A Magnanimous Orthodoxy, The Essentials for Church Unity

A MAGNANIMOUS ORTHODOXY
The Unity of the Spirit &
A Witness to the Nations

In this article, we look at the importance of developing a magnanimous orthodoxy that validates and demonstrates the Message of Jesus.

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A House Divided

The Message of Jesus remains the answer to the chaos and madness of the twenty-first century—just as it was the answer to the chaos and madness of the first century.

There is probably not a single follower of Jesus who would disagree.

But … if the Message of Jesus is the answer, then we can only come to one conclusion given the escalating insanity of the day. The representatives of the King’s message, the ambassadors, the ekklesia, the executive arm of the King, have botched their job.

Not only has Christianity at large failed to provide the solution, it is deeply complicit in the problem.

Yes, many individual churches and ministries are doing incredible things. Worship services around the world sparkle with vitality and mission work in all its forms remains vibrant.

One might argue that we suffer from an image problem. While there’s merit in this skin-deep argument, the ugly problem goes deep down to the bone.

Christianity is its own worst enemy, a caricature of what it purports.

Christianity, the religion of unity and grace, the religion of faith, hope and love is divided and sectarian. Individual church growth and ministry gains most often happen at the expense of other churches and ministries. However, it’s not even a zero-sum game. In the Western world, our numbers are declining and we’re just about irrelevant.

Christianity is deeply fractured. In a phrase that’s distressingly poignant and pertinent, we’re tribal. In a world that’s increasingly tribal and fractured, we’re sadly ahead of the game.

Yes, we’re largely tribal. We seem more concerned with flying our flag, beating our drum, championing our base, advancing our camp … whether it’s on denominational lines, theological lines, doctrinal lines … boy, we love drawing lines … lines between “us and “them” … lines to eulogise “us” and demonise “them,” casting the former as angels and painting the latter as devils.

Too often, the unspoken approach goes something like this:

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” 

However, that sentiment is, in fact, diametrically opposed to Jesus’ view:

…whoever is not against us is for us.”

(Mark 9:40)

Read those words again. 

Jesus was disconcertingly generous and magnanimously inclusive.

The truth is this:

We have far more in common with other believers than what we don’t. And what we have in common has far greater substance than what we don’t have in common.

A tribal faith, a sectarian faith, is inconsistent with the Message of Jesus.

The importance of unity hardly needs motivating. Jesus words should be sufficient.

By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

(John 13:35)

Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

(Matthew 12:25)

While we remain divided, we lose. And we undermine the Message of Jesus.

The crying need today is an ekklesia that validates the Message of Jesus, one body that stewards our planet in the unity of the Spirit.

Conviction Vs. Acceptance

Unity doesn’t equal uniformity. We don’t have to all look the same or sound the same. And unity doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.

In fact, diversity of thought, conviction and expression is a good thing. After all, if two of us looked and sounded the same, one of us would be irrelevant.

Our diversity demonstrates the rich kaleidoscope of God’s Personality as His light reflects through the prism of our individual and collective experiences. And our individual contribution is often shaped by our convictions.

So, yes, conviction is important. As the saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. The question is,

In standing FOR something, at what point do we start standing ON someone?

Applying Paul’s counsel to the Roman believers will keep us from trampling others underfoot.

Bun Fight in Rome

It seems the believers in Rome were engaged in a good ‘ol fashioned theological bun fight. Of course, there are no good theological bun fights. Most discredit the Message of Jesus and leave collateral damage in its wake.

A pithy African proverb says, “When the elephants fight the grass gets trampled”. Leaders may think they’ve won the day in getting their way; however, the ‘victory’ oftens tramples young believers in the process.

Paul begins the 14th Chapter of Romans with this call:

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.”

(Romans 14:1)

This passage is about acceptance and applying the law of love over liberty, one of Paul’s favourite topics. Another translation captures this opening verse well: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (NIV).

Paul calls us to accept one another, specifically those we consider “weak in the faith” when it comes to “doubtful things”.

The Greek word for “doubtful things” (dialogismos) refers to opinions or disputes which arise from intellectual questioning and reasoning. The word refers to “opinionated or disputable issues.”

What was the bun fight in Rome about?

The Roman believers were arguing over what one could eat and what days were holy (vv. 2-6). While these issues were particularly relevant at the time (in a community made up of Jews and Gentiles), Paul called these issues “doubtful things”—secondary matters, non-essentials.

Did he suggest that those secondary matters were unimportant and should be dismissed out of hand? Actually, no. He wrote,

Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.”

(Romans 14:5)

In other words, he encouraged them to have an opinion on the matter and to act in accordance with their convictions. To live with passionate conviction not lukewarm preference. In fact, he urged the believers in Rome to live true to their convictions as an act of worship (vv. 6-11). And Paul reminded them that their convictions were for an audience of one:

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.”

(Romans 14:12)

In other words, live true to your convictions … because they are between you and God.

Paul then closed the loop on the theme of the passage: accepting one another.

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”

(Romans 14:13)

As important as our convictions are, they’re not a yardstick by which to measure others … and they’re certainly not a stick to beat others.

While we’re to live fully convinced in our own minds, we’re not to judge others based on our convictions. Instead, we’re to accept one another unconditionally, especially those we might view as weaker in faith.

Paul connected his counsel to the Kingdom of God.

…for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

(Romans 14:17)

The Kingdom of God is not essentially about matters like what to eat— “eating and drinking”— or what day is holy. The Kingdom of God isn’t concerned primarily with non-essentials. It’s about matters of substance like righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Let’s now turn to the essentials of the Kingdom, those which promote “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Essentials Vs. Non-Essentials

A famous quote sums it up so well:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

The question is, what’s essential and what’s non-essential?

The question has itself kicked off a bun fight or two and deciding on an exhaustive list of what qualifies as essential is impossible and defeats the point.

Instead, the following two ideas may prove more helpful.

In Terms of Doctrine

The Apostles’ Creed (in circulation by at least AD 180) and the Nicene Creed (AD 325) capture the essential teachings of the apostles.

They help us summarise what we hold in common as believers. Since they centre on the Godhead, they demonstrate that we have more in common with other believers than what we don’t, and what we have in common has far greater substance than what we don’t have in common.

While the Creeds do not hold the authority and weight of Scripture—importantly, they don’t attempt to add to Scripture—they highlight and clarify what is essential in terms of doctrine.

In Terms of Practices

The Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-39) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) inform our practices.

The Great Commandments call us into a love relationship with God that fuels our love for our neighbour. The Great Commission keeps this love flowing out of our communities and neighbourhoods to a world still in need of loving.

Again, we’re not after a list of indisputable points which we all sign off on or a concrete formula into which we squeeze everyone. Can you imagine how quickly such a list or formula could be turned into a whipping stick?

Instead, cherishing the Creeds can help us to see how much we have in common with other believers and to appreciate our essential and substantial common bond in the Godhead.

And cherishing the Great Commandments and the Great Commission ensures that our practices are governed by the love of God.

Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

…with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

(Ephesians 4:2-6, italics added)

Notice, we are to keep the unity of the Spirit. We can’t create it or manufacture it or force it.

We can only cooperate with the Spirit of God, the source of unity.

How do we cooperate with the Spirit in keeping unity?

With all lowliness and gentleness and longsuffering, while we bear with one another in love. Humility, gentleness, patience. Love.

In a phrase: a Christlike attitude.

Yes, I realise that’s not rocket science. Then again, many answers are indeed common sense solutions. The trick lies in acting on it.

What is desperately needed today is a fresh outpouring of the love of God upon all those who follow Christ so that, with open hearts and transparent lives, we overwhelm one another in outrageous and otherworldly displays of kindness, gentleness, humility and service.

Acts of Repentance

This is possible only…

  • as we renounce our self-serving agendas, embracing instead the King’s essential agenda of love;
  • as we reject the temptation to demonise leaders we don’t agree with, seeking instead to believe the best about them;
  • as we defect from the religious systems that separate us through structure, name or personality, engaging instead with all who love God and call on His Name;
  • as we denounce our human tendency to seek a “one-up” platform over others, purposing instead to put others first as Jesus Himself taught and modelled.
  • (any other suggestions?)

These four actions, in my opinion, are the “very least” steps required going forward.

Acts of Faith

However, repentance is only the first step. In faith, we ought to proactively…

  • resolve to (really) listen as much as we want to be heard;
  • admit our own weaknesses and failures while honouring the strengthens and successes of others;
  • acknowledge God’s grace that has allowed us to journey as far as we have to date while giving God’s grace to others, wherever they are in their journey;
  • seek the collective good of the whole, offering our contribution for the edifying and blessing of all;
  • build relational bridges of integrity and trust so that all feel welcome to participate in this engaging dialogue around the King’s table;
  • weep compassionately with those who weep and rejoice sincerely with those who rejoice;
  • realise that if the team is losing we’re all losing even if we’re enjoying a man-of-the-match performance;
  • refrain from attempting to have the final word on a matter, offering instead a humble contribution—which we make subject to counsel—to the collective wisdom of God;
  • (any other proposals?)

The Fullness of Christ

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

(Ephesians 1:22,23, italics added)

Paul painted the most outlandish vision possible, didn’t he? The above statement is almost scandalous. Because of Christ’s victory and His Kingship, the ekklesia contains potentially the “fullness of Him who fills all in all”.

He didn’t stop there. Paul went on to envision the ekklesia expressing the “manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10) and spoke of the ekklesia maturing to the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

As we keep this breathtaking vision in mind, let’s clarify what we don’t mean by unity.

What We’re Not Talking About

We’re not conforming to some lowest common denominator or some anemic, colourless uniformity.

We’re not talking about a unity event that becomes cluttered with the need to give every denomination a five-minute promo slot. (Unity events certainly have value and many aren’t guilty of this hyper accommodation. That said, unity events in themselves can’t create the unity of the Spirit even if they can be an expression of the unity the Spirit creates.) 

Nor are we talking about some mega mother church under the directorship of some super apostle.

What We Are Talking About

As discussed in What Does Ekklesia (Ecclesia) Mean?, the New Testament refers to the ekklesia in three dimensions:

(1) The Church Universal

The word ekklesia was used in the universal sense to express God’s original intent manifested through Christ’s body on earth (Ephesians 1:22, 23; 3:10, 11).

(2) The Church Local

The word ekklesia was used in a local sense in referring to all the believers in a town, city or region (1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:1, 2).

(3) The Church Communal

The word ekklesia was used in referring to a specific group of believers enjoying a shared, communal life together (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15).

So, what are our responsibilities in regard to each?

In terms of (1) and (2), our Christlike attitude—our practice of humility, gentleness, patience and love, as described in the previous section, Keeping the Unity of the Spirit—is absolutely paramount. To quote Jesus again,

…whoever is not against us is for us.”

(Mark 9:40)

In terms of (3), the Church Communal, things get a little more grounded.

The church communal speaks of doing life with a spiritual family, a group of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, in which we participate in a meaningful way.

The New Testament includes at least thirty “one another” exhortations, most of which are only consistently possible within a smaller community. For instance, we’re to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Ephesians 4:32), “be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10), “be of the same mind toward one another” (Romans 12:16), “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13), “comfort one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:18), “be hospitable to one another” (1 Peter 4:9) and “consider one another to stir up love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), to mention but a few.

It’s in this context of the ekklesia that the Greek word oikos, meaning “household or family,” is often used. Paul, for example, wrote this astonishing instruction to Timothy:

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household [oikos], which is the church [ekklesia] of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

(1 Timothy 3:15, italics added)

If you asked most Christians the question, what is the pillar and foundation of the truth?, Jesus or the Bible are the answers you’re most likely to hear.

To Paul, the pillar and foundation of the truth was a spiritual family (oikos)—a community of faith, an expression of the ekklesiamodelling and demonstrating the life of Christ together.

Notice, he’s not referring to a weekly meeting or the building in which that meeting occurs. He’s referring to a spiritual family sharing life together, serving their collective sphere of influence in the world. In a phrase, a community that is alive in the Spirit, in love with one another and on mission together.

If you enjoy the activities of a ‘big church’, whether it’s the worship services, the Bible teaching or the service opportunities, make sure you’re involved in a small group community, too. (Whether it’s called a Home Group, Connect Group, Cell Group, Home Church or whatever.)

In fact, prioritise this small group family and be intentional about your participation. These represent your primary relationships—not an exclusive set of relationships but the spiritual family to whom you make yourself accountable for growth and service.

Reasoning from the Whole to the Part

Now we come to the crux of the matter. The Church Communal is a way of life and as such, it can become all we experience of the ekklesia. Given we invest so much into these relationships, and correctly so, it’s not difficult for a faith community to become inward-looking, a bubble unto itself—an echo chamber, where we only encounter thoughts that reinforce our own.

Paul used the analogy of a body (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12) to, among other things, teach us to reason from the whole to the part.

The PART is precious and significant, yes, but it only finds its full meaning and purpose in its relationship to the WHOLE.

This is true for an individual in relation to their Church Communal and it’s true for each faith community in relation to the ekklesia expressed in the Church Local and the Church Universal.

In other words, just as you won’t fully understand your gifts and ministry until you learn to live in community, reasoning from the communal whole to your individual part, a faith community will not fully understand their purpose until they love and appreciate the wider Body of Christ.

As individuals and communities of faith, we offer one small dimension of God’s wisdom. Together, the ekklesia expresses the multidimensional “manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10).

Balancing our love for the ekklesia in all its expressions is vital if we are going to uphold the Message of Jesus. Keeping the unity of the Spirit is critical if we’re going to repair our collective integrity to a sceptical world.

A Witness to All The Nations

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”

(Matthew 24:14, italics added)

In Jesus’ longest discourse on the end times, He pointed the spotlight explicitly on the advance of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Jesus was emphatic. The end of this age did not hinge on world events like wars, rumours of wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes. While these tend to grab our attention and hog the spotlight, to Jesus they’re mere symptoms of a world out of sync with its Father and Creator (Matthew 24:3-8).

Instead, Jesus declared that the consummation of this age hinges on a demonstration of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Notice, Jesus didn’t just say the Gospel will be preached as a word (or a message or a tract or a podcast); He declared the Gospel will be proclaimed as a “witness to all nations”. (Of course, messages, tracts and podcasts are helpful tools but they’re not the endgame.)

The throwback to Isaiah is unmistakable.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

(Isaiah 60:1-3 NIV, italics added)

The prophecy foretold that nations would witness the glory of God upon His people and even kings, those in positions of power and influence, would be drawn to this light. Of course, this prophecy does not stand alone. Numerous prophecies in Scripture refer to God’s glory manifest to the world, none so emphatic as God’s declaration:

As I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.”

(Numbers 14:21)

How did God intend to demonstrate His glory?

Jesus was the catalyst.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

(John 1:14)

Jesus put flesh on grace and truth and in doing so, revealed the Father’s glory.

Let’s take a moment to consider the word “witness” in Matthew 24:14 and “glory” in John 1:14, Numbers 14:21 and Isaiah 60:1.

The Greek word for “witness” (martyrion) in Matthew 24:14 means “something evidential, a testimony,” and stems from the word for “martyr”. It speaks of more than just the message spoken but the message fleshed out.

The word “glory” in both Hebrew (kabod) and Greek (doxa) refers to the weighty worthiness of God that evokes a good opinion or favourable impression.

In other words, to put it more bluntly, Jesus gave a good impression of the Father and the world witnessed it.

Our mandate as the ekklesia is to do the same, to put flesh on grace and truth, to serve as a visual and tangible testimony of the Message of Jesus … giving a good impression of the Father.

Beyond Image Repair

The overall impression the church makes on the world today is not a favourable one. We do not give a good impression of the Father.

Jesus was known as the “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34) and gave ample cause for such claims (Matthew 9:10-13). The early followers of Jesus were known for their multi-ethnic, cross-class communities, famed for their outrageous love and acceptance.

In contrast, the church at large is known for hating gays.

While the vast majority of believers don’t hold this view, it’s not hard to understand why this impression has taken root in the public sphere. From the idea of conversion therapy to careless comments on social media platforms by immature public figures, it’s easy to see why we’re all labelled bigoted and judgemental.

The early church was known for its outrageous generosity, heroic acts of service and good deeds. Early believers advocated for the poor and marginalised of society and found solutions to the chronic orphan problem in their society. They were also responsible for the widespread provision of care and hospitalisation of the sick and the needy.

In contrast, the modern church is predominantly known for issues it stands against.

Think about that for a moment.

We are the custodians of the greatest message. A message of love, joy and hope that literally transforms the human heart and mind.

Yet we’re largely known for the issues we oppose.

While the church needs to repair its image, what’s needed is more than simply good PR.

Good Deeds Validate the Message

When reminded that Jesus was the friend of sinners, a common retort is, yes, but He told them to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

He certainly did so but such a retort completely misses the heart of Jesus.

Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to sin no more after FIRST defending her, advocating for her and showing courageous kindness to her (John 8:2-11).

He literally put Himself in harm’s way, saving her life from the mob ready to stone her. Only His courage and wisdom defused the crowd’s murderous intent. Only His love and compassion restored the woman’s dignity. And in doing so, He won her heart. She gladly received His counsel.

Until we build a platform of goodwill through genuine acts of kindness, consistent and sincere advocacy of the marginalised of society, generous and tangible support for the rights of all people, and the like, our message sounds hollow and even patronising.

The world doesn’t care two hoots what we have to say. In fact, our words only harden an already sceptical audience. There’s a lot of truth to the well-worn saying, people don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.

In a nutshell, only outrageous good works, as our new default position, will change the narrative and restore our role as a trusted voice and a shaping force for good in society.

My goodness we have a lot of good work to do. Still, we find hope in the words of Jesus.

After envisioning a new kind of believer through the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), He said:

You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

(Matthew 5:13-16, italics added)

Without a consistent and sincere demonstration of good works, our message falls on deaf ears and hardens cold hearts. Without outrageous good deeds, the Gospel appears empty.

A Missional People

As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

(John 20:21)

We are God’s missional people.

Whether we cross the seas or cross the street, go around the world or go around the block, God’s mission in the world is our defining reference point for life and community.

For some, “mission” refers to cross-cultural ministry. While that’s one valid expression of it, mission refers more broadly to our salt and light influence in the spheres of influence we already have in the world.

In fact, while cross-cultural ministry is important, just as critical is our everyday witness where God has placed us—whether this is in business, education, sports, the arts, media, politics, and so on. Your vocation, your place of work or study, whether it’s part-time or full-time, represents the place where Jesus has sent you.

For God so loved your world, He sent you!

This does mean we need to take a Bible and bullhorn to work or campus. (In fact, please leave the bullhorn at home altogether.)

Rather it means we are to model the values of the Kingdom, to put flesh on grace and truth, and to live in such an authentic and attractive way that others ask the “reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:5, 6).

Training Ground & Launch Pad

The ekklesia is both a training ground and a launch pad.

As an ekklesia, the King’s executive body, we learn to govern. Firstly, we learn to govern our own immaturity with the help of others (1 Corinthians 6:20; 9:24-27). As the wisdom writer taught, “he who rules his own spirit is mightier than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Secondly, as a faith community, we learn to govern our shared life and our collective sphere of influence (1 Corinthians 6:1-5; Hebrews 13:17). In every decision made as a community, in working through conflict, in serving and forgiving one another, we’re training for reigning.

The family of God is the training ground for character and service.

As an ekklesia, the King’s executive body, we release and support each other in our service and ministry to others. It’s from the safe place of accountable relationships that God sends us into the world. It’s from the training ground of the ekklesia that we advance the Kingdom, supported by people who are committed to us in love for excellence.

The family of God is the launch pad for Kingdom exploits.

What is in Your Hand?

It’s not difficult to feel overwhelmed. “Where do I start as a  person?” one may ask. “Where do we start as a community of faith?” we ask together.

When Moses was called to deliver God’s people from Egypt, he was likewise beset with questions and doubts. What? How?

God’s response was ingenious (Exodus 4:1ff). He asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” Moses replied blankly … and then he got it.

With that piece of wood, Moses confronted Pharaoh. With that piece of timber, Moses parted the Red Sea.

Moses started with what he had.

As individuals, we start with what we have. What sphere of influence has God given to me and what resources—time, talents and treasures—do I have to serve it?

As communities, we start with the collective spheres entrusted to us and ask the Father how best He desires us to serve it together.

A guiding rule to work by is simply this:

When you see a need, intercede. When you feel led, intervene.

In this way, we need never be overwhelmed by what we cannot do. Instead, we’re inspired by what we can do.

Grounded in a faith community and empowered in the unity of the Spirit, we serve as a missional people wherever God places us.