The view from Lonedell: How can we achieve unity?
The writer, who grew up in San Francisco, was one of the first people to become members of the Radio Church of God in that area in the 1950s, when there was no San Francisco church. He attended the University of California and Ambassador College, graduating from the latter in 1964. He worked in mail processing and personal correspondence at AC until 1973. Mr. Stough married in 1966 and has one grown son. Mr. Stough and his wife, Scarlett, operate an electronics service.
By Bill Stough
LONEDELL, Mo.-I once knew a pastor who was concerned about church unity. When he was transferred to our area, he immediately set about unifying the congregation. He replaced a pastor who had resigned when his version of New Covenant theology was deemed unacceptable to Pasadena headquarters. That theology included no need to observe the Sabbath-and this was in the 1970s!
The new pastor had strong feelings about what unity was. Ideas like his, which came from what he was taught by the ministry over him, still affect us. They seem to reside so deep in the psyche of the ministry and the lay membership that they just won't go away.
We need to bring them out and openly look at them for what they really are because there's a problem with them.
Unity in those days meant we all would "speak the same thing." We were all to walk behind and "support God's apostle," no matter what. "God's government on earth" was to be obeyed and was the chief doctrine of the New Testament.
The general membership was expected to march in lockstep in unison behind its commanding officers, who were the "chain of command" in the ministry. We were in effect in the military, and and ours was not to question why; ours was but to do and die.
The minister set up rules and rigorously enforced them. Submission to him, he said, was the proof of whether we were right with God. He warned the brethren that they had better not think any thoughts that were contrary to what he said, or God might crush them for rebellion.
He disfellowshipped and publicly "marked" anyone who missed three successive Sabbath services. Dozens were disfellowshipped. His version of unity meant doing what he felt was right for the church, and he wanted people right with God.
The issue for us is whether these concepts of unity are right, because they're with us still. They're deep within the heart of much of the church today, even if they have receded below a conscious level. They still profoundly affect us.
This minister pastored our church for only a few months before Pasadena transferred him, but when he left the now-much-smaller congregation was unified.
Or was it?
Those of the brethren who remained were afraid to say anything. They were afraid even to think anything. They were afraid. They were afraid of their minister and afraid of thinking because God might condemn them for thinking contrary thoughts.
Others of the brethren grew angry and bitter because of how they had been dealt with. Many kept their feelings under cover for fear of what could happen to them if they didn't.
We had a congregation of people who strove to wash the outside of the cup. They no longer spoke openly with each other. They had to be careful.
From God's perspective, is this really unity? Have you had experiences like this?
Conformity vs. unity
There is a difference between godly unity and church conformity. People in your church may expect you to act a certain way and have the same line of conversation they do.
And if you don't? You are probably a pariah.
Romans 14, however, says differences of opinion on nonsalvation issues are to be allowed. We can't all be the same.
Will we be willing to forfeit our lives as the early apostles did if all we do is conform to each other and the basic drives of our lives are no deeper than that?
We can have deep conversion only by direct unity with God Himself and by holding personal convictions that are rooted in individual Christianity. We need to be connected to God to make it. Groupthink won't help us if our eternal life is on the line.
Do our behavior and conversation change when we talk to leaders in the church? Do we find ourselves trying to conform? Is that telling us something about ourselves?
The story of a vine
Let me illustrate something by a vine that grows up the back of my shop every year. It grows quickly and attaches itself to the bricks and masonry as it grows. If I don't do something about it, I will soon not be able to use my door.
At first I tried just pulling the vine off, but it was so strongly attached I couldn't. Then it occurred to me to cut the vine at every place where it is growing up from the bottom and just wait.
When I first cut it, nothing happened. It stayed green and strong, even though it had been cut off from its source of strength and nutrients.
But after a day or so it started turning brown, and after a week it was dead. It had no strength whatsoever. I easily pulled it off the wall.
This teaches us something about what true unity is.
Christ the Vine
According to John 15:1-6, the Vine is Jesus Himself, not the church. We bear fruit, and our conversion occurs as we draw nutrients directly from God. This is spiritual and has nothing to do with church conformity. It is in fact something the unconverted mind can't grasp.
Christ describes the church as a spiritual organism, not a physical organization. When we are connected with Christ, we are not intimidated or fearful (1 John 4:18). We feel secure and become sound-minded (2 Timothy 1:7).
This does not square with the unity I described at the start of this article. That unity is just as much a counterfeit as a $20 bill printed on a Xerox machine.
There is something deep here that is hard to put into words but which every true Christian knows. When a minister points us directly to God by teaching us how to pray, or by showing our need for God, then true unity happens.
When he points you to himself or other humans and away from God, unity is broken, and its counterfeit is introduced.
Every converted Christian has the feeling of a sense of oneness with their brethren, even though their personalities may be vastly different. This oneness happens because he has come upon someone with the same mind: a changed mind, a mind that thinks like Christ does because it is Christ's mind.
A minister can give a sermon that makes you feel connected to God. The same unifying thing is happening: The individual may not be able to state in technical terms what is taking place, but he senses a oneness.
If a minister incites fear and inspires anger, the Christian feels something is wrong, although he may be confused about what is wrong.
These phenomena are explained by these scriptures:
n"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18).
n"And when he bring out his own sheep, he goes before them: and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet, they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers" (John 10:4-5).
n"I am the good shepherd and I know my sheep, and am known by mine . . . My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:14, 27).
Love is the predominant characteristic of converted minds. It sets us apart; it makes us different. The concern we have for one another identifies us as Christians (John 13:34-35; Romans 12:3-6, 9-10, 16, 20; Philippians 2:2). We have the same love. We are of one accord, of one mind.
Some of us have spiritually survived year after year by carefully thinking about what we hear and by even being quietly critical. We may not have always had the most righteous frame of mind, but God has never walked away from us for that.
It is not sinful to question what we hear.
Make the effort
We must let the Bible be our guide, which means we must take the effort to learn it. It is not sinful to read multiple points of view such as THE JOURNAL presents.
I know many ministers who are adamantly opposed to THE JOURNAL because it contains "unapproved" writing. They are really saying that they may lose control, even though they have trouble looking at it that way.
Christ gives us the spirit of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7) and will give us discernment if we ask. We should not allow others to think for us.
We will have real unity when we mature into Christ's mind from a direct connection with Him, the True Vine. We must recognize counterfeits and resist evil. Remember the Vine.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God