Mission and unity: the challenge for the church today

Is it possible to maintain unity in an organization this large and this diverse?

Pat Gustin is director of the Institute of World Missions, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

As we meet in St. Louis for the 58th session of the General Conference, we do so with optimism and enthusiasm. Our membership has reached over 13 million, coming from more than two hundred countries of the world. With awe we exclaim, "What has God wrought!"

Yet, even in the midst of our exultation over what God has done, we have concerns. Many of these concerns were articulated at the 2000 session in Toronto.

The most challenging of these is unity. Is it possible to maintain unity in an organization this large and this diverse? As Pastor Jan Paulsen, General Conference president, stated during the closing Sabbath convocation in Toronto, "our very size—internationally, culturally, and politically—and our ethnic diversity pose a formidable challenge in terms of unity."1

Other organizations throughout the world—churches, multinational corporations, and even the United Nations—also struggle with the challenge of developing or maintaining unity against the backdrop of massive differences—cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, political, ideological, racial, tribal, and national.

These differences lie at the core of most of the serious armed conflicts tearing the world apart today. Their power to divide and destroy has been tragically demonstrated in recent years. Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Indonesia are just a few painful reminders of the destructiveness of disunity in our world today. Besides these locales, every nation today experiences in one way or another similar challenges. We live in a global village in which meaningful unity is a hazy and distant dream, mocking us in the darkness of our reality. Though we could wish otherwise, the church, unfortunately, is not immune to serious challenges along the same lines.

The goal

Yet, as seemingly unrealistic and impossible as attaining such a dream may seem to be in our world today, Scripture leaves no doubt as to the imperative nature of the call to live together in unity, oneness, brotherly love, and harmony. Jesus' prayer in John 17, so well known among us, focuses on it: "Father, ... I pray . . . that they may be one" (John 17:11, 20-23).2

Unity and oneness are a constant theme of the apostle Paul. "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus" (Rom. 15:5). "We who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (12:5). "I appeal to you... in the name of ... Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1:10,11). "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body . . . whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free" (12:12, 13). "Aim for perfection ... be of one mind, live in peace" (2 Cor. 13:11). "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit" (Eph. 4:3). "Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose" (Phil. 2:2). "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have. . . . And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Col. 3:13, 14.) Peter adds, "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another" (1 Peter 3:8, 9). "Above all, love each other deeply" (4:8.).

Were these words just pie in the sky platitudes? Vague dreams? Hopeful exhortation and advice? Is unity only a practical matter—an organizational necessity to help the church run more smoothly? Or is there a deeper, more fundamental, reason for the urgency we see emphasized in these elemental calls from the heart of Scripture? Unity is neither a vague dream nor just an organizational tool. It is rather the very core and driving force of Christian life—but especially of our Christian witness. The deep motivation for the above admonitions for unity is made abundantly clear in the texts themselves. During the Last Supper as Jesus called for the disciples to love one another as He loved them, He concluded, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, NKJV).

In John 17, Jesus follows his repeated pleas to "be one" with the words, "that the world may ... know that you [the Father] sent me" John 17:21, 23). It is clear that only in our unity can the world see a true demonstration of the power of the gospel. Paul follows his plea for unity in Romans 15:5 with the assurance that when this unity exists, the church will "with one heart and mouth . . . glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." He concludes by urging, "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.... so that the Gentiles may glorify God" (Rom. 15:7, 9).

Though there are obviously many practical, organizational reasons for unity, and many important reasons to maintain a doctrinal unity, the biggest single reason that both Jesus and Paul gave for maintaining unity is the impact it has on our witness. Unity brings glory to God. It demonstrates to the world the power of the gospel to do what humans cannot do alone.

The unity of the church is the greatest advertisement there is for God's power and grace. This demonstration of unity empowers our mission and enables our witness. To the extent that the church reflects the reality that it is the body of Christ, united in love—to that extent, the church's mission will succeed. Unity among us all is simply foundational to effective witness and mission.

The early Christian church was a living example of a unity that crossed cultural, linguistic, social, and ethnic barriers. Slaves and freemen, wealthy merchants and Caesar's soldiers, Jews and Gentiles, men and women all worshiped together at a time when society was splintered by classes and castes. The first-century church was clearly countercultural just in terms of the love and unity it exemplified. Those looking into the face of the Church are purported to have exclaimed, "How these Christians love each other!" Their unity was indeed the greatest witness to the power of the risen Christ.

Our ability to glorify God, to bring praise to Him, and to be a viable witness to the "gentiles" (nonbelievers) today, is still dependent upon this God-given unity.

Achieving unity: How?

But with all the inherent differences among us, and the incredible pressures surrounding us, how can unity be achieved? Here are some factors that are effective in encouraging and enabling unity among us.

  • Our shared beliefs—doctrines and biblical truth we hold in common (the Sabbath, Christ's second coming, and prophecy are just three).
  • Our standards—practices basic to the faith that we share (such as modesty temperate living, and chaste behavior).
  • Church structure, organization, and administrative practices.
  • Church programs (Pathfinders, Sabbath Schools, women's ministries, to name a few).
  • The Sabbath School lessons.
  • The Spirit of Prophecy.
  • The Church Manual.
  • Our financial structure that makes us interdependent.
  • Theological education.
  • Worshiping together.

Some of the above items focus on doctrinal unity, which is obviously important. Others emphasize the ability to organize and administer ourselves effectively on a global basis. Each of these is important and is valuable in helping to maintain unity. I would like to suggest an additional one: Mission.

Mission (our effective witness in all its forms—but especially mission that reaches across cultural barriers) is not only the most significant reason for maintaining unity but also a major method for maintaining unity.

The greatest threat to unity today is not doctrinal differences or specific practices of Adventism that vary from place to place, or even differences in how the church operates in different locations. Throughout the centuries, starting with the early church, converts have been able to worship God in ways that were quite diverse from other believers.

The real challenge to unity and harmony is the inherent human tendency to exclusiveness and ethnocentrism. These inevitably lead to nationalism, racism, and elitism, and result in distrust, prejudice, and inter personal division in all its forms. It is possible to study the same Sabbath School Adult Bible Study Guide and to use the same Church Manual and, at least on the surface, to share the same beliefs and practices, and yet because of prejudices, exclusiveness, and ethnocentrism we may not have true Christian unity. However, commitment to mission can bring unity.

The cure

By staying focused on the primary mission (taking the gospel to all the world), we find unity of purpose and action that ties us together in a very practical and deeply meaningful way, despite cultural differences. When church members share a common, overarching commitment to mission, reaching out to others—across the street or across the globe—their personal, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences become much less important. Minor matters (the color of carpet in the church, the interpretation of minor doctrinal points, the specific order of worship, hair or dress styles, etc.) cease to be issues of importance.

Mission unites people at a deep level that allows for an underlying unity that does not require some kind of outer uniformity. The unity Jesus and Paul spoke of was based not on externals but on a foundational love for God and a deep commitment to mission and witness. It was a deeply spiritual yet practical unity born of the fact that the Christian community was one fashioned in Christ and one under the compelling and impelling ministry and mission of the Holy Spirit Himself.

As we interact with and learn to understand and respect people of different cultures without a spirit of superiority and judgment, we build bridges of tolerance and acceptance. We come to realize that the things that unite us are greater than those that divide us. By widespread inter mingling, we avoid the danger of splitting into overly diverse congregations, driven by nationalism or ethnic pride or prejudice.

Perhaps the greatest blessing from this mingling together is the development of trust. As a colleague of mine frequently states, "Trust is the glue that holds groups together." And trust can only grow as we come to know each other and learn that in spite of our differences we share a common humanity and a common spiritual identity, grounded in Christ. This unity expresses itself in a common commitment that is forged on the anvil of common goals. We thus learn that those who are very different from us are, in fact trustworthy. To have true unity based on trust, however, we must have opportunities to know and interact with each other.

The added blessing

Each of us is in danger of seeing only a part of the picture of what God is trying to reveal to the world. Without intending to, we each read Scripture through our own cultural lenses and biases—understanding some things well and missing others. We inevitably have theological blind spots because of our own cultural perspective and limitations.

To get the full picture of what God wants to communicate to the world, we need to hear from each other. We need the insights and wisdom that those from other cultures and worldviews have to offer. This blending and mingling of our spiritual strengths will contribute to unity in a powerful way, and will be a significant factor in keeping us together, as well as giving us a greater breadth of understanding of truth—if we are willing to listen and learn from each other.

"There is no person, no nation, that is perfect in every habit and thought. One must learn of another. Therefore God wants the different nationalities to mingle together, to be one in judgment, one in purpose. Then the union that there is in Christ will be exemplified."3

The question of unity versus uniformity

As we face the need for and the challenge of developing unity, we will encounter the temptation to focus on uniformity as a means of reaching unity. Unity is essential for our church, but uniformity is not only unrealistic but perhaps unhealthy. The underlying unity of basic beliefs and standards does not require uniformity in every aspect of religious thought and practice. Intermingling with each other across cultural barriers in mission helps clarify the difference. As we personally encounter others whose lives represent both areas of similarity in religious practice and belief, and areas of considerable diversity, we experience the effects of the differences.

Paul and the early church struggled with these things (see Acts 15) as Jews, Romans, Greeks, proselytes, slaves, etc. came into the church with different views about worship and the Christian life. But Paul and the early church leaders did not expect or require a uniformity of practice among all the churches they established. There was unity in their belief in Christ as the Messiah, their faith in the gospel and the promise of His return, their commitment to living a transformed life, and above all, their commitment to sharing the good news with others. Unity, yes. Uniformity, no.

Ralph Winter notes: "I have person ally come to believe that unity does not have to require uniformity, and I believe that there must be such a thing as healthy diversity in human society and in the Christian world church. I see the world church as the gathering together of a great symphony orchestra where we don't make every new person coming in play a violin in order to fit in with the rest. We invite the people to come in to play the same score—the Word of God—but to play their own instruments, and in this way there will issue forth a heavenly sound that will grow in the splendor and glory of God as each new instrument is added."4

Fellowship. Understanding. Sharing. Respect. Trust. These are the building blocks needed to keep the church united. Each of these is a natural byproduct of mission, rightly done. As we focus upon leading the Church in reaching the unreached whether near or far, we will find our selves drawn together, despite our differences. Therefore, commitment to mission, to sending missionaries "from everywhere to everywhere," to reaching the unreached will enable us to take a huge step in preserving the unity of our church and to give the most powerful witness to the world.

1 Jan Paulsen, "Steady as You Go," in Adventist Review, GC Bulletin 9, July 13, 2000, 1.

2 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version.

3 Ellen G. White, Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists (Basle: Imprimene Polyglotte,1886;
reprinted 1979, 1985, 1989), 137.

4 Ralph Winter, ed. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement-A Reader (Pasadena, Calif. William Carey Library, 1981, 1992), B:171.



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Pat Gustin is director of the Institute of World Missions, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July/August 2005

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