One of my college professors proclaimed something like this: “Christianity is more concerned with unity than uniformity.” It took me a few years to attempt to unpack that comment and, truth be told, I’m still wrestling with it. It’s not that I don’t believe it; I do. But I find this saying hard, because so many other Christians seem to cling to uniformity, not unity, as their basis of belief.
Have you ever paid attention when tragedy strikes, especially in the social media-driven age in which we live? Buttons and stickers and frames can be added to your social media profile claiming, “We’re all ______ (choose your cause),” in identification with the latest of human tragedies. Even as I type this column, the twitter-sphere is awash with outpouring of sympathy for Parisians and Catholics around the world who are watching, seemingly helpless, as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burns. There is something about tragedy that stirs our hearts and consciences to want to identify and unify with those in pain or in grief.
Unfortunately, though, after the funerals are completed and the news cycle moves on, the sense of unity fades quickly and is often replaced by uniformity. Somehow we retreat from embracing those who are different than us or who believe differently than us, and we charge straight ahead with an exclusionary view that demands engagement only with those who look like us, think like us, or believe like us. We move quickly from unity to uniformity. Uniformity calls us to cling to the idea that we all need to be and believe the same in order for the kingdom of God to be on earth as it is in heaven. Uniformity, while well-intentioned, often devolves into fundamentalism that declares “difference” to be a curse word. If you ever hear of a group, especially in Baptist life, calling for everyone to believe exactly the same thing (beyond confessing that Jesus is Lord), for scripture to be interpreted only in one specific manner, or for a set of religious practices to be enforced from which no one can deviate, you can bet they are seeking uniformity and not unity. Most clearly, the fundamentalist impulse finds home in the interpretation of scripture. By using the Bible as a cudgel to beat into submission those who differ in opinion from us, we are clearly going against the biblical call for unity.
As Paul is journeying around the Mediterranean setting up house churches or encouraging existing churches to follow his interpretation of Jesus and the Gospel, he is confronted with fractured congregations in diverse settings. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul exhorts the community “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3). He continues on naming the different roles in the life of the church that contribute to the body’s growth. Elsewhere, in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul compares the church to a body, with each person making up a part of the body and noting that each of our parts has a role to play and that in our unity as one body, we should thus care for one another.
As Baptists, we are nothing if we do not embrace unity. Our polity doesn’t allow one church or one organization, even a good one like CBF of Georgia, to hold power over another. There are no top-down directives that dictate how any congregation should be governed or how it should live out its calling from God. Our emphasis on church freedom, as Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden has named it, means that our Baptist witness in Gospel work in our communities and around our world can happen only if we work together in unity.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia believes in and embraces unity. Our congregations and partners in ministry are many and varied. Some are large, some small; some urban, some rural; some lean a little to the left, some a little to the right. And yet, through it all, we unite in the common purpose of living out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandments. Our differences do not weaken us; they strengthen us. We can learn to see the world and our faith in new and good ways by working alongside those whom we don’t know or who may be different from us.
In the days ahead, there will be plenty of opportunities to practice our unity. Coming at the end of this month, is our Senior Adult Retreat, when senior adults from around our state gather for a time of worship, learning, and fellowship. My friend, Dr. Chris George, pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, will be leading our time together, focusing on “Rediscovering the Word.” At the end of May, Hardwick Baptist Church is hosting a CBF Dawnings Retreat, where congregations looking for a way to dream new dreams and see new visions of ministry can gather to explore these callings together. The first week of June, congregations around our state will gather with congregations from Florida and Alabama to work in the Florida Panhandle, which is still reeling from last fall’s disastrous Hurricane Michael. And then in the middle of June, we will gather with sisters and brothers from around the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship world in Birmingham, Alabama, for our annual General Assembly. All of these events, and nearly everything we do, are based upon COOPERATIVE unity. We firmly believe that by working together, we can best live out God’s call for us and our work in state and beyond. I hope you’ll join with us in the spirit of unity, dear sisters and brothers.