The Funny Thing about Unity

It might mean something different from what you think.

Shawn Boonstra
The Funny Thing about Unity
The 61st General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Americas Center Convention Complex, St Louis, Missouri, USA, June 6-11, 2022,

The cry for unity is not only an Adventist or Christian phenomenon. As much of the planet falls into chaos and ever sharper polarization, many voices now plead for unity in the political and social realms. More and more people, however, are despairing of realizing it. “I think we’re starting to give up hope that we can heal this nation,” one man recently told me after visiting a political convention that left him deflated. 

Perhaps demonstrating genuine unity is now one of the many things that the Adventist Church has to offer a world in crisis. Not that you’d know it from watching some of the debates that unfold on the floor of the General Conference Session. A broad divergence of viewpoints occasionally drives genuine emotion at the microphones, and even a minor wording change in the constitution or bylaws can spark several hours of passionate debate. 

Regardless of the appearance of conflict on the Session floor at some moments, I usually leave the Session with renewed confidence that we have done things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40),* to borrow a phrase from Paul, and that we are, in fact, united. 

Conflict Is Inevitable

Human conflict is inevitable. Consider the average marriage, where just two people attempt to navigate life together. Sinners are broken human beings who possess an imperfect and incomplete understanding of the world. Put several thousand of them together to make a decision, and of course the microphones are going to heat up once in a while. This doesn’t mean, though, that the church isn’t united. 

Conflict resolution is evident throughout the Bible. In Acts 15, when the lead church in Jerusalem heard that Paul was “recklessly” bringing Gentiles—pagans!—into the fold and apparently disregarding Moses, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Uncircumcised heathens were coming into the church! This controversy meant that the apostles had to use up valuable time and resources to convene an executive committee. Don’t miss the language: “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them . . .” (Acts 15:6, 7, emphasis supplied).

Conflict Isn’t New

Much dispute. Back when I was a new believer, I thought that if the apostles could be resurrected to witness some of our larger church meetings, they would be shocked and dismayed by what they heard. I now suspect they would feel right at home. We tend to place a halo over the first century of the church, assuring ourselves that it was the one and only golden age of Christianity (with lesser hagiographies written of Luther, the Great Awakening preachers from America, and the nineteenth-century age of global mission), but it simply isn’t true. Much of what Paul included in his letters to the churches exists because the church was at war over something.  

Reread the Pauline epistles with a fresh pair of eyes and see what you find. The horrific nature of some of the problems in the Corinthian church will stand your hair on end, and you can nearly hear the tears in Paul’s voice as he says to the Galatians, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6, 7).

To the Colossians, who were dabbling in some sort of proto-Gnostic heresy, Paul wrote, “I want you to know what kind of great conflict I have for you” (Col. 2:1).

Then Luke drops a rather remarkable story into the book of Acts almost immediately after the triumph of the Jerusalem Council. Barnabas was determined to include John Mark on Paul’s return assessment tour of new churches to “see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). Paul was underwhelmed by Mark’s previous performance and didn’t want him. “Then the contention became so sharp,” the Bible tells us, “that they parted from one another” (v. 39).

Do you know what’s missing from that story? Any kind of rebuke from God. They simply went their separate ways. It’s an instructive tale for those who might wish to display unity by coercing everyone to work together on the same project in the same way. Sometimes that’s just not going to happen, and that’s OK. Even though it’s not the ideal, apparently you don’t have to make everybody get along. 

Interpersonal disunity, in other words, isn’t going to catch God off guard, and neither is it going to stop the church from ultimately accomplishing the task God has given it. 

This isn’t to say that reconciliation isn’t important. The New Testament underlines that need quite emphatically. But what it doesmean is that when some people rub each other’s “fur” the wrong way on a continual basis, it might just be OK not to push them together into the same arena. 

A Pure Church?

I would loveto believe that the great controversy is an us-versus-them issue, where the saints stand in purity against the rest of the world, all singing from precisely the same page at the same moment. Two thousand years of Christian history, however, puts a question mark over that. Yes, it’s true: the church is the object of Christ’s supreme regard. He considers her to be His unblemished bride, and in the closing moments of earth’s history God’s people are united on Zion, delivering the three angels’ messages to the world with one voice. There’san expectation of unity.  

But there’s not an expectation of homogeneity. I find it interesting that when the camp of Israel pitched their tents around the sanctuary, they did it by tribe, each one flying its own standard, which described the particular traits of those people groups. In the center of the camp was the Most Holy Place, where God’s presence dwelt, and each of the tribes—as different as they were from one another—was considered attached to His throne. Similarly, the gates of the New Jerusalem have the names of the tribes over the doors in the walls—three names on each side of the city, as it was in the ancient camp. The names of the apostles are underneath, engraved in the foundations.  

Is this a clue that although we all approach God’s throne from a different direction, we become one as we are attached to His presence? Is it OK to retain your own personality and perspective—albeit continually corrected by God’s—and consider yourself as one with others?  

Christianity is not an Eastern mystic cult that demands that we utterlyabandon our individuality to join the great “oneness of the universe.” Yes, it demands that we put self on the altar, just as Christ did, but it doesn’t require that you disappear. You are to become more sanctified, certainly. You are to become more like Christ, for sure. But you are not required to disappear. 

Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about the problem-plagued first-century church is that God chose to illustrate its work to John with a white horse (Rev. 6:2). White was the color of purity found in the priest’s robes and in the white hair John witnessed on the glorified Christ’s head (Rev. 1:14). The litany of problems this first generation of the church had is long and troublesome, and yet John saw the church with a bow and a crown, going out “conquering and to conquer” (Rev. 6:2). 

Preach to Every Creature

How effective was this church? When Paul wrote to the Colossians about their considerable problems, he almost casually mentions something profound: “If indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven . . .” (Col. 1:23).

When he mentions “every creature under heaven,” he is likely referring to the Roman Empire and perhaps a few barbarian tribes known to exist on the periphery—the known world of its time. But still, consider the import of that statement. Within a single lifetime our ancient ancestors in this faith delivered the gospel to everybody, and they did it without television or radio, social media or YouTube. They did it on foot, working one-on-one with countless thousands of people. They did it by walkingto the next city and declaring it in the local synagogue or arena or by the river or in a believer’s home. 

In one lifetime

These, the bickering disciples who stilldidn’t quite grasp everything Jesus was trying to teach them before He returned to heaven. These, the quarrelsome apprentices who wasted Jesus’ time by arguing about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. These, the ones who forsook Jesus and fled when He needed them most. 

Those people. One lifetime. On foot. The whole world.  

I used to worry that the disputes that emerge on the floor of a GC Session meant that we were dangerously careening off course. I do believe that disputes should be settled; that personalities can often be counterproductive; and that we should strivenot for homogeneity but for genuine unity of purpose. We can always do better. But the fact that we are human—very human—should never be cause for discouragement. After all, the gospel does teach that God can make gold out of our very human dross. 

God isn’t stymied by our imperfection; in fact, that’s kind of the point. He’s glorifying His own name not because of who we are, but in spite of it. 

“We know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28), Paul famously wrote to the Romans. You’ll notice that he didn’t say all things are good, because that would be disingenuous. Many people love chocolate cake, but watch a small child who mistakenly thinks that all the ingredients must also be good and shoves a spoonful of cocoa powder into his mouth.  

That’s us. We’re the cocoa powder. On our own, we taste repulsive. But in the hands of God, what comes out of the oven at the end of the day is something only He can produce when hampered by our imperfections. 

What we see in front of the microphones is supposed to be like this, and it isn’t catching heaven by surprise. What matters most is that when this is over, that we are all standing next to the Lamb on Zion and taking our orders from Him. 

* All Bible quotations are taken from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Shawn Boonstra

Shawn Boonstra for Adventist Review