The title for the Week of Prayer For Christian Unity is, 'Is Christ Divided?' which is taken from our reading from Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians.
A cursory look at the church today, may very easily lead you to the answer that yes, the church, the Body of Christ is wrought with division. Did you know for example that there are 40,000 Christian denominations around the world?
In Jonathan Swift's book Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver visits the island of Lilliput, where there is a dispute between the ‘Big Enders’ and the ‘Little Enders’ over what end to crack open a boiled egg, the big end, or the little end. Traditionally, Lilliputians broke boiled eggs on the larger end; but then a former Emperor of Lilliput decreed that all eggs be broken on the smaller end after he cut himself breaking the egg on the larger end. The differences between Big-Enders and Little-Enders had given rise to "six rebellions... wherein one Emperor lost his life, and another his crown".
It is of course a ridiculous argument, but it reflected in a much simplified form British quarrels over religion. Around 200 years before Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s travels England had been a Catholic (Big-Ender) country; but a series of reforms beginning in the 1530s under King Henry VIII had converted most of the country to Protestantism (Little-Enders). These changes had led to religiously inspired revolts and rebellions, in which one king, Charles I lost his life, and his son James II lost his crown and fled to France. Some of these conflicts were between Protestants and Catholics; others were between different branches of Protestantism. What Gulliver’s Travels so clearly illustrates is the ridiculousness and scandal of disunity amongst Christians.
Whilst huge strides towards greater unity amongst Christians has taken place over the years, we have to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go before the church is united as Jesus prayed
Sadly disputes and disunity amongst Christians still continues, sometimes over silly matters, as this letter demonstrates:
“I was standing on the Golden Gate Bridge admiring the view when another tourist walked up alongside of me to do the same. I heard him say quietly as he took in the view. ‘What an awesome God.’ I turned to him and said: ‘Are you a Christian?’ He said ‘Yes, I’m a Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ We shook hands.
I said ‘Are you a liberal or fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a fundemantal Christian’. I said: ‘so am I.’ We smiled and nodded to each other.
I said ‘Are you a Covenant or dispensational fundamentalist Christian?’ He said ‘I am a dispensaiontal fundamental Christian’. I said ‘So am I’. We slapped one another on the back.
I said, ‘Are you Early Acts, Mid Acts or Late Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian?’ He said ‘Iam a Mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian’. I said ‘So am I’ We agreed to exchange Christmas cards each year.
I said ‘Are you an Acts 9 or 13 Mid Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian?’ He said ‘I am an Acts 9 Mid Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I’. We hugged one another right there on the bridge.
I said ‘Are you a pre or post trib Acts 9 Mid Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian?’ He said: ‘I’m a pre trib Acts 9 Mid Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian.’ I said ‘So am I.’ We agreed to exchange our kids for the summer.
I said: ‘Are you a 12 in or 12 out pre trib Acts 9 Mid Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian?’ He said ‘I’m a 12 in pre trib Acts 9 Mid Acts dispensational fundamentalist Christian.’ I said, ‘You heretic and I pushed him off the bridge.’
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF DISUNITY
There are many different causes of disunity in churches and between Christians, sometimes over big issues, and sometimes over very minor trivial issues. It can be to do with theology, worship style, leadership issues, personality clashes, historical disagreements - which rumble on, even though no one can remember what caused the disagreement in the first place, disagreements over the position of the choir, or music group, etc, etc.
Disunity is one of the biggest scandals that the church faces. A divided church is one of the biggest reasons why people can be turned off God and church. I have a lot of sympathy with the person who says "Well if that's how God's people love one another, then I don't want anything to do with it." Disunity is damaging to the church and our witness to the world. In contrast however, when Christians live together in unity and love it becomes a sign of hope for our divided world. Tertullian writing in the 3rd Century recorded the comment of one pagan who said "See how those Christians love one another."
Division and disunity is not a new thing in the church, it is why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and why he writes "I appeal to you, in the name of the Lord Jesus 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)
Corinth was a very modern cosmopolitan city. It was a commercial centre, and a centre for arts, recreation, literature and architecture, a place of museums and theatres.
It was also a centre of immorality, the Vanity Fair of the Ancient World. It was a large city through which people from every nation passed.
In AD 50, Paul went to Corinth and stayed with his friends Priscilla and Aquila, and started a church in a house and stayed eighteen months until the Spring of AD 52. Then he handed the church over to Apollos and moved on to plant more churches.
Sometime later Paul received a report that in his absence all kinds of problems had developed including division in the church, and so around AD 57 he wrote this letter to try and deal with some of the issues.
Paul writes, ‘My dear friends, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised into the name of Paul?’ (1 Corinthians 1:11–13).
The church had split into factions, over which leader they most respected – Paul, Apollos or Cephas. Sadly this sort of behaviour still happens around in the church today. But we must resist the things that can divide the church, and instead follow the example of Jesus and Paul in seeking unity amongst God’s people.
The thing that should unite Christians is our relationship with Jesus.
At the start of his letter Paul writes, ‘To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours’ (v.2), and in verse 9 he talks about how God has called us ‘into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (v.9).
It is our common faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour that should unite us. All Christians are all called into fellowship with Jesus; the word for fellowship that Paul uses is koinonia. It is the deepest and most intimate relationship possible. It is the word used of the marriage relationship. As Christians we are all called to love Jesus deeply and intimately, and this is the supreme basis of our unity.
Imagine if you had one hundred pianos, and you tuned each piano using the same tuning fork, by using the same tuning fork they would automatically be tuned to each other. Our unity comes not when we are striving for closer fellowship, but when we fix our eyes on Jesus Christ.
Jesus prayed for the unity of the church, so that as God’s people we may be a powerful witness to the reality of God’s love in the world. Unity was important for Jesus, and therefore must be important for us. We should therefore do all we can to unify the body of Christ, the church.
What does this mean in practice? It means avoiding gossip and petty disputes that lead to division, and instead doing all we can to build others up, working together in humility, praying for the church.
Paul also talks about the grace of God in his letter to the Corinthians. This grace is God’s underserved gift of love, which he pours out on us, and which is supremely shown in and made possible through the death of Jesus Christ for each one of us. It is this gift of God’s grace, that is also the basis of our unity. Just as God shows us unconditional love, so we should seek to show unconditional love to one another, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. There cannot be disunity, where there is true love.
Unity is at the core of our faith. We believe in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is unity in the Trinity, which is based on love. Disunity, on the other hand, has been the curse of humankind ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. Jesus died to bring reconciliation and unity, and so we need to strive for unity in our homes, in our families, in our churches, and between Christians. It is why Paul in his letter to the Ephesians appeals to them saying ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 4:3).
We may not succeed in our lifetime in seeing the complete unity of the church, but we should never settle for less. We should pray for it and seek to do all we can to bring about unity in the body of Christ, so that the world may know the transforming power of God’s love.