With this post I am beginning a series of posts on the subject of unity in the Church which will tackle this difficult matter from a number of different angles. This first meditation, in particular, ties in perfectly with the current series on “Christ the Center” and so I am offering it now as a supplement to that one.
Unity has been a strong conviction and burden of mine for the nearly forty years that I have walked with the Lord. This conviction and burden have sprung from two undeniable and yet conflicting realities:
- No one can read through the New Testament and not realize the central place that unity holds in the plan and purpose of God for His Church. It is clearly seen in the teachings and prayers of Christ (Mt. 23:37, Lk. 11:23, Jn. 10:16 17:11, 21-23), in the nature and witness of the Church in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32), and in numerous teachings and exhortations throughout the epistles, especially those of Paul’s (Rom. 12:4-5, 1 Cor. 1-3, 12:12-25, Gal. 3:28, Eph. 1:9-10, 3:10-11, 4:1-16, etc…) This is impossible to miss.
- In contrast to this, no one can look across the landscape of Christianity today and not see the central place that disunity holds in the practice of the Church. It is clearly seen in the abundance of denominational factions, sectarian institutions, competing theological camps, and divergent spiritual movements. This is impossible to deny.
The immense incongruity between these two realities begs the questions how and why these things can be so, especially when many, if not most, of these factions own the Word of God as their “sole rule for faith and practice.” The vast disparity between the Word of God’s emphasis on unity and the Church’s unabashed practice of disunity is irreconcilable. It demands that we dig deeper to see what lies at the root of this problem, and also, how it may possibly be remedied.
A Simple (Animated) Illustration
To help us see this problem more clearly, and also its most viable solution, I’d like to offer a simple illustration. I will briefly describe the stages of this illustration, and then give its spiritual interpretation and application. In between, I have a special animated video to help with the visualization of it.
To begin with, picture in your mind a large blackboard overlaid with a large white circle having a clearly marked center in the middle of it. A circle is a rather universal symbol of unity, and so we will use it as such. Within every circle there is also one particular point that is unique to all others. That is the centerpoint. The centerpoint is the only point that is an equal distance from every point on the circumference of the circle and is also its balancing point. No other single location in a circle holds comparable significance.
Now let’s add to this picture five additional smaller circles of varying sizes with each of their centers falling somewhere within the larger circle. Notice that none of the centers of these circles are in the same exact spot, though some of their circumferences may overlap each other, and some may even extend beyond the circumference of the original circle. Each of these circles, in and of themselves, depicts an isolated unity, yet in their relationship to each other, they represent a disunity, and so the overall diagram depicts a state of disunity.
Now let’s picture the two smallest circles slowly moving over until they line up centered inside two of the other small circles. There is now one large circle, two smaller double circles and one small single circle. At this stage, we have what may look like an approach to greater unity, as two of the circles have come into alignment with another circle. If the goal is complete unity, however, this may actually represent a strengthened and more resistant form of disunity as two of the divisions have now doubled in strength.
As we continue to consider this illustration, let us picture all of the smaller circles now slowly shifting over until all of their centers line up perfectly with the centerpoint of the large, white circle. Once this is complete, the picture takes on an entirely different character. Now we have one large circle with five smaller circles of varying sizes all lined up concentrically within it. The picture takes on a very strong sense of unity. The centers of all six circles are all in perfect unity, as well as there being a balanced overlapping of the varying-sized circles. All that was needed to produce this state of unity was merely for the centers of all of the circles to line up with the centerpoint of the original circle.
There is one last phase of this illustration to consider before the highest level of unity is obtained. Please consider this picture of six distinct, perfectly concentric circles and imagine now the five smaller circles all growing in size until they enlarge to the full size of the original circle. At this point, all that can be seen is an accentuated form of the original circle and all differentiation between the smaller circles disappeared. There is only one circle now, representing PERFECT UNITY!
At this stage, this picture can actually be seen to represent four things: 1. PERFECT UNITY, with all of the circles perfectly aligned and unified, from center to circumference, 2. PERFECT FULLNESS, with all of the circumferences of the circles encompassing the fullness of the original circle, 3. PERFECT PURITY with none of the circumferences of the smaller circles encompassing anything beyond the original, white circle, and 4. PERFECT BALANCE with every circle centered in the balancing point (centerpoint) of the original circle. (Some of you who have been following this blog for some time may recognize these four characteristics having been mentioned repeatedly in earlier posts as essential attributes of the Church and the Kingdom of God. Here we see unity, fullness, purity, and balance in simple depiction!)
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To help with the visualization of this picture, I tapped the computer genius in our home, our 14-year-old son, Eli, to see if he could put together an animated version of it to be included in this post. In a short amount of time, he produced an 18-second animated short that really does the trick. Please take a brief intermission, grab some popcorn (2 pieces? 😉 ), and enjoy the show!
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Spiritual Interpretation and Application
So, how does this simple illustration apply to the unity that God is seeking in His Church? What can we learn from it? Let’s take it one step at a time…
The first thing pictured is a blackboard with a large, white circle on it. This circle represents the fullness of God. Within this circle are contained all of the particulars of the fullness of God: i.e. all of attributes, truths, works, ways, and blessings of God; or we could simply say, all of the “things of God.” This circle also has a clearly defined center, the most significant spot in the circle. All of the particulars of the circle are arrayed around this point in balanced symmetry and are all oriented to this point. This centerpoint, according to the eternal counsels and purpose of God, is the Lord Jesus Christ. (This is what is being shared in the present series, “‘Christ the Center’ revisited”.)
Christ is not only the Center of this circle, being preeminent in all things (see Col.1:18), but He is also its circumference, for Scripture says, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell,” (Col. 1:19). So, this large, white circle ultimately represents the fullness of God in Christ, oriented to the centrality and supremacy of Christ in all things.
Secondly, there are five smaller circles. These may represent either individual believers or collective expressions of the church, depending on how one may wish to apply this illustration. For this post I will focus mostly on the individual application, as this is the foundation of all larger, collective unity.
These circles are smaller than the original circle and of varying sizes, as they do not yet possess (experientially) the complete measure of the fullness of God and have differing capacities in this regard. These are also spread around with their centers located in different parts of the original circle. The centers of these circles represent that which is spiritually preeminent in their hearts and lives. For one it may be Bible doctrine, another Holy Spirit manifestations, another evangelism, another worship, and another Biblical church pattern and practice. In fact, these may center around any of the various particulars found in the fullness of God as the primary emphasis of their spiritual lives. At this stage of the illustration, although all of these are “in Christ”, none of them are yet truly and radically Christ-centered in their spiritual orientation in all things.
In the next phase of the illustration, we see the two smallest circles shifting over so as to line up, one each, with two of the other small circles. This is symbolic of how Christians tend to be drawn together and pursue unity with those who share a common or complimentary spiritual emphasis. For example, this may mean that the one whose emphasis is evangelism, may join up with the one whose emphasis is Bible doctrine, and the one whose emphasis is worship may be drawn to the one whose emphasis is Holy Spirit manifestations. The one focused on Biblical church pattern and practice might still be rather isolated, not agreeing with the “wineskin” these other groups seek to contain their “wine” in. 😉
As was stated in the original illustration, this may seem like a strengthened form of unity as believers/groups are seen coming together around common passions and pursuits. Since the Lord’s desire, according to His Word, is for complete unity among all of His people, however, this state actually embodies a heightened form of sectarianism and disunity. Because these individuals or groups gather around diverse “centers”, they may recognize others as being “in Christ” but also know that at core they have divergent spiritual priorities. These groups are more likely to be resistant to the idea of full and complete unity for they are rather content and comfortable with things as they are and cannot fathom pursuing practical unity with those who are yet quite different from themselves at the most basic level. Instinctively they know that no two circles can be truly one unless they possess the same center, and so they continue seeking practical unity only with those who they already see eye to eye with. The longer these groups persist in this way, and the more that join their number, the more difficult it becomes for this state of things to ever change. I think you will concur that this is what the Christian world looks like today, only in a much more complicated, complex, sophisticated, and fully established way.
For those living in the complexity and confusion of this stage, the concept of pursuing unity usually consists in seeking an inclusive acceptance and harmonization of the “circumferences” of the differing circles, rather than a pursuit, first and foremost, of a God-ordained alignment of “centers.” This way, however, creates an untenable situation, for many of the circles who have centers within the large circle, have their circumferences overlapping beyond the circumference of that circle and thus incorporate elements of darkness that exist outside of the fullness of God. This path of pursuing unity usually involves too much compromise and conflict to be viable, and so very little headway is made in the pursuit of unity in this way. The truth of the matter is that true, God-ordained unity will never be reached by starting with circumferences, only by starting with centers.
In the next stage of this illustration we see all of the five small circles moving towards the middle of the large circle until all their centers come into perfect alignment with its centerpoint. Once this is complete, all of the six individual centers become consolidated into one, and the five individual circumferences all line up concentrically within one another inside the large white circle. This happens merely as a consequence of the centers aligning with the centerpoint of the original circle.
When individuals and groups begin to embrace and embody a revelation of the absolute centrality of Christ according to God’s eternal purpose, their centers begin to shift over to God’s ordained Center. As a matter of course, they, likewise, come into increasing alignment with one another. Once their individual centers have fully aligned with God’s Center, a spiritual and practical unity is formed at the core of all of the circles that is indivisible. In addition to this, the highest degree of unity possible as to their present measure of spiritual capacity is also arrived at effortlessly and without need of compromise. Simply by each one becoming radically centered in the one place that God has ordained, the purest form of unity possible is obtained, given their present state of spiritual capacity, and that without any efforts towards unity even being exercised.
This leads then to the last phase of this illustration where we see the five circles growing in size, until they all expand to the full size of the original circle. When this is complete, the highest and purest form of unity exists. Not only are all six centers in perfect alignment and unity, their circumferences are as well. Indeed, now we see only one circle with one center, and these in a strengthened form than at the first.
There is a spiritual dynamic that is found when all of the centers align with God’s Center and all of the circumferences, likewise, lose their independent “eccentricities”, as in the previous stage. That dynamic is accelerated growth. When an individual and/or group radically and comprehensively centers in Christ, they center in the place were all fullness dwells. They, likewise, center in the place where the Holy Spirit and the Word of God are most intensely focused. This is where growth takes place unhindered, with all needed elements and influences most abundantly supplied in balance.
As other individuals or groups similarly move into this place and overlap with those already there, the spiritual and practical unity that develops, likewise, becomes an (inter)active agent of growth. The unified, concentric circles serve to build one another up, each one supplying to the other something of the measure of the fullness of God they possess that causes the increase of growth in both. The more circles that center in this place, the more accelerated the growth becomes for all.
This is in contrast to the divided state that existed before where the centers of the circles were oriented to disparate, secondary matters and the disunity of their circumferences caused them to be competitive and contentious with one another. In this unified condition, however, their remaining differences, due to the varying sizes of their circles, become additive rather than combative, and so foster mutual spiritual growth unto full stature.
This process continues until all of the circles come to the state which Paul describes in Ephesians 4:13-16, “…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This is the goal towards which God is working to bring all of His Body, the Church. This is the place, also, where the essential attributes of unity, fullness, purity and balance all find their ultimate fulfillment.
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Before we conclude, please take another 18 seconds and watch Eli’s animated short one more time. This time view it through the lens of its spiritual interpretation and application.
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We have a great complexity and confusion in Christendom today as the Church over two millennia has grown up and developed around disparate, limited, secondary centers. The great casualty in this has been the unity of the Body of Christ and the subsequent spiritual growth and fruitfulness it produces. The restoration of genuine unity seems wrought with such an untenable level of compromise and difficulty that it renders such a pursuit all but extinct in the Church today. A universal acceptance of permanent sectarianism and disunity has been adopted and endorsed. This, however, stands in complete contrast to and conflict with the unity of the Church that is the revealed objective of God’s eternal purpose. (See Eph. 1:9-10, 3:11, 4:11-13)
Although the real life actualization of this unity involves much more complexity than this simple illustration could ever convey, I believe it does illustrate a most essential principle for those who would seek a restoration of true unity in the Church, according to the eternal purpose of God. May we learn that unity begins, first and foremost, with a radical alignment with God’s ordained Center, the Lord Jesus Christ, and works from there outward to the circumference, not the other way around. If we get the Center right, everything else will most naturally develop and grow from there.
And so I ask,
Is Christ the unrivaled center of your personal faith, or is He merely in the spiritual “mix” but with other matters of faith having greater significance in your heart?
In your relationships with other believers, is Christ the sole ground and the primary emphasis of your fellowship or is it founded and focused on secondary and subsequent matters?
May Christ find within our hearts the central and supreme place that He eternally holds in the Heart of the Father, and in so doing, may we all come into an ever-increasing measure of unity with Him, and with His Body…from center to circumference! Amen!