What does unity mean? Does it mean that we give up personal opinion? Does it mean that we no longer compete with each other? Does it mean that we look, talk and act like other church members? When Jesus prays that we will all be "one," in the same way the Trinity is one (John 17:21), what does that mean? If unity is essential to revival, and it seems it is, we need to understand what unity means. Our lesson this week is about unity. Let's dive into study of the Bible and learn more!
Unity: The Bond of Revival
Commentary for the August 17, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”
“Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-18, NIV
Sometimes within the body of Christ, it is not very comfortable to be different. Those who challenge the prevailing opinion can be placed on a hot seat of informal ostracism and derision. They may also ultimately face a more formal censorship, a disfellowshipping, and in the case of clergy, even defrocking. While none of these is as violent as the crucifixion that Jesus suffered for not conforming to expectations, they are nonetheless emblematic of what can happen when one goes against the grain. At times, the ongoing search for truth becomes secondary to the preservation of an institution and the power structures enshrined in its organizational chart.
We all tend to believe that those who think like us are the really intelligent people and those who don’t are either flawed or suspect. But this way of thinking can lead us down the path of conflict and polarization. While it may be true that having everyone going in the same direction makes administration easier, when the direction of travel becomes questionable, even a lemming would be wise to challenge the consensus. When they do, if we do not have the ability to listen to that voice and sacrifice uniformity to a higher purpose, we may find ourselves not on the path to heaven, but a much broader way instead.[i]
The Bible has many stories about outliers who do not join with mainstream religious practice. Instead they call out with word or example to abandon those practices and return to an individual relationship with God, where each is alone accountable directly to God.[ii]
Embarking on a nomadic lifestyle, Abraham left his home country in Mesopotamia and traveled into Palestine. He believed that his relationship with God called him away from the religious practices of his family and neighbors.[iii] Generations later, the family he left behind was unwilling to recognize the authority of his calling and continued in the religious practices that Abraham had abandoned.[iv] Had Abraham simply bowed to family pressure and accepted the prevailing religious understanding, we would possibly have had something other than the faith we hold dear, today.
Another example is Elijah who challenged the prevailing religious institution of his day. Standing alone before hundreds who denied the legitimacy of his perspective, he demonstrated a bold-faced tenacity that only faltered in the face of a death decree from the royal household.[v] Significantly, God pointed out to Elijah that despite appearances, he did not stand alone in his perspective. Perhaps we should also remember that when we rightly dissent from dominant practice.
While I have written so far regarding the individual who stands in dissent, the Bible also provides insight regarding those who witness such dissent. Prominent in the New Testament is Paul. As Saul of Tarsus, he witnessed the outliers challenging the understanding of the leaders of the Jewish faith. Having witnessed the murder by these leaders of the Christian deacon, Stephen,[vi] he then actively pursued other Christians, possibly that they might share Stephen’s fate.[vii]
While Paul’s persecution of the Christians was no doubt devastating to the infant church, perhaps the witness presented by the lives of these dissenters was creating a progressively more uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for him. Whether this was the case or not, everything appears to have come to a head while Paul was traveling to Damascus to further persecute the church. While on that journey, he turned from persecuting the believers to becoming one with them.
The Bible tells us that it is God’s goodness or kindness that leads us to change direction with our lives.[viii] In this instance, Paul claimed that God was directly involved in his repentance, and once he became identified with these dissenting Christian Jews, the church was never the same. By personal effort as well as written epistles, Paul transformed it according to his perspective regarding orthodox belief. His written missives continue to profoundly influence the church, today. In fact, Pauline theology has gone from being that of an outlier to being the dominant paradigm for Christian institutions.
Does this mean that the time of the outlier has passed? Can we now safely assume that religious dissent is no longer appropriate? If so, maybe we should ask, “What made the difference? Have our institutions become exact models of the heavenly example? Has our theology become perfect? Have we managed to finally free our faith from personal bias and discrimination? Have we passed the point where religious institutions could be co-opted by those wishing only power and control?”
If we are honest with ourselves we must admit that those religious institutions are run by men and women, and that they remain susceptible to the same human failings as in the past. This may not mean that those individuals are evil, only weak. Like Peter, we take our eyes off Christ, and we begin to sink.[ix] This is not a serious problem if there is someone there to save us as Jesus did for Peter. Maybe in the hands of a dissenter can be found the rescue God has provided.
The hands of a Dissenter were once spread upon a cross to save as many as would be saved. The hands of another dissenter, Martin Luther, nailed ninety-five theses to the door of a church when his beloved church needed rescuing. The hands of still another dissenter, William Miller, opened a Bible and discovered that a church which in many places had lost belief in a second coming of Jesus needed rescuing.
Are there outlying dissenters, today? Perhaps they are speaking and writing of gender equality, a social gospel that cares for the poor and needy, a need to eschew violence as a means to an end, and a need to remove the politics of power and control from the church.
Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,[x] every outlier, every dissenter has a dream for what might be and works to bring that dream to fruition. Paul followed that dream and spread Christianity across the Roman Empire. While he paid the same price for daring to dream that Dr, King paid, both dreams live on in followers’ hearts. Some might even say that both dreams are the same.
Perhaps this is the true unity. Maybe we should not seek a unity of behavior or thought so much as the unity that comes from a common dream, a dream that we share with every follower of Jesus to see His grace realized in the world. Institutions of power, buildings, and religious ritual are extraneous to this. Dreams don’t reside in such things. Dreams abide in the human heart as aspirations to something better than what now exists. As such, dreams are often threatening to the status quo as those who are heavily invested in what is may desire to maintain everything as it is so that such an investment does not become compromised. Whether intentional or not, when this happens, dissenters are often persecuted.
Jezebel was heavily invested in power and control, both personally and through her husband, King Ahab. When Elijah threatened her investment on Mount Carmel, she responded with a death sentence to rid herself of his dissent. But the Bible is not the only place we can find such things, we have similar examples from secular history as well.
In 1970, during the height of the Vietnam War, many were protesting against the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. A political regime heavily invested in the prosecution of that war felt their investment was threatened by the ongoing dissent. On May fourth of that year, National Guard troops fired almost a hundred rounds of ammunition at unarmed students who were protesting the war on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Four students were killed and nine others were wounded before the firing stopped.[xi]
What came to be known as “The Kent State Massacre,” reminds us of the price that may sometimes be paid when confronting powerful institutions and individuals. It was a price that was paid two thousand years ago on Golgotha. It is a price that continues to challenge us today when we dissent from the idea that unity is more important than righteousness.
[i] Matthew 7:13-14
[ii] Romans 14:4-8
[iii] Genesis 12:1-4
[iv] Genesis 31:19-32
[v] 1 Kings 18:16-19:18
[vi] Acts 7:54-60
[vii] Acts 8:1-3
[viii] Romans 2:4
[ix] Matthew 14:25-31
[x] “I Have a Dream,” www.wikipedia.org
[xi] “Kent State Shootings,” www.wikipedia.org
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