It’s good to be part of a church that celebrates who we are—a diverse body of believers in Jesus Christ, our risen and soon-coming Lord!
Years ago Leslie Flynn penned a book called Great Church Fights. Flynn describes the real-life story of a young father encountering his daughter and several playmates in a heated quarrel. When he intervenes and separates them, his daughter retorts, “Dad, we’re just playing church!”
We laugh, because this is how we are. We know it’s true. And strangely enough, churches are sometimes better known for fighting than for love. How can our church change that? How can we, sisters and brothers in more than 200 countries all over this world, be a loving unity instead of an awkward, and even warring, diversity?
The words “unity in diversity” are ones we are forever hoping to achieve. But how do we keep our unity when we disagree? Happily, Jesus shows us a way to Together that works even for people who disagree sometimes.
Many in the church believe that it is our beliefs—the cognitive knowledge that we have—that distinguishes us as Christian Seventh-day Adventists in the world. It is, they suppose, the unique doctrines we believe, our theology, our keeping of the Sabbath, our diet, or our belief that hellfire is not an ever-burning fury. This is what makes us stand out as Seventh-day Adventists in the world. And there is much to be said for sound doctrine, as Paul warned his protégé Titus (Titus 2:1). Nothing we say about agreement matters if we unite for the sake of heretical beliefs. So our Adventist doctrines are not here being questioned.
Nevertheless, while I certainly believe all these doctrines with all my heart, and I’m so grateful for the picture of God it allows me to understand, Jesus challenges the assertion that it is our beliefs that distinguish us from the world. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35). By your love, Jesus says, people will be able to tell that you are my followers. By your love people will recognize that you are with me and not with the world.
Some may ask: Is something so basic and simplistic as love enough of a Christian witness? The question reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13. That most famous love chapter tells us that we may speak in the tongues of men and of angels, have the gift of prophecy, have faith that can move mountains; we can sacrifice ourselves to feed the poor, and give up our very bodies for noble reasons. But if we have no love, we have nothing. We can have an amazing structure, we can have sound theological discourse, we can have conspicuous tithe increase, and we can have exceptional church programs. Yet if we don’t have love, we have nothing.
As this chapter says, love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. And above and beyond any list of virtues we may manage, exhausting all our detailed articulation, love simply never fails.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn of this love, God’s love? For this love that is His love simply never fails. Our love fails even more often than appearances allow. Without this love that is His love, we have nothing: nothing personally, nothing to offer to our families, nothing to offer God’s church, and surely nothing to offer to the world.
Still, how do we love the person across the table, across the room, across the hallway who disagrees with us, who is different from us, who challenges us? The love we refer to and aspire to is no commonplace experience. In fact it is a broad, long, high, and deep reality that we may come to know that, at the same time, “surpasses knowledge,” and fills us with all God’s fullness (Eph. 3:17-19). And it is the experience of this love within the body of Christ that provides the world with the evidence Jesus claims will prove that we are His followers.
Here are His own words in John 17:20-23: “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.”
Jesus is explicit, logical, and categorical: When we stand together in the unity He prays for here, the world will know He came from the Father; the world will know that we are in Him; the world will know that His love is in us; they will know that we have found the road called Together. And through that witness of ours the world will know of His love for them.
Evidently Jesus knows that we would have a challenge finding this road. We are not naturally this way. We do not automatically love. At least I don’t. There’s a reason Jesus prayed for this. He prayed for us. He knew that we would wonder how this Christian life actually looks lived out. What terms we use, and who does what and how. We would wonder about the body of Christ functioning in real life—what it should look like, unified in its diversity. So Jesus gave us the answer. He gave us the gift of love that binds us together, through His sacrifice.
Imagine if your spouse or sweetheart gave you a gift and you said, “Thanks, honey,” then forgot it on the dresser, unopened. It wouldn’t make any sense! The love of Christ is often the church’s unopened gift. Andat this time in earth’s history—and the history of our own church, struggling with multiple and differing perspectives across the globe—it seems more essential than ever before, to exalt Jesus’ love through our witness of complete unity. It seems imperative that Adventist leaders, and members everywhere, show the world and ourselves what it looks like to live a Christlike life, and live in positive relationship with others who share our faith, regardless of differences in gender, race, age, cultural background, and personal convictions.
Many Adventist administrative leaders once served as pastors. Maybe, like me, they sometimes had members of the body challenge them more than others. As a local pastor, I am still there. There are church members who challenge me on points, not pertaining to our church’s message, but rather particular details of church procedure. Sometimes it’s a call, at other times it’s a letter of criticism. Jesus’ words on love and complete unity seem to particularly apply to how I treat such persons. By His incarnate presence in me, I am able to love the one who is different, and this is how others may know that I am Jesus’ disciple.
If Jesus is in my heart, if He has been allowed to capture every thought, it will show in how I react and respond to others around me. For my actions will flow out of the abundance of my heart (Luke 6:45). My speech, seasoned with grace, will give everyone the most loving answer (Col. 4:6). As Ellen White notes: “True love is not merely a sentiment or an emotion. It is a living principle, a principle that is manifest in action. True love, wherever it exists, will control the life. Thus it is with the love of God.”* Not so much by our knowledge, then, will neighbors tell the difference. I dare to say that the knowledge and truth we have matters little to many who do not believe as we do. But the way we treat each other certainly matters.
Recently the literature evangelism group Pennsylvania Youth Challenge conducted a nine-week door-to-door program in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania, meeting many people who do not share their beliefs. Sixteen-year-old Joan was one of the students involved in the program. One day she met a man who said, “I’m not interested.”
“That’s OK, sir,” she said. “Can I show you anyway?”
He allowed her, and she proceeded to share with him every one of the books in her hand. At the end he said, “I won’t be getting a book from you because I’m an atheist.”
Joan quickly responded, “Sir, you were kind to me. You listened and let me share with you what I had. You showed me God’s love, and I want to thank you.”
The man was quite surprised and responded in a way that surprised Joan: “Here, pick any one of these books, and I’ll get it. I promise you: I will read one of your books because of how you treated me.”
They will know us by our love, Jesus tells us. Joan loved, and what some might have said was impossible—getting an atheist to read a devotional book—turned out to be possible. To which Jesus comments: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Today Jesus invites us to walk the road named Together. He calls on us to show His care and unity by living His love. We may do it by looking to Him, the only one who can save us and give us the ability to love in a way that both transcends and embraces our many and varied differences. We must embrace and embody the love of the gospel, for this is our greatest witness. We mustlove more than strive to win our arguments. We must love people more than trying to emphasize our differences. We must walk the road named Together, rather than each of us trying to carve out rival and separate paths.
After 40 years of labor side by side on adjoining farms, two brothers fall into conflict. Months of hostile silence follow, until one morning a handyman knocks on the older brother’s door, looking for odd jobs. “Yes, I do have a job for you,” the brother says. Pointing toward the creek separating the two farms, he continues: “Last week there was a meadow between our two farms until my brother bulldozed his way to the river levee, leaving this creek to divide our land. I want to go him one better. I want you to build an eight-foot fence between our properties. I won’t need to see him or his farm anymore.”
The carpenter responds, “I think I understand.” The older brother readies the supplies, and leaves for the day. All day the carpenter measures, saws, planes, and builds. About sunset the farmer returns home to see the carpenter completing his task. His jaw drops, for the carpenter has not built a fence at all. Instead, he has spanned the creek with a bridge.
Then, imagine the older brother’s surprise when he sees his younger brother standing on the bridge, hands outstretched: “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done. I’m amazed. Thank you.” They meet one another in the middle, embracing in a spirit of reconciliation. Turning, they see the carpenter hoisting his toolbox on his shoulder.
“Wait!” says the older brother. “I have many other projects for you.”
“I’d be glad to stay,” the carpenter responds, “but I have many more bridges to build.”
Let us join the Carpenter today, building bridges and a road named Together, as we journey to a place we shall share with Him and each other forever.
* Ellen G. White, in Australasian Union Conference Record, June 1, 1900.