We exist in a world that divides on crazy things—things that aren’t even theological issues. We hear stories about churches splitting apart because of the color of the carpet or whether or not there are pews or chairs in the main gathering room. We’ve come to a place where we, as the Church, are dividing more and more over less and less signiﬁcant issues.
A little bit of history
This isn’t just a problem that we’re experiencing today in modern Western Christianity. For several hundred years in early Christianity, we existed as one cohesive Church, moving forward together, bringing and advancing to Gospel of Jesus. But there are a few things early on that caused splits. The 11th century saw the ﬁrst great schism, where Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy split into two different directions as a result of some theological differences. Then the 16th century, of course, brought with it the Protestant Reformation, in which no fewer than four different branches split off from mainline Roman Catholicism.
Of course, there were several issues happening in the Catholic Church at that time that needed to be addressed. Some very well-intentioned people were trying to overcome some very serious wrongs. But an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation is that today, in modern Christianity, we have over 38,000 different denominations that have continued to split on topics ranging from theologically vital to incomprehensibly petty.
So today, although God has said that He desires His Church to be one body, although He has said that we are the bride of Christ, we live in a fractured faith. We live in a fractured Christianity that continues to divide over things that are not central to the message of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The seeds of denominational division were planted during the Reformation and have been growing ever since. As a result, some unintended consequences have caused us to move in the direction of disunity and fracturedness.
What does Jesus say about it?
In the end, if we as the Church are uniﬁed, we are more effective in accomplishing those things God has commissioned us to do. In John 17, Jesus is saying prayers for different groups of people. After He’s ﬁnished praying for just His disciples, He prays for everyone else, saying, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who would believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father. Just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
There’s something supernatural that comes as the result of us being uniﬁed in the person of Jesus, and the result is that the world will believe that Jesus was divinely sent from the Father.
A lot of times when we talk about unity, we have this idea that unity is on one side of a spectrum and truth is on the other side, with a pendulum in between the two. We say that we’re either going to swing our pendulum on the side of unity and be people who pursue and desire it, but in doing so, we have to compromise what we believe to be the truth. Or we swing our pendulum over to the truth side and, as a result, we have to be divided. Because we think that we can’t have both truth and unity.
This is not reality. Truth and unity are not two sides of a spectrum—because Jesus, we know, is the way, the truth and the life, and no one can come to the Father but through Him. And we see Jesus praying in John 17 that the Church would be uniﬁed. If Jesus is the truth, He cannot pray something that is contrary to His very existence. If Jesus is truth and also able to pray that His Church would be uniﬁed, then truth and unity have to go hand in hand.
The moment we put anything other than Jesus at the center of our lives, it immediately becomes an idol and we are divided from the Church. Our truth is that Jesus came and died, and that we can be uniﬁed in that truth. The more we lift up Jesus and embody Jesus, the more we move into greater amounts of unity. Unity and truth are not two opposite ends of the spectrum; they are one thing in the person of Jesus.
The imposter realities lie
For us to step into unity, we can’t rely on human decisions. Spiritual unity has to be deeply rooted in understanding the spiritual reality that’s going on around us. In Mark 8, Jesus says to His disciples, “Be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” He was talking about two spiritual issues: the religious spirit (the Pharisees) and the political spirit (Herod.) Both of these spiritual entities convince us to replace Kingdom ideas with self-centered impostors. The religious spirit comes and says that you have to work yourself into being approved by God. The Pharisees created system after system on this idea, and it forced people to come to them to know what the system was.
Taking on that same religious or political spirit is often the root of disunity for us today. We step into a place of needing to maintain control out of fear. The religious and political spirits bring fear—fear that we would lose power, fear that we would lose position, fear that we would lose credibility, fear that people would not approve of us.
Fear produces the need to control. When we fear something, we feel the need to control it so that we won’t fear it. When we need to control things, we are at odds with anything that might threaten that control. But the Holy Spirit brings freedom, and when we try to enter into a place of control out of fear, we are at odds with the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and the lives of the people around us.
That is the root of disunity in the Church: trying to create something apart from Jesus and put it at the center of our lives. When we do that, we have to ﬁght to protect that thing so that we have no fear.
But perfect love drives out fear. The person of Jesus is the solution to the spirits that would cause us to live in disunity. Once we are united in the person of Christ, making all else peripheral, we can live a life of unity.
Cole is the Creative Director and co-pastor of City Beautiful Church in Orlando, FL. His new book, Spiritual Innovation, helps us move from the need for control to a new level of exploration, expectation, discovery, and creativity in our faith and lives. He also creates interactive and reflective art and worship experiences through his company, Uncover The Color. He blogs at colenesmith.com and is on Twitter @ColeNeSmith.