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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Unity? Really?
January 14, 2016

Our January presbytery prayer focus is the unity of the church. With all the strife within congregations and denominations, as well as between denominations, how can we pray for unity with a straight face? The “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” that is observed around the world by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike seems about as relevant to what’s happening in the real world as a giant sale on manual typewriters would be this weekend. No doubt that is why interdenominational services during the Week of Prayer are usually so poorly attended.

Scriptures are brutally honest about God’s people being often at enmity with each other. In the New Testament, divisions begin to open up almost as soon as the church is born. Even the apostles themselves are sometimes divided. (See, for example, Mark 10:41; Galatians 2:11) Yet Scriptures also declare that the body of Christ is impossible to divide. Faced with real-world church divisions, Paul asks rhetorically, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) Of course not – Christ is One because God is One.

So if the church is the “body of Christ,” and Christ cannot be divided, why do we still see divisions in the church? And how should we pray in the face of that jarring incongruence?

Jesus prays repeatedly for unity among his followers, likening our unity to that of the Father and the Son. (John 17:11) Paul appeals for unity among the believers in virtually all of his epistles. These pleas carry neither the resignation of realism in the face of quarrels, nor a utopian dream of a world where all is peace and harmony. They call us to live here and now in a way that is true to who we already are, difficult as that may be.

We pray not that a divided church may be united, but that our eyes would be opened to the unity that is already ours, and that we would live accordingly. We are the Body of Christ, and Christ is not divided. When we pray for the unity of the church, we pray not for us to achieve something, but to recognize and embrace something, namely that we who are bound to Christ by the Holy Spirit are thereby inescapably bound to each other.

So why do we still fight against each other? James asks, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” (James 4:1) In short, he answers, the root problem is selfish desire – desire for being in control, desire to have our possessions all to ourselves, desire to please ourselves. We behave like siblings that are constantly at loggerheads about which one is right or wrong, or which one gets this or that.

Such family disputes do not mean that they are no longer a family. It just means that they are in misery. And nobody else wants to be around them either.

Here is the point – our display of our unity as the Body of Christ has immense consequence on whether people who do not know Christ will be drawn in to become part of Christ’s body. Surveys consistently report that one of the main reasons unchurched people stay away from the church is its very visible quarrelsomeness. Whenever we speak or act in a way that betrays the unity of Christ’s body, we become untrue to our identity and calling. We become a light that is hidden, or salt that has lost its savor. Still light; still salt. But useless and irrelevant to a world in desperate need of light and salt.

So our prayer for Christian unity is not a call for us to build or restore bonds of church unity – our unity is already accomplished in Christ through the work of the Spirit. Rather, it is a call for us to live visibly in a way that demonstrates, rather than obscures our unity. Our family will be happier if we set aside “those conflicts and disputes” to which James refers, to be sure – but the more significant impact will be the winsomeness that we thereby manifest to the world.

Our unity? – all gift. A done deal, already accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Our display of that unity? – that’s on us. Will we turn our prayer talk into prayer walk, for the sake of our Lord Jesus, to the glory of God?

Yours in His bonds,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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