by Don Watson
Early in our marriage [Back when toothpaste was in those metal tubes] my wife and I had some interesting “conversations” [Not arguments, mind you] about the “proper way” to squeeze the toothpaste. I “properly” squeezed the tube from the bottom in an organized, orderly fashion, always keeping it smooth and full by rolling up the empty bottom portion … unlike my beloved, who grabbed the tube any old way and squeezed it right in the middle, mutilating the beauty of its smooth appearance.
I discovered, however, that this was not the only thing we did differently. I was loud and outgoing; she was quiet, shy, and quite reserved. She disciplined our children by distracting them from what she felt was inappropriate and refocusing them on something more appropriate, while I confronted them and demanded immediate obedience. I discovered that we were opposites at just about everything, and both of us have had strong opinions that our opinion about the matter was right opinion. But in spite of our differences, we have always been deeply in love – she is my best friend and I value her opinion more than even those who I know agree with me. I’ve discovered most of us married couples have ended up with a spouse who is really opposite in so many ways to what we are. So I began to rethink my ideas of unity.
Suppose in my household, I required not unity, but uniformity: My wife must always agree with me, do things the way I do them; believe what I believe; discipline the way I discipline; squeeze toothpaste the way I squeeze it? Is that unity or uniformity? In fact, wouldn’t it be true, that by requiring uniformity (With no respect to what the other person believes) I destroy unity and any kind of loving relationship? Wouldn’t this kind of coercion destroy our love? My wife would never feel that I respect her opinion unless it agreed with mine. The only freedom she would feel that she had was to do it “my way or the highway.” Unity is not agreement; it is an atmosphere of love and acceptance regardless of the diversity of opinions or practices. That kind of love – that accepts others exactly as they are – is powerful to bring us together. And when God brings us together, His Holy Spirit can open our hearts to the ideas of other Godly men and women and more powerfully impact our lives for change and transformation. Godly unity embraces difference and diversity. If that difference of belief and practice is not allowed, if there is no freedom among us, if uniformity is required, unity cannot exist, transformation and change will not take place, and the world will not see disciples of Jesus.
Jesus did not say, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you agree with one another,” but “if you love one another!” (John 13:35). Unconditional love that accepts people exactly as they are, with their sins and fallacious ideas,is the basis of Godly unity. That Unity, is what Paul was talking about when He spoke of “reconciliation” (Romans 5:10); “While we [all] were God’s enemies, we [all] were reconciled [past tense] to him through the death of his Son.” Jesus unified us by reconciling us to God. In other words He took away our condemnation. We didn’t all accept HIM at Calvary, but the Divine Trinity in Jesus accepted US! And it is that kind of acceptance, that kind of goodness, that reconciles us and draws us back to God (Romans 2:3-4). That all are forgiven and accepted as children of God is the basis of our unity. If we do not mirror that same kind of Godly unity, that same reconciliation toward each other, we will divide each other, alienate each other, and (again) the world will not know that we are His disciples!
One of my dearest friends sends me political articles with which I strongly, vehemently disagree. But I love Him – why would I want to require him to agree with me in order to be acceptable and qualify for my friendship. How would I make him feel if I only allowed him to express opinions that we agreed upon. Do I not care about all of who he is? Do I not love all of who he is? Do I only love that which I agree with? Can he not share everything with me without fear of condemnation? Only a love that totally accepts produces unity that truly binds us together. For us to require agreement would be a violation of God’s love who died for us “while we were sinners.” God didn’t agree with our lifestyle or sins, but He loved us anyway exactly as we were (Romans 5:6-10) and THAT drew us to Him – that reconciled us! His acceptance of us is the source of our unity. Isn’t it true that plenty of people may be in agreement but be absolutely devoid of any love for each other? The Pharisees and Sadducees hated each other, but most were in total agreement that Jesus must die. They were definitely unified, but there was nothing Godly about it. In fact it was satanic. We must guard the source of our unity. Let us never forget that the source of our unity with all men is the fact that all of us were accepted by God“While we were sinners.” (Romans 5:8) It’s interesting, in verse 7, Paul says, “Rarely would any of us die for someone else, but, on occasion, a few of us might possibly die for a really good person, but (Verse 8) God commends HIS love to us this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (My paraphrase). God’s love saved us WHILE we were in total disagreement with Him – actually enemies. This is our model for unity. Jesus justified sinners (Romans 5:9), redeemed sinners, forgave sinners (Ephesians 1:7), and give us sinners eternal life by dying for us on the cross. Think about it: God has 6.5 billion of us on this planet. We are all different! There is no uniformity! We all look different, talk different, act different, think different, learn different, believe different, and sin different. In fact, God created us free because He only wants love to be something that is given with no coercion. So He dies for us – takes away our condemnation – takes fear out of the equation. Otherwise it would be impossible for us to come to Him out of love and love alone. If God were to require uniformity, fear is reintroduced, love is squelched and unity destroyed!
God loves diversity: He doesn’t require black people to talk or walk or sing like white people, or whites to dance or jump like blacks. He doesn’t require Chinese people to only speak Japanese, African natives to dress like English gentlemen. He loves all colors, all languages, all cultures, both genders, the different ways we eat, think, talk, act, worship and love. God loves diversity. For years, we required everyone to learn exactly the same way: by listening to a teacher explain how to do this or that. Now, we know that everybody learns differently [Think of that!]. Some people have to hear it, or see it, while others have to touch it and experience it. Our personalities are Sanguine, Melancholy, Phlegmatic, Choleric and all kinds of combinations. So are we surprised that we do things differently, believe differently, and love differently?
So what does all this mean when it comes to Adventism – the way we as Adventists operate and do church? Our problem is that we start with Adventism and decide who Jesus is by looking at what we as Adventists already believe or practice, instead of starting with Jesus and allowing Him to change our life, church, denomination, teachings and practices. Jesus is the cornerstone of our lives, not Adventism. Our doctrines, and policies, and history, and traditions are not the cornerstone – Jesus alone must be our chief Cornerstone. Everything has got to match up with Him. It’s all got to come from Him. We must carefully compare each stone we lay in our lives, businesses, churches, and denominations with Jesus the chief Cornerstone. We must not do it backwards by starting with our church, or using our denomination to explain who Jesus was. Jesus accepted people exactly as they were. He had perfect trust in the power of His heavenly Father to either change them or neutralize them without force or coercion. We all, leaders and laity alike, must do the same thing. This has radical implications: We must trust God and His way of doing things: That His love, grace, and power will either cause change or neutralize those people who we may think are wrong in their belief or practices. Certainly, I believe there are times that wicked, hurtful, ungodly sinners and religious, self-righteous Pharisees who wound and condemn the broken need to be driven from the temple and their power neutralized, because they keep others from experiencing forgiveness and salvation. But ostracizing and condemning wounded, broken people, intimidating those whose opinions on spiritual matters differ from yours, minimizing another person’s life, culture, gender, race, or religion never changed anyone. Jesus constantly included people, brought them into the unity of loving acceptance, the soil of His unconditional love, and in that soil, the seed of His truth grew. They started loving Him. He did not bind them to an institution, a set of proof texts, or distinctive denominational doctrines, but to Himself and a real, intimate, nothing hidden, relationship with His Father. The Truth was a Person. He wanted everyone He met to know the radical love and acceptance of His Father. It was that Truth lived out by Jesus that got Him killed. We MUST watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, which is Hypocrisy!” (Matthew 16:6) Hypocrisy condemned others as apart from God because of their violation, sin, or difference of belief, when the truth was – the Pharisees were miles away from any semblance of a relationship with God. Jesus’s love for all sinners, (That meant prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors, gentiles, Samaritans, women,-and probably homosexuals and Muslims if it were 2012!) attacked the entire doctrine of the church in His day. To allow Jesus to live was to destroy what the church was all about – it’s very essence. There is no doubt; we would still kill Him today. We choose everyday to either allow Jesus’ life in us to reveal the Father or we protect our institutions, traditions, and beliefs.
The Divine Trinity calls us to join them in loving people like Jesus did. He persistently taught people the Truth about Himself and His Father but never forced them to look at His teachings the same way He looked at them – and He was God. He simply kept healing and loving and repeating His stories and lessons of unconditional love for sinners. Then He allowed the Holy Spirit to do His work of conviction and conversion. We are not God, yet we think it our prerogative and duty to protect God’s church by intimidating, and in many cases, forcing others to believe the doctrines, rules, policies and practices (something God would never do) rather than allow people the same freedom that Jesus allowed. We simply think the Holy Spirit cannot do His job without our pressure and intimidation. We are all too often more interested in being distinctive than following Jesus. If we must make a choice between following Jesus or the church we follow the church, because (we are convinced) what the church believes and teaches is who Jesus is. We have made something else our chief cornerstone.
Whether in our homes, our businesses, our churches, or denominational leadership, we must never allow force, intimidation, pressure, or condemnation to characterize our leadership or witness. “By this shall all men know that we are the disciples of Jesus, that we love one another.” This is the essence of unity. For too long, we have been a church of uniformity: We all went to church on the same day, taught the same prophecies, believed in the same doctrines, upheld the same standards, ate the same vegetables, abstained from the same bad habits, and went to the same schools. We have been obsessed with our name, our teachings, and our church. We are all too often arrogant and proud that we are Seventh-day Adventists. How would we like it if we (along with all people from all other Christian churches) were simply known as followers of Jesus, or people who love sinners like Jesus did? We could still keep the Sabbath and even believe the same doctrines, but Jesus would be our Cornerstone. Everything would be about a personal relationship with Him. We would lift Him up. Jesus lifted up sinners, the poor, the sick, the condemned, children, women, and those who were trampled upon by the religious leaders of His day. He wanted them to know they were loved.
That’s unity in Christ. May we do the same.