Unity. Everyone seems to have their version of what unity among believers is all about. Since we are Christians, we are using the same book. We are reading the same verses and attempting to practice God’s will. Yet unity remains an elusive dream. Among Churches of Christ, which is historically a unity movement, there are 25+ sects. Most of them make the exclusive claim that they alone are the ones who believe correctly. Shall we dare to examine Christendom? The very word ‘denomination’ denotes disunity.
There is, in my heart, a longing for unity among all believers. I think I can best communicate that by sharing an experience with you.
In August of 2005, our home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was flooded when Katrina roared ashore near Bay St. Louis. Millions of people were affected by the largest natural disaster ever to be experienced on American soil. In those early days with no power, no supplies, and no communications, we wondered just what was going to happen. Little did we know that Christians across the United States were gathering supplies, packing trailers, loading up tools, and making their way to the Coast.
If I recall correctly, the first crews to arrive were of our familiar Church of Christ family. We felt so blessed that anyone would take the time and energy to come to our rescue. It wasn’t long, though, before there were Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Christian Church folk, Mennonites, and Episcopalians were gathering at our church building seeking opportunity to serve. Honestly, I was amazed. I still am.
I suppose it’s true that there were some atheists and nonbelievers who also arrived and helped with the humanitarian effort. I applaud their love for humanity and we were grateful for anyone who came to help.
There was, however, a special bond with those who came in faith. They prayed with us, gave us money, left behind unused tools and supplies, went back to their churches with incredible reports and returned with even more help. Young and old arrived from all over the United States, Mexico, Canada, and even a lady from Israel.
During the time when we had nothing and Christ-followers came to help us, a special bond was formed. Our tears mingled on one another’s shoulders. When we worshiped, we lifted our voices and hands to the same God. We trusted the same Jesus for our salvation. We opened our Bibles and read words of Scripture that we treated with respect, treasured revelation from God.
Once we had a makeshift auditorium back in place, power restored, and ministry efforts under way we began to try to minister to the soul as well as the body. One night we showed the last of the Matthew videos, depicting the crucifixion of Christ. As I was on my way out after the service, a Mennonite stranger took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “We are brothers.” Yes, we are.
December of 2005 brought what we thought was a pretty sad Christmas. But God was not limited in His desire to show love to the devastated Coast. A cruise ship had been appropriated by FEMA and was docked at the port of Pascagoula. Somehow the government gave us permission to have a Christmas party on that ship, and gifts were brought from several churches in Nashville. Two of those churches gave gifts to every member of our church. Not little token gifts, either. They really sought to bless us – and did. Then, some other churches banded together to provide gifts to every child on the FEMA ship. Church of Christ insiders know that Nashville is practically our headquarters (although we eschew the headquarters talk, rightfully so!). Some of these churches that were working together to provide gifts and holiday cheer have nothing to do with one another in Nashville! They were enemies in Nashville, but worked together on the Coast! I had to tell one minister on the phone to keep his problems in Nashville, we didn’t want them! He still came down and did a great job helping.
In March of 2006 we had preaching every night at our building. Some nights we had only a few, some nights a big crowd. Usually the big crowd was from a church someplace that had imported a bunch of college or high school students. I typically would ask their minister to speak to us that night. It was not uncommon to ask for the group leaders to pray for us. I did this without trying to find out their denominational affiliation, nor quizzig them on the foundations of faith. In the mixed emotions from our own losses coupled with the overwhelming expression of love from strangers, God touched my heart in a big way. I began to see the love of Christ in these wonderful souls who worshiped under different signs than the one in our yard. Through their camaraderie in our distress, I found the love of Christ in unexpected places.
Just to clarify, this did not sit well with all of my Church of Christ brothers and sisters. After all, we have been raised to think that we read the Bible correctly, others do not. Denominational people misunderstand important items and we should be teaching them – we have nothing to learn from them! Some of our support from some Church of Christ congregations was withdrawn because of our acceptance of those who had come to help us. I know that will sound strange to some, but I understood it then, and I do now.
In my last days in Pascagoula, after sixteen years of ministry there, I sat in a circle at First Presbyterian church. This building was just a block from our building, but I had only been in it twice – for funerals. In that circle was the pastor for First Presbyterian, the pastor for Church on the Rock, a retired minister who called himself presbymethodist, and a few others. We prayed for one another, repented of the division that had existed between us, and pledged to do what we could to promote unity and good will between our churches.
Out of the destruction and pain that Katrina brought to us came a beautiful experience of Christian unity – the kind that exalts people over doctrinal peculiarities. As a matter of disclosure I can safely say that not all Church of Christ people will go with me here. Some will mark me as lost or consider me apostate at best. I’m sure not everyone in my current congregation thinks the way I do about these issues. I don’t judge them, I know where we come from.
Answers? No, I do not have all the answers. I do know that truth is essential, and that we must all seek God with our whole hearts. I look around at the most gifted and educated ministers I know, and they do not agree with each other on any number of issues. I’m more inclined to think that there is one issue that rises above all: loving God and His Son. I do not play the “my church is better than your church” game. I do have convictions. I don’t know why others have arrived at different convictions. But most have. I respect one who loves Jesus and searches the Scriptures who comes to a different conclusion than I do. In fact, any two people who decide to worship together have done this.
I do not think this means we all have to worship in the same building in the same way and have the same comprehension of every teaching. But I am convinced that if I fail to love, care for, serve, and encourage my fellow believers that I am in sin. Unity, to me, is more about attitude than location or agreement.
In the midst of disaster, God opened a window and demonstrated for us how beautiful it really is for brothers to dwell together in unity. Yes, they all went home to their own churches. The little church that turned a city upside down has gotten back to business as usual. I’ve moved to preach for another body of believers in the same fellowship in which I’ve grown up.
I’m not sure how to say what I feel about unity, but I hope that the picture of what happened on the Coast in the year following the storm is a story that expresses it well enough. I long for all disciples of Christ to love each other without walls between them. Those walls, and death, may be the last things Jesus will destroy upon His return.
(This was a guest post on Bobby Cohoon’s blog, but I wanted to keep a copy here. jd)