Incarnational Unity (Jan-Apr 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Newton
January – April, 2006

While a missionary in Africa I watched a Christian church take form among unchurched people, the largely unreached for Christ Sukuma tribe of northwest Tanzania. I say “watched” because I had much less of a role in what actually happened than I anticipated, and believe that such a passive term is a more accurate way of describing how God worked despite my efforts.

From the very beginning, when the first four churches started, the Christians from each church gathered for religious festivals at both Christmas and Easter. The preaching, meals, and days of worship were a visible and real experience of unity for them. The celebrations often lasted three or four days.

After a few years of preaching from village to village, the number of village churches grew to about twenty. When it came time for the church leaders to meet to prepare for that particular year’s Easter celebrations the usual matter of where to gather grew more disputed. The churches now spread out over a much wider area than had been the case in previous years and the most centrally located congregations had already hosted such a large gathering. The leaders from different churches started to talk about the distance from their villages to proposed sites for celebrating Easter.

Two points became clear: first, the distances involved made everyone meeting together a real difficulty, and second, the annual Christmas and Easter festivals were very important.

For some leaders, particularly those of villages on the edges of the area where the churches were located, the practicalities of always having to walk such a long way dominated their thinking. For others, not everyone meeting together was a blow to unity and a disturbing prospect.

The discussion was long and intense, with many viewpoints being shared. As often happens when conversation is not abruptly discontinued by a vote for the sake of efficiency, but instead allowed to progress, a leader from Bumyengeja clarified the essence of the matter at hand when he said, “it’s only a matter of walking.” That statement at that moment served to finally help everyone see that their unity was not at stake.

What continued to be uncovered through the discussion was that unity, though rooted in very specific times of fellowship and worship, was more than those events themselves. We went on to discuss how each congregation usually met on its own weekly, how geographically close churches would often meet together monthly to share in a special communion service, and how there were the yearly gatherings where all were invited. The unity of the Sukuma believers was both very tangible in acts of fellowship, in worship, in the breaking of bread, and through meetings of leaders, while also being a spiritual bond that existed beyond all of those experiences. Their unity was a gift of God, His very presence, clothed in concrete events and circumstances. In a word, their unity was incarnational.

The Nature of Unity
Thinking of unity incarnationally, in terms of how God took on human form in Jesus, helps our theological reflection by inviting a tension between unity as a divine gift, which it is through the Spirit, and unity as a very human, historical, and experienced reality. The abstraction of Christian unity into a spiritualized ideal may suggest it exists despite the world we see, but that emphasis alone removes clear mandates for our enacting that unity in daily life. The other danger is that if we fail to affirm the “beyond this world” substance of our unity, it devolves into a project of human ingenuity and effort.

Christian unity has been conceived as variously centering on propositions of truth, tangible church organizational structures, common spiritual experience, methodology of biblical interpretation or religious life, shared practices of worship, and other similar aspects of the communal nature of being followers of Christ. In each of these matters, a oneness or similar mindset may or may not be experienced, and striving for either agreement or simple commonality in any of these is helpful. Certainly believers benefit the closer they are in belief or practice regarding teaching, organization, experience, or living out their faith.

However, the unity of the Christian faith, that which our faith speaks of, which ought to be distinguished from talking about being unified on the content and nature of our faith, is a divine gift that exists despite imperfect experiences. To think otherwise, is to find only unity where there is some outward manifestation. Burdened by this assumption Christians may become people whose horizons are no greater than their experience, which is a way of saying our faith is limited to experience alone.

Christian unity is a matter of faith whether or not we presently see the fruits of it. Such is the case with all of God’s gifts. We are forgiven, the recipients of God’s own righteousness, people of hope, eternally secure in God’s promises, and living under the sovereignty of God – all matters of faith that may or may not be tangibly experienced or sensed at any given time. God’s unity is here whether or not I can see any shred of evidence of its presence.

Yet to say that unity is more than our experience is not to spiritualize unity, or somehow deny that Christian unity has any concrete, historical, and particularized reality. Christian unity is not an abstracted concept to be held mentally, but indeed a calling to be lived out daily. Christian unity must be a matter of practiced faith. However, its existence or non-existence is not dependent on our daily experience. We are not unified when we feel unity with others. We are not unified only when we have visible common cause, or some other manifestation. We are unified by the act of God, and then, as in all matters, our robustly historical faith must be lived as surely as Christ’s ministry was in the flesh, within Palestinian villages, and to the people of that time.

The tension of viewing unity as both beyond our experiences and within our practices is vital to shaping our communities of faith into incarnational fellowships that live out in eminently practical ways what is always a gift of grace from God. This is our understanding of the incarnational nature of unity. Our unity is a fact of God’s perfect grace which forms, drives, and dwells within our imperfect attempts to live it to God’s glory. The eternal forever resides in our temporal now.

The Practice of Unity
To understand the incarnational practice of unity, we look to Jesus in whom we find eternal godliness in concrete, historical, and very accessible terms. Jesus becomes our means of grasping the meaning of unity in daily life, in forming our actions to express the eternal gift.

The touchstone passage I choose is one which challenges what I believe to be the limited scope of much discussion about Christian unity. Usually conversations about Christian unity involve how believers might relate to one another, and in fact my opening story about Africa definitely set that sort of context. Even so, I believe the true discussion is much wider than that.

Hear the words of Jesus:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling.” Matthew 23:37.

With these words, more than in his high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus describes the horizons of unity as it is practiced incarnationally. Christ-imitating unity is a unilateral posture of openness to community and fellowship which is offered not only to other believers, but to all. Failure for such unity to exist should lie only with the refusal of those to whom it was offered, not with believers who refrain from extending the invitation.

Actually, Jesus is talking about more than ‘extending invitations’ which smacks of limited opportunities, or conditional gestures. Christian unity is a lifestyle, a way of living that is open to fellowship and unity with all. Disciples of the Christ live with arms extended to everyone, ready to embrace anyone, even though the embrace is not always returned.

Jesus lived this way, and the gospels tell how his embrace was often accepted more readily by the poor, the outcast, and those with blatantly sinful lives, rather than by people with power, those in authority, and the leaders of the religious institutions. However, we should not misconstrue these facts to conclude that Jesus was not also as willing to experience unity with these people as well.

Christian unity is not only about how the followers of Jesus are to live together. When we understand that unity is a lifestyle of how I live toward my neighbor, whether currently my neighbor is a believer, a questioner, or a rejecter of God, then I will understand Paul’s admonition to do good to all men, and especially those of the household of faith.

The struggle for unity among Christians has failed often because of the basic orientation that says unity must be achieved only with conditions. When it is assumed that Christian unity is only for Christians, then unity on limited conditions is already accepted as the norm for the practice of faith. If such unity is certainly not for unbelieving Jerusalem, then how much should my brother or sister have to believe in order for unity to exist between us? This approach fails to recognize unity as a gift of grace.

Jesus shows powerfully that unity is the posture we take in living toward everyone. When we hear the call to have a unity-desiring stance toward unbelieving Jerusalem, we will find it much easier to discover the fruit of such a lifestyle among believers. Unity will not be a negotiated matter but a gift, shared with others because it is the grace of God unto us, and this grace shapes a new lifestyle.

Unity becomes our gift to the world. As unity is God’s gift to us, free and full of grace, so we are a priestly people who mediate the gifts of God to the world. When we embody this incarnational practice of the unity of Christian faith oneness among believers will be a constant joy, and our presence a blessing to the entire world.

The Works of Unity
Having begun with the understanding that God has given us the unity of the Spirit, we then have a calling to preserve and keep rather than to construct and build. We may practice the unity of God, but we may not improve upon it. We do not receive a partially formed unity with the obligation to finish what God left incomplete. The unity we receive is perfect, though we must learn to live this new lifestyle toward all people.

The ‘works’ of unity are then less about discussion to arrive at agreement, but attitudes which honor and practice unity by faith, putting into concrete forms a oneness that comes from God. Unity is lived not in intellectual agreement, but in humility. Unity is not through doctrinal uniformity, but exemplified by patient forbearance, generosity, and kindness.

To hammer out a statement of agreement concerning practice or belief does not create the unity of the Spirit, but rather may lead to the opposite. To live together in love according to our common grace . . . this is the work of unity.

Self-control, peace, a quiet spirit, kindness, goodness, merciful acceptance, and above all love – these are the means to living in and through the gift of divine unity. Through these types of graces of disposition and heart we enjoy possible the lifestyle of unity which practices God’s gift.
New Wineskins

Greg NewtonGreg Newton is a minister at Disciples Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his wife Marsha and their two children settled there after eight years of planting churches in Tanzania, East Africa. A graduate of Freed-Hardeman and Abilene Christian universities, Greg now serves within a spiritual village of believers who call themselves Disciples’ Fellowship. Greg considers himself unusually blessed to share life and ministry with these friends and mentors. Besides his relationships with these fellow-travelers, he enjoys the creativity of writing and art, video games, classic rock, and history. See his blog at http://travelersjournal.blogspot.com or contact him at greg@disciplesfirst.com

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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