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The Impossibility of Unity

Why is it so difficult to get along? To come to agreement? Even a charitable reading of Christian history – especially the first 500 years – reveals a fair share of disunity, conflict, severe differences of opinion, and schism. It was not incidental that Jesus’ discourse on unity in the Upper Room loomed large in John’s apostolic memory – may they be one as we are one.

Almost daily – without effort – I compile mental catalogues of ways I disagree with my coworkers. I love these people, and we generally get along, but the gravitational pull toward autonomy seems stronger than Paul’s exhortation to the church in Corinth “to come to agreement, to end divisions, and to be united in the same mind and purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).

The great irony of Paul’s exhortation to those who are quarreling in Chloe’s household in Corinth is that he first arrived among those believers not long after a serious disagreement with Barnabas that ended with division.

Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is sound, we know, as it mirrors the spirit of agreement and unity recorded in Acts 15. That gathering in Jerusalem is vital not only to the story Luke tells about the continued mission of Jesus to the Gentiles but also to the shape of the gathered community under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

And yet this grand picture of discernment – coming to agreement by coming together to listen to the Holy Spirit – is immediately followed by fundamental, fellowship-breaking disagreement between the two lead emissaries from the council. The disagreement was so strong, in fact, Paul and Barnabas parted ways, never again to partner side-by-side as missionaries.

What happened to discernment in the Spirit? Were they not paying attention in Jerusalem?

The scenario is typical enough – one in which we might see ourselves. Paul and Barnabas have had a fruitful season preaching in Antioch after delivering the letter from Jerusalem regarding the Gentile mission, and Paul suggests to Barnabas that they pay a visit to the churches planted on the first journey.

Barnabas is on board, but wants to take with them his cousin, John Mark. But Paul objects – claiming that it is unwise to bring along someone who abandoned them on the first journey. Barnabas has not forgotten this incident, of course, but he clearly thinks it would be wise and profitable to give John Mark a second chance.

Luke does not mention who first blew his lid, but it is not a stretch to point the finger at Paul. Paul thought John Mark proved himself an unreliable companion – not fit for the spiritual, emotional, and physical rigors of church planting.

Perhaps in Paul’s mind lingered the memory of Barnabas’ earlier defection from table fellowship with the Gentiles along with Peter (see Galatians 2). Perhaps Barnabas’ willingness to trust John Mark was another sign for Paul that Barnabas was also untrustworthy – that neither he nor John Mark could be trusted to stay the course among the newly converted Gentiles in the churches of Asia Minor.

Whatever happened specifically between Paul and Barnabas – no matter who was right or wrong – we do not see here the vision of agreement and unity Paul casts to the church in Corinth, or the patient listening that leaves space for the Spirit to work and speak displayed in Jerusalem.

Luke is terse – providing no extra commentary. He simply says, “There was a sharp disagreement and they separated from one another.” Although succinct, both words “sharp disagreement” and “separated” are freighted with seriousness. The exchange seems reactionary – heated – maybe some choice words were exchanged and fists flew. This was no amicable, polite decision over a cup of coffee one afternoon.

And then the narrative continues. Luke continues to unfold Paul’s role in Jesus’ mission by the power of the Spirit. No repentance or apologies; the mission simply keeps moving unhindered. Luke does not take time to parse the particularities – he does not weigh the merits of each position – he does not analyze the personalities or ideologies of each party. There is no spectacle. The narrative simply keeps unfolding.

The juxtaposition of these two units in Luke’s narrative is striking: unity alongside disunity; discernment through mutual submission to the Spirit alongside stubbornness and conflict. For all that could be said of what is possible when believers come together to prayerfully discern a way forward, Paul and Barnabas just couldn’t work together.

It is easy to see ourselves within this struggle, but what does that mean for the disagreement and disunity cancerously spreading through community and mission in real time?

Luke is certainly not prescribing appropriate missional behavior (Acts is not a church planters handbook, after all), but neither is he a disinterested reporter objectively describing the facts. To conclude that this brief account in some way gives permission for, or passively endorses, disagreement as “missional realism” would isolate this passage from the larger theological seams and undercut the force of Acts 15.

Too often we create an idealism/realism dichotomy that evacuates the space for practitioners to embrace the impossible realities of the Spirit. We say, “discernment through mutual submission under the Spirit sounds great, but we’ve got to be realistic – some folks are just unreasonable – even Paul knew that. Yes, unity is good, but we’ve got to be practical and keep things moving.” In this dichotomy, the gravitational pull toward bald realism is always stronger.

The point is not, “Well, even Paul had disagreements so we see that he’s human like us and its okay because we’re like that too.”

For Luke, the new age has dawned in Christ and the Spirit is poured out, which means that it’s all kingdom realism, both the agreement at Jerusalem and disagreement at Antioch. Both stories, for Luke, witness to God’s kingdom in Christ advancing to the ends of the earth by the power of the Spirit.

Not only does disagreement and schism seem like a normative, almost unavoidable experience, we live in a world that feeds on stories of dysfunction with perverse enjoyment. We’ve learned to need the thing we hate and cannot escape. While we compulsively consume schism, we implicitly reinforce the dichotomy and lose imagination for embracing and entering the Spirit’s work.

But the good news is that we are only participants in God’s mission in Christ to the world. The Word is efficacious in spite of opposition from without and within. We are not the primary actors. Our inability to agree and end divisions is not okay, but it can be part of the work God does among us when we cooperate together with the Spirit.

While submitting to the Spirit together we’re invited to tell a different the story: although it seems impossible in the dysfunction of this world, God’s kingdom in Christ is still alive and moving into the far country. We pursue unity in mind and purpose because we trust in the impossibility of the Spirit more than we trust in, what appear to be, the facts on the ground.

This means that my daily struggle for unity begins with surrender to the reality that the work God wants to do is not up to me – I am not in control. Rather than leveraging the plain facts of discord for eager ears in order to gain allies in my mission against the lack of unity, I am invited to tell the story of the impossibility of the Spirit and patiently wait, watch and listen for what God has for us.

What does it mean for you?

[Image by LMAP, CC via Flickr]