Summary: God’s ultimate goal for us with Him is oneness, and the flesh fights against this in ways that aren’t always obvious. We constantly have to be on the lookout to make sure our differences (which are good and pure) don’t cause divisions.
We’re all familiar with the call to unity in the church. It’s plastered throughout the New Testament. Right before Jesus died, he prayed for one thing above all else – that His followers would be one with each other and with Him just like He and the Father are one.
But let’s talk for a minute about the go-to strategy the enemy uses to threaten this. After all, it’s very difficult to guard against division taking place when you don’t recognize what you’re dividing over.
The flesh separates us
The thing we have to realize is our flesh contains within it the instinct to exclude. In its desire to make you feel important, special, and superior, it leads us to behave in ways that separate people into an “us” and a “them.”
Although there are more obvious examples that can stick out like a sore thumb – like “I am a leader” and “You are not a leader,” there are also less obvious examples as well, like…
- we can afford this and you cannot afford this
- we have children and you don’t have children
- we are educated and you are not educated
- we are gifted at this and you are not gifted at this
- we have been here a long time and you have not been here a long time
- We are women and you are men
- We’ve seen The Office and you haven’t seen The Office 🙂
A typical commercial airplane is a great example of how the world embraces this principle. They divide the plane into two sections – first class and coach. First class has one bathroom for 10 people. Coach has 2 bathrooms for 200 people. They even use a curtain to divide the two groups. If you’ve ever flown coach, you’ve taken the coach walk of shame through first class. If you’ve flown first class, you’ve felt the pride of being a special traveler. First on the plane, first off the plane. Headphones, a glass of wine and a moist toilette before most people in coach even reach their seats.
Now I know what you may be thinking – “Hey, wait a minute. Are you saying there’s something wrong with flying first class? It’s totally fair if one person wants to pay more for a better, more comfortable seat and better service while they’re traveling than someone else. It’s just a business transaction.”
And you’re right. There’s no issues with flying first class, because you’re not trying to build healthy Kingdom community church life on an airplane. It also wouldn’t be an issue if one felt a personal conviction regarding this matter though.
Jesus does the opposite
In every group, big and small, there will constantly be challenges with the fleshly instinct to divide into “us” and “them.” Why? Because seeing others excluded from our special group makes us feel more important.
In the book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them, John Ortberg gives us two great examples of this playing out with Jesus and the disciples.
In the first example, the disciples James and John actually straight up asked Jesus if they could have a more important place with Him when He became King (remember they thought He was setting up His Kingdom on earth). The other ten disciples were ticked (Mark 10:35-45). Jesus responded by basically saying, “Even I don’t ask to be special. In fact, I do the opposite.”
In the second example, a Canaanite woman (who were the Jews bitter enemies) came to Jesus to ask him to cast out a demon. Jesus responds by telling her that He was not sent to earth for lesser people than the Jews. She was not only a Canaanite, but also a woman (double whammy). He was testing everyone of course, because the disciples still thought they were a part of a special race & gender (there’s a difference between being set apart and being special). He said “It is not right to take the children’s (Jews) bread (Jesus) and toss it to their dogs (Canaanites).” She replied “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
In the end, the disciples failed the test. They asked Jesus to send her away because she was not part of their special race & gender. They thought they were traveling through life in first class. But the woman passed the test. She didn’t buy in to the belief that she was 2nd class. She believed that the Lord was for her as well.
Differences vs. divisions
Now we must remember that we’re not talking about differences. Differences and divisions are not the same. Differences enrich community enormously. Divisions tear it apart. Differences are beautiful when they are treated equally. Divisions are ugly when there’s special treatment for specific people.
We’re also not talking about the harmony that must exist in group members’ relational spaces. Being closer with some people than other people is not division, it’s a difference. You only have room for so many people inside of each of the 4 relational spaces (read the post to better understand). But even so, this doesn’t mean you treat the people you’re closer to with special preference. In fact, it just may be the opposite. Because you know each other so well and understand each other’s hearts better, it’s probably more appropriate to make more of an effort to serve and include those outside of your personal inner circle when you’re all together or in other appropriate contexts.
As we can see, this is pretty much what happened with Jesus and the disciples. James and John were in Jesus’ inner circle among the 12 disciples, but when they tried to get a special place with Him in His Kingdom, he rebuked them because it was a fleshly move.
Our responsibility as disciples of Christ is to protect and build unity; making everyone feel like a vital part of Christ’s body on earth (because they are!). To do so successfully, we’ve always got to keep watch for situations where the enemy is trying to sneak in delicately and deliberately to create little dividing walls of hostility among us. Then we’ve got to deal with them swiftly. If we don’t, we’re bound to be torn apart by them.
In bigger institutional churches, the little tears can be glossed over as people rotate in and out of the institution held together by it’s machinery. This is a classic sign that you don’t have healthy church life because in healthy church life, the church is held together by relationships. When the relationships are torn, the church is torn. In this context, glossing over these subtle divisions will likely blow things to pieces sooner or later if not dealt with.
The go-to strategy? To create divisions out of our differences.
The rest of the posts in the Nobody’s Normal series are here.