Monday, August 20, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (3)



It is common for public Christadelphian prayers from time-to-time to include a petition for Unity in the brotherhood. The requests are no doubt genuine and are almost certainly modelled on that of the Lord himself: “I pray ... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20f). Why then have these prayers apparently gone unanswered?

One of the most beautiful descriptions of brotherly unity in the Scriptures is Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” The Psalmist (almost certainly David in this case) provides two similes of that unity:

1. It is like precious oil poured on the head of the High Priest (Aaron), running down to the bottom hem of his priestly vestments;

2. It is as if the dew which falls on Mount Hermon (in the far north of Israel) were also falling on Mount Zion (in the south).

The fittingness of these symbols is fairly obvious. The anointing oil ‘united’ the High Priest’s head with the bottom hem of his clothing because it was poured in such abundance that it ran the full length of his beard and vestments. The symbol of the High Priest in particular is chosen because the other priests were only sprinkled with oil.

The dew on Mount Hermon was also noted for being particularly abundant. Delitzsch quotes a traveller who wrote “Nowhere in the whole country is so heavy a dew perceptible as in the districts near to Hermon” [1] . A natural feature of the land is that an abundant dew, preceded by warm days, might be diverted to Jerusalem by the cold current of air sweeping down from the north over Hermon. Hence, the whole land is united, symbolically, by the abundant dew.

The Psalm emphasises two important aspects of unity. First, the Psalmist three times uses a Hebrew word literally meaning “to descend”:
“It is like the precious oil that ran down on the beard ... going down to the hem of his garments; like the dew of Hermon coming down on the mountains of Zion”.
This is to emphasise that the source of unity is from above and that it descends on the brotherhood. In other words, true spiritual unity cannot be generated by a groundswell from below. It does not matter how we try to engineer it, or plan it, or negotiate it. Unity can only come from God. Then, the Psalmist reminds us that this unity is abundant (like the oil or dew in the similes).

To experience this unity in the Christadelphian brotherhood we must first acknowledge that it can come only from God and not through human endeavour. And then we must set out to discover this experience which God is prepared to provide abundantly.

William Barclay makes several valuable points about the passage in John quoted above. He asks:
“What was that unity for which Jesus prayed? It was not a unity of administration or organization; it was not in any sense an ecclesiastical unity. It was a unity of personal relationship ... a unity in which men loved each other because they loved him, a unity based entirely on the relationship between heart and heart.” [2]
He further comments on the failure of ecumenism to achieve this unity in Christendom. His comments are also applicable to the failure of the Christadelphian brotherhood to achieve unity:
“Christians will never organize their churches all in the same way. They will never worship God all in the same way. They will never even all believe precisely the same things. But Christian unity transcends all these differences and joins men together in love. The cause of Christian unity ... has been injured and hindered because men loved their own ecclesiastical organizations, their own creeds, their own ritual, more than they loved each other.”
Tragically, it is true of the Christadelphian community that men have fought harder for the preservation of a particular Statement of Faith, or explanation of one, or for a certain style of worship, or hymn book, or manner of dressing, or one ecclesial organisation or another, than they have for the unity or peace or harmony of the Body itself. If these efforts had been focussed on preaching the Gospel what a different story could have been told!

If, then, our prayers for unity have not produced peace and harmony within the Body is there anything we can do in order to pray more effectively? Some of the Scriptural teaching on prayer is relevant here.
  • Jesus taught: “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).
It is clear from this that our own forgiveness is conditional on our willingness to forgive our brethren for “anything”. Yet, when we read some of the literature and much of the correspondence which passes between ecclesias we see an unwillingness to forget what our brethren have said or done in the past. Some brethren or ecclesias seem to be unflinching in their determination to extract a recantation from others, and quote in lengthy detail from past letters or conversations, analysing it line-upon-line and word-by-word, to make a brother “an offender for a word”. [3] Their fervour to preserve ‘the Truth’ as they understand it may well be at the expense of the brother or sister ‘for whom Christ died’ whose preservation seems to be secondary to the conserving of a dogma.

The practical demonstration of a love which reconciles is FORGIVENESS.

So then, if we are to pray more effectively for unity in the brotherhood we must begin with a willingness to forgive our brethren for the pain they have caused us in the past, for the unkind things they have said about us, for the misunderstandings, the battles of words, the entrenchments behind indefensible positions, and all the other reminders of our humanity. And we must do this even if our brethren are unwilling to reciprocate with their forgiveness of us!
  • James may have had the Lord’s words in mind when he wrote: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). There needs to be an admission of fault on all sides, and a realisation that both individual and communal ‘healing’ are dependent on an open and honest confession that we have not treated each other well. Prayer must then begin to focus on the needs of others, especially those from whom we have been estranged.
  • If we read Paul’s prayers for the churches in his various letters we will notice that he makes a habit of praying for others. His prayers are always positive and include thanks to the Father for the contributions made by others. Note the repetition of thankfulness in these prayers:
  1. “I thank God for all of you” (Romans 1:8).
  2. “I always thank God for you” (1 Corinthians 1:4).
  3. “I have not stopped giving thanks for you” (Ephesians 1:15).
  4. “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3).
  5. “We always thank God when we pray for you” (Colossians 1:3).
  6. “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers” (I Thessalonians 1:2).
Even those churches which caused Paul real heartache are remembered in his prayers with thanks. When was the last time we prayed for our brethren in that way, especially those who oppose us over some issue? If we get into the habit of thanking God for all our brethren we will force ourselves to focus on their positive characteristics and the contribution they are making to the service of God.
  • A useful model for prayer is to commence with PRAISE, to follow with THANKS and then to continue with INTERCESSION or PETITIONS. The following is one suggestion for applying this model to our prayers for our brethren and community:
PRAISE - focus on what God has done for the brotherhood, observe His hand at work among us for ‘the perfecting of the saints’, and praise Him for what He has already accomplished with us. In doing so, we should include in our prayer praise for what God has achieved through those brethren with whom we have a difference.

THANKS - list those things which our brethren have done for which we can be grateful. We should even thank God for conflicts and differences of opinion if they help us to re-examine our own opinions or attitudes. In doing so we will help to produce a positive result from these experiences.

INTERCESSION - this is praying for the needs of others. By praying for others before praying for own needs helps us to keep our own wants in perspective and enables us to look for ways of serving each other. Having prayed for another person the inevitable consequence is that we will want to help them. However, we must be careful here not to tell the Almighty what other people need and then proceed to give it to them. The object of this type of prayer is to become sensitive to the needs of others and to look for the Father’s leading in how we may help to accomplish His purpose with others.

PETITIONS - or requests for help. We should include requests for the Father to help us in overcoming our prejudices and preconceived notions about our brethren. We need help in trying to understand the points-of-view of people with whom we differ, and in developing an empathy for their needs. We may need help in being able to forgive, or to apologise for past actions or words.

Any prayer should stimulate the person praying into action. We cannot pray that God will achieve such-and-such and then sit idly by and want no part in the accomplishment of it. I believe that if we are to pray communally for unity in the Body then we must also pray for it individually, perhaps in the ways I have suggested, with a genuine concern for our individual brothers and sisters in all ‘fellowships’ and branches of the Vine. We will not need to work for an artificial unity of organisation or administration, because the unity which descends from above will transcend all differences, being a joining together of true disciples in love.

[1] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 3, William B. Eeerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, 1973. p 319.
[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 2, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1975, p218. (His emphasis).
[3] This expression is from Isaiah 29:21 and, in that context, referred to those who cross-examined their brethren in such a way that they could turn their own words against them. I am reminded of being questioned at length by the Arranging Brethren of one ecclesia who wanted to determine my understanding of the word “at” in clause 24 of the BASF!