The Coexisting Nature of Division and Unity

The Coexisting Nature of Division and Unity

When you hear the word division, what do you think of? Church splits, maybe? Or the devolving of a team? Or maybe just the horrors of math?

What about the word unity? Do you think of singular minds, a sole objective, conformity, or peace?

I was 14 when it was decided that my family would move from one city to another because of division within the organizational team. I was devastated at the news and that day I stripped the titles of Aunt and Uncle from expat names, deciding that Mrs. and Mr. suited me just fine.

When I moved to Indonesia, as an adult, I thought that I had a leg up on team dynamics, but I would be proven wrong. My no-gossip, always think the best, don’t rock the boat ideals didn’t ease the growing divide I felt with the team. It continued to grow wider and deeper within me and I was left devastated and disillusioned again.  

Division and conflict are common in the expat community. I imagine all of you have experienced it on your teams and organizations in one form or another. Big or small, conflicting ideologies have a way of breeding discontent, making enemies of friends.

I don’t think it is any surprise that we have a hard time explaining the Trinity or understanding it well. We have no concept of how three individual beings can be so unequivocally unified that they are actually one.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that division is necessary before true unity can flourish. Let me explain. By division I am referring to a sort of individuation which is the process of making a person an individual. It is the journey of understanding ourselves once we are stripped of all our titles, masks, personas and responsibilities. It is not an easy task, but I posit that unity cannot be fully achieved without it.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, in his book, “Hold On to Your Kids”, uses the illustration of a developing baby. “Maturation,” he says, “proceeds first through the process of division, teasing things apart until they are distinct and independent. Only then will development mix these same distinct and separate elements together…The embryo first grows by dividing into separate cells, each one with its own nucleus and boundaries. Then, once the individual cells have departed sufficiently so they are not in danger of fusing, the focus of development becomes the interaction between them.”  

The call to unity is often a call to uniformity and it breeds divisiveness in the smallest ways. Where you shop, how you chop wood, where you live, if you drive your own car, or cook national food become areas of tension among teammates. I don’t believe that we hold these ideals because we are so passionate about them, I think we hold so tightly to our ideals because we are insecure in ourselves. We become defensive when others choose a different path than what we chose as it calls our own choices into question. 

This is where division becomes a beautiful act of unity.

If we want true unity then we need to be on a journey to understand ourselves in a deep and meaningful way. We need to know our own minds, we need to know our own history and our own God and be able to hold onto opposing emotions and ideas. In this way, one teammate can shop at the local markets while another shops in the grocery store and no one feels threatened.

I look at the story of Paul and Barnabas and their harsh disagreement about John Mark with a lot more understanding. The division I see is healthy. Both Paul and Barnabas are aware of themselves and their convictions. They needed to split in order to follow their values and their God-given design. It wasn’t about right or wrong, it was about choice and following the call of God on their individual selves.

The story doesn’t end there either because after the division we see them again, this time unified, at the end of 2 Timothy. Paul even requests that John Mark join him because he is useful in ministry, showing that both Paul and Barnabas’ choices led to greater fulfillment in relationship than if either one of them had compromised their earlier position.

The division allowed for future unity. 

When I look back at my time in Indonesia, I see where I had blurred lines of personhood. Every choice I made had ties to team and there was anxiety in the decisions made. I tempered myself for fear of exclusion or for fear of admonition, I disagreed with a lot but said little. I could claim that it was for the sake of unity, but really it was for fear of conflict and rejection. I recognize this is my personal experience of a shared story, one that God has been beautifully gracious in and I can appreciate how my blurring of personhood, for the supposed sake of team, was a distortion of a healthy body, working in unison.

The goal of unity is not a goal of fusing together, it is a goal of healthy interaction between multiple, individual parts. In this way, division and unity coexist beautifully and if we can hold our boundaries secure and our roots deep in God’s love, we are free to unify with each other in a flow that both interconnects us but does not consume us.

What things make you unique? How have those things been used to support your family and your ministry? Do you find yourself suppressing that uniqueness for the sake of unity?

4 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Trotter March 10, 2021

    This is a beautiful picture of true unity. It really helps me visualize what is/should be going on. (I love scientific analogies!) Thank you for sharing.

    1. Joy Smalley March 10, 2021

      Thanks Elizabeth! I’ve found that God clarifies a lot about life in the midst of science. I love to read and learn and see the connections. I would love to hear what biologists, chemists, physicists, neuroscientists etc. see when they read scripture, I think it is a shame, sometimes, that we hear preachers preach instead of those who have learned of God through disciplines other than Seminary.

      1. Amy Young March 11, 2021

        Joy, I love how you tease out the paradox of unity and division . . . how they dance together instead of canceling each other out. And girl, you are on to something! I’d love a preaching series presented by great communicators who are experts in different fields.

        1. Joy Smalley March 11, 2021

          thanks Amy!

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