Inward vs. Outward Unity
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Tower of Babel. Found in Genesis 11, it’s an account of how all mankind gathered to build a city and tower from which they can stay connected and meet with the gods. Now, I cannot think of that story without also thinking of seminary. Much time has passed since I graduated, but I constantly reiterate to my wife, Syd, that the best thing I ever learned in those years of intense study was how little I actually knew. The professors would warn us against “knowing just enough of the Bible to be dangerous”. Regarding the Tower of Babel, I would have readily told you it was a tale about reaching the heavens with little more application than to say, “God judges foolish decisions”. It is, on the surface, not an incorrect assessment of the situation: God did judge their foolish decision. Yet it takes into account nothing more than a surface reading of those 9 short verses.
As such, armed with a knowledge that my knowledge is lacking, I came to a book called, Promise and Deliverance to read again Scripture as a story about Jesus. Yet this time, it caused me to look at everything in a new light, for the author wrote of God’s judgment at Babel, “The outward unity is torn down to make room for true unity in the Christ”.
Suddenly, I realized the story wasn’t about judgment for judgment’s sake. Rather, it is one of grace. That is, the backbone involves seeing the twice-given cultural mandate of God to spread across the world and multiply His image through marriage and children set against the people at Babel clumping and staying. The people’s decision was – whether conscious on their part or not – a direct rebellion to one of God’s oldest and most foundational commands, and it came at a price: when we rely too much on each other, there results in little reliance on a God who operates most readily in the wilderness.
That doesn’t mean that we are better off alone – quite the opposite. Rather, if you look again at DeGraaf’s assessment of Babel, he says, “The outward unity is torn down”. Why? – “In order to build true unity in Christ”. That is, in the judgment at Babel, the Lord brought upon the wonders of culture and new languages, but His purpose was to cause the people to rely on something greater than themselves: the promised Seed of Eve (Genesis 3:15). Not only that, but immediately after the scattering of the people, the Lord begins piecing together His eternal family through Abraham (Genesis 12). Where He scattered thousands of years ago at Babel, He was preparing to gather in at the cross (John 12:32). The momentary pain was yielding eternal fruits, because should God have allowed the outward unity to stand, an inward unity that you and I now share in Christ could never have been found. That is, unless the Lord broke the reliance on the tower, the city, and each other, we would never have found His hand reaching for us in the darkness.
Here’s the reason I bring that up:
I think we as Christians need to be extremely cautious how we approach these next several months, because I think we need to make absolutely sure that God’s sovereign hand has not torn down a false unity. I am not saying that this is the wrath of God, but where the powers of evil are at work to destroy, God is busily at work rebuilding (Genesis 50:20). Personally, I have seen the Church become activated and animated during the last month in a way I have never before seen in my lifetime, but it’s more centered on our rights as citizens as opposed to our joy and duty as Christians, and it makes me wonder if this is not a call back to embracing why we gather as opposed to where we gather.
We rage against the Inslees of the world for not letting us join in worship in a building, but has he been able to lift one finger to thwart the purposes of a sovereign God? Of course not. Has he attempted? – Honestly, I don’t think so, and here’s why: there is no government in America of which I’m aware that has stopped us from reading our Bibles, praying to our God, sharing the news of Christ with our neighbor, or accessing services online. While they may not like Christianity, they have not passed legislation that bans the message of the gospel, and even if they did, it would not lessen the message of Christ.
By all accounts, it appears to me that a physical unity (gathering in one building) has been removed and little more. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that I agree with these government decisions, or that we should not lobby to meet again. This is no indictment against anyone’s personal politics. It is good to be an active citizen. However, the point is to say that while our religion should drive our politics, our politics must never drive our religion. After all, it’s easy to do several things: to conflate our American rights with our Christian freedoms, to assume that we’re owed the rights in our constitution and seeing them get taken away is akin to persecution, to assume the freedom our government has not yet taken away is a sign of triumphant blessing (where is the Church growing more? – Free America or Communist China?), and to assume that listening to our government and not gathering – when it’s not a matter of singling out the Church in an act of persecution – is a sign of weak capitulation.
What if instead of a grand conspiracy from the government to destroy the Church, the Lord has instead seen that our Sunday gatherings were becoming for us a Tower of Babel (in that we clumped together in safety instead of going out in faith), and momentarily took it away to build a greater unity in Christ? Or, what if the government is in a grand conspiracy to destroy the Church? – Does that not give us more cause and motivation to share the gospel outside of the Church building?
I challenge you to write down a list of the blessings from God that every believer in this world has - keeping in mind the countries that already keep churches from meeting, and thus removing “constitutional rights” from the equation – and see how much time and effort you’ve given to them. Compare the time you’ve spent in God’s Word to reading politics. Contrast the amount of prayer against thoughts about our political situation. Ask yourself: if God really has temporarily allowed the government to take away our outward unity, what have I done to build true unity in Christ? Have I spoken more of God’s purposes or the government’s action?
I’ll write more about this in the future, but just some scattered thoughts before I end. The first is that we here in Washington rage against Jay Inslee for not encouraging the church to gather. We compare it to his stance on Wal-Mart (“we can meet in Wal-Mart, so why not at Church?”), yet if we’re honest, did we ever expect Inslee or other non-believers in our government to see the Church as an essential business? It’s a non sequitur to assume that a non-believing member of government would have the same view of the Church as those who have experienced for years the power and necessity of meeting together. There are undoubtedly corrupt politicians, but many fall into that category of simply not knowing what they do not know. If that is the case, then instead of raging against them, the Lord has given us a tremendous opportunity to prove to the world how necessary the Church is. After all, the Apostles, when jailed or hauled before kings and governments, always used that persecution to preach the gospel in places it otherwise wouldn’t have reached.
Finally, let’s say that our rights are completely taken away: does that at any point change our daily call as Christians? We all rightly want to meet, but the sum of our faith is not relegated to where we gather. If the Church is the people and not the building, it’s time for us to get back to our roots of how to be the Church, and that once again falls into making a case by our actions that the Church is essential to our society. It is easy to worship what God has given us instead of worshiping God Himself, so when the outward unity is torn down, let’s not miss an opportunity to focus on true unity by spreading the message and fragrance of Christ.
5/21/2020 04:38:29 am
Fantastic and encouraging read, Bryan! Just what I needed and wanted to hear! I knew God had a purpose for good in all this virus mess!
5/27/2020 01:13:44 pm
We miss you, Kathleen! - So happy to hear that God used the blog to speak to you.
5/22/2020 01:31:28 pm
Love the comparison of the Babel situation with ours today. So true, that we demand our rights to get back to what we had and don't look for what God is doing, waking up a sleeping church and world to Himself and His kingdom.
5/27/2020 01:18:45 pm
Thanks Dad! - "We are not victims, but victors in God's hands". Wonderfully put! I seem to remember hearing a sermon from this great preacher recently about being "more than conquerors"...
5/25/2020 07:50:27 pm
Thanks for the article Pastor Bryan. The temptation can be to look for a political solution or rights as when the Jews were looking for a Savior to rescue them from the Romans and the Savior was right in front of them telling them about heart change.
5/27/2020 01:12:58 pm
Good insight and amen! Thanks Delbert; I hope you're doing well!
11/4/2021 08:23:26 pm
Very much appreciated. Thank you for this excellent article. Keep posting!
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My name is Bryan Lanting. I am a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, and I am presently serving Mt View CRC as their pastor. I am married to a wonderful wife named Sydney, and both of us are loving life, loving Lynden, and loving the Lord!