The Elusive Pursuit Of Unity

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
14th May 2011

Tagged: conflict disunity unity

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Unity is power and division is death. This is true not only of society but also of business and family, of church and denomination and of politics and sporting team.

Take politics for example. Political parties are in a bind. They are usually started by people with a dream or a vision of a better way to live or to run the country. But they achieve very little without being in government and that requires convincing more than half the population to vote for them and their dream. If the population doesn’t share that dream, the party has to choose between gaining power by compromising the dream or remaining faithful to the dream and not having the governmental power to implement it.

When the party’s desire to be in government is greater than the dream - disharmony, disunity and divisions are inevitable. To stand for everything is to stand for nothing. To stand for something risks alienating people and losing some support. By soft-pedalling certain policies a party gains more adherents, but its rationale and purpose of existence are undermined. Without clear articulation and implementation of the dream, its most committed members become disillusioned and become a party within the party or leave. Sometimes this initiates a new purer party that is committed to the old dream. Recently a political candidate was asked what her party stood for.  Her reply was something like ‘a fair go for everybody, good administration and the trains running on time’. She was then asked which party she stood for, because all the parties wanted those things!

Disciplined party loyalty is a short-term strategy to get elected. It will not hold people together in the long run, except by tyranny, for unity must be genuine not institutionally imposed. Neither can genuine unity be institutionally focused. Loyalty to a club does not create unity instead it wallpapers disunity.

Unity is as elusive as pleasure; its pursuit is doomed to frustration. Unity is a by-product of right living: neither a goal to pursue nor an instrument to utilise. It’s a highly desirable outcome and has great effects but it comes as a result of other things being in place.

A key to understanding unity is to be clear on its meaning. To be ‘one’ with each other does not really explain what that ‘oneness’ is. It’s more than having positive feelings or getting on with each other.  It’s more than waving the same flag and sharing the same shibboleths. It’s more than being members of the same institution or club. It’s being of the same mind – the same view and outlook on life.

God appeals to us to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2), to “agree with one another” (2 Corinthians 13:11) and to “live in harmony with one another.” (Romans 12:16). The Greek wording of these appeals is to have the same or common mind. It’s to think in the same way. This is real unity that goes beyond the superficial wallpapering of institutional loyalty.

However a common mind will not of itself assure us of unity. Some mindsets undermine the unity of those who hold them. The ‘ethical egoism’ of Ayn Rand’s atheistic philosophy commits her followers to self interest. Sharing this mindset is not conducive to unity in anything other than the mindset. Atheism’s general leaning towards individualism tends to undermine any meaningful unity beyond letting people do as they want.

Furthermore, some personalities make unity difficult. The awkward or unsociable person may agree on every matter but it is still tricky to involve them in a group. It is so complicated to unite with odd people that many groups mistake a pleasant personality as the key to unity. Because we can all get on with each other pleasantness becomes the currency of unity and niceness becomes the new tyranny. It is the exclusiveness of inclusiveness, where people of intolerable opinions are tolerated because of their sociableness while people of agreed convictions are excluded because of their apparent unfriendliness.

It is the Christian mind that creates unity in a way that deals with the awkwardness of people. For the Christian way of thinking in which we are to be united, is that of Jesus who did not count equality with God a matter of grasping but giving (Philippians 2:5f). He gave his life, not for his friends or for moral, pleasant people but for his enemies and rebels (Romans 5:8). He gave his life for the very people who were trying to take his life. And this self-sacrificial treatment of others is the way his people are to think. For they are known as his people by demonstrating the same love for one another that he showed in his death for them (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7f). This is a mindset that makes for unity and ignores the undesirability of the fellow member. More than ignoring this undesirability the Christian will seek actively to help others with any problem they have and eradicate their own prejudicial snobbishness that would lead them to exclude those for whom Christ died (James 2:1f).

For Christian churches, ministries, denominations or organisations growth is often the enemy of unity. They try to increase their influence or their numbers by including fellow travellers as members or committee members or speakers. They hope that co-belligerency will win friends. They hope by avoiding differences they may create a new unity. They hope that belonging will slide into believing. But all these strategies have a long track record of failure. Whatever short-term gain they win is nothing compared to the long-term loss. For they always reduce Christian unity to the lowest common denominator – a gospel not worth living for, let alone dying for. Christian growth must come from our common commitment to the same mind, the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2:2).