A Bigger Tent: The Secret to Church Unity (Part 3)
To help us think through this, we’ve looked to what might be the most pivotal moment in the church’s history: Acts 15.
So far, we’ve found that an overarching and ruthless dedication to mission seems to be the only way that a church can survive. But that’s not all there is to Acts 15. The truth is that church unity is much more complicated. And while it may be rooted in mission, the practical working out of unity is always much more than a simple declaration of mission. To that end, we turn, one last time, to Acts 15.
But before we do, there’s a question to be asked. One that sets the table for the entire conversation. Simply put, “What are you willing to fight for?”
You will organize, debate, argue, fight for what you think is important. But what can we learn from the fact that the first church dispute was about how the word of God could continue to go forward to the nations?
What do we fight about? Where do our efforts and hours go? Where will you spend what precious little energy you have?
Because the secret to church unity is learning to fight about things that matter instead of things that don’t. That, of course, only works if your church is dedicated to mission and is willing to put that as the core thing. Fighting about anything else doesn’t seem to work, yet it’s naïve to think that you won’t fight about how to go about being on mission. In fact, it’s important that you do fight about this and not waste energy fighting about lesser things.
Shall I push further?
Could it be that the church is not here so that we can be a part of a correct worship service that puts you in right relationship with God, but rather the church is here to be the representatives of Jesus Christ in the world, calling people to come to know him?
Now let me ask you, which of those seems small? And which of those seems big?
One is all about you, and the other is all about God. Jesus never said, by the way, to worship him, but he did say follow him a lot. Should we worship him? Absolutely. But if we don’t feel close to Jesus it may be because he’s off seeking and saving the lost while we’re over here arguing over circumcision.
If we are to be unified in the church, we’ve got to find something bigger to unite around, and the mission of God in the world may be the only thing that fits the bill.
That’s why it’s important to note that the Jerusalem council encouraged the Gentiles to actually follow four parts of the Jewish law to keep table fellowship open with fellow Jewish Christians, and probably to keep them from attending pagan temple feasts.
The Gentiles thus called to give up certain freedoms for the sake of the Jewish Christians, who had followed a certain way of living their whole lives and now were having to rethink it all.
There are many in younger generations of the church universal who could learn from such a heart, as we wouldn’t be standing here if not for the faith of those who came before us, just as the Gentiles would never have heard of Jesus if not for Jerusalem.
Should we spend some time fighting about what freedoms we are called to give up to keep the church whole and learn from those that came before us?
The church only works when both parties sacrifice for one another in light of the Father’s heart.
It’s also worth noting that no divine voice showed up in this process, but the Spirit of God being involved was assumed because the mission of God was the focus.
In the end, I think we all should take some comfort in knowing that this chapter ends with Paul and Barnabas having a disagreement that borders on a screaming match, going their separate ways because Paul doesn’t want to bring John Mark along after he deserted him earlier. They do reconcile later, with Paul even requesting to Timothy that John Mark be brought along because he’s a skilled evangelist.
But, and here’s the key: they go their separate ways on mission. Maybe that’s the best we can do sometimes. To go our separate ways, but all the while acknowledging the fact that we are both still on mission. It turns out that’s still church unity when the thing keeping us together is taking the gospel out to the world.
In this way, the form becomes the message. This is the essence of the gospel. God takes even our worst and uses it to save.
I humbly submit that the church today needs to spend some time in prayer discerning how its own proclivities and preferences have hindered the mission of God. I know I do. Are we willing to have that fight? Are we willing to go our separate ways for a time if we are convinced we are still united in mission? The future and the unity of the church may depend on it.
I leave you with the words of Peter in Acts 15: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
May we be blessed to know this as true. And may the tent grow.