In exploring the very important question of Christian unity, I keep asking myself how Jesus really wants us to be ONE. What does this Divine Desire for unity look like in our world? And what keeps us from achieving this unity?
I fear that one answer to this last question might be that we live in such an individualistic, consumer-oriented society that the right to shop is considered God-given. I know this from personal experience.
Sherrylee and I have left two churches and thought we might have to leave another. Two of these churches we had a hand in starting and were certainly part of the core group. In the third church we were very common members.
Church number three was a good, traditional church, full of wonderful people; Sherrylee and I were continually irritated, however, by what we thought was a bureaucratic though benevolent leadership and shallow preaching. We left peaceably when the opportunity presented itself to start the perfect church with a like-minded group of friends.
Church number two felt like the perfect church, just what we wanted church to be: close, intimate fellowship, challenging teaching where any question could be raised and seriously addressed, and communal worship that visibly flowed from heart to heart in songs and prayers that felt holy rather than enthusiastic.
In spite of many years in that community of believers, Sherrylee and I left that church because we had lost confidence in their commitment to core Christian beliefs that we held to be essential and because we ourselves had lost the confidence and trust of the church leaders in this tension.
We did not leave the first day we noticed these losses. No, for several years we tried to re-direct and lead the church along a different path, but when we felt we had lost our voice and even the goodwill of the community, we left.
This congregation continues to exist, and I want to be clear that my description of how we believed it was many years ago is not a statement of how the current community is or what they believe and practice. Neither we nor they were as perfect as we wanted to be!
Church number one is really the one I want to focus on in this post because with this particular group of Christians, I learned lessons that continue to challenge my understanding of Christian unity.
In 1973, Sherrylee and I along with two other couples moved to Hannover, Germany, in order to plant a new church (to use a jargon that belongs to the current generation). Planting a church is an extraordinary experience that challenges the essence of your faith. It draws on all of your experiences as a Christian as well as all you have learned, and it defies formulas and templates, so you are forced into arenas that you never knew existed.
(Wow! I just realized as I wrote that sentence how attractive that whole list is to me. Makes me want to do it again!)
Here are a few of the lessons I learned in Hannover about church unity
- We really don’t have an inalienable right to choose with whom we worship. We had one older German couple that were “old German”—meaning that their norms for propriety were from their generation, not those of the younger people in our age group. They were constantly being offended, but they desperately needed the Lord! On many days they were an irritant in our small community of believers—but God had brought them there. We did not have the right to choose to divorce them or ignore them; our only choice was to love them, so we learned to love rather than leave—and became a little more like Jesus because of them.
- What is “lively” to one person is “deadly” to another even within the same community. The first wave of what we today call praise music was big in the States in the 70s, especially among campus ministries. Since Sherrylee and I had been at Ole Miss prior to going to Germany, we were familiar and in tune with this new music. You can imagine our enthusiasm for translating and introducing it to our fresh, new community in Hannover. What could be livelier?? Except that it was not their music. As in any group, some people liked anything new and different, but others needed the continuity of familiar German hymns. There was no option about having a “worship war,” so we had to learn not only to respect each other, but to worship together in unity of spirit—and the style became secondary to the love that required.
- Those least like you may become those most like you. Hannover is in northern Germany which is historically protestant. Southern Germany is much more Roman Catholic. We began our mission in southern Germany, but expected when we moved to Hannover that receptivity would be greater in northern Germany among the protestants with which we had more in common. We were completely wrong!
What we had yet to learn was that the modern German protestant is far removed from the theology of Luther. In fact, Protestantism in Germany only has vestiges of Christian faith remaining. Most pastors do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, do not believe in eternal life, and do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I’m sure there are some clergy who do—and certainly many of their members—but as a whole, we found the protestant church in Germany then to be post-Christian.
You can imagine our surprise as we discovered that we had much more in common with the Catholic church than with the Protestant. We had been raised to understand Catholics as much farther removed from the presence of God than Protestants. But Catholics firmly believe in the Lordship of Jesus, in his death and resurrection, in eternal life, in the inspired Scriptures, in prayer, communion, baptism, and so much more that we share.
If unity is based at all on likemindedness, if unity is based at all on speaking the same thing, then we had much more unity with Roman Catholics than we had with German Protestants. In fact, many of those who joined our little community of faith came from Catholic backgrounds and probably joined us, not as a repudiation of their past, but as their own attempt to draw even closer to God.
So, as you can probably tell, I really don’t believe that we have the inalienable right to casually shop! At best, the opportunity to shop is a luxury of the rich who live among many, many stores!
I do believe that belonging to a community requires commitment and part of every real commitment is being able to trust that you will not abandon those to whom you have committed.
God hates divorce! I believe that He hates that which creates Disunity, that which destroys committed relationships—including church fellowship.
But I’m still working on what that means. So I’m thankful for His grace and mercy that heals brokenness!