Out of the Many, One
In the title “United States of America,” the emphasis is necessarily on the word united. When America was in its infancy and seeking to establish itself as a sovereign nation, it faced many challenges, not the least of which was that King George of England was not interested in letting his colonies in America go free. If these colonies were to establish themselves as a nation apart from British rule, they were going to have to do so by defeating the most powerful army on the earth, namely, the British Army. To do so, it would have to pull together a formidable army out of a scattered rag-tag group of colonial militia. Yet, perhaps the most daunting task in this mission was the pulling together thirteen separate colonies and convincing them of the need to rally around a single vision and mission. This would not be easy.
Each of these thirteen colonies had been established with its own sense of autonomy and the rhetoric for revolution had only fueled the autonomous spirit. Yet, the Fathers of the Revolution understood the necessity of the unity of these colonies. Therefore, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were commissioned to develop a seal around which unity in colonies could be fostered. The seal that they suggested contained the Latin phrase e pluribus unum — out of many, one.
The revolutionary call to freedom had the ability to unite in the midst of diversity, and the now ubiquitous e pluribus unum captured it. While the phrase identified the brilliance of our nation’s architects, the understanding of unity in the midst of diversity is something the Lord Jesus Christ prayed for and accomplished nearly two millennia prior.
In a real sense, e pluribus unum is the prayer Jesus prayed in John 17:20–23 where he asked the Father concerning His disciples that “they (the many) may all be one.” This is rather remarkable when you consider that Jesus knew the disunity among them and the disunity that would arise in the early church. Yet, Jesus prays because the unity for which He prayed is the unity that He would purchase.
Unity of the faith was created by Christ. It was indeed purchased by Him on the cross and validated in the resurrection. We don’t achieve it as much as we recognize it and seek to maintain it (Eph. 4:3). Yet what is the centralized focus of this unity? With so much diversity in expression within the universal church of Jesus Christ, how are we to understand the unity purchased by Christ, and how are we to be eager to maintain it? I believe we find the answer in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
As the apostle Paul took up pen to write to the church of Corinth, it would seem that he was writing to the church today. The divisive issues he endeavored to confront sound eerily familiar. It would appear that they were divided by the same things we tend to divide over today. They were divided over popular personalities (1:10–12); church discipline (5:1–6); personal liberties (8:1–13); the Lord’s Supper (11:17–22); spiritual gifts (12:1–31); and even worship (14:26–33). While Paul took time to deal pastorally with each of these issues and more, when it came time to sum up the issue for the Corinthians, he brought them right back to the core fundamental truth that must identify and unify all Christians, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maintaining unity in the above mentioned issues is important and should be pursued. Yet, for Paul they were not of first importance. The thing that Paul posited as the central unifying truth is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this in the way he concluded the letter.
In bringing the letter to a conclusion, he told the Corinthians that there is one central truth that unites all Christians. It is the fundamental, uncompromising, indispensable truth that Paul said he first taught them and continued to insist upon — “that Christ died for our sins…was buried…was raised on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). This we are told is that which is of first importance. It is the non-negotiable, the sine qua non of the faith.
There are many things over which Christians have disagreed, and continue to disagree, yet there cannot be and must not be disunity concerning the fact that the Son of God became man, died for our sins, and was raised from the dead. This, according to Paul, is the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1). Without this our faith, living, preaching, and death is in vain. This identifies and unites Christians all over the world and through time. This is the truth that if denied separates the false from the true believers.
Ever since the founding of America, there has been much over which Americans have disagreed and even found grounds for disunity. Yet, the United States of America remains the United States because there is one central unifying truth and virtue that always rises above all others — freedom. So also in the church there is one unifying truth. There is much over which Christians find to disagree and unfortunately sow discord. Yet, no matter where the church finds herself or the nature of her expression, if she is true there is the central unifying theme — the gospel. In the gospel Jesus provided the answer to His prayer, e pluribus unum. Out of the many, and through the gospel, we are one.
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