What is unity?

What is unity?

Read about a different kind of unity for which Jesus prayed.

Brandy Kirstein is a pastor’s wife in Apison, Tennessee, United States.

When we were in the sev­enth grade, my friend and I usually walked to school. One morning, we were late and so we decided to ride the school bus. All the seats were taken except one. Naturally, we went to sit in that seat. Suddenly, everyone started yelling at us to move before the next stop because that was “Devin’s seat.” Not understanding the gravity of the situa­tion, I said, “So what? We all have to ride this bus, and it’s first come, first served.”

Devin was an eighth-grade girl who stood about a foot taller than most of the eighth-grade boys. She was a bully and always got her way. At the next stop, Devin entered the bus. She was a little bigger than I remembered; but now I was committed. She walked over and said, “Get out of my seat.”

“No,” I replied.

“Get out of my seat,” came the stern command.

“No,” I replied, only slightly firm.

The bus driver intervened and told Devin to sit down so we could go. So, she sat behind me and pulled my hair and swatted me most of the way while I stubbornly ignored her.

The next day, the story repeated itself. By day three, everyone was telling me how I was stupid. My friend was not even sitting near me.

Devin shouted, “That’s it. I’ve had enough of you. Today, you’re getting beat up unless you get out of my seat!”

All the kids swarmed around us. I was terrified, but I refused to move. I just looked straight ahead and ignored her as the bus driver came to the back and made her sit in the front.

When we reached the school, the bus driver explained that if he heard of Devin touching me, he would make sure she got suspended. However, for a few weeks at school, she would still pull my hair or push me down. But, by the end of the year, Devin told me that she respected me, and we became strange friends.

I found it interesting that even though everyone on the bus knew that what she was doing was wrong and no one liked it, they allowed it in order to avoid conflict. They were unified, in a sense. They were all just trying to get through the school year by maintaining the status quo. They could keep the peace, feeling that everyone would be better off in the end. But was this true unity? Or was it a false sense of unity that is actually authoritative control mobilized by fear and/or ignorance that there could be something better?

Imitation unity

Unity is not silent submission in the face of oppression. Jesus stood up and spoke out for what was right and/ or what needed to be reinterpreted, even though this caused problems in the community of which He was a part. At the same time, Jesus prayed for unity, for oneness. So, there must be a different kind of oneness—different from a mere acquiescing to the major­ity, submission to persons of higher rank, agreement to avoid conflict, kids on a bus ignoring the issues for fear of consequences.

Genuine unity

So, what is true unity? Listen to the words of Jesus: “ ‘I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word . . . that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me’ ” (John 17:20–23).1

Oneness in this passage has a clear purpose: “that they may be one”; a defined nature: “just as We [the Father and the Son] are one”; and a specific result: “that the world may know that You [the Father] have sent Me [the Son], and have loved them as You have loved Me.”

The meaning of one

What is one? Though it seems to be the simplest of numbers to understand, actually we find one quite difficult to explain mathematically. The unit of one is the foundation for all math. In a lesson titled “One Is One . . . or Is It?” Christopher Danielson, a mathemati­cian, described how the number one is determined by what is defined as a whole unit.2

For example, an apple slice, an apple, and a bag of apples can all be described as one. While these three “ones” are obviously not all equal, individual units can either be composed (combined into a larger grouping like a bag of apples) or partitioned (divided into smaller fractions, like an apple slice). Danielson argues that once a unit has been either partitioned or composed, the unit is now considered a new whole unit that can be further composed or partitioned. So, by this definition, “oneness” can always be added to or taken from.

Though slices may be of different shapes and sizes, all share the same core. What is our church core? What holds us together and remains our center once we are apart? What makes us one body? “The secret of true unity in the church and in the family is not diplomacy, not management, not a superhuman effort to overcome difficulties—though there will be much of this to do—but union with Christ.”3 If Jesus is the core, how do we apply this in practice?

Oneness in the teaching of Jesus

Listen again to the words of Jesus: “ ‘I in them, and You in Me’ ” (v. 23). The word in here gets across a notion of deep mutual concern. How would that type of oneness exist between us? Earlier in the John 17 prayer, Jesus prayed that He would glorify God in what He was about to endure so that all who believe might have eternal life. In verse 3, Jesus gave a definition of eternal life—to “know” God and Jesus whom God sent. The word know indicates more than conceptual and informational knowledge; this word demands a oneness and unity in terms of relational intimacy and behavioral experience. The unity that characterizes the relationship of God and the Son is oneness in thought, action, and pur­pose, and Jesus prays for that kind of unity to exist between all believers and their Savior and among themselves. The intimacy underscored by the word know may be better understood when we recognize that this word is similar to the Hebrew word used in Genesis 4:1 to describe the oneness of relationship designed between Adam and Eve.

Thus, the call of Jesus for unity among His followers was totally differ­ent from what was extant in religious circles of His time. Those religious leaders were concerned about a unity defined by birth, race, knowledge, and other such factors that drew a circle forming one group to the exclusion of others. Such limitations led to a superfi­cial understanding of the scriptural call for unity and created a misinterpreta­tion and wrong application of spiritual truths. As a result, the teachings of Jesus were often misunderstood, and He Himself was accused as having come to destroy the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17, 18).

Jesus wanted and prayed for unity. It is not, however, the superficial kind that stressed an intellectual assent to the letter of the law as in His time; rather, it is the spiritual dimension that makes possible the creation of a community of faith based on love to God and fellow humans and on an intimate and cohe­sive relationship within that community.

The unity Jesus prayed for, there­fore, cannot mean just assent, even active assent, to theological cor­rectness, doctrinal faithfulness, or observation of outward standards in worship and stewardship. In terms meaningful to our time, one might say that unity does not mean simply a mental assent to 28 fundamental beliefs that the Adventist Church has committed as the core of its theology. Yes, we need those beliefs, but the unity Jesus prayed for is much more personal than that. Jesus likened oneness to how He related to His Father, “as I and the Father are One.” Participating in this oneness means we are entering into a relationship as a composed family unit, a family unit of very different individuals.

The midsection of John 17 goes further into this dynamic. In verse 11, Jesus prayed, “ ‘Holy Father, protect them [the disciples] by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one’ ” (NIV). Notice, He did not pray for them to be the same but to be one in thought, action, and purpose, even as the Father and the Son are One. The Christian call to unity does not insist on giving up one’s individuality but rather on recognizing the oneness of love in Christ that brings all of us together to affirm our common identity in God’s grace that has made us citizens of His heavenly kingdom where Christ remains our core. Apart from Him we are not unified.

Earlier that evening before this prayer of John 17, there was tension among the disciples. They argued, for example, as to who is the greatest (Luke 9:46). Even as disunity confronted the disciples, it was Jesus who unified them. His impending death scattered them, but in His resurrection, He united them. And at Pentecost, Jesus’ prayer for His disciples to be one came to a beautiful fulfillment. They were all in one accord, and the Spirit came upon them. Suddenly, their differences became their strengths as God used some to reach Jews and others to reach Gentiles, as they spoke in different tongues to reach different people. It was a movement of the Spirit working through diversity to glorify God and bring the world to Him. It was this kind of unity that embraces diversity for which Jesus prayed

Principled dissent versus malcontent dissent

An article on business ethics pre­sented two different types of dissent: principled dissent versus malcontent dissent.4 The malcontent dissenters are those who seek to divide and tear down an organization through negativ­ity and an invitation to chaos. They are pessimistic about the potential for change and do not value opinions opposed to their own. The principled dissenters, in contrast, are highly ethi­cally motivated because of a love for the organization. Moral conscience will not keep them silent when speech is neces­sary. Principled dissenters seek to make the organization better by standing for needed change in order for the organiza­tion to become even more solid on its foundational principles and provide necessary accountability to avoid natu­ral institutional dangers. These dangers include a “bureaucratic ethic” that prizes conformity with organizational ideals, acquiescence to administration, and the avoidance of blame. If this “bureaucratic ethic” continues, the organization ends up full of like-minded people, a gen­eral policy where dishonesty governs everything and “niceness” replaces genuine relationships with the belief that social harmony and a lack of conflict are positive ways of adjusting to people. The organization then becomes smiling faces devoid of individual substance and integrity.

The alternative to this kind of superficially unified structure is to value principled dissent in contrast to other forms of opposition and to encourage principled dissenters to be an impor­tant organizational voice. Principled dissent has the opportunity to bring humanity back into an organization. Our goal for those with different ideas and opinions should not be mutual toleration but mutual comprehension. Then, we may truly know each other and become mature as the body of Christ. In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that we are baptized into one body with diverse gifts for the purpose of building up the church. Why do we try to separate ourselves from those who are different from us when, together, we can achieve brilliance?

The result of genuine unity

What is the result of oneness? “‘They may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me’ ” (John 17:23). This kind of unity is hard and difficult to see. The presence of Jesus in the body of Christ is invisible. How are people to know and believe in Jesus? The text gives us the answer. The unity in the church becomes visible when we love one another. Unity is not so much about whether we agree but how we disagree. Unity is a gift from God through His Spirit. But this unity does not call for passivity. Nor is it a call to uniformity. We need to be active in bridging the gap between likes and dislikes, liberals and conservatives. We do not need to agree or function in the same way, but we need to take hold of each other’s hands prayerfully and seek to know each other on deeper levels than church politics, socioeco­nomic status, and lifestyle choices. Let perfect love do its work.

In a world starving for meaningful relationships, a unified community of diverse people will draw others to believe that Jesus is alive and within us. Love draws—true love, not superficial bureaucratic church “niceness.” Love is not a mere sentiment—not something used to disguise dislike. Genuine love demands mutual contribution, giving, and receiving—a recognized need of each other, of everyone as a part of the whole family unit.

Jesus prayed that the disciples be “ ‘be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’ ” (v. 23, NIV). True church unity takes place when we all feel the need for one Savior, humbly submit to one God, experience that salvation, and be so intimately concerned with each other’s journey that we are willing to sacrifice our own lives for those with whom we disagree.

Genuine unity in action

Earlier in life, I worked as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit. I will never forget the very first time there was a life-and-death emergency. He was my patient—a toddler that had swallowed a tack. His lungs were filling with blood­ he was dying. That night, I had some issues with people with whom I worked. The respiratory therapist was making inappropriate comments to me. The doctor did not respect me. A nurse did not like me because I was a Christian. But when that child’s heart stopped beating and his lungs stopped breathing, none of that mattered. The doctor was very patient with me as she gave the orders of what to do. The respiratory therapist appropriately aided me in my compres­sions and life-giving breaths. The nurse acted as my supporter throughout the process. Other nurses rallied to hold the mother as she screamed for her child to come back to life. Suddenly, the other issues became insignificant as we worked side by side, unified by a mission to save this child’s life. Afterward, love between us overshadowed any issues we had before.

We need to be united in what or who we are for and not in what we are against. Our true enemy is defeated and will soon cease to exist, but we will remain united in Christ, our core, for eternity. As we stand together at the end of the greatest conflict in the history of the universe, we need oneness more than ever before, a unified team focused on the salvation of people, not from swallowed tacks but from eternal death. Only by lifting up Christ and making Him the center of all we say and do can we fulfill the divine call to oneness.


1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

2 To see the lesson from Christopher Danielson, visit ed.ted.com /lessons/one-is-one-or-is-it.

3 Ellen G. White, Adventist Home (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), 179.

4 Nasrin Shahinpoor and Bernard F. Matt, “The Power of One: Dissent and Organizational Life,” Journal of Business Ethics 74 (2007): 37–48.

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Brandy Kirstein is a pastor’s wife in Apison, Tennessee, United States.

July 2014

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