So That the World May Know
Unity in Disaster
This summer we explored the mission of God in the Book of Acts, and saw how God gathered his people together at Pentecost, renewed them through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and sent them out as witnesses to the resurrection to Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth. In Acts, Jesus ascended into heaven, declaring that it was better for his people, empowered by the Spirit, to continue the mission. Now, God sends us as his witnesses, testifying to the resurrection of Jesus and newness of life wherever we are.
Knowing that God is using you for his mission, it is important to remember that he hasn’t sent you alone. Not only does the Spirit go with you, but so too does a worldwide community of fellow witnesses. Paul writes,
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27).
We may be sent individually to different jobs, schools, and other contexts, but we are sent as part of a larger body, the church. But what does “the church” mean? We use the word to refer to buildings with steeples and stained glass, specific denominations like the Presbyterian or Anglican Church, and local groups of people trying to worship Jesus. But we also use the word “church” to refer to God’s people collectively, Christians from around the world.
In the days following Hurricane Harvey, the news and social media abounded with pleas to help Harvey victims by donating to different charities and relief organizations. A Facebook friend of mine who works for a Methodist church suggests donating to Catholic Charities. Articles describe local Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and nondenominational churches coming together to pack and distribute food. A common sense of mission unified the church across denominational lines.
If Jesus asks us as Christians to care for “the least of these,” this sort of interdenominational cooperation, or ecumenism, seems like the obvious thing to do in a situation like Harvey. Churches realize that they share a common mission, and thus come together. But why does this happen only after disaster?
Unity in a Common Mission
Historically, different churches have avoided such cooperation. Coming together in the face of disaster may be easy, but it is easier to consider our own traditions as fulfilling the mission of God better than others. Our theological differences necessitate that we think other Christians are getting something wrong, and that therefore we should go about doing God’s mission without them. It might very well be true that some Christian groups are getting certain things wrong. But unity amongst Christians something we should strive for nonetheless.
In John 17:22-23, Jesus prays for his disciples, saying,
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
The ideal of ecumenism is not just practical (because we can do more by combining resources) but theological. If the good news is that God is gathering the nations in Jesus and reconciling all things, disunity amongst Christians is more than a practical hindrance to the mission. Disunity is a counter-witness to the very thing Christians proclaim as true. Jesus prays for unity so that the world may know the truth of the gospel.
The reality is that we have geographical, practical, and theological differences that aren’t going away anytime soon. But perhaps we can get behind the idea that for the sake of the world, the church as the body of Christ must present a unified witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the God who is making all things new. This may depend on our understanding that the church has the same mission, not just in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster, but by the very nature of what the church is.
In his book, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, Darrell Guder sees the church’s acceptance of disunity as a deeply theological problem stemming from “questions of the church’s purpose, vocation, practices, and identity." He suggests that reading the Nicene’s description of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” in reverse might enable the church to recapture its missional identity, namely by seeing itself first as apostolic, and therefore catholic, holy, and one.
The word “apostle” comes from the Greek verb meaning “to be sent out.” Thus, the calling of the apostolic church is to be sent, just like the first apostles we read about in Acts. Equipped with the Holy Spirit, the church is sent out as a witnessing community, and indeed the church exists for the purpose of continuing the work of the apostles who continued the work of Jesus. The church was formed to be missional.
We often understand the term ‘catholic’ to mean universal, or including all Christians. But Guder recognizes two additional senses to the word that better define the mission of the church. First, the universality of the church refers to its “global and cross-cultural missionary commission.” The church is catholic because its mission is to the end of the earth. Second, the word ‘catholic’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘according to the whole,’ and so the mission of the church is “centered on that which is the whole, the common ground of the gospel.” The apostolic church is catholic in that it is sent to the entire world and its message is always centered on Christ, even in diverse cultures.
Holiness, Guder says, is how catholic apostolicity is expressed. Every aspect of the church’s life is a “potential demonstration” of the church’s message. God sanctifies his church not for its own sake so much as for the sake of the mission—holiness is how the church is equipped by the Holy Spirit.
If all Christians understand themselves primarily as sent, with a universal, Christ-centered, and holy mission, unity takes on a different meaning than simply coming together in particular instances when our agendas line up. Though Christian witness may come in diverse forms, Guder says, “The unity of the church is expressed in that unified witness, all communities disclosing God’s love for all creation, enfleshed in and through the story of Jesus.” How much more would the world be drawn to the gospel when it is presented by a unified witness from communities and individuals that love one another?
Guder’s framework does not solve the problem of division within Christianity. But he enables us to see that unity in the church is of crucial importance, and not just a nice idea.
Proponents of ecumenism vary over how they envision the goal of Christian unity—is it a mega-denomination or simply more visibly signs of cooperation? For us, it is enough to think about how unity may relate to the places God has sent and is sending us. As we witness to the resurrection and bring new creation wherever we are, we can ask who else God has sent to these places. Are we, in our common mission, proclaiming the same Christ, even if in different ways? How might we work together? And we may wonder, perhaps, whether God has gathered us in the same place so that our relationships to all Christians may be renewed just as our relationship with God is renewed, so that we are better prepared to be sent again.