There is a great hymn in the Christian church that is still sung in some circles. The words are lofty, and they speak of an ideal, a Biblical mandate, but one easily abandoned.
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south nor north;
but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
In Him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord close binding all mankind.
Join hands, then, brothers of the faith, what-e’er your race may be.
Who serves my Father as a son is surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet both east and west, in Him meet south and north;
All Christly souls are one in Him throughout the whole wide earth.
H. Richard Niebuhr opens his book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, with these words: “The Christian church has often achieved apparent success while denying the precepts of its founder.”
His reference is to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers be one in unity. For Jesus’ wish in his prayer to come true demands the setting aside of human pride, and the reality is that we humans seriously resist letting that go. We are sure we are right, and even if we aren’t right, we are clear we have rights. So we divide. We divide over political lines, geographic regions, educational levels, economics, ethnicity, theological understandings, food preferences, Chevys vs. Fords, dogs vs. cats, gender, and of course, race. The famed rivalry of the “Hatfields and McCoys” is really a microcosm of the human story. We may not come to blows or shots, but the depth of dissension between groups goes deep.
I can understand this among people whose primary allegiance is to self: self-advancement, self-preservation, self-seeking, self-protecting, selfish life. But the call of Christ is exemplified in Christ’s setting self aside to seek the redemption of humanity. (Philippians 2) His body, the church, is to be his continuing incarnation in the world, the continuation of laying aside our right to be right. Setting aside our “rights” and becoming servants to meet human needs.
When a follower of Jesus acts as if their primary identity is in anything other than Jesus, to that extent they are denying their profession to be His. My oneness with another follower of Jesus, our agreement that He is Lord and Savior, supersedes my national, ethnic, racial, political, gender, and any and all other competing identities. A Christian is first and supremely a follower of Jesus who considers every other follower of Jesus, not just a brother or sister, but actually one with themselves. We are “One in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.”
Whenever we allow any of our other identities, to trump our identity in Christ, we have made that identity our idol. “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28 NLT
Our denomination is wrestling over women’s ordination, and we continue to have racially designated duplicate governance structures in half our country, and there is a new emphasis on a kind of “Jew vs. Gentile” exclusive vs. inclusive participation in the universal body of Christ.
These are Jesus’ words from John 17:20-21: "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.”
Regardless of the stances taken in our workplace, government, or denomination, we are called to a oneness in Christ. It is this demonstration of oneness that brings the world to belief that the Father sent the Son, which means we must do more than give it lip service—for we are one in Christ.
Men are not one to themselves and women one to themselves. Each gender is wonderfully unique, but in Christ they are one. And if Paul is correct in his inspired writing that the two genders are one in Christ, then certainly all other identities that would polarize must find oneness in Christ alone. Will the church of the 21st century repeat the divisive history of the past, or will we determine to walk as Christ did, lay down our rights for the redemption of many, and descend into greatness? What right is yours that you would willingly abandon so Jesus’ prayer would be answered and his followers be one?