By Jeff Olson
The history of the church is indeed an amazing story, not only one of survival, success and failure but also one of its humanity and complexity. It is a paradox; a startling reality of how a diverse rabble of individuals coalesced into a unified people, an institution which by all practical reason and rationale should have perished many years ago. Instead, it is nearly two thousand years old and still a relevant force in the world today. It began with only a handful of dedicated followers of Jesus Christ; fishermen, farmers, tent makers, peasants, tax collectors, and others who differed not only in occupation but also in culture and religious beliefs to name but just a few. In future years, decades and centuries, the diversity and complexity within the church would continue to grow – but so would the unity. Why is that?
How did this motley lot of folks survive throughout the many years of challenges, persecution, and countless efforts to eliminate them? What is it that has kept this institution not only alive but growing in many parts of the world? One could argue that it was principle, but many institutions of principle have come and gone over the years. One could also propose that it was purpose, virtue or lofty goals but none of these would be sufficient to explain why the church still exists and remains a viable force – at least to the degree it still is. So, what is the key to the church’s longevity and success?
Perhaps it has something to do with relationships, love, and something or someone beyond ourselves. In John 10:30, Jesus said, “ I and my Father are one.” And, in His high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed in verse 11, “Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as we are.” In Galatians 3:28, Paul stated, ‘There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Ephesians 4:5-6, Paul tells us also, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” What does all this say to us about the survival of the Church, her relationship to the Head of the Body of Christ, and among those other members of that Body?
This relationship, as stated in Galatians, transcends culture, race, ethnicity, gender and all other human distinctions. While human distinctions in themselves can and do serve as necessary and positive elements to the functions and success of the church, the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), we must be careful not to let them take on identities of their own in the forms of what today would be called multiculturalism or diversity. These nice-sounding innocuous terms can potentially become a mission or ideology in themselves and misdirect, circumvent or dilute the true identity and purpose of the church. Christ gave himself for us and the church (Ephesians 5:2,25), and it is His design and desire that the multiplicity of our backgrounds and the variety of our abilities, talents, gifts, creativity and experiences serve to edify the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4) in its purpose and mission. As Ephesians 4:11 reminds us, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers,” And the list can go on even beyond these.
Essentially then, our unity within the Body of Christ is contingent first and foremost on a personal oneness with Jesus Christ and not on all the similarities and differences we bring with us to the table and to the altar. In fact, we have nothing in ourselves to offer that make us worthy to receive the grace of God through Christ Jesus (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10). Philippians 2:2 tells us, “Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” And in 1 Peter 3:8, “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous.”
“…that they may be one even as we are” is Jesus’ deepest prayer of desire for each of us. If we get that right with Him then we can get it right with one another, therefore making true unity in the Church a reality. Only in this way can the Church profess, portray, and share the same Jesus to a lost and dying world.