In my last blog post I looked at some of what the Bible has to say about Christian unity, or Christian togetherness as I may often now call it for reasons which I also explained in the last blog post. I now want to share something about why this is something I feel strongly about, and the way God has used some of my experiences to bring it to the forefront of my mind.
I believe God has been speaking to me about this over a number of years, so my apologies that many of the details are a little hazy, but I will do my best to remember some of the events that have happened.
At the start I should state that this is probably not a topic which you might expect me to focus on. I have attended churches for much of my adult life in which, while Christian Unity has been an important theological truth, this has been laid alongside the need to maintain truth, in doctrine and lifestyle. These are important matters and I will spend some time thinking about how we can maintain the integrity of both doctrinal truth and Christian unity in future blog posts. But for many of the churches I have been involved with, this has been worked out in practice in a way that has led to limited connection with most other churches and Christian traditions. What was done was mostly with those churches coming from a similar theological position.
As I look back on my life I can see a number of more significant events or themes emerging which have raised the importance of Christian togetherness in my mind. I’m not saying that this is the most important Christian doctrine, or that it should be emphasized any more than many other truths that the Bible teaches us. We need to teach all these great Bible truths together, and hold them in balance, or else we are in danger of getting ‘lopsided’ in our Christianity. However it is an issue that I believe God has especially laid on my heart and that I should talk about – as others will rightly emphasize other important truths that God has laid on their heart. It is also an issue which in my experience the church generally has not done such a good job of getting right. So below are a number of specific things which have caused me to particularly hold this issue in my heart. It’s not everything that there is to be said, but is a start in explaining why I want to talk about it.
One strand in God speaking to me about Christian unity over many years has been through my personal interactions with those from other churches throughout my Christian life. A number of inter-church organizations and activities were quite formative in my teenage and early 20s. This included ‘United Beach Missions’ during my teenage years, and the university Christians Unions during my time as a student. While these organizations were both clearly evangelical, they nevertheless still involved those from a breadth of Christian backgrounds. In particular I remember during my time as a student noticing that Christian friends who went to what seemed to me at the time to be a very different sort of church had a much deeper and more real relationship with God than I did myself and I had a lot to learn from them. Then in my early to mid 30s my wife and I spent two years studying mission and applied theology at Redcliffe College, a mission training centre with students from a breadth of churches (although the majority were evangelical in nature). While at Redcliffe we met a great group of other Christians from around the world, were able to hear and appreciate their different perspectives on faith, see different understandings and readings of the Bible, and also meet others who had a great passion for Christian unity. In more recent years my wife and I have also been involved in organising and leading a children’s summer holiday club where we looked at and learned from the Bible as well as having lots of fun. We believed that in our context it would be good to have helpers and leaders from all the local churches, as much as they were happy to be involved. Organising it as an inter-church activity had many challenges and it would have been much easier for it to be a single church event, but nevertheless I am convinced that this was the right thing to do.
One significant moment where I felt God speaking to me about the issue of Christian unity – in May 2016 – was when visiting a church one Sunday. The talk that morning was based on Deuteronomy 11:8-16 and the focus of the message was on holding on to God’s promise for a new land, seeing a breakthrough of God’s grace and goodness in a situation where things are hard. But one question I asked myself was – how can we know that the ‘new land’ we are holding on to is God’s promise, not our own wishes? It struck me that one area we can have confidence in that ‘holding on’, is for promises that are clearly outlined in God’s word, where what we are seeking is something commended in the Bible. In this context the situation of the Christians where I live came to mind, with the limited display of unity between many of the Christians attending the different local churches making our witness for Jesus hard. A desire for real unity leading to a strong witness was something clearly in line with the Bible’s commands and as a result of this sermon this has become something I have held on to God for in my prayers.
A couple of years ago I was in the car, listening to music on the way to work as usual. (I changed jobs only a few weeks later to one with a much shorter commute so this was one of my last opportunities for listening to music on the way to work!) That day I listened to a CD that I had listened to before, but only rarely. A few days later I found myself singing one of the songs it contains while doing the washing up after breakfast. It was a Christian song but one I had never sung in church and so only knew from that CD. I hadn’t ever particularly paid attention to its words, but I did that morning – it starts ‘There is a place of commanded blessing, where brethren in unity dwell’. Suddenly it struck me – this was a (rare) song about Christian unity! After washing up I went off to work, and put the car music on – and that was again the song that played. Later in a prayer time I looked up some of the ‘highlighted’ passages in my mobile Bible app and in these I could see both that unity is commanded (a place of commanded blessing), and also the link in the Bible between our unity and how others will know that we are Jesus’ disciples – that unity is a place of blessing particularly with regards to our witness about Jesus. I thought also of the evangelistic ministry of Billy Graham and a comment I’d heard the he was not probably the ‘best’ evangelist, but was the most prayed for and that this was why his outreach was so blessed. This is no doubt true but I remembered that he was also an evangelist who cared about Christian unity and worked with Christians from across the churches and Christian traditions – perhaps this was also another reason why he was blessed so much by God. The outworking of this series of ‘happenings’ and ‘thoughts’ was a strong sense that this was a message that God wanted me to focus on sharing.
The final strand I will talk about is God speaking to me through the Bible. I have already looked at what the Bible has to say on Christian Unity, and will continue to do so in future blog posts, so there is no need to point out every verse that has spoken to me about this issue from God’s word. Needless to say there are many passages in the Bible that speak, either directly or obliquely about the need for God’s children to live in unity and love together. I am passionate about making what God has said in his word authoritative in our lives – living out what it says – rather than just what we wish it said, or what we have always done. If we genuinely are wanting to follow what God says in the Bible it must surely mean we keep needing to make changes to how we live and what we think, because assuredly none of us have got it all right at present! And as I read the Bible each day passages or verses kept striking me that made me unhappy with how the church globally works out the unity that should be there between individual congregations and also how this is worked out at the personal level in my life and that of others. So I am passionate about this issue because we need to be if we are to be faithful to what God has said to us.
So I have shared something of why I am focusing on this issue of Christian togetherness in this blog. I will move on next to look at some of the objections to how unity is sometimes worked out and discuss what unity maybe should look like at a practical level.