Reflections on Unity – Part 1

What is Unity?

When I type the word “unity” into spotlight on my iMac, it pulls up the following definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary:

u•ni•ty

noun (pl. -ties)

the state of being united or joined as a whole, esp. in a political context : European unity |economic unity.

  • harmony or agreement between people or groups : their leaders called for unity between opposing factions.
  • the state of forming a complete and pleasing whole, esp. in an artistic context : the repeated phrase gives the piece unity and cohesion.
  • a thing forming a complex whole : they speak of the three parts as a unity.
  • in Aristotle’s Poetics, each of the three dramatic principles requiring limitation of the supposed time of a drama to that occupied in acting it or to a single day (unity of time), use of one scene throughout (unity of place), and concentration on the development of a single plot (unity of action).

I find this definition fascinating because it shows me that part of the problem when it comes to unity in the church might well come from our poor understanding of the English word “unity”. I think subconsciously many people hear the word unity and define it as everything being the same. Thankfully, many of the entries that I read were hoping to communicate on some level the fact that there can exist an amount of diversity within unity. I’ve heard this said many times, but it wasn’t until I pulled up the definition that I realized that it seems to be embedded in the very word itself. In fact, it appears that one cannot speak of an object or a group of people being united, until it recognizes the divergence that exists first. There is not unity in a single note, there is only a single tone. However, when you play three musical notes together that create a chord, their unity is defined by the chord they create – a chord that would have been impossible if all three notes where the same.

I love the third bullet in the definition – the idea that unity is something that describes the reality of a complex whole. This is the church, and especially in the radically individualized church of the west. We not only have to try and live in unity with the church down the street that teaches something totally different about topic A, but within our own congregations we have more and more people who are declaring their intention to blaze their own trail in understanding the Christian message.

The danger in recognizing the diversity in unity is twofold. First, it opens the door for teachings and beliefs that do actually undermine the kingdom of God to be given a foothold in the church (This will be the focus of Part 2), and it can heighten the temptation of tribalism by making an allowance for denominations to become the place where, “I can be with God the way that suits me best.” (Part 3). These dangers, however, should not be allowed to force us in the other direction of demanding a singular voice and perspective to be the only voice or perspective. This, I think, has often been the way of the church and it leads to a wooden dogmatism that empowers watchdogs to decide who’s in and who’s strayed too far from gospel truth, a judgement which ought to be only reserved for God.

I for one am glad to hear so many voices speaking out for the diversity that can be found in unity. I hope that the song is heard and Christians begin the hard work of actually loving one another, even when we don’t agree.

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