I am regularly told that the biblical doctrine of unity is primarily about the unity of the local church, not the universal or global church. I reject this distinction as false. But I also want to challenge the notion that somehow evangelical churches are united in the way Jesus and the apostles taught.
Congregations face many challenges today but none more difficult than that posed by the American phenomenon of individualism. In a culture where fewer and fewer people do fewer and fewer communal activities our faith in Christ still calls upon us to live and serve as one. Without liturgy churches are even more prone to abject, privatized individualism being the ubiquitous sea in which the church functions week-to-week. Most evangelical churches do not celebrate weekly communion, they rarely participate in actions and practices that unite their people in mission and they infrequently pray together as a church. What is left is a large gathering of individuals who come to be “fed” and “helped” by a preacher and the music. Even when a group of leaders seeks to educate a congregation about the reasons for liturgy and community the congregants oppose the effort.
One significant problem is the pervasiveness of popular culture. Pop culture is not all bad but it tends to overwhelm everything that is ancient, distinctly confessional and deeply Christ-centered. Contemporary individualism is nourished by the day-in and day-out impact of American culture. Centuries old customs and values are replaced in a matter of minutes or days. This practice breaks down unity in a practical and palpable way.
Add to this the widespread impact of culture through the social media and individualism presents an even greater challenge to unity.
Families are smaller and smaller and fewer children grow up with any meaningful social experience with adults and children. And in a single-parent home children grow up in an individualistic environment through no fault of their own. They spend thousands of hours in front of the television and a computer screen and have little or no socialization with other bodied persons.
There are signs of hope, however. One change is being introduced through the creation of new immigrant cultures inside America.
The bottom line is this—churches face a serious challenge to the clear teaching of the New Testament about the unity of real persons in the good news of Jesus Christ. It will not be easy to change this movement but every effort needs to be seriously undertaken by our leaders.
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Somehow as a human being, no matter what the religion is, must be united. That’s the only way to prevent war. We must have tolerance.
I agree with you on your two points: Yes, the oneness of a local church can only be based on and in the oneness of the universal church; &, yes, the state of evangelicalism today does not match oneness that the world can see.
It is the oneness of the universal church as the Body of Christ and as the One New Man that compels us to be one locally as the expression of the one universal church. To take it another level, the oneness of the universal church and, by extension, the local churches, finds its source in the oneness of the Three of the Divine Trinity. The lack of vision on this crucial matter is the cause of or justification for many divisions.
Notice that the American phenomenon of individualism is so engrained in our paradigm that it is not addressed simply by pointing it out. Even though most of Scripture takes a decidedly community / collective view (God redeems His people, not His individuals), most theological thinkers today are immersed in this individualism as well.
(I am not ignoring individual salvation, I am just highlighting that the Bible emphasizes the community context (His [collective] Bride / Body) of this personal reality.)
For example, the very act of posting a non-church-sponsored blog about unity in the local parish is an expression of individualism. Sure, it is fairly innocuous and the content is even somewhat supportive of the church’s authority and role, but it subliminally reinforces that we are each called to critique. Calvin and Luther would be proud. They instituted much of this individualism.
Consider this real-world scenario: A congregant finds the sermons in his parish to be Biblically-okay, but not very expositional and not dealing with practical application for the congregation. So, the doctrine is sound, but he disagrees with the approach. His motives are “pure” and not self-centered. If he believes that there should be more liturgy and community, does he say something? If no one listens, does he look elsewhere? Or does he “unite”? Our paradigm makes these questions both significant and absurd. They [ought to] drive us to united fervent prayer, united diligent study, and united passionate fellowship. The classic individualists Luther and Calvin would see this need, too. Calls for tolerance and/or avoidance feel anti-biblical to me. Reveling in the sort of diversity of thought that cultural differences bring — as you mention — feels very biblical.