The call to pray for unity is often heard in the church. Paul’s words about being “one body” are often echoed, and even though his thoughts are sound, achieving unity is a far cry from being accomplished.
Of course, the best way to attack this problem is to start at the local level, or right where you live. I can do nothing about the churches in Kansas, but I can try my best to promote unity within my own church here in Southeastern Colorado.
Unity in the church, as with any other organization, is important. In 1858, the future president Abraham Lincoln spoke before the Illinois Republican State Convention. In reference to division of the country on the issue of slavery Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This echoed Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:25 when he said, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
This is true for a country, a household and yes, even the church. The Holy Spirit will not miraculously hold a church together if the people do not choose to be unified.
So how can the church get there?
In his book “Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation,” M. Robert Mulholland writes about four stages of the Christian journey that fit well in this instance.
The first is awakening, which occurs when we become aware of some part in our lifestyle that is not Christlike. Our positive response results in the second stage, purgation. This is when God begins to deal with our unlikeness. The next stage is illumination, through which the new person that we are becoming begins to emerge and becomes a benefit to others. The fourth stage, union, is when we experience wholeness and a oneness with God because of the healing that has taken place.
The first two stages are crucial when it comes to church unity. I believe that the church has awakened to the problem, but we have not responded well. As a result, we have not moved to purgation and without this stage there is no hope of illumination and union.
The steps in purgation are unpleasant at best. Mulholland says this involves renouncing blatant sins and willful disobedience. It means that we become aware of previously unconscious sins and omissions and that we begin to allow the Holy Spirit to change “deep-seated structures of being and behavior.” This will then result in a deeper trust in God.
In other words, the church will not become unified until we repent of that which causes us to not live in unity. The moment members of a church body become defensive about their part in the lack of unity, the progress of purgation is in serious danger of ending. If it ends, then the problem only gets worse.
If we are to become unified, the entire church body must commit themselves to change no matter how unpleasant. I think that when we see churches show real growth (i.e. winning souls to Christ), this process is taking place and God is honoring it.