“You’re a maintenance crew,” said an adviser to a congregation navigating a pastoral transition. “Your job is to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, as Ephesians 4:3 says.”
A unity-keeping assignment is hard enough in normal times. During the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s even more difficult. In any group of Christians, theological diversity might cause stress. Add to that our physical separation, and the bond of peace might start to fray.
In these pandemic days, no challenge is the same as before. Now we have the original problem plus coronavirus complications. The task of maintaining unity is just one example. How will our fellowship — embodied in normal times by our presence with each other — keep up its strength?
In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul refers to “the unity of the Spirit,” not “the spirit of unity.” It’s a small but important difference. The body of Christ is united by God’s presence, the Holy Spirit. “There is one body and one Spirit, . . . one God and Father of all” (verse 4). This oneness is a gift from God. It is not created by a “spirit of unity” like a school pep rally. It already exists — “there is one body” — created by God and entrusted to our care.
To practice Spirit-led unity maintenance, we begin by claiming the promise of Eph. 4:7: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” And we, in turn, extend grace — forbearance, forgiveness, tolerance, acceptance — to each other.
Here is a current example of apportioning grace in a Mennonite denomination: The Evangelical Mennonite Conference is going through a discernment process on women in ministry. In the March issue of the conference magazine, The Messenger, several writers give counsel on maintaining unity. Their advice is structured around responding to people’s “fears” about either removing or keeping restrictions on pastoral roles for women.
By putting the word “fears” in quotes, the writers intend to extend grace. EMC conference pastor Layton Friesen writes: “Sometimes we trivialize people’s genuine concerns by labeling them fears. . . . You may [say], ‘I don’t have fears. I’m just concerned. This is not an emotional reaction I am having here. It is a serious rational concern.’ ”
They resolved to take every fear or concern seriously. Like these opposites: 1) “I fear that in an egalitarian view of church, women will take over and men will fade into the background”; and 2) “I fear that in a complementarian view of church, gifted women will not be able to serve and we will miss out on what God is doing.”
The writers in The Messenger hope EMC members with different fears can dwell in unity.
Trudy Dueck of Arborg, Man., believes discussion that offers “grace and humility . . . will result in greater strength and unity.”
Abe Bergen of Kleefeld, Man., urges “giving each other the benefit of the doubt” because “not all our churches need to [be] the same, but perhaps we can ‘tolerate’ each other out of a love for Christ and shared mission.”
Emily Wiebe of Stevenson, Ont., observes it is important not only to listen “but to ensure that all of us feel heard, understood and, above all, valued and respected.”
This is true whether we are struggling with theological diversity or just figuring out how to stay united when we don’t gather in one place on Sunday.
No matter what our needs might be, simple gestures of kindness maintain our unity. A member of our church taped a May Day message to a window of our house a couple of weeks ago: “May you see something beautiful growing today. May God give you inspiration as needed. May you find peace in these unsettling times.”