In the New Testament, Paul, Peter, and other authors paint word pictures of the church as a body, a family, even a building. In each image, the parts form a single entity. Pluck any individual from the whole, and you’ll find all kinds of unique characteristics, but together, the church exudes a grand sense of unity. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be.
But at the time when the apostles wrote, the church functioned quite differently, divided over by things like ethnicity, race, gender, social position, vocation, wealth, and marital status, to name a few. Today, the church looks no different, especially if we add political affiliation, sexual orientation, and regional distinctions to the mix. We could point to the thousands of denominations around the world as evidence of the schisms, but the problem goes much deeper than that. Within individual denominations and even churches, Christians divide over many of the same issues the New Testament church faced, and unity feels more like a far-flung fantasy than the promise the Bible presents it as.
Given both these realities—substantive unity and functional division—I’ve begun to imagine another word picture for the people of God: the church as a prairie. Drive into Prophetstown State Park near my home in central Indiana, and you’ll find yourself dazzled by the sprawling prairie landscape’s ubiquitous glow, regardless of the season. In spring and early summer, the prairie is soft green; in the fall, the tall grasses float in a purple haze. Come winter, the plants bend and fall, and the prairie turns a muted flaxen color, except when snow softens the tangle of stalks and stems. Then the prairie is white for miles, the horizon smudged into the pale sky.
Despite the appearance of a single mass of color, to walk into the prairie is to immediately recognize an ecosystem that thrives on diversity. Though individually each of the plants—like Switchgrass, Little Bluestem, Great Blue Lobelia, and Rattlesnake Master—exists as a botanical masterpiece of color, structure, and size, together they form a landscape unmatched in beauty and sustainability. But for all its beauty, the prairie hovers near extinction, the frequent target of developers who plow up grasses and flowers and drain wetlands to build shopping malls and subdivisions. Prairies that survive excavation struggle against invasive species, bee decolonization, and chemical exposure from nearby farms.
Just as the biodiversity of prairies paints a picture of God’s unified church as it’s supposed to function, unhealthy prairies exposed to a myriad of external and internal threats reveal church unity as it actually is: endangered. But what can be done?
In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that God intended His worshippers to come from all the nations of the world, even though it seemed as if the nation of Israel alone was being preserved as His chosen people. But it wasn’t just that Israel didn’t understand God’s plan. When Paul uses the word mustérion (“mystery”), it implies the need for revelation. It’s like a secret handshake you learn only after initiation into a club. And it is only in Christ that the secret was revealed: “The mystery of Christ … was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:4-6 NIV).
Even though the mystery has been revealed, many of us don’t seem to get it, either. We can recite verses that tell us God’s love for the world drives His plan for unity in the church, that people from every tribe and tongue and nation will circle God’s throne in heaven one day. We read that “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11) and praise God that we’re included in the list. But when we look at believers from every corner of the world, across time and space, we don’t see one church. We see clusters and groupings, preferences and opinions, and different priorities and boundaries that separate and divide.
It’s kind of like looking at a prairie for the first time. I haven’t always thought prairies were beautiful. When I first drove into that state park near my home, it seemed like an overgrown meadow in need of attention. But with research and conversations with naturalists, I now understand the restored landscape differently. And though its beauty looks like a wonder of nature, it’s a landscape that is preserved through tremendous effort and resources—the same kind of work it takes to preserve unity in the church.
In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out for us the basis of our unity: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6 NIV). In other words, unity exists because of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But He invites us to participate in the work of maintaining, or preserving, unity among us.
Paul says unity is part of our calling as members of God’s family (Eph. 4:3). Just as the mystery of Christ was revealed to him, he is revealing it to the Ephesians and ultimately to all believers. We, too, now have the responsibility “to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery” (Eph. 4:9 NIV). Then he warns the Ephesians that living a life worthy of the calling takes humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance (Eph. 4:1-2)—necessary acts of love in a community that celebrates differences as a matter of principle. Paul wants to drive home the point by urging diligence, or striving, in preserving the unity of the Spirit (v. 3).
The easy thing to do, maybe even the natural thing according to the wisdom of the world, would be to divide up, to call sides and form cliques with the people who are just like us. But in Christ, we don’t belong to that world anymore. We’re part of Christ’s body, we’re members of His one family, and we’re living stones being built up into a single spiritual house. And the unity we share is similar to a prairie being restored to its inherent beauty. It’s like a treasure unearthed and protected. Or a secret—one that’s meant to be shared with the entire world.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft