By Editor-in-Chief Michael Brooks
The American Evangelical Church, like our society, faces an immense amount of strain and tension right now. The Church seems at war with itself over how to respond to racial strife, political warfare, Trumpism, progressive-ism, CRT, right-wing activism, left-wing activism, the great reset, practicing Christian freedom, responding to government action and more. I fear that the reason things are as ugly as they are in and outside the Church is because of a missing message in so many parts of the conservative evangelical world. That missing message is Christian unity. Before any problem can be approached or solved, unity must be striven for and fought for at the beginning, in the middle, and through the end. Until then, all of our work will be without fruit or fools gold.
A Tense World and a Tense Church
I was born in 1991. Many would call me young but since becoming more aware of our society and the state of our nation since 2001 it is clear to me that our nation has not been more divided and tense in my lifetime than it is right now. I cannot speak to what came before me but can simply say that in my lifetime I do not believe our nation has experienced such upheaval as we are experiencing now.
In a similar manner, conservative evangelicalism is also more tense and divided than I have ever seen it. Various denominations, networks, and churches have faced an almost unending list of major issues and scandals to confront and respond to. Large numbers of individuals are seeing the calls to social justice in our country and are asking the same questions of the Church. Are some correct that Christians living as minority ethnicities should leave the “white” space that is current conservative evangelicalism? Are churches, groups, and individuals, coming to terms with and confronting racism in their past and present? Can they advance forward effectively? Is secular ideology gripping influential thinkers and leaders in a damaging and unhelpful way? Are large denominations (like the Southern Baptist Convention) doing enough in regards to sexual abuse, racism, and confronting Critical Theory (Intro to Critical Theory – Neil Shenvi – Apologetics)? How do we tackled the rampant sexual sin within Christian leadership? Has the Church even begun providing any answers in regards to racism? More than that, are they driven by God, His Word, and the desire to see the flourishing of humanity as God has defined it? Is conservative evangelicalism able to present a counter-cultural model for life driven by God and His Word?
Each issue above (and many others) are massive issues of sin, brokenness, and injustice. These all create huge tensions and conflicting solutions. They help create toxic social media environments. For that reason many have simply checked out of social media and the “public square” as a whole. While others, are too invested in online debates and in-Church disputes. Our environment of conflict is creating division, anger, and a deep fatigue that is harmful to human flourishing, problem solving, or the advancement of the mission of Jesus.
Here is a list of some of the major issues facing us as conservative evanelicals?
Racism: What is it (defined) and how do we confront it and hope to reduce it?
Secular Ideologies: What are they? Are they biblically compatible? How fruitful/damaging are they?
Political Divide: Christian political life, what should it look like? What is a vote? What does Trump mean?
Social Justice and the Church: How do we engage well with criminal justice issues, disparities, political issues, and more? Where and with whom do we partner?
Sexual Abuse in Christian Leadership: The sin is too rampant. What are the solutions? Why are we not responding more? How do we keep people accountable? How do we not jump to conclusions while also not discouraging victims to come forward?
These are some of the major issues and important questions facing Christian leaders today. What are the solutions? How do we honor King Jesus as ambassadors while also engaging the world around us as salt and light?
Missing Ingredient: Unity
I remember some years ago when my Grandma visited us. She came and started baking for an upcoming family dinner. She made the pie and we tasted it. Soon after taking a bite we were repulsed by it. Why? We eventually found out that she accidentally used salt instead of sugar. Imagine the taste! The pie was doomed to fail because of this one key ingredient missing and being replaced by something not designed for the recipe.
In the same way, one who ignores or downplays the importance of Christian unity in our current social moment will almost always fail to provide effective answers as we move forward. It is my belief that one major reason the Church has failed to be a source of strength for people in our current cultural and societal atmosphere is because we have failed to preserve and maintain Christian unity and emphasize it in our dialogue and actions.
But what is biblical unity and why does it matter? Here are just a few texts pointing us to important aspects of Christian unity.
Biblical Evidence on Unity
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. ” – John 17:20-21
Here, Jesus is praying to His Father. These are some of the most incredible and treasured words we have recorded in all of Scripture. In this prayer, just before the agony of the cross was upon Him, Jesus prayed to His Father. In this prayer unity is at the forefront. He prays that all who would believe in Him would be one, as Jesus and His Father are one.
That is an astounding statement. Brothers and Sisters in Christ are to be unified in a way comparable to the unity experienced in the godhead. Jesus, perfectly submissive and obedience to His Father while enjoying perfect harmony for eternity within the Godhead. This is the level of unity we should be striving for. For sinners, this will come at great effort and cost. But this is the level of unity we should be pursuing.
I wonder what would be different if before we did or said anything about these issues asked: “will this movement/post/idea/solution/tone/challenge be something that helps Christians have unity like John 17”
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, 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 baptized in the name of Paul?” – 1 Corinthians 1:10-13
Disagreements are normal and natural. Most if not all of our New Testament is written by Apostles to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ challenging falsehood, lies, and sin within the Church. But, is unity a primary goal as part of every movement, post, conversation, idea, or critique we bring against the Church or other brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we challenge seeking greater unity or do we challenge to be right?
Paul teaches us here that we need discernment as believers about what is worth having conflict over. Paul reminds the Corinthian Church that hot-shot apostles are not the standard of unity of the reason for their unity. It is the Lord Jesus Christ which unifies. He is the one who saves. Christ is not divided thus we should not be.
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 1:27-2:1-4
This is an amazing passage. Here are just a few conclusions from the text that are important:
1) Your life should be of gospel quality.
2) This gospel-quality life stands firm in the Spirit of God.
3) Suffering because of the gospel is a gift from God.
4) The essential encouragement and fruit of being united with Christ is to be united with one another.
5) How? Through being like-minded, having the same love (sourced in Christ), being united in spirit, doing nothing out of self-interest, but doing all things in humility.
There is so much to take in from that passage and reflect on. It is sufficient to at least say that unity to Christ is the source of Christian living. If that is the case then, a Christian pursuit on the above issues should also lead to greater unity between Christ’s body. If unity is forgotten no solution will bring about the good we desire.
That does not mean that the process toward solutions is not at times heated, tense, or conflicted. It does mean though that one of our primary goals should be unity in Christ if at all possible. Christian unity–sourced in the Holy Spirit uniting us to Jesus and founded on biblical truth and biblical love–is the only starting point for a successful pursuit of justice, purity, and cultural engagement.
Every conversation should begin with a desire to be unified and move toward unity. In part two I will sketch some of the fruits or markers of someone who is keeping unity at the forefront of their minds amidst our current cultural conflict. I will also discuss what unity may look like in specific contexts. What place does conflict play? Does it mean we don’t care about differences? Do we ignore relational sin and hurt? Unity and the racism conversation, how does that work?
Resource: a good article that would be a helpful start in fostering unity can be found here, written by my Pastor. Pastor Nate Wagner – When our Mouth Serves as a Bowl (spartabaptist.org)