I don’t know about you, but over the past few months my social media feed has been full of talk about which side you’re on. Whether in national or church politics, we are a house divided. We finished the year 2018 with some serious issues of separation, which have continued to haunt us. The nearly-equally-divided votes in both the midterm election as well as the General Conference Annual Council and North American Division Year-End Meetings have demonstrated the deep divides that run through our communities. Regardless of where you stand in all this —conservative or liberal, for women’s ordination or against it, or on one side or the other of a thousand different controversies— you have to admit we are far from united.
Which is ironic, because there has also been a lot of talk lately about unity in the Adventist Church. A lot of effort has gone into plans and attempts to achieve this elusive goal. The reality, however, is that we can’t get there from here. This time, the majority of votes leans one way, but next time the majority might lean another way. In either scenario, we’re still left with approximately half of us feeling frustrated by the direction of the church and resistant to what we perceive as a mistake. Where is the unity in that?
We have to face the truth. Majority isn’t unity. Compliance isn’t unity. Conscience isn’t unity. How do we know? Because we see the fruit. The seeds we’ve been planting are only leading to an abundance of more division.
I joined a conversation recently that largely supported ideas I find difficult to accept. When I commented and kindly shared a differing perspective, I was told, “This is what the church believes; if you don’t like it, you can go to another church.” Ouch. I, like many others, have been engaged in these difficult conversations because we are part of the church, not because we want to leave. Treating each other this way only further entrenches us in “us vs. them” thinking.
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Other conversations I’ve been a part of (on both “sides”) have suggested things like keeping our tithe money locally or redirecting it only towards specific leadership. My concern with this is that we will tend to make those decisions based on who does or doesn’t agree with what we already think. While we’re all free to support the people and organizations we’re most inspired by, this kind of localized and tribal thinking troubles me. In the church especially, if our answer to the question of unity is to focus more on those who are already most like us, we run a dangerous risk of creating, not unity but rather conformity.
One of the most beautiful things about the church is that it brings together such a wide variety of people with differing experiences and perspectives. A true path towards unity doesn’t require less differences, but rather a deeper commitment to togetherness centered in the foundational truths of the gospel of Jesus.
So how do we actually experience unity? Here are a few points on the map to get us headed in the right direction.
- We have to start living like the gospel is really true. Just before His death, Jesus prayed and said, “The glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as we are one” (John 17:22). This glory is defined as the approval of God, as seen both at the baptism of Jesus and at the Transfiguration: “This is My Son, whom I love and take delight in!” Imagine that! The same glory which Jesus received, we, too, receive in Jesus. It is this glory—this unconditional love and joyful approval—which Jesus says is the key to being unified. We all receive this as a gift, making us all equal.
Any attempt at unity that does not truly recognize the equality of all people is doomed to fail. In Christ, all our sin and all our righteousness is swallowed up in His abundant life. Unity must be founded, centered, and saturated in this beautiful truth.
- We have to pray for the Spirit. Even up until Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples were still focused on an earthly fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven (Acts 1:6). As we saw so many times in the gospel, this meant they were still competing with each other for power and position. When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, however, they put aside their own vision long enough to focus together on asking for the baptism of the Spirit (Acts 1:8, 14). Their prayers were answered in the abundance of Pentecost, and we see a radically transformed and unified church moving forward (Acts 2:40-47).
While most Adventists would agree that we need to pray for the Spirit, too often what that translates into is, “We need to pray that the Spirit is poured out, and they realize they need to change.” We pray for the Spirit to take up our cause and convince others to come to our side; we need to humble ourselves instead and truly seek the Spirit with a radical openness to be changed ourselves.
- We must have an active faith that puts beliefs into action. James says, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). In other words, taking practical actions that embody the truths and trust we profess is what make our faith really alive.
• First, get out of your echo chamber. Stop listening only to those who agree with you. Start following a wide spectrum of perspectives on social media so you can hear many different points of view. Or better yet, engage in real conversations and community spaces with those who are different than you. Listen, really listen to their perspectives and experiences. Listen to how the Spirit may want you to grow by learning from other members of the body of Christ.
• Second, stop using polarizing language. Have you ever noticed how the terms we use for describing different points of view often inherently create division? We are quick to identify or categorize as conservative or liberal, pro-choice or pro-life, black or white, queer or straight, when in reality we are much more complex than these terms and usually hold values or have characteristics that are shared by both “sides” of these terminologies. As long as we keep buying into these labels, we’ll continue to make it more difficult to find the common foundational values that can bring us together.
• Third, check your motives. Why are you commenting on that social media post? Why are you jumping into that conversation? Are you trying to be right and prove a point, or are you looking to find more ways to learn about and love others? When I find myself getting too heated in an exchange, I try to remind myself to pause for a few moments, even if just in my head, to put my heart and mind in a position of prayer for the other person – again, not praying for them to change, but praying the good things I desire in my life to also be in their life. This helps me remember that there are greater victories than winning an argument. You can be “right” and still be part of the problem. Mercy always triumphs over judgment.
Jesus is inviting us to find unity in Him through the gospel and the Spirit working actively in our lives. As long as we continue to enter into conversations and spaces with those different than us with the goal of protecting our own identity, we will perceive everything as an attack and everyone else as an enemy. But when we look to Jesus for our identity, then we can see encounters with other members of the body of Christ as new opportunities for our understanding and experience of the identity of Jesus to be expanded and embraced.
Jesus says that the world will believe in Him when they see unity in His followers (John 17:20-23). This will happen, not because we are all the same, but because, despite our differences, we are united in love. We face a lot of challenges and division in our church right now, but rather than let this discourage us, let us see it as an incredible opportunity for this supernatural unity to be displayed in the people of God.
I’m grateful to those engaging in these difficult conversations. Even if we don’t see eye to eye on all things, I believe we can work towards a better future together. There is no shortcut to unity. We have a long way to go, but we have a good map. God is patient and God is faithful.