“Help! I Care About My Church!”
The value of unity and how we can promote it
BY THOMAS LOBITZ
Iam . . . a stranger to my own mother’s children; . . . for zeal for your house consumes me” (Ps. 69:8, 9).
The man approached me hesitantly at the booth of the German Seventh-day Adventist publishing house. We had many people browsing through books and looking at special offers. After paging through a few books, he finally plucked up his courage and spoke to me. He wanted to know if I thought that our church was facing a deep crisis. Then he went on to list everything he thought was wrong—in his local congregation and in the church at large. Before I could answer, he walked away.
This encounter reminded me of Psalm 69:8, 9. Apparently there are people among us who feel the same way as David did when he wrote this psalm. They worry so much about the church that one has to worry about them. Eventually some end up alienating themselves from their brothers and sisters.
The Many Faces of Church
Is it helpful to worry about the future of our church? It definitely is human to worry about the things that are important to us.
Some Adventists compare the church to a toddler. In their eyes the church is immature, unprofessional, and constantly making mistakes. Leadership is either incapable or overwhelmed. And the regular church members are not much better. They can be blown this way and that way by “every new wind of doctrine” (see Eph. 4:14), are inconsistent in their walk with Jesus, or fanatical.
Others liken the church to an adolescent going through puberty. Terrible music is played, something new is tried out continuously, and traditions are denigrated or even eliminated. Only one thing can help—a solid sermon calling all those who have gone astray back to (the old) order.
Still others think of the church as an adult who cares mainly about his or her career. There is a flurry of inward activity and outward indifference. Mission? No time! Service for others? Sorry, no volunteers are available, since we need them all to keep our local church running smoothly.
Finally, some see the church as a stubborn old man who is intent on preserving the status quo. Any attempt to adapt to changing times is suspicious. Change is viewed negatively.
What Then Is Church?
The New Testament word for church (ekklesia, “the ones called to come out”) was used to describe a gathering of believers. Church involved fellowship (Acts 2:42), worship of God, and service to others (1 Peter 4:10). The church is God’s instrument to spread His good news (1 Peter 2:5-12). Those who earlier did not know God are transformed and become committed disciples, using their gifts and abilities for the mission and ministry of the church.
The church is neither a rigid institution nor a building; it is a living organism, and, therefore, difficult to describe with a single concept. It’s no wonder that biblical writers used many images to illustrate the nature of the church: It is described, for example, as a “flock” (John 10; Acts 20:28), a “holy nation” and “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), or as the “bride” of Christ (see 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-32; Rev. 19:7; 21:9; 22:17).
The most famous image, though, must be the “body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-16). Christ is described as the head of this body, and members of the church—according to their gifts and tasks—as the “body parts.” This image underlines the unity of the body of Christ, requiring all members of the body to fulfill their God-given functions. The driving force behind all this is love.
The Unity of the Church
Many who care about the church think about the unity of the church in terms of the cohesiveness of its members. But of what does the unity of the church consist, and how is it manifested? A Dutch theologian has formulated some helpful statements regarding the unity of the church that I will summarize: Talking about the church is not talking about our opinions of how the church should be. The church is one, and unity of faith should be assumed—despite its often-visible disunity—because the church is by its very nature and origin one. Its inner turmoil is a sign of sin. The Trinity is an analogy for the unity of the church. Unity is both a gift and a task, a gift and a responsibility, a reality and a responsibility.1 Just as the human body forms a unit, so the church is one.
Unity in Diversity—Limitless?
In April 2002 the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists highlighted three core values for the leadership of the global church: growth, unity, and quality of life. Taking into account the common denominators of doctrine and organization, it was also recognized that there are ethnic and cultural differences that affect the interaction of church members.2 In reality, our churches and church members are very different, despite many similarities.
Even the human body (as the body of Christ symbolizes the church) has many members with various tasks. Depending on the perspective, one and the same body can look quite different from different angles. Does this jeopardize the unity of the church?
Note this statement by Ellen White: “We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light. The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance.”3
In other words, Ellen White says that a diversity of perspectives is quite compatible with the unity of the church. She emphasizes that an attitude of Christlike forbearance is crucial in keeping the church together. This helpful concept may mean that we may not always have to be right, and that others may not always have to agree with our ideas. In this statement Ellen White clearly advocates the appreciation of diversity of opinion.
But what are the limits of “unity in diversity”? Diversity should not become an excuse for the division of the church, or it would make this sin a virtue. Diversity makes more evident the need for unity. Only diversity, where fellowship is not destroyed, is acceptable. Christian fellowship is the expression and sign of the unity of the church. Unity does not mean egalitarianism or separateness. The image of the body of Christ excludes rivalry, strife, and division, and instead calls for unity, harmony, and community.4
Participate—Rather Than Worry
If we’re worried about the church, see it going the “wrong way,” or fear division, we can react in different ways. Some church members write passionate letters to the church board or send the letter immediately via e-mail to their entire mailing list. Others start their own activities parallel to church organization, because they view the church’s work as mistaken or imperfect.5
I doubt whether all this can help the cohesion of the church, or may be part of the effort to “guide [them] into all the truth” (John 16:13)—which, quite apart, is the task of the Holy Spirit. If we truly are concerned about the unity of the church, there are numerous ways that may help us achieve it. Here are some suggestions:
Focus on a deep and personal relationship with Jesus. Numerous articles on spiritual growth have been published in the Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. There are also several helpful books on the subject, such as Steps to Christ, by Ellen G. White; Knowing God in the Real World, by Jon Paulien; Conquering the Dragon Within, by Marvin Moore; or 95 Theses on Righteousness by Faith, by Morris Venden. Small groups also support spiritual growth through fellowship with other believers. The unity of the church is thus promoted in a spiritual way.
Speak and preach about the importance of unity in the church. Together with the pastor of your church put this important topic on the preaching plan of your church. What is church unity? Why is it so important? How can it be promoted? This shared thinking about the unity of the church provides an intellectual way of engaging this important topic.
Take part in the social activities of the church. Whether fellowship meals, social meetings, excursions, or the celebration of important church landmarks—participate in the social life of your local church family. These types of activities bring church members closer to one another, and help us understand each other better. The unity of the church is promoted on an emotional level.
Share in the mission of the church. Participate in an evangelistic effort, a cross-cultural ministry helping those in your community who are far away from home, or hands-on service to help the disadvantaged in your community: You are part of God’s mission to this world. This participation creates a feeling of connectedness and allows the unity of the church to be promoted in a practical way.
I wish that Psalm 69:8, 9 would become less and less of a reality in our churches. Wouldn’t it be nicer rather to join in the magnificent chorus of Psalm 84:4: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you”?
I plan to sing that song in church.
- Based on G. C. Berkouwer, The Church: Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 29-50.
- You can read the document at www.adventist.org/information/official-statements/documents/article/go/0/strategic-issues-for-the-seventh-day-adventist-church/6/.
- Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: E. G. White Estate, 1993), vol. 11, p. 266. (Italics supplied.)
- Let me quickly affirm that I don’t see supporting ministries in this group.