I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
-Ephesians 4:1-3 (NIV)
About 25 years ago now, I guess, I had a conversation with my grandmother about heaven. I was in college, studying for for the ministry. I suppose she wanted some reassurance. Whatever the reason, she told me that she was not at all sure she would go to heaven when she died.
I wasn’t sure what to say. My grandmother was one of the saintliest and most faithful people I have known in my life. She loved God, and loved her neighbor, and both of those loves directed her life. So I was astonished that she would say such a thing.
My grandmother grew up and came to faith in the same religious movement that has nurtured me, the Churches of Christ. And she is not the first person I have spoken to with this same anxiety.
The heritage of Churches of Christ is a philosophy known as Rationalism. All that means is that most of our forebears were taught to believe that human beings know what we know through reason; that is, we can only know about the world around us through sensing, thinking, and understanding.
Churches of Christ drank heavily of Rationalism. In some ways that’s served us well. But it’s tended to make our theology self-reliant. We’ve acted sometimes as though we can observe and think and know our way to God. This is nowhere more true than in our understanding of the Holy Spirit and his work.
In short, we haven’t left much room for the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen him as a retired author, finished inspiring Scripture and no longer involved with us. Once we have the Bible, we’ve seemed to believe, we no longer need the Spirit. All we need to do is read, study, and interpret the Scriptures rightly.
I would suggest, though, that this impoverished understanding of the Spirit has affected us in at least three ways: our corporate worship and ministry, private devotional life, and understanding of unity.
Churches of Christ originated as a unity movement where people could be “Christians only,” loyal simply to Christ and without owing obedience to denominational creeds. Our rationalist assumptions, however, made unity dependent upon “reasonable” people interpreting the Bible alike. The church was united when it believed, practiced, and taught the same things in all matters of faith, organization, and worship. Unity was about getting the facts straight, and those facts became as much a part of the “gospel” as the resurrection of Christ.
This rationalist reading of the text became the driving force of the Churches of Christ, and we became known for our radically sectarian views toward believers in other denominations. Ironically, we also became known for our “in-house” divisiveness as preachers and editors waged all-out war in print and formal debate against anything labeled “error”: anything that did not fit within the formalized system of “reasonable” interpretation. These “errors” included such trivial (to us) issues as kitchens in church buildings, premillennialism, or whether the Bible allows the establishment of Sunday schools. It was understandable, given our understanding. If the Holy Spirit works only through the written word, then the only basis for unity is our reading and interpreting it alike.
If we haven’t gotten along because we haven’t take seriously that the Spirit creates unity in the church (Ephesians 4:3), and not the church itself. The common Spirit we share, poured out by our common Lord and Savior, draws us together and keeps us together, and it is our calling not to create unity through uniformity of doctrine and practice, but to maintain the unity that is already present.
Paul reminded the church at Ephesus that they were “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22) God builds his own dwelling place in the church. Those who would destroy that temple by whatever means – including elevating doctrinal uniformity to the level of gospel -- do so at their peril (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
If unity is created by uniformity of doctrine, then the church should expend whatever energy is required to safeguard and maintain correct doctrine on every conceivable issue. But if unity is created by the presence of the Holy Spirit, then the church should instead go to great lengths to value and preserve that unity. We are called to live out the reality that the Spirit creates, rather than creating our own. We have to “live by the Spirit” and “keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25)
Paul encouraged the church in Ephesus to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3, emphasis mine) When believers disagree, our first movement must be toward one another rather than away, honoring and affirming that the Spiritual unity that binds believers in Jesus Christ together keeps us together when reason or logic or doctrinal position or personal preference might push us apart. Just as importantly, it denies the human impulses to exclude and judge.
Positively, it means that we will work to create peace. We will follow the Spirit’s lead in pushing past the barriers that human beings erect against one another, whether racial, ethnic, economic, ideological, denominational, doctrinal, or whatever. We will recognize that it is never the will of God for believers to be divided, and we will do what we must to preserve the unity he creates by placing his Spirit among us.