Managing Our Differences, Part 8
The next principle for managing our differences is a biblical fact so obvious that we forget it.
9. Unity is not a goal; it’s a fact. Act like it.
John 17 and Ephesians 4 do not teach that unity is a goal we are supposed to be striving toward and hoping to reach someday; both reflect that it is a reality we are supposed to be living in light of.
Jesus’ request to the Father for the unity of his followers (John 17:20-23) is just as definitely and definitively answered as his request that the Father would glorify Him (John 17:1), preserve the elect (John 17:11), and bring them to be with Christ in glory (John 17:24).
Jesus is not praying that we will some day be unified. He prayed to the Father to make his church a unity—that is, a body (to use the term he will later direct Paul to use). He prayed, in short, that the Father would inaugurate the mystery of the church as one new man, a mystery known hitherto only to the Godhead.
Just as the Father granted every other request the Son ever made, he granted this one as well. The proof of that is the teaching of Paul that all believing Jews and Gentiles are, not in theory and not in anticipation but in reality, united in one body in Christ — teaching like we find (among other places) in Ephesians 4.
Paul teaches that this unity is not an elusive ambition we aspire to; it’s a present reality. There is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:4-6). This unity is not to be gained but to be maintained (Eph. 4:3). You can’t maintain something that doesn’t already exist.
Our unity in Christ (John 17) created by our mutual possession of the same Spirit (Eph. 4) is a fact, an answered prayer. But that doesn’t mean we always act like it or live in light of that reality. Nor does it mean that we are all equally trained and established in the faith—the body of Christian doctrine as it is revealed in Scripture. That’s why Christ gave to the church gifted apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers “for the edifying of the body of Christ, until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13). Our unity in Christ and unity in the Spirit is a reality; our unity of the faith is a destination toward which all of us progress as we grow and mature in our study and understanding of Scripture. To that end books like D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies can be very helpful (see Part 7).
But sometimes, in the meantime, one of the best ways to preserve that unity and peace is to agree to divide and live out our Scripture-informed consciences—like Paul and Barnabas did. (Of course, they divided over a difference of practice, not doctrine; but one can hardly conclude that practical differences are worth dividing over but not doctrinal differences.)
Philip and Matthew Henry were right: It is not our differences or even our divisions that are the enemy of unity, but the manner and spirit with which our differences and divisions are managed.
Ezra as a Model Expression of Unity
Ezra’s prayer for the sinning people of God displays a remarkable solidarity between leader and people, even though he did not personally share in their sins (Ezra 9). The issue was not only intermarriage among the people but intermarriage among the leaders—intermarriage with the very kinds of surrounding unbelievers that had historically corrupted their relationship with the Lord, and finally led to their decimation and captivity only four generations earlier. Ezra’s reaction was severe (Ezra 9:1-4) because he understood the broad historical perspective and what was at stake in this tilt toward compromise with the surrounding world.
But if you listen carefully to his prayer, you hear something quite surprising. It’s his pronouns. Ezra doesn’t pray about “them” and “their” sin; he prays about “us” and “our” sin.
6 O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. 7 From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. . . . 13 And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved . . . , 14 shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? 15 O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, . . . Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.
Why did he pray that way? He had not participated in those sins that were once again endangering the nation. Moreover, what does his prayer have to do with us as gentile members of the church?
First, the New Testament teaches that passages like this are for our instruction and encouragement (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11).
Second, Bible prayers are not just interesting historical artifacts; they model not only scriptural ways of praying but a scriptural spirit in praying as well.
Third, we’re not members of Israel or part of a theocratic nation; we’re part of something even more intimate and spiritually binding—a universal body of true believers called the church—whether we like it or not, whether we like all of them or not, whether we agree with all of them or not. They are brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, and for whom Christ will return, and with whom we will live in perfected love and respect forever. If they are brothers and sisters, that means they are family. We are members of one body, Christ’s body. In a very real way, what happens to one of us affects all of us.
And fourth, the kinds of things that threatened individual Israelites and therefore the nation Israel—things for which Ezra prayed with such astonishing solidarity—are the same kinds of things that threaten not just our churches but our church as a whole.
This ancient passage is pregnant with a number of strikingly timeless applications.
1. The principle extends beyond individuals marrying unbelievers.
Literal marriage to unbelievers is the obvious first-level application. But the spiritual significance of such marriages indicates that even bigger issues are at stake as well. The mixed marriages were wrong because they created relationships and loyalties (to family) that contradicted higher and fundamentally opposed relationships and loyalties (to God). These relationships functioned as the means of introducing pagan elements into the community and worship of Yahweh (Ezra 9:1).
2. The principle includes marrying the church to the culture.
The reason God forbade physical marriages with the people of the land was because such physical marriages implied a metaphorical marriage with the culture (Ex. 34:11-16). The language of Ezra 9:2 (“the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands“) is pregnant with application to the effects of marrying the church to the surrounding unbelieving culture and the practices that accompany it, particularly when they undermine God’s words.
3. The principle involves particular emphasis on the responsibility of leadership.
The passage’s specific attention to the involvement of even the priests and the Levites (Ezra 9:1) and the fact that the hand of the princes and rulers have been chief in this trespass (Ezra 9:2) has compelling implications for the unique responsibility of leadership in maintaining the purity of the church.
4. The prayer contains a humbling lesson for separatists.
It is easy for separatists to cultivate the attitude of “we are not the problem and have nothing to confess—our job is to identify problems and warn people.” That’s only part of the biblical pattern. The biblical pattern goes beyond praying for the purity and growth of our church or our group. Why not pray that way for genuine believers and churches outside yourself and your circle? Of all people, separatists should pray for the purification of the church and the body of Christ at large. This can provide a powerful lesson and example to God’s people—to foster, alongside a scriptural explanation of the issues that divide us, a sense of solidarity, a largeness of spirit toward the people of God who are not a part of their church or movement. That spirit is reflected in what and how we pray for others.
5. This kind of praying is part of a biblical pattern.
Ezra is not alone in this pattern (cf. Dan. 9). In Scripture, it is the separatists who take the lead in confessing the sins of the community of God’s people and interceding for God’s people at large. If anyone could have pointed fingers, it was men like Ezra and Daniel. But these men prayed and confessed with this sense of solidarity as though they too were guilty; you hear it in their pronouns when they pray. Worldliness and compromise need to be identified, but it is not just their problem. It is our problem—because it is the church’s problem. It is our problem—because God’s honor and cause and people are at stake. The church is not divided between us and them. The church is about us—all of us—and God. Ezra’s and Daniel’s example suggest that our attitude—both in censure and in intercession—needs to reflect that awareness. But the pattern extends beyond Ezra and Daniel.
Praying like this—whether privately or pastorally and publicly—is an expression of the spirit of Paul in Philippians 1:15-18, and of Jesus in Luke 9:49-50. Read what was going on in some of those churches in Revelation 2-3; we wouldn’t be caught dead fellowshipping with some of them, and rightly so. Yet Christ still claims them, addresses them as his churches, and displays an astonishing willingness to acknowledge good things even in some of the worst of those churches. Correction and warning is a biblical necessity because solidarity and unity is a biblical reality.
This is no argument for an ecumenical spirit. It is an argument for a biblically ecclesiastical spirit that embraces what Scripture itself teaches is a single body with one Head. It is an argument for maintaining an awareness of our unity in Christ despite our differences, and for thinking and praying with a sense of solidarity and passion for the purification of the whole body of Christ, for the glory of Christ.
Even when it was others who were clearly in the wrong, Ezra and Daniel didn’t pray about them; they prayed about us. Even more than Israel was, we really are all in this together. We cannot remain faithful to the New Testament and ignore that reality.