Part 10 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Paul emphasizes the unity of the body of Christ in his letter to the Corinthians because that unity was threatened by self-centered divisiveness. Paul knew that God intends the church of Jesus Christ is called to be united, so he used the image of the body to help the Corinthians understand how they could be united even in their diversity.
Another of Paul’s letters also underscores the priority of church unity for Christian living. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul begins by laying out God’s grand plan for all of creation. Even before anything existed, God was aware that sin would one day mar his good creation, shattering the perfect unity and harmony God had intended. But, in time, God would mend that which had been shattered, “bringing everything together under the authority of Christ — everything in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10-11). Christ’s death on the cross leads, not only to our personal salvation, but also to the restoring of cosmic unity. This restoration begins as human beings, formerly divided, come together through the cross of Christ (Eph 2:1-22).
Applying this impressive theological vision to daily life, Paul urges:
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace. We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all (Eph 4:1-6).
Actual unity among Christians is a top priority because it reflects basic theological realities. When the church is united, then God’s plan for the ages shines forth with brilliance. When we live separate and disconnected lives, the good news of God’s work in Christ hides in the shadow of our disunity.
Paul’s prioritization of unity among Christians reiterates the values of Jesus himself. In the hours before his death, Jesus prays,
Now I am departing the world; I am leaving [my people] behind and coming to you. Holy Father, keep them and care for them—all those you have given me—so that they will be united just as we are. . . . I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony. My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father—that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are— I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one. Then the world will know that you sent me and will understand that you love them as much as you love me (John 17:11, 20-23).
Jesus prays for unity among his disciples, including specifically those of us who will believe in him without having met him in the flesh. Our oneness is to be so deep and lasting that it can even be compared to the oneness Jesus shares with his Heavenly Father. When we experience this dimension of unity, then the world will recognize who Jesus is and what he accomplished through his life and death.
Each of us ought to make Christian community a priority for our lives, not only out of obedience to the clear teaching of scripture, but also so that the world around us will acknowledge the truth of what God has done in Christ. We should seek genuine fellowship with other Christians even when they disappoint us. We should strive for unity among God’s people even when division seems so much easier to manage. Intimate fellowship among Christians contributes, not only to the health of the body of Christ, but also to the persuasiveness of our witness to Christ in the world. As Jesus himself says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
For me, the priority of Christian unity gets worked out in very practical ways in my relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Since became ordained as a pastor twenty years ago, my denomination has done many things that have offended me. They always have to do with actions or decisions that diminish or even deny basic biblical truth. Most recently, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to change our church Book of Order so as to allow for the ordination of people who are sexually active outside of marriage. This change may very well be rejected by presbyteries (regional governing bodies) so that it will not be official. Nevertheless, I must admit that I’m tired of fighting the same battles again and again and again. Sometimes the grass seems much greener outside of the PC(USA) pasture. But I take seriously the command of Ephesians 3 to eagerly preserve the unity of the body of Christ. Though there may be a time when my conscience will leave me no option but to break fellowship with the PC(USA), until that day I will seek the unity of the part of the body of Christ to which I have been connected.