biblical vocabulary: unity

It’s been a little while since our last installment in the Biblical Vocabulary series, but there has been a word on my mind recently that I think deserves a closer look, especially because it’s so easily misunderstood. The word is unity.

The concept of unity (or the lack thereof) seems to have crept into conversations across a broad range of topics in recent years. We are confronted with division and conflict on every side, and in spite of the fact that so many voices in the public square are denouncing that divisiveness, the splits and chasms only seem to broaden. It matters now more than ever that the Church understands unity - what it is, what it isn’t, and why we so desperately need it.

So, what is unity? How does the Bible define it?

What is unity?

Our dictionary defines unity as “the state of being one; oneness.” I think that’s a good starting point, even though it sounds rather elementary; unity is one of those words that’s pretty easy to throw around without remembering its most basic meaning. The prefix “uni-” means “one” - not “same,” not “compromise,” not “fairness,” not “equality.” One.

That’s the word and meaning Jesus used when He prayed, the night before His death, that His followers and all those who would believe in Him be “perfected in unity.”

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

John 17:20-23

Unity, by Jesus’ description, is the ultimate evangelistic tool the Church possesses. It is the ultimate representation of who God is and what He has done for humanity. It was Christ’s unity with the Father that made Him willing to come to earth as the salvation for humanity, whatever the cost. It is the Church’s unity with God and one another that makes us the guiding light toward Jesus in a dismal, dog-eat-dog world.

But we can’t fulfill that mission if we’re striving after a mistaken understanding of unity.

Jesus was one with the Father without being the same as the Father. He desires us to be one with Him, even though we can’t possibly be equal to Him. He asks us to be one with each other even though we all come from different backgrounds, have different opportunities, and experience different wounds. He envisions unity, oneness, among all of His children - even when some of them have absolutely nothing in common beyond Jesus Christ Himself.

Sometimes, we think we’re fighting for unity when we are really fighting for sameness. Or we think we’re fighting for unity when we are really fighting for fairness. Or equality. Or compromise. We often mistake for unity a room in which everyone acquiesces to the status quo, everyone looks and acts and speaks the same, and no one rocks the boat with a hard question, rebuke, or dissent.

But the real power of real unity is only found in oneness, which defies all our natural prerequisites for camaraderie, community, and teamwork to bring together the unlikeliest of human beings and unite them in Christ, the cornerstone.

biblical vocabulary : What is unity?

Unity is a value statement.

True, Biblical unity is reflected best in Christ’s oneness with the Father. Father and Son had very different roles in the mission to redeem fallen humanity; One remained on the throne, holding the universe in His hands, while the other cast off His holy power and royal rights to become a sacrificial Lamb. To accomplish the greatest rescue of all time, these two Persons of the Godhead became unequal. The demands on one of them became unfair. Their actions and experiences became completely different and separate.

Yet they were still One, because they both gave equal, all-important weight to the ultimate goal: the salvation of the world.

In the Church, we frequently get unity backward. We rally together as groups of people who look and act and think the same, but divide based on how we understand and interpret truth. (If you don’t believe me, consider the sheer number of different denominations that exist, and what “kind” of people stereotypically attend each church in your area.) Biblical unity is the opposite: It’s very different people with very different experiences and perspectives coming together to stand on the same truth and pursue the same goal.

The kind of unity that points the whole world to Jesus can’t be accomplished when we select our churches based on whether they serve our similar demographic or cater to our exact interests, or when churches silence the legitimate questions, ideas, changes, and concerns of individuals in an effort to prevent “division.” We all need to keep our eyes on the big picture, and examine the value statements we are making at individual, local, and denominational levels. Do we balance the weights of different issues in a way that’s consistent with the priorities of God’s Word, our foundation - or are we clinging too hard to certain preferences and petty differences?

Is abiding in life with Christ and the sharing of His abundant love with our brothers and neighbors the foremost concern on our hearts?

If we can all become one behind that cause - even if some of us like to sing hymns and some of us like to worship in dance, or if some of us are decades younger in age and experience than the congregation around us, or if some of us are Calvinists and some of us aren’t - then our testimony to the world will be impossible to snuff out.

There is a reason Paul uses the metaphor of a body to describe the Church. Just as a physical body needs all its different parts in order to stay healthy and accomplish its created purpose, the Church body needs a diversity of people that work together in unity toward its common health and common goals.

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13

The issues we unite behind are a clear and direct statement to the world about what we believe and value. If we can only unite around our demographics or around secondary theological issues, they’ll notice that in the big picture, we are just as divided as they are. But if we can become one, despite all of our differences, around the ultimate truth of who God is and what He has done? Then, as Jesus said, the world will know exactly who He is, and how He loves.