.

Which might be the one thing that interferes with Christians enjoying a little unity on occasion: The unhealthy relationship that most of us have with our own humanity as well as the humanity of others. Often, when we gather together, we don’t simply come as human beings, we come together wearing our opinions, assumptions, experiences, theologies, and passions. We discuss and debate as Democrats or Republicans, as victims or survivors, as Americans and/or Christians, as Presbyterians or Methodists, as rich people or poor people, as insecure and/or aggressive… the list could go on and on. Usually, amid the muck, we not only lose our own humanity, we fail to acknowledge (and accept or understand) the humanity of others. Is unity possible when we deny (or perhaps, fail to remember) our one unchanging common denominator?

Again, I don’t know what unity looks like. And the thought of trying to restore it gives me a headache. But I do know this: Whenever I enter into discourse or debate or conversation, and I see the person as fundamentalist or Republican or homophobic or antagonist or (fill in the blank) rather than a human being with stories and ideas and passions, I almost always fail at being a promoter of unity. And yet, sometimes I can’t help but define people with unfair labels and allow those assumptions to affect my ability to love them. I am human after all.

When Jesus prayed that those who love him should be one, I don’t know for sure what he visually hoped for. But I can’t help but believe that the unity he asked God to help us discover was much more than the kind that encourages liberals and conservatives to be nice to one another or the kind that simply encourages Presbyterians to forget they’re Presbyterian and Methodists to forget they’re Methodists and have coffee together. More than that, I believe the unity Jesus hoped for was a kind that would celebrate our humanity, a kind that would seek to understand and know what makes each of us unique and yet often the same, a kind that would console with those who have stories full of brokenness and cheer for those who are experiencing success, a kind that resists the temptations to assume, judge, define, and push away those who aren’t like us.

And sometimes I wonder if the unity that Jesus prayed for was a kind that would allow a victim to celebrate the justice of somebody like Osama Bin Laden being killed while also appreciating the words of those who stand up and remind us that we should love our enemies.

Now, whether or not there’s also room in that unity for people who occasionally write punch lines that make people laugh (and sometimes squirm) remains to be seen. But I have hope.



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Darrell

posted May 2, 2011 at 10:41 am


“celebrating his death is hardly holy.”

Celebrating justice, on the other hand is exactly that.



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    James Williams

    posted May 2, 2011 at 10:48 am


    Well, according to Rob Bell, Osama is getting his 2nd chance to repent right about now.



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      bltitus

      posted May 2, 2011 at 10:56 am


      Says the guy who didn’t read the book or listen to subsequent interviews.



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    Seán

    posted May 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm


    I’m not sure that within a Jesus-centric worldview Bin Laden’s death should be labelled as justice. Maybe in a sort of retributive sense, but I don’t think that would in any way resemble Jesus as it basically ignores his teaching in the sermon on the mount. But I could be wrong.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently in the run-up to the election we’re having today in Canada (specifically as it relates to political parties and voting). I think unity is one of those fun sorts of concepts that many people nowadays say they badly want, but don’t actually know what to do with… and I would go so far as to say that a lot of people really don’t what unity; they want carbon-copies of themselves. To reiterate what has already been said by others, on a sort of fundamental level I think that, at least in a North American context, it comes down to understanding the difference between agreement and acceptance, and knowing they aren’t the same thing… Knowing that we can accept each other without agreeing and working outwards from there using our areas of agreement as a starting point rather than an ending point for discussion/fellowship/living as citizens of the Kingdom.

    Great post Matthew!



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James Williams

posted May 2, 2011 at 10:45 am


Great thoughts, Matthew.



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James Williams

posted May 2, 2011 at 10:47 am


As for Rachel Evans’ call for Christians to not knock each other, I do think it’s ironic in light of the fact that her blog started as a way for her to knock Christians who have a different view than her regarding evolution.

And as I have said many times, true unity with all those who profess to be Christians means we have to accept Fred Phelps, Rob Bell, Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell….



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Carole Turner

posted May 2, 2011 at 11:06 am


I just blogged about the “unity” of some Christian’s last night after the announcement of Osama’s death.

I think it’s a good idea, maybe but..



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TheOtherMPT

posted May 2, 2011 at 11:33 am


Excellent post, Matt. I am torn in my emotions on the news of Osama’s demise between justice being served versus not celebrating when any person, however terrible they may be, is going to hell. I am just glad I’m not the one doing the judging in Heaven since that would be a terrible scene to witness. At the very least Osama’s death means one less sadistic terrorist to worry about but there are still many more out there in many flavors, even in Christian circles.



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Tiffany

posted May 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm


Thanks for this. If loving my enemy means remembering his essential humanity and not dehumanizing and villifying him, then I owe nothing less to those who are NOT my enemy.

Of course we must ask ourselves what it means to follow Jesus in reacting to OBL’s death, but we are also followers of Jesus while we react to everyone else’s reaction. Our friends and neighbors, like us, are also reacting from the fear, anger, confusion, frustration, and grief Americans have been feeling for nearly 10 years now.

I feel as though I am gathering up all of our hurt and anger and jubilation and sorrow and saying, “Here we all are. Christ have mercy.”



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Jason

posted May 2, 2011 at 1:07 pm


Great post, Matthew. I’ll admit I’m a little surprised…I expected a harder edge when your post came up. Sorry for making an assumption like that.



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Rachel H. Evans

posted May 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm


Love this post, MPT! Thanks for contributing.

As other posts have been rolling in, there seems to be a consensus building that unity does not mean uniformity. It’s not about agreeing on theology or sharing a worship style or even espousing the same tradition. Pursuing unity doesn’t mean keeping your opinions to yourself or pretending to agree when you don’t. (No one can accuse me of that!)

Instead, most folks seem to think that unity is simply about being kind to one another in spite of our differences. It’s about listening better, looking for common ground, and not assuming motives. It’s about sharing a good laugh over our idiosyncracies and eating an ungoldy amount of macaroni and cheese casserole together at potlucks full of Arminians and Calvinists, Republicans and Democrats.

Yes, I have opinions about the age of the earth. But I would never break fellowship with another Christian because his or her views differ from mine.

That’s what we’re going for with the rally…

Well, mostly we’re just ripping off Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but you get the idea. :-)



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Dianna

posted May 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm


This is one of the things I struggle with a lot, especially as someone who has radically different views than most of my family. I was actually talking about it with my mom earlier – that we need to recognize everyone coming into the discussion has different stories, different experiences, different beliefs, and different ways of viewing the world. I most often forget this when I’m debating with my more conservative fellows.

Thanks for the reminder.



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Devin Rose

posted May 2, 2011 at 2:08 pm


“And I suppose that the earliest follower of Christ experienced it.”

Catholic dude here. The Church in its earliest days was unified, but that unity wasn’t destroyed when the first Christian left the faith or believed in heresy or caused a schism. Instead, the unity of the Church remained but now there were people in schism from her. So part of restoring unity is starting with the early Church and tracing that Church forward in time, identifying what the Church was and what schisms from her were.

If the unity of the Church was lost or destroyed, then we have little hope of restoring it now. Only if Christ has preserved His Church’s unity can we hope to discover that Church today and enter full communion with it. And since the Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, which is a unity, the Church must still be a unity, for Christ’s Body is a unity.



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BMH

posted May 2, 2011 at 3:02 pm


I admit I stumble here. Christian unity seems incredibly easy to me to achieve, but maybe that’s because being a Christian seems fairly simple to me. It involves three steps:

Assuming you want to follow God, you must:
1. Base your view of God entirely on the person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels.
2. Rid yourself of anything that conflicts with (1).
3. Do not ignore (2).

Seems like if we all got on that train, we’d have something we could call Christian unity.



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    Elemenope

    posted May 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm


    So…what is the person of Jesus (as revealed in the Gospels) like?



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      BMH

      posted May 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm


      Dedicated to living out the Kingdom of God here and now, through God’s power, which is based on uncompromising, self-sacrificing, servant-love.



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        Elemenope

        posted May 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm


        And what does that mean?



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          BMH

          posted May 2, 2011 at 5:39 pm


          it means living as if Heaven has already arrived and loving others unreservedly, even to the extent of dying for one’s enemies. These seem to be the core of what Jesus was about. I think if we started there, we’d have something to call unity.

          Unfortunately we don’t have even this in common.



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          Elemenope

          posted May 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm


          I’m not trying to be difficult, but…

          it means living as if Heaven has already arrived…

          What does this entail?

          …even to the extent of dying for one’s enemies. These seem to be the core of what Jesus was about.

          Yeah, but there was some metaphysical heft to his act (according to the story) that made it not ridiculous, and besides, how often does that really come up? Most people aren’t even usually in a position to die for friends, never mind enemies.

          I mean, let’s take a paradigmatic case; say that a guy killed a friend of yours, and was arrested, tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to die. Do you think it morally appropriate to, if it were possible, save his life by taking his place in the gas chamber? This strikes me as very bad moral advice.



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          BMH

          posted May 3, 2011 at 7:08 am


          Living like Heaven has already arrived on earth (because it has, in Jesus) simply means letting God reign in your life. The Christian community is to be the manifestation of God’s Kingdom in the way we live. Now, exactly what that means in pragmatic terms has to be worked out by individuals in community and clearly there will be differences here, but we could, I think, have this basic agreement that manifesting the Kingdom is what the Christian community should be about, and I think we don’t have that now.

          I don’t care a whole lot for hypotheticals since important details get ignored. But take, for instance, five years ago when a gunman walked into an Amish school and shot 10 little girls, killing five and then killing himself. The Amish community immediately forgave the man and reached out to his family to comfort them in their loss, saying ‘We must not think evil of this man. He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.’ They invited the killer’s wife to the funeral of one of the girls and they set up a trust fund for the killer’s family.

          That’s what it means to live as if Heaven has arrived. We constantly ask ourselves, ‘what would this look like in God’s Kingdom?’ and then try to live it out. Of course, people might differ somewhat on their answer to that question, but again I think if we taken Jesus to be our model for who God is, I think we will have a very strong core of Christian unity to stand upon.



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Teresa

posted May 2, 2011 at 4:42 pm


Gotta admit, I’m a little drunk while reading your blog! I love Jesus, and I really like to drink. The only place I’ve ever found “unity” is in AA, and NOT the church. May God bless America!



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Jen

posted May 2, 2011 at 4:45 pm


I also think Christian “unity” is hard because the Bible is confusing at best, and contradictory at worst. And yes I believe in Christ and love Him – but you can’t honestly study that Book and say it is simple. You can use the Bible to justify, in this case, a mercy argument or a justice argument. Or you can use it to justify an argument that says women should never speak or be in authority over a man. It’s an incredibly complicated Book from an incredibly complicated God.

It’s anything but simple. Our faith can’t be boiled down into a FB status update, or a simple dinner conversation. Our God refuses to be confined in any box man has EVER tried to form to contain or define him.

So you add to that our human experiences, our communication breakdowns, and our general confidence in our own superiority and it’s no wonder we fight in every realm and don’t show unity.

It is complicated, and we are broken, and the entire thing is 100% reliant on grace. So on this earth, I don’t think unity is possible except for the absolute grace of God to allow it despite it all.



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randomlychad

posted May 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm


So, if I understand you, we start with our common “humunity” & go from there? If so, I’m onboard.



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ed cyzewski

posted May 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm


Well said MPT. As I was considering unity over the weekend, I realized that unity is both hard and basically useless if we’re just signing petitions or agreeing online or whatever we do that isn’t personal and actually incarnated in how we actually treat one another.



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randomlychad

posted May 2, 2011 at 5:38 pm


“humunity”=the one thing we have in common, our humanity–our common human unity. “HumUnity.” (you say it like the dead philosopher’s name, Hume).



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