Imitating Christ as a Means Toward Unity
A Review of
That We May Be One: Practicing Unity in a Divided Church
Gary B. Agee
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2022
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Reviewed by Kevin Wildman
In John 17:20-21 Jesus prays for the unity of all who will ever believe. I remember the shock I had the first time I realized the goal of Jesus’s prayer for you and I in John 17. As I read this prayer one day I was smacked in the face, because after praying that we would be one, Jesus says “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” It was then that I realized our unity or lack thereof is directly correlated to our effectiveness in accomplishing the mission which Christ gave to the Church. Here we stand some 2,000 years later and the Church seems to be anything but united. How can we reunite? This isn’t a question and quest for everything to be happy and easy. But it is a valid question since Jesus indicates that unity is pivotal for the accomplishment of the mission He left for us.
A few years ago at a retreat that focused on the psalms, we were asked to write a psalm of lament. I wrote “A Psalm of Lament for the Church in America,” and observed, “…we can’t unite on the color of our carpet—let alone our skin or politics.” The division in the Church as a whole is concerning. Even more concerning is the harsh division in congregations trying to fulfill God’s mission in their communities.
When I saw That We May Be One: Practicing Unity in a Divided Church, by Gary B. Agee, I was excited, but skeptical. My skepticism was rooted in an observation by A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God, written in the 1940’s. Tozer writes, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other?…So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified.”
Thankfully, Agee’s work is not a work centered on becoming “unity conscious,” but rather how to tune our empathy and understanding to that of Christ. I appreciate his emphasis on empathy, because without an ability to empathize with those with whom we disagree, it will be next to impossible to come to any kind of unity. This emphasis is seen as he writes, “Huddled in our fortified camps, we ascribe motives to groups we oppose, blaming them for this plight while shielding those in our group from any responsibility for the hostile state of affairs” (25). This statement alone demands introspection and time. In what ways am I guilty of ascribing motives without listening to those with whom I disagree? In what ways do I shield those with whom I agree from their responsibility in the division?
Throughout this work Agee paints some very accurate word pictures that help to identify and address the issue of disunity that the Church is facing. In the preface he observes, “Wherever you stand, you can look in any direction and see that the church resembles broken asphalt on a neglected country road, with cracks stretching as far as the eye can see” (ix). I found his word pictures to be helpful in being better equipped to help people understand the problem of division we face. One would think that the division is evident, but in my experience, regularly people seem shocked when the lack of unity is mentioned.
Often, in the face of such division we can become overwhelmed and disheartened, with unity in the body seeming like an impossible task. Agee appropriately reminds the reader, “We begin this journey with the realization that God is present in our efforts to practice unity. We do not work alone. But neither do we sit around on our hands—blind, content, and comfortable—waiting for God to change our stoney hearts” (xi). It is a comfort to remember that God is present in our work and we don’t work alone. Yet, it is also a necessary reminder that God has called us to do work, not just be passively waiting for division to miraculously disappear.
However, I was also somewhat disappointed. While Agee seems to address the unity of the Church universal, he neglects the unity of individual congregations. I understand the need for this unity, but at the same time, it seems to me that if congregations cannot be unified within themselves, it won’t be possible to be unified within the Church across the nation, or across the world. Congregations are divided over buildings, music genres, and types of seats. When people who love each other are divided over trivial choices like these, how will it be possible to unite over larger matters?
Toward the end of the book, Agee writes, “New programming or other taxing initiatives need not be the first step in the process of more faithfully living out Jesus’ call for unity” (107). As a minister, the idea of a “new initiative” is almost always a stressful thought, which makes this assertion from Agee a welcome one.
That We May Be One is a work that has much to offer the Church today. While I’d hoped to see unity talked about more from the congregational level, there is much to glean from this work. And even though Agee focused on larger division issues, it wouldn’t be hard to craft them for local congregational issues. The book is also replete with impressive word pictures and examples from faithful Christians and their experiences. Each chapter also includes exercises to practice. Though this work may not be the silver bullet to fix 2,000+ years of divisions, every step forward is helpful. Furthermore, we must remember that there is no singular thing to fix the division we face. Yet the work of unity is imperative for the Church’s mission. May we commit to pursuing Christ, and tuning our lives to Him, in order to find ourselves closer. As we do this, let’s use That We May Be One as a tool to help in this endeavor.
Kevin Wildman lives in west central Indiana with his bride and their five children. He is a pastor and football coach, as well as an alum of Lincoln Christian University (B.A. Preaching 2008 and M.A. Spiritual Formation 2014). He enjoys running and has completed two full marathons. When it comes to reading Henri Nouwen is his favorite author.