Combating Polarization with Christ-Centered Unity
Partners with the President with Kevin Kompelien
Every month, EFCA President Kevin Kompelien highlights stories, vision and leadership from around the EFCA in his monthly e-newsletter, "Partners with the President." This month, Kevin issued a call to unity based on Paul's call to the church in Ephesus in Ephesians 4:1-6.
More than three decades ago, I was a young pastor in Winona, Minnesota—about 33 years old—serving on the North Central District Board. The district superintendent at the time, Dean Johnson, asked me to join him on a visit with leaders of a church in conflict.
Dean had already been serving in ministry leadership for years, and, being a young pastor without much experience, I decided to glean some of Dean’s wisdom and maturity on the road trip. On the way to the church, I asked him, “Dean, when you go into these things, what are you thinking? How do you do this?" He had his response ready.
“Kevin, there’s one Scripture that has shaped how I step into difficult conversations. John 1:14.”
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, emphasis mine)
Dean focused on the second half of the verse, in particular.
“Outside of Mary, there was probably no one who understood the heart of Jesus better than the Apostle John. And John described Jesus as being 'full of grace and full of truth.’ When I go into difficult conversations, I pray, 'Lord Jesus, I want to be like you. I want to be full of grace and full of truth.' Because grace without truth is fluff. And truth without grace will hurt people."
Now 30 years later, I can still picture Dean giving me that wisdom I still use in ministry today.
We’re living in a time of great tension. Pastors and churches, husbands and wives, individuals and communities—no one is exempt from this cultural atmosphere of conflict. Margin is minimal, uncertainty is everywhere, and each day presents new, complex issues surrounding COVID-19, the church, racial justice, politics, among many other things. Even in the last 24 hours, the tension in our country has grown due to the circumstances surrounding the death of Breonna Taylor.
In America especially, we live in a polarized culture. On a countless number of topics and issues, we’re pressured to take stances—and when we do, we often respond to the other side with fear and anger. We don’t feel heard; we don’t feel understood. We feel attacked and unloved, so we respond in a way that makes the other side feel the same way.
This is our context of ministry right now. In the news, online, on social media, in the church—conflict and tension are everywhere. This is the air we’re breathing.
In Ephesians 4, after addressing the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles in chapter 2, Paul issues a call to the church in Ephesus:
"As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 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.” (Ephesians 4:1-6, emphasis mine)
In the previous two chapters, Paul lays out the gospel (Eph 2:8-9), emphasizes the oneness Jews and Gentiles share in Christ, then prays this beautiful prayer for God to "strengthen [the Ephesians] with power through his Spirit in [their] inner being, so that Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith." In light of all of this, Paul says, live a life worthy of the calling you have received. In light of this gospel, this incredible work that unites you in Christ, live a life that reflects that unity.
As I talk about in the video below, Paul makes it clear in these six verses: We have a choice. We have an option to choose unity. While God gives us “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” it’s our decision to keep it—and it requires both intentional choice and intentional effort. Unity is not just going to come, especially in the middle of tension and conflict. It's going to take some hard work.
For some, I think this idea of unity sounds like, “I can’t have an opinion. I have to give up my convictions,” but that’s not what Paul is saying. Unity is not about compromising or sacrificing truth; it’s not about downplaying opinions or convictions on certain issues. Unity is about reflecting the heart of Christ to others. It's about seeing through the eyes of others who don’t agree with you and seeing those people through the eyes of Jesus. It’s about understanding and reflecting the heart of Jesus.
Years ago, I met Darrow Miller, the founder of an organization called Disciple Nations Alliance. I remember Darrow saying to me, "Kevin, if we don't disciple the world, the world will disciple us.” If the church doesn't disciple the world, the world disciples the church. It’s a very powerful statement, and I think it gets at the heart of unity Paul is talking about in Ephesians 4.
All the things Paul is calling the Ephesians to in chapter 4 are absolutely counter-cultural: humility, gentleness, patience. These are the exact opposite of what our culture—cable TV, talk radio, social media—is saying today. So, in a sense, unity is choosing to be discipled by Jesus. It’s choosing to intentionally see the world (and the people in it) through Jesus’ eyes and to treat them accordingly. And it’s choosing to remember that our unity is based in our triune God and the power of the gospel (Eph 4:4-6).
And this isn’t just about the church. It's husbands and wives, parents and children. It's friendships within the body of Christ. In this context of little margin, significant uncertainty, polarization, fear and anger, it’s crucial we choose unity in all of our relationships.
Now, especially in a time like today, it’s easy enough to talk about unity. It’s entirely another to put it into practice. So, how do we do it?
First, we need to honestly assess our goals and motivations. Before engaging in these tension-filled conversations, let’s ask ourselves, “Why do I feel like I need to say this to this person? Is it because I need to win, because I need to be right and convince the other person? Or is it, ‘Hey, I care about you, and this really matters to me. I’d love to have a conversation with you about it’?”
Between COVID-19, health restrictions, injustice and politics, there is so much room for differences of opinion and discourse. There are people adamantly on both sides of these issues. The natural response to opposition is fear and anger, so how can we be counter-cultural? Through patience, listening and humility. Yes, we can hold our convictions. Yes, we can have opinions—those who know me know that I definitely have my opinions—but let’s be sensitive to other people.
When we hear certain phrases or buzzwords, let’s not react impulsively. Instead, let’s authentically listen, ask questions and try to understand. Let’s be humble enough to honestly seek the perspective of the other side. Let’s get to the heart of what the other person is trying to say.
Jesus Himself said that His message would divide brother from sister, father and son, daughter and mother (Matt 10:21), and yet, He spoke that truth with grace and love. We enter into many of our conversations in a defensive posture—afraid of surrendering what we believe to be the truth—but Jesus gives us a perfect, tangible example of what it means to minister with a heart of grace.
In John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another, as I’ve loved you. The world will know you're my disciples as you love one another.” Later, in John 17:22, He said, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we (Jesus and the Father) are one.” Our unity and love for each other affect our witness to the world.
In this polarizing season, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the heart of Jesus to a watching world. And unity is one of the most significant ways we do that. Unity is not uniformity. We don't all have to walk in lockstep. Unity is, “I care about truth. I care about you. And I want to see through your heart, through your eyes.” It's going to take hard work, but we have to choose to do this.
We are evangelicals, after all. By definition, we are “carriers of good news.” That doesn’t mean we don’t speak truth, but it does mean we speak the truth in love, gentleness and humility.
Many years after my road trip with Dean Johnson, I had someone else tell me, regarding John 1:14, “I don’t think it’s an accident that John led with ‘grace.’ He didn’t say, ‘He was full of truth and grace.’ He said ‘grace and truth.’” As we navigate this tension-filled season, like Jesus, let’s lead with grace and hold tightly the transformational work that unites us all together in Christ.
This content and video conversation appeared in the September 2020 edition of Partners with the President. To receive future updates, you can subscribe here.