How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! Psalm 133:1
More than ever I’ve been experiencing dissension around me, especially among Christians. Pastors can’t, or won’t, reach out to brothers and sisters who hold a different interpretation of a favorite doctrine. Friends call each other idiots because they support different political parties. Church members shun those who hold a different view of creation. People are standing their grounds – and dividing the world more deeply than ever.
If everyone would believe my way, then there would be unity.
What would it be like to lay down our arms, instead of taking them up to defend our positions? I don’t want to hear arguments anymore. I want to sit down and talk. To work to see God’s image in one another.
Dissension was also part of the Gospels – Jesus did not shy away from it. But neither did he allow it to separate people, unless they chose separation. He brought religious zealots and tax collectors into his inner circle. Beyond the twelve disciples, pharisees, prostitutes, and other outcasts were regular followers. These individuals did not always get along or have the same vision of God’s Kingdom. Yet, this was the first inkling of Christian community. Unlike the religious leaders of their day, the primary commonality among Jesus’ followers was not external practices, rules, or programs. No, Christ himself was the unifying element.
Nearly two thousand years after this original band came together, I often wonder if the church has forgotten what it means to live in unity. While part of an underground seminary in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored the idea of Christian community in the book, Life Together. This group did not wait until they could be a thriving church body drawing people in from the streets when all programs and procedures were in order. They practiced this community in the chaos of the Third Reich. As Bonhoeffer writes, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30). In other words, a church is not a church because it has certain external practices, but because Christ is in the midst of her workings.
I have noticed that Christian community often breaks down because of differing expectations of what a church should and should not be. For some people, it must have the right youth program, worship service, or only include people whose ideas are similar to theirs. Or, maybe its budget should contain specific items or the carpet be a certain color. However, as Bonhoeffer warns, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (27). When I read this sentence I knew he was not just talking to those with whom I disagree, but to me as well. Many times my dreams of what a Christian community could be overpower the reality of how Christ is working. I need to ask forgiveness.
However, whether it’s a need to ask for forgiveness, to share failings in work or family life, or just to express that one is weak, we are fearful that if we back down from our ‘a-okay’ personas people will walk away. As Bonhoeffer rightly reminds us, “many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous” (110). How sad. We are all sinners. Jesus came not for a group of perfect humans – but for those who know they are broken and need help. As we hide our sins from the community, sin has greater control over us. Only when we are honest before others and God does sin loosen its hold on our lives.
Some of the work that makes this possible runs contrary to how the world says we should conduct ourselves in order to succeed. Instead of speaking against people behind their backs, we are to hold our tongues. Instead of claiming one’s rights above another, we are to be meek. We are to listen, to bear each others’ burdens, and to proclaim God’s Word and truth in love. An amazing freedom occurs as we practice these actions through Christ. We allow our brothers and sisters, along with ourselves, to be free to be the image of God, not be constrained by the limiting image we have for them.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1