Several years ago, Pope Francis asked me to serve in the office he entitled, “Apostolic Representative for Christian Unity.” As a Protestant, he sent me forth to attempt to bring new unity between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. Attempting to fulfill that role has been highly enlightening. The Pope’s admonition was to bring, “unity without uniformity.”
One of my discoveries has been that this is indeed a First Century concept straight out of the beginning of the Church.
The first two centuries of the Christian era had far greater diversity that we often recognize. At the same time, a fundamental unity existed across the Roman Empire. Their experience offers instruction for today. With 40,000 expressions of the Christian faith now existing along with many groups at war with each other, we need to recover what the first church experienced and practiced.
Their unity was certainly affected by Roman persecution, being a minority, and having no political power. They needed each other to survive. At the same time, a principle existed that empowered them to achieve a unity that in over two hundred years would conquer their conquerors. The Christian faith became the official faith of the Roman world.
How did they achieve such a remarkable accomplishment? They recognized that unity was both a gift and an achievement.
On one hand, Jesus taught us that we are to be one, achieved by loving each other as our standard of life (John 17). The first Christians practiced this acceptance to the point of dying for “one another.” The first step to unity was complete obedience to this principle.
On the other hand, unity was a gift. Far beyond what we can do for ourselves is what God does for us. The Holy Spirit brings a transcendent unity that is poured out on the people of God as the Creator sovereignly chooses to do. The work of the Spirit changes hearts and mind. We see each other differently and discover the bond that only God can give.
The fact that the current Pope is reaching out across all denominational lines to bring new concern and accord is inherently a gift. Immediately, after Pentecost 2017, I sat with the Pope and groups from the Charismatic and Pentecostal world as he encouraged them to seek further unity with each other and the Roman Catholic world. A jarring discovery for many? Certainly, but also a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Empowerment remains twofold: a promise accomplished through our obedience and a gift of the Holy Spirit. When we do our part, the heavenly Father pours out His enablement. The birth of the church under adverse circumstances demonstrates what a powerful result can follow.