I like the story of the man from the Northeast who was in the South for a conference.
He went to a diner for breakfast and asked for eggs, sausage and toast. As the server brought the order, the man noticed a little white puddle on his plate.
“What’s that?” he wondered.
“Grits,” she replied.
“What is a grit?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes and said, “Honey, they don’t come by themselves.”
Neither do Christians who are trying to be devoted followers of Jesus. Instead, we connect in a community.
This has been the commission of Jesus from the very first days. He drew his followers together into a community and said to them, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christians, honey, don’t come by themselves!
From the earliest days of the church, our challenge has been living together in a community of love. After 2,000 years, this challenge has not grown any easier.
The culture today is divided by politics, ideologies, generational differences, economics, race and the list goes on. The church cannot avoid these cultural differences.
S. Lewis wrote, “The Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities, but the Body of Christ, in which all members, however different, (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.”
How can we live together as a community of love in these very divisive days?
I love how Ephesians 4:2-3 says it. In this great epistle about the church, we are instructed to relate to each other in the church “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.”
Notice the words. We are not called to have a “spirit of unity.” But that does not sound right! Let me say it again. We are not called to have a “spirit of unity.”
Instead, we are called to have a “unity of the Spirit.” That is what the third verse says. The difference between those two phrases is not just semantics; it is a matter of focus.
A “spirit of unity” focuses on unity. The goal is unity. When this occurs, several possibilities exist.
Sometimes we can get so discouraged before we even begin. We look around and see diversity and animosity and declare that we will never all come together on anything.
A second possibility is to force uniformity. Not the same thing as unity, uniformity is sometimes seen as the next best thing.
The way to achieve uniformity is for someone to declare, “It’s my way or the highway.” Those who agree will stay; those who disagree will leave. Uniformity is the result.
A third possibility when unity is the focus is the fear of conflict. If unity is our absolute goal, then we will go to great lengths to avoid any conflict that might disrupt the unity we desire so much.
In the long run, this is not healthy for a church. It leads to a lack of courage and conviction.
As Christians, we are called to have a “unity of the Spirit.” Do you see the difference? It is a matter of focus or priority. The focus is on obedience to the Holy Spirit, and unity is simply a byproduct.
The number-one priority of this approach is to focus on the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We seek the presence of God with us in a daily commitment to live “by the Spirit” not by the ways of “the flesh.”
The focus is not on unity but on the Spirit. When the focus is on the Spirit, unity comes to us even in our differences. The same lesson can be learned from another area of life.
The Atlantic Monthly told about superstar tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti performing together in Los Angeles in its November 1994 edition.
A reporter tried to press the issue of competitiveness between the three men. “You have to put all of your concentration into opening your heart to the music,” Domingo said. “You can’t be rivals when you’re together making music.”
The same is true of Christians who “put all of our concentration into opening our hearts to the Spirit.”
The great missionary E. Stanley Jones said it so well. “Talk about what you believe and you have disunity. Talk about Who you believe in and you have unity.”
That is what “unity of the Spirit” means. What will be the focus of your church?
David Hull is the southeast coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches and lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. He was previously the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches blog and is used with permission.