These days there’s a lot of talk about “unity” in the church. On the one side, there are Christians who insist that any talk of “race” and racism threatens the unity of the church. On the other side, there are Christians who insist that avoiding conversation and action regarding “race” and racism is itself evidence of disunity. In the former case, there’s great emphasis on biblical texts that teach our essential equality before God through Christ. In the latter case, there’s great emphasis on biblical texts that require the practice of reconciliation between believers in Christ.
Well, like so many things, the truth is in the middle, or at least combines both positions when they’re rightly understood.
In one sense, the Christian church is already unified through our spiritual union with Christ. By his death, Jesus Christ was “killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:16) that existed between God and humanity since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin (Rom. 8:7). Through his crucifixion and resurrection, the Lord Jesus makes all Christians “one new man” (Eph. 2:15). You might think of the Christian family as one new ethnicity made up of people from all natural ethnicities who have been “reconciled to God through one body in the cross” (Eph. 2:16). In this reconciliation is union with Christ and union with one another (Rom. 6:3-4, 11; 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:27; etc) and a new identity that eclipses and relativizes the old (1 Cor. 9:19-23). In that spiritual union, regarding our equality before God and with one another, “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Jesus accomplishes our unity in his redemptive work on the cross.
In another sense, our experience of unity is not yet perfected. We see that our unity, like all of our redemption, belongs to an already-not yet tension. We are already unified in Christ through faith in him, but we have yet to experience the fullness of that unity inside the Church militant. So the Christian church must “do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). We must help feuding sisters agree (Phil. 4:2-3). We must remind one another that our favorite teachers did not die for us and we were not baptized into them, but must “have the same mind and judgement” (1 Cor. 1:10-12). We must address the complaints of widows from differing linguistic backgrounds (Acts 6). We must, like the church of the apostolic era, wrestle with how and on what basis and to what extent unity between Jew and Gentile (or Gentile and Gentile for that matter) can be practically realized in the one body of Christ our Lord (Acts 15). Christ has begun the work, and in the end Christ will complete the work. But here in the in-between-time the Lord has left us the ministry of reconciliation—a ministry that involves proclaiming the gospel to sinners (2 Cor. 5:16-21) but also practicing reconciliation among saints as an act of worship (Matt. 5:23-24). By all these inclusive practices of love, we are meant to tie ourselves together into an unbreakable knot with Christ as the main cord.
But carrying on the conversation as if only one side is true is a fool’s errand. Trying to “rig” the conversation so that the force of the “other side’s” argument gets blunted is disingenuous. Let God be true and every man a liar. Let the whole counsel of God give us balance and integrity in an already-not-yet tension that gives us a foretaste of glory while calling us to the sweat of sanctification.
If there is to be a fuller experience of unity the cost will include humbling ourselves beneath God’s entire Word, humbling ourselves to fellowship with brethren on all “sides” of the issue, humbling ourselves to accept history and social science that both affirms and condemns everyone involved in different ways, humbling ourselves to tell the truth without varnish, humbling ourselves long enough to listen and consider before responding, humbling ourselves to say “I was wrong” or “you were right” or “please forgive me” or “I didn’t know that,” and humbling ourselves to forgive. Let’s insert the entire book of James here, because without humility there will be too much pride for true practical unity.
Humility. That’s the cost of unity. Is it too high a cost? Time will tell...