Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The Strange Unity of the Church
In the blogosphere kerfuffle surrounding John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, one of the concerns expressed was that by holding such a conference, and attacking Christian brethren, MacArthur was endangering the unity of the church. To the extent that any of the people making this claim attempted to provide some biblical justification for the statement, the appeal was usually to John 17:11, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” The folks using this argument appeared to be under the impression that Jesus’ prayer is for a visible, if not organizational, unity in the Christian church. This understanding is completely wrong, as even a brief reflection on the verse indicates. Jesus’ prayer is for a spiritual, ontological unity, such as the Father has with the Son. If Jesus was praying for a visible or organizational unity, it is pretty clear that such a prayer has never been answered in the history of the church. This would call into question both the wisdom of Jesus’ prayer, and the Father’s power to answer it. Hence, the prayer is not for a visible organizational unity.
But Jesus does pray for the unity of his people, and we expect that the Father has fulfilled that request. Of what sort, then, is that unity? It is a spiritual, ontological unity. The unity of the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) is an spiritual and ontological unity, hence that is what Jesus prays: that his people may enjoy such a unity as well.
But the question becomes, Is this unity at all visible, even if not organizational? I would argue that it is, and that it can be recognized in two ways. But an Old Testament illustration may help here. In the Book of Numbers, we are treated to an unpleasant picture of the people of Israel, the people of God. They are disobedient, rebellious, resentful, and envious. Almost any sin that you can imagine is part of the description of Israel during the time in the wilderness. By the time the story gets to the end of chapter 21, we have little hope for the continued existence of Israel, let alone its unity. But at the beginning of chapter 22, we find Balak, king of Moab, and his nation terrified by what they see of Israel. They see a horde that has come to take over the land. Balak does not see the internal strife of Israel. He does not see their disunity. He does not see their sin. He sees them as a unified force coming up against his land. Hence Balak calls for Balaam to come and curse Israel. Of course, Balaam can do nothing but bless the people of God.
Then in chapter 24, we are privileged to see God’s view of Israel. In spite of their sin, their rebellion, their disunity, God says, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! (24:5). Balaam’s oracle goes on to give a lovely picture of the ugly Israel we have seen displayed in the first twenty-one chapters of the book.
In line with that example, I would suggest that the unity of the church is visible in two ways. First, Christians recognize that unity when they meet other Christians from other denominations or other communions and see in them brothers in Christ. Such recognition does not deny that brothers may be in sin, may need to be corrected. There is still that real spiritual unity that exists within the body of Christ.
Second, the unity of the church is recognized by the non-Christian world, much as Balak recognized the unity of Israel. The non-Christian world does not see the church as a divided mess but as a threatening horde. We should take note of the fact that when modern secularists complain about the influence or the views of Christians, by and large they do not complain about Catholics, or Baptists, or evangelicals. Instead, they complain about Christians. They may, in some sense, recognize the divisions in the church, but they see above those divisions an overarching unity that is a threat to them.
Finally, there is God’s view of the church. God knows those who are his. They are his people. He is not blind to their divisions and their shortcomings, but he is building a great temple that, when it is complete, will demonstrate his wisdom and glory to a surrounding world, both physical and spiritual (Ephesians 3:10). A building in progress is not always a beautiful sight. In fact, it usually shows nothing of its future glory. Such is the church. Nothing John MacArthur does can change that, and to the extent that MacArthur’s criticism of charismatic/Pentecostal beliefs and practices are correct, they serve only to contribute to the growth of that glorious temple of God, the church.