Unity aids mission and mission serves unity

Can a church, blessed with gifts of diversity, prioritize relationships over being right, unity over uniformity, interdependence over independence, and compassion over control?

Artur Stele, PhD, serves as a vice president for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Ellen White has stated, “The work of God in this earth can never be finished until the men and women comprising our church membership rally to the work, and unite their efforts with those of ministers and church officers.”1 In other words, for this gospel of the kingdom to reach the whole world, members, pastors, and administrators must unite. Disagreements might arise to threaten this unity. Indeed, Millard Erickson maintains that “disagree- ments over the nature of church unity have, ironically, caused a great deal of disunity.”2 These differences of opinion, however, should not break our unity. “[The apostles] would have their tests, their grievances, their differences of opinion; but while Christ was abiding in the heart, there could be no dissension.”3

So what is biblical unity, and why is it so elusive? In His special high priestly intercessory prayer, unity was a major concern for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (John 17:11, 20–23). This article will consider three points that become evident in studying this prayer.4

1. Unity is designated a priority

Jesus prays, “ ‘Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are’ ” (v. 11, NKJV). This is a oneness based on example but not control. Unity was, for Jesus, the central focus. He not only prayed for oneness, He demonstrated this oneness. The fact that He returns to the topic of unity several times in this prayer speaks volumes. Jesus has in mind not only the disciples at the time of the prayer but also the future generations who will “ ‘believe in Me through their word’ ” (v. 20, NKJV).

Jesus foresees the attacks of the enemy that would fragment the Christian movement, and He asks the Father to “ ‘keep them from the evil one’ ” (v. 15, NKJV). The great controversy theme informs us that an independent spirit is not something new to our postmodern times. This is rooted in the beginning when Lucifer, an angel of light, brought into the universe war instead of peace—and separation instead of harmony.

His very names depict his strategic plan: to separate and divide. In the Old Testament, he is called “Satan,” which means “adversary” or “enemy.” This is a noun formed from a verb meaning to “to obstruct, to oppose.” The evil one is an opposer. He is always in opposition. He is also an accuser. In the New Testament, he is named the “devil,” which comes from a Greek verb meaning “to throw apart,” “ to throw over,” “to throw across,” “to traduce,” or “to slander.” These concepts are well-captured in the German word Durcheinanderwerfen, meaning “to throw it upside-down, to make chaos.”

Fragmentation, opposition, and separation have been and will aways remain key weapons of the enemy. Satan separated himself from God and became the father of all separation and division. Ever since the Garden of Eden, he has been successful in separating human beings from the Creator, the only true Source of unity and harmony. This is why Jesus, just before the cross, offered His special high priestly intercessory prayer for unity and protection from the source of all separation.

If unity was such a concern for Jesus, then it should also be the top concern of every leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. Whatever we do, whatever we plan, whatever we write, whatever we say, we should always have in mind the question, “How will this affect the unity of the body of Christ?”

2. Unity is grounded in the Trinity

Jesus prays, “ ‘That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me’ ” (v. 21, NKJV). This is a oneness based on unity but not uniformity. The unity between the believers should be patterned after the unity of the triune Godhead. The necessity of unity originates in the Trinity, and the unity between the Father and the Son is used as a model for unity between believers. The struggle for the church entails embracing unity while resisting uniformity.

The Trinity comprises three different persons but one God, thus the biblical concept of unity includes diversity. This concept is most clearly expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4. The key word used here is one. Hebrew has a number of words for one; however, the author of the book of Deuteronomy chose the Hebrew word echad, which can be used to present not only the numeric oneness but a compound oneness, a oneness comprising multiple parts.5

In the marital paradigm, “and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, NKJV), the same Hebrew word is used. Two different persons are becoming one. They are still two distinct persons and personalities, with different looks and playing different roles; nevertheless, they have become one. It is very insightful to note that after two have become one, if separated they will bear the signs of the broken relationship. This is supported by the word cleave used in Genesis 2:24 (KJV). The two will not become what they had been even before becoming one. This is analogous to gluing together two pieces of paper and then separating them. The destructive effects of fragmenting what had previously been united are visible for all to see. First Corinthians 12 points to the relationship within the Trinity as the foundation for our unity: “the same Spirit” (v. 4), “the same Lord” (v. 5), “the same God” (v. 6). At the same time, the passage highlights the place of differences. It speaks of a variety of spiritual gifts. We all have different gifts, but all are given for a “common good” (v. 7, NIV) so that the whole body can function effectively. Paul’s picture of the body underlines the necessity of diversity. This diversity does not destroy the harmony but is, in actuality, its very foundation.

Unity found in the Trinity also sheds light on its opposite counterpart, uniformity. These are not one and the same. Uniformity can be defined as “being uniform, having always the same form, manner, etc.” and may be manufactured by repression and dictatorship. This not the unity of which Paul speaks. Paul’s beautiful illustration of unity (1 Cor. 12:12–30) makes it very clear that it is not uniformity, neither does it imply uniformity. Unity does not mean that all Christians will perform identically, but it may best be defined as a “condition of harmony.” One may play different musical notes, but they need to be in harmony; otherwise it is not music but musical chaos. We use the differences to be found in harmony to create the wonder to be found in melody.

Paul takes his time to patiently explain what unity in the church will look like. He says, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all” (vv. 4–6, KJV). Paul states that biblical unity is not uniformity but, rather, the joyful celebration of diversity. In Christian unity, we are not one because we eliminate our differences; we are one because we harmonize them. Reuel Lemmons states, “Only when we restore Jesus Christ to His throne in our hearts can we have unity. As long as we try to impose our wills, or even our understanding upon others there will never be unity. All unity meetings are doomed to failure as long as we try to substitute either union or uniformity for unity. These counterfeits can never make us one in Christ.”6

Through this illustration, Paul makes it obvious that no one part of the body, or group from the body, can represent the whole body or function independently of the whole body. Paul’s analogy “is a vivid one, because no single person is the body of Christ, that identity is a collective privilege. . . . This offers us a clear illustration of unity in diversity. We are not designed to be the same as each other, nor to perform identical functions, but we are inextricably linked to each other. The only possible division would be created by amputation, if we were forcibly cut off from the rest of the body.”7

While authority is to be respected, Ellen White warned about the danger of someone trying to control the whole body, or the conscience of the believers: “God has not set any kingly power in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to control the whole body or to control any branch of the work. He has not provided that the burden of leadership shall rest upon few men. Responsibilities are distributed among a large number of competent men.”8 She added, “God has never authorized any man to exercise a ruling power over his fellow workers; and those who have allowed a dictatorial spirit to come into their official work need to experience the converting power of God upon their hearts. They have placed man where God should be.”9

This is why the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not maintain a presidential system of church governance, comparable to the governance found in corporate structures. Rather, issues that affect the whole church are decided in committees, where the whole body is represented, and all leaders report to them. The main assignment of the chair is first to make sure that every voice is heard and, second, to ensure that decisions taken represent the will of the whole body, rather than a small influential group. We do not live in a theocracy, where the Lord reveals His will through one person; but, rather, the Holy Spirit works through all believers who are open for His guidance. The Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself. If He speaks through you and He speaks through me, we will reach a consensus. “Those in authority should manifest the spirit of Christ. They should deal as He would deal with every case that requires attention.”10

On the other hand, Ellen White is very clear in pointing out that we need harmony and a unity of message, purpose, and action. She encourages leaders to “labor in harmony with the decisions arrived at by the general body of believers in united council.”11

Speaking of the apostle Paul, she states, “Notwithstanding the fact that Paul was personally taught by God, he had no strained ideas of individual responsibility. While looking to God for direct guidance, he was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship. He felt the need of counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make right decisions.”12 She also states, “God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does this despises the voice of God.”13 It is remarkable to note that even God Himself worked out the plan of salvation in a council of the Trinity.

Another passage that deals with unity also refers to the Trinity: “one Spirit” (Eph. 4:4), “one Lord” (v. 5), “one God and Father” (v. 6). These three passages, John 17, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, refer not only to the Trinity as a model for unity but also to love as a way to unity.

3. Unity is interrelated with mission

Jesus prays, “ ‘And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, 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 17:22, 23, NKJV). This is a oneness based on interdependence but not independence.

Christ’s intercessory prayer makes clear the purpose of unity: to let the world know that You sent Me (v. 21). Jesus has been sent into the world, and now He is sending us to bear witness of Him. The way we relate to each other is one of the most powerful tools in mission. The struggle for the church entails embracing interdependence while resisting independence.

Unity implies a common purpose and interdependence within the body of Christ. Today we speak of TMI—Total Member Involvement—where all members of the body of Christ have been marvelously involved in mission, “as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4, NIV). At Pentecost, mission began to happen when the disciples placed the interests of their brothers and sisters above their own. “Putting away all differences, all desire for the supremacy, they came close together in Christian fellowship. . . .

“And under the influence of the Spirit, words of penitence and confession mingled with songs of praise for sins forgiven. . . . And what followed? The sword of the Spirit, newly edged with power and bathed in the lightnings of heaven, cut its way through unbelief. Thousands were converted in a day.”14

Jesus’ teachings about the vine and branches (John 15:1–8), while addressing the disciples in chapter 13—“ ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ ” (v. 35, RSV)—are strong illustrations of the necessity of interdependence in mission.

We should never ever forget that independence, disunity, fragmentation, and separation are the main and most successful weapons of the enemy. If history can teach us anything, this is a lesson we need to grasp. Coming from a part of the world where the Seventh-day Adventist Church was divided for decades, I can see that the worst thing that could happen to our church is to experience a division or a split. Nothing weakens our effectiveness in mission more.

The New Testament Church constitutes one nation, one people: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9, RSV). If our life together as a church does not demonstrate this unity, mission is rendered null and void.

Jesus concludes His intercessory prayer by referring to love (John 17:26). Paul finishes his discussion of unity by adding a whole chapter on love (1 Cor. 13). Then Paul refers to love in the beginning and middle of Ephesians 4 and even ends the chapter by highlighting love (4:2, 16, 32) with the reminder, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted” (v. 32). Biblical unity incorporates a diversity of gifts, talents, ministries, and functions. However, the Bible never encourages doctrinal diversity. Based upon the Ten Commandments, our doctrines are spelled out in love to God and love to humankind. In this, we are to be the same. Paul says, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Phil. 2:2, NASB).

Thus it becomes very clear that relationships play a key role in the process leading to unity. Someone very correctly stated, “It is not the love of power but the power of love that is to cement the Christian church.” Love for God, His Word, and one another is the best and only glue for church unity. It is love that makes mission not only possible but effective.

We have the message that the world needs to hear. However, none of us can successfully proclaim it ourselves. We need each other; we need the church as a whole; hence, we need unity—the kind of unity revealed in the Trinity itself.

1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 352.

2 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 1130.

3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 296.

4 There are other important themes mentioned in the prayer, but we will limit our study to these three.

5 Genesis 2:24; Exodus 26:6, 11; Ezekiel 37:17, 19, 22.

6 Reuel Lemmons, “Union, Uniformity, and Unity,” theexaminer.org/volume2/number4/union.htm.

7 Clive Calver and Rob Warner, Together We Stand (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 6, 7.

8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1904), 236.

9 Ellen G. White, Christian Leadership (Washington, D.C.; Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 1985), 33. See also Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 362.

10 White, Christian Leadership, 31.

11 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 199.

12 White, The Acts of the Apostles, 200.

13 White, The Acts of the Apostles, 164.

14 White, The Acts of the Apostles, 37, 38.


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Artur Stele, PhD, serves as a vice president for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

December 2017

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