Unity in the Body of Christ: Inside and outside of church
By Derek R. Iannelli-Smith
I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. (John 17:23 NASB)
I recently wrote an article called “Prophets & Idiots,” and in it I describe how some zealous “Christians” enjoy shooting down other Christians and call it contending for the faith. I included myself in that article as I tend to contend frequently for the “faith” – not with the world but with other churches, pastors, and zealots. I am convinced that these are providential opportunities to walk out unity.
First, let me say that I understand that some are under the assumption that 100% unity is not possible. However I am not that convinced and many Scriptures and church writings (John 17; Ephesians 4; Philippians 2:2-8, and CHAP. XXVI. – Westminster Confession of Faith) give no assurance of that profession. Specifically, it appears in John 17 that Christ Jesus was quite taken with unity and even saw it as functional possibility.
What, exactly, is unity in the body of Christ, inside and outside of church buildings? Here is a working definition that I think might be helpful;
Unity is a heart condition of a regenerated believer that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and bears the fruit of charity, compassion, peacemaking, forgiveness, humbling ourselves, and esteeming others more highly than ourselves.
I realize that this definition may also imply just “gritting your teeth” harder to make it work, but I hope to draw attention that full unity which contains functional, doctrinal and spiritual unity is not possible in our highly compartmentalized and individualized North American culture without the Holy Spirit. Also, I think that it might be helpful that I am not advocating peace-faking tolerance that so many of us smile about and call unity. I am also not advocating lack of discernment, which is evidenced by non-filtered clear historical, contextual, grammatical or gospel-centered hermeneutics.
So what does it look like?
Unity is outward. By “outward,” I presuppose that in a culture of relativism that we take moments of time to invest in others with no agenda other than to serve and love them. Unity is authentic. Authenticity can become a nebulous word like many Christianese terms that I find are not helpful in relaying concepts. Authentic unity is a serving heart that is transparent, sharing of all of life while doing life together in community.
Unity is serving. Serving that reflects unity is partnering with people, groups, organizations, or missions that further the gospel in generous, compassionate, and selfless ways that are soaked in love. Many times this type of unity is the stewardship of time, talents and resources as outlined in Acts (2:42-47). This is a healthy balance both inside and outside of the church building. I think it is important to note here that v. 46 shows both temple and homes existing.
Unity is incarnational. Darrin Patrick has a helpful application of this type of unity: “Christians living out the gospel in their cultural context like Jesus who tabernacled among us.” Recently, when I saw the movie Fireproof, I saw a perfect example of this in one of the characters in the film. One of the characters is discussing spiritual matters and ostracizing another character in the film. Kirk Cameron’s character replies (my paraphrase), “Yeah, but you and I both know he is the real deal,” referring to the man’s authentic faith in Christ. Unity of this kind does not reflect perfection but perseverance and humility outside of the church building. Many of us put on the “Jesus face” as we walk in the building, especially after snapping at a spouse and the kids on the way to church. Let me be clear: this is not what I am saying is the application of incarnational unity.
Finally, unity is simple. Simple unity is controversial because we are limited by vocabulary, but it does not have to be. The sinful tendency is to become sectarian and isolated with our simplicity, or worse, lacking discernment and discipleship evangelism of the whole gospel in all of life.
So, is unity in the body of Christ, inside and outside of the church building, a question? I think that unity is an action word. Have I figured this out? No. Unity is something that takes work, change, and regular re-evaluation. Is it possible? I think it is. Are we doing it? I think many of us are putting forth a good effort, but much work needs to be done if the churches inside and outside the building are going to impact their cities. We must be faithful, accountable and teachable by all the vessels that God is using.
In talking with pastors, I’ve come to the conclusion that for many of us, unity is a vague term. While we easily recognize its presence or absence, few of us have spelled out carefully its essential elements. (Larry W. Osborne, The Unity Factor: Getting Your Church Leaders Working Together)
If you liked this article, check out: We’re All in This Together…Alone: God and Community
Derek is a bumbling church planter in Goose Creek, SC who is humbled that he had/has an opportunity to attain an M.Div (Pastoral Counseling) and maintain his NANC (Biblical Counseling) certification.