Game 5 of the first round of the 2012 NBA playoffs: the Memphis Grizzlies (1) down two wins against the L.A. Clippers (3). The fourth quarter was the typical anxiety attack for Griz fans as the strong lead from the half seemingly faded into oblivion. Looking around the arena all you could see was white and gold, as nearly all the attendees donned white shirts in support of their home team (Memphis) and waved golden towels in the air. This was the last chance of the season for the Memphis team and everyone there knew it. With only a few minutes left, the crowd stood to its feet with hopes of mystically strengthening the players. As the buzzer sounded the place erupted in adulation. The underdog had pulled out another victory. Strangers were high-fiving, hugging, and pouring out praise for the Grizzlies to one another in celebration. It was as if we were all one big family, united in joy, victory, and hope for the future.
For Christians, unity seems illusive. Well, when it comes to unity within the church it does. Why is that? Why is it that thousands of people who have never met and may never meet again can be so unified at a sporting event, a political convention, or even at an Occupy demonstration, while Christians can’t seem to find unity with a few?
I think the answer lies in this: there is a worldly unity which is radically different from the unity the church is called to in Christ. You see, worldly unity is centered on self, more particularly on your own self. When thousands of people gather in a unified manner, whatever the occasion (sports, politics, anarchy, etc.), they are seeking something for themselves. Be it entertainment, empowerment, or a venue of personal expression, unity around worldly things is self-centered. At the root, you are not unified for the sake of another but that you might gain something (validation, the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, vent frustration, fellowship with others of like interests, identity, and on and on). This is radically different from Christian unity.
The unity that Christians are called to in Christ is other(s)-centered. There’s the problem – why unity seems so illusive. This type of true unity is not natural to us in our fallen state. We are naturally self-centered, seeking good for ourselves, even when we are being philanthropic. This explains the apparent ease of unity around worldly things – it comes naturally. So there is a clash of desires when it comes to the church gathered – selfish desires vs the desire of others. The church is not merely a gathering of people with similar backgrounds, likes, dislikes, status (economic or otherwise), ethnicity, and goals, or at least in shouldn’t be. Rather, the church gathered should reflect the church universal – people from all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations with different likes, dislikes, backgrounds, social and economic standing, ages, and the like, all called out and gathered together by the grace of God poured out into their hearts through Christ Jesus. So there is naturally differences but differences within the church ought not to entail disunity but rather beautiful diversity. It is not uniformity to preferences and non-doctrinal issues but a celebration of who God has made each individual in His image. This unity in the midst of great diversity can and does exist when we are other(s)-centered as opposed to self-centered.
Philippians 2 addresses the issue of unity amongst diversity. Paul begins with an encouragement towards unity, writing, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (v 1-2). He is saying “if” these things are true of the Philippian believers (encouragement, love, participation of the Spirit, sympathy – all in Christ) then they will actively seek unity amongst diversity. This is true of all Christians. If we profess to know Christ, experience His encouragement, are comforted by God’s love, have been given the Spirit, and have affection and sympathy towards one another then we, personally and corporately, must pursue unity in the church. To not seek unity denies the very essence of salvation, unity with Christ, as well as the Holy Spirit that indwells His own, and is therefore a great reason to examine one’s self in light of God’s word. This applies to those who cause division in any church through any means as well.
Next, Paul moves from encouraging unity to commanding the other(s)-centeredness of unity in Christ (cf. Eph. 4:1f). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (v 3-4). Worldly unity centers on self, whereas Christian unity centers on actively placing others before yourself.
How are we to pursue and maintain unity within the church? Whether amongst the church gathered or about our daily work, Christians are called to die to self (Luke 9:23), to put to death the flesh (Col. 3:5) as well as its desires (Gal. 5:24). Our only entitlement before God is His just wrath, so to demand or pursue something selfishly betrays your redeemer. You are His. You have been bought with a price – the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and you are therefore not your own. Why is unity illusive? James 4:1-3 declares, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
If we understand our right status before God is wholly due to the righteousness of another with no contribution of our own we will not be quick to promote self but will follow after Christ in His mission not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Sin is the great equalizer before God and one another for we all are either humbled or will be humbled before God. We deserve nothing but wrath but been given all in Christ. How can we who have been given all by another not consider others more important than ourself? It is clear that unity is not found in self-centeredness but in an other(s)-centeredness, focusing on God in Christ first and secondly, those whom God has providentially placed in our lives through the church gathered.
Philippians 2 not only encourages us and gives us commands toward unity, lastly, Paul reveals the source of unity. He writes:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (v 5-8).
Why can we pursue true unity? How can we do that which is contrary to our fallen nature? Paul tells us we are to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” What mind is that? The mind of Christ revealed in the way He put His own before Himself, denying Himself the prerogative of divinity, took on flesh to be born like one of us so that He could humble Himself to the point of the crucifixion. We can have this mind because we have been united to Christ through faith by His death and resurrection. We can put to death our selfish flesh because we have died with Christ and risen to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6). He is our Lord, our Savior, and our example.
From Christ’s example we come to understand that unity requires death and nothing less. If we are to have unity in our churches we must die. We must put to death the promotion of our preferences. We must put to death our desire for self-exaltation. We must put to death our desire for comfort. We must put to death our desire to be seen, heard, commended, apologized to, served, and on and on. Unity begins first with yourself. Have the mind of Christ. Follow his example in service and sacrifice. Be willing to lay down your life and your desires for the brethren.
We ask “O Unity, where art thou in the midst of our churches?” but should be asking, “Why are we not willing to follow in our Lord’s way and die?”