In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Romans 12:5)
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)
I am convinced that our unity in Christ is not just a gospel fact (Romans 12:5), but also a spiritual discipline (Ephesians 4:3). And disciplines take work. So please work with me through this post. What Christ has accomplished on our behalf, we need to intentionally appropriate and apply to our lives together.
And speaking of together… It’s my favourite word in the English language.
Together means “to gather” or to pull into unity. Still, there is a word I like even more: and that is the ancient Greek word that is sometimes translated “together” in the New Testament. And here it is: homothumadon. I know, it sounds like a dinosaur from the early Jurassic period. Homothumadon is one of the coolest words in the biblical languages. It’s the result of two words coming together in a most creative way.
Homo means one or the same. Thumos means to snort with passion, usually a passionate rage, or an intense fury. This kind of anger goes beyond orge, the usual Greek word for anger. Thumos is an emotional outburst of anger; an almost violent eruption of wrath. And when these two words get married, their beautiful love child is homothumadon: an aggressive passion for oneness.
Luke uses this word to describe the disposition of the early church a few times in the book of Acts. And the apostle Paul uses it once, when he says:
Now may the God of endurance and comfort give you unity with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6)
Unity. One voice. Together. A raging passion for oneness. This should be us!
There are probably many reasons why Christians throughout history have lost sight of living the homothumadon life. One reason may be that sometimes Christians confuse acceptance and agreement. When we start to equate these two values as nearly synonymous, we will tend to only fully accept someone when we agree with them, or put another way, we will tend to withhold acceptance in order to communicate our disagreement. How sad! Dear Christian brothers and sisters, we can fully accept, embrace, and live in unity with those Christians with whom we disagree! As long as we follow Jesus as Lord we are saved (Romans 10:9), and therefore, we are family.
After the apostle Paul calls the church to homothumadon, look at what he says in the very next verse:
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:7)
The Greek word translated “accept” here, proslambano, means to take someone to yourself, to receive or welcome someone into your home, your world, your space, your life. And because Christ welcomed us into his love life with the Father, we are to welcome others into our lives together. In fact, this kind of acceptance can happen in the midst of strong disagreement, and it shouldn’t threaten our unity. This same word for acceptance (proslambano) is used in the Bible for how we are to accept specifically those Christians with whom we disagree, because this is how God has accepted us:
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted (proslambano) them. (Romans 14:3)
And then there’s that time when Peter misunderstood Christ’s mission to die and decided to rebuke or argue with him. Even then, the text says:
Peter took him aside (proslambano) and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 // Mark 8:22)
We know Peter was wrong about the mission of Christ, but he was right about the unity of Christ. Even in the midst of this sharp disagreement, he was pulling Jesus closer, not pushing him away.
“Now wait a minute!” I can hear some of you talking back to the screen already. “There have to be some situations where division is necessary.” Absolutely. And those occasions are laid out for us in the Bible. (As an aside: I find it interesting that whenever I speak on the topic of unity, there are some Christians whose minds go immediately to the topic of division and when to do it. If that’s you, ask why that may be the case.)
The biblical reasons to divide from someone who claims to be a Christian can be allotted into four categories:
- When they preach a different Jesus (1 John 2:18-23; 2 John 7-11)
- When they preach a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9; Revelation 1:8-9)
- When they abuse grace to assert their own will over God’s (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; Jude 3-7)
- When they have an ongoing divisive disposition (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10; 3 John 9-11; Jude 18-19)
I like that last one. We are called to divide from divisive people. Forced unity with them while they fight to divide the church will create a kind of ongoing internal damage to the body of Christ. As Paul writes to Titus:
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. (Titus 3:10)
Three strikes and you’re out, divisive people.
So there you have it. Is someone you know who claims to be a Christian actually promoting a different Jesus than the Jesus of Scripture? Separate. They aren’t family. Is someone you know who claims to be a Christian promoting a different gospel than the one preached by Jesus? Divide. They aren’t part of the same body. Is someone you know who claims to be a Christian also claiming special license to sin because God is gracious so how we live doesn’t matter? Revoke their license to sin. They should not go unchallenged. And is someone you know who claims to be a Christian continually manufacturing reasons to divide from other Christians, accusing, slandering, and creating suspicion? In the words of Jesus and the apostle Paul:
Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. (Matthew 15:14)
Come out from them and be separate. (2 Corinthians 6:17)
Yes. there are occasions to divide with other “Christians.” These categories of real division refer to people who are bent on a certain direction, away from the way of Jesus, while trying to retain the moniker of a “Christ-follower.” And when these occasions comes about, we should be clear and unreserved.
But! (And this is one big but…) we must be cautious not to lump a brother or sister into any one of these categories too quickly. These categories don’t describe one-off mistakes, or theological confusion that simply needs correction. And these occasions to divide are definitely different than situations where Christians use words differently and need to work harder to understand one another’s thoughts and hearts. The apostle Paul warned young pastor Timothy about this very issue:
Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. (2 Timothy 2:14)
Paul says there are some arguments in which, given enough time, conversation, and cooperation (not just observation), the arguing parties will realize that they generally believe similar things and are merely using their words differently. When we avoid this opportunity for understanding and persist in turning those situations into word-arguments, everybody loses. Again Paul warns of people with this argumentative disposition:
They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions… (1 Timothy 6:4)
What a relevant warning for us today. In a world where so much communication happens at a distance and from behind a screen, arguments about words can become one of the greatest distractions and distortions of the body of Christ.
So yes, there are times to divide. But be cautious as you assess those situations, always pursuing and submitting to the wise counsel of others, lest you become needlessly and sinfully divisive.
In fact, one of the sins the apostle Paul says will bar us from the kingdom of God is the sin of being a “reviler” or “slanderer” (1 Corinthians 6:10). A reviler (Greek, loidoros) is someone who tends to use their words to denigrate, demoralize, or simply injure someone else’s reputation. It is division through insult and insinuation, and falls under the category of being a divisive person that is worth dividing from (1 Corinthians 5:11). A reviler is a bully. Don’t be that person. And don’t enable that person.
Ironically, these revilers may see themselves as fighters for unity. They want to promote the unity of “us” by always pointing out the heresy of “them.” Their fight is directed outward, against something, rather than inward, for something. Their version of fighting for unity is to patrol the borders and keep the bad out, rather than focus on the centre and celebrate the good within. They are “bounded set” rather than “centred set” people. This is not the emphasis of homothumadon.
Alright, in a blog post about unity hopefully I’ve spent enough time talking about division. So now let’s get back to the topic at hand.
Sometimes we make adjustments to our pieces of technology – phones, computers, tablets, etc – and in the process we realize that we haven’t made them better but worse. When that happens, we’re glad there is a way to “restore factory settings.” Sometimes this happens with our Christian life as well. We try to make the church better by becoming hyper-vigilant watchdogs ready to divide whenever we notice someone who appears to be out of sync with our interpretation of theology, ethics, or even style of worship. When we go too far in that direction, it’s time to restore our factory settings. We were made for unity. Aside from the four and very serious situations when it is right to divide, our disposition as parts together in the body of Christ should be a snorting, snarling passion for unity, a vehement rage for oneness. Unity should be our default setting.
Consider this: many things that have a primary purpose also have a byproduct, a secondary consequence, a side-effect. Sometimes those byproducts are positive and sometimes negative. A car engine’s primary purpose is to make an automobile move, but its byproduct is carbon monoxide. Our muscles are made to help our bodies move and accomplish things in life, but when they work or exercise hard a byproduct is a buildup of lactic acid (or so I’ve heard). So here’s my point: A few years ago I started praying that the byproduct of all that I do might be increased unity, because I know unity is so important to Jesus and the church has done so poorly in this area for most of our history. A sermon’s primary purpose may be to communicate on topic “X”, but it can also have a byproduct of generating more unity or less unity in the body of Christ, depending on how a pastor presents the material. A blog post may have the primary purpose of discussing topic “Y”, but it can also produce the byproduct of generating more unity or less unity in the body of Christ, depending on the blogger’s approach. The same is true for every tweet, every facebook post, every discussion with a friend or debate with a colleague – not just what we say, but how we say it, how we approach the person we’re saying it to, and how we seek to understand, not just to be understood – all of this will contribute to a byproduct that draws Christians closer or pushes us further apart.
When Jesus had time for one last prayer before his arrest, he took time to pray for his current and future disciples (that’s us!), and specifically for our unity.
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
Jesus is betting the bank on our unity, the unity of a diverse and often disagreeable people, to demonstrate that he truly is sent from the Father. Upping our apologetics game with “Ten Evidences for the Resurrection” or “New Manuscript Evidence for the Reliability of the Gospels” while continuing to be divided from and destructive toward one another is not the answer. The miraculous unity of people who have very little in common except Jesus – that kind of unity says something to the world. And when I reflect over two thousand years of church history, I can’t blame the world for not always seeing the uniqueness of Christ. We have much to repent of.
Dear Christians, I hope we can all agree – our unity is worth fighting for.
- Our unity will please God and bring his blessing (Psalm 133).
- Our unity will bear witness to the truth of Jesus (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23; Galatians 5:13-15)
- Our unity is in tune with the reality that is the one, unified body of Christ (Ephesians 2:14-18; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 12:12-13)
So, brothers and sisters, let’s raise a glass together and cheer – homothumadon!