Unity is Often Messy!

Author: Pastor Don W. McFarlane
September 06, 2018

The Catholic Church has had an inordinate amount of media attention in recent weeks. One is tempted to think that the intensity of the current spotlight on the Catholic Church is unprecedented, but such broad-brush statements may not be able to withstand the scrutiny of history. A couple of those who belong to my own faith tradition expressed, in my presence, sentiments that seemed somewhat gleeful over the current woes of the Catholic Church. One even went as far as voicing the view that this could be the beginning of the end for the Catholic Church and the “fulfillment of prophecy.”

I was unable to join in that exultant view of my fellow believers, particularly for two reasons. The first is that my understanding of scripture and my relationship with Christ do not require the demise or decline of another church to validate my own church and provide it with a sense of purpose. The second reason is that my own faith organization has now embarked on a path to enforce church unity through policy, protocol and power, which is an extremely dangerous road to take. The Administrative Committee of the General Conference has voted a compliance document which is designed to bring about church unity and ensure that church members and church workers around the world embrace the General Conference’s interpretation of scripture and policy application, with very stiff penalties being applied to those who do not conform (See “Massive Oversight Committee Set Up At The General Conference” by Bonnie Dwyer, August 18).

A brief history of the Christian church reveals that church unity is not arrived at through policy and doctrinal enforcement, threats and the flaunting of ecclesiastical powers. If you don’t believe me, ask Luther, Tyndale, Huss, Latimer and tens of millions of other Christians who were killed by the Catholic Church in its campaign to enforce unity, which by another name was really uniformity. One can understand the need to have unity in a church that is as disparate and as diverse as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The temptation is always present to bring about unity through commands, policies and threats. But real unity does not arise from such measures.

Unity is often not a neat and orderly state of affairs, in which all members of a group think and behave uniformly. It’s often messy! One does not need to look beyond the New Testament to understand this.  The leadership of the early church in Jerusalem, understanding the imperative of mission and the need for the gospel to take root in different parts of the world, gave its blessing to unity in diversity. That in itself was a formula for different approaches for different segments of people in the church on matters that were not core beliefs, but which were essential for growth and a sense of belonging on the part of members from dissimilar locations and traditions.

As early as Acts Chapter 6, we see differences in administering the affairs of the church for different kinds of people. Here we see two distinct groups in the church with separate needs:
“Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:1-4).

Both the Hellenists and the Hebrews are called disciples, which shows commitment to Jesus on the part of both groups. The Hellenists complain against the Hebrews for neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of supplies. The leaders of the church (the Twelve) take the complaint of the Hellenists seriously and act to resolve the matter by appointing seven deacons to minister to the needs of the Hellenist widows.

The church demonstrated great wisdom, not only in appointing the seven deacons but also in ensuring that all seven were Hellenists, as their names suggest. It appears that initially the seven deacons had the specific role of serving the Hellenist members while the Twelve continued to have responsibility for both the Hebrews and Hellenists in spiritual matters. Such an arrangement today could possibly have some asking, “Why should the Hellenists have this extra level of support when it is not available to the Hebrews?” As the church grew, it became evident that special provisions had to be made for certain local needs. Unity was maintained, not primarily by having a uniformed structure, enforcing policies and issuing threats, but by the relationship that members had with Christ. Both Hellenists and Hebrews were His disciples.

We find another fine example of unity in diversity in Acts 15. Certain church members from Judea went down to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were engaged in ministry. Ignoring the work of Paul and Barnabas, these men urged circumcision on the new converts. Paul and Barnabas argued aggressively with these men to leave the new converts alone, but the men stood their ground and in the end it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, the men and a few others should travel to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with church leadership. After much discussion, the leaders in Jerusalem issued their decision: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15:28, 29).

The upshot of the decision of the leaders in Jerusalem was that Gentile converts in Antioch and elsewhere were not under obligation to be circumcised, even though the practice would remain among Jewish Christians. This was a decision that led to an uneven situation in the church but which served to preserve its unity. Unity, clearly, was not uniformity in practice or policy, but in the fact that both Gentiles and Jews were committed disciples of Jesus.

Could Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders today make the same mistakes that church leaders made back in the Middle Ages? Could seemingly pious men and women, in the interest of unity, punish those who dare to act in harmony with their conscience? Could an effort to corral organizational unity drive leaders to take action which in years to come will seem unreasonable, perplexing and out of line with the inclusive nature of the Body of Christ?

What is the real nature of the unity of which our Lord spoke? Is it organizational uniformity or does it spring from abiding in Christ, being committed to the mission of the church and demonstrating the nature of Christ’s kingdom in witness to the world? My limited understanding of scripture has led me to believe that it is the latter, by which the world will know that we are Christ’s disciples.

The Compliance document is to be presented to the General Conference Executive Committee at Autumn Council next month. Church members everywhere need to pray that our world leaders as they gather in Battle Creek, Michigan, October 11-17, will think clearly and responsibly about the effect of legislated unity as opposed to a unity that emerges from persuasion, prayer and presence, the presence of Christ.


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