HINK FOR A MOMENT OF ALL THE grief the Christian church has suffered in the name of unity.
In A.D. 34 a company known as “the council” (Acts 6:12) rushes upon the early Christian witness, Stephen, with one accord—the classic statement of unity—and stones him to death.
Eighteen years later a company of Jews in Corinth band themselves into one accord (Acts 18:12) to drag Paul into court, attempting to condemn him before the proconsul Gallio for teaching people about Jesus. But is unity that arraigns the preacher for preaching the gospel a unity compatible with the gospel?
In the next chapter of the book of Acts (chapter 19), about five years later, unity again assaults the church, this time in a city honored today with a history among the most glamorous in Asia Minor. It remains the best preserved Mediterranean testimony to the Greco-Roman cityscape, and features stronger links to early Christian history and the Christian Bible than almost any city of ancient Anatolia.
I refer to the ancient metropolis of Ephesus, whose all-consuming center of attention was the venerated goddess Artemis. Her temple, all of marble, was the largest structure in the Hellenistic world.1 The rituals of that vast complex involved hundreds and possibly thousands of cult functionaries.2 One scholar tells us that so great was the status of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus that her priests had consistent precedence over those in charge of the cult connected with the worship of the head of the Roman empire.3 A multitude of priestesses also attended the goddess, serving under the megabyzus or chief eunuch. Beyond these, temple staff included vergers, cleaners, attendants, hymn writers, composers, slaves, and financiers, as well as theologoi who transcribed, interpreted, and recited sacred legends.4
Much more could be written about that Ephesian temple, but we must not lose our focus on unity. What, I ask, does ancient Ephesus have to teach us about unity and its pursuit?
All About Demetrius
Demetrius, I think, may know. His appeal to his fellow artisans results in an accord that stirs a city of a quarter of a million to protracted demonstration. His words provoke an uncontrollable tempest of humanity to occupy the city’s theater for sustained hours of shouting “Our goddess is great!” Eyewitness reports include no specific headcount. But some idea of size and numbers may be found in the fact that the theater’s capacity was about 25,000.
The dramatic power of the demonstration he inspires may justify our speaking of the “one accord” here witnessed as the “Demetrius accord.” Evidently his power to move the world is born of desire to save a goddess’s global fame. The slogans of his unity, as expressed in his speech, are “Wall Street for Artemis’s sake
,” “Ephesus, of Artemis’s fame
,” and, in conclusion, “Artemis, Artemis, Artemis forever
.” The reward of his words and work is a stadium of thousands sustained for two hours in the passion of roaring a national war cry: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” There is only one small wrinkle, namely, his word of introduction. “Gentlemen,” Demetrius begins, “our prosperity depends upon this business” (Acts 19:25, NASB).*
If it is unity alone that we seek, then in getting first century Ephesus all stirred up to rush with one accord into the theater, Demetrius has shown us how to get to our one accord. What we need, Demetrius shows us, is to find such things as we all share in common and wrap them in holy cloth. Never mind the deviousness of his manipulative greed. Never mind the fact that all of his efforts toward unity are inextricably bound up with personal success. Note only, for the sake of learning about human nature and unity, that his arguments work.
Threatening the statue business threatens Artemis. Threatening Ephesian identity potentially undermines a world-circling religion. Thus the cause of the goddess serves as the rallying point for national excitement. The miracle of one accord, one onrushing tide of chaos pouring into the Ephesian theater screaming one thing and another, is certainly ironic—because the majority of them have no idea what brings them to the theater. What they do know, eunuch priests and virgin priestesses, vergers, attendants, theologoi and slaves, devotees and commercialists, is that their precious goddess needs defending.
Demetrius in Church
For the sake of fair disclosure, we should note that the word in Acts 19:32, 39, 40, describing the unity movement over which Demetrius presides is the same New Testament word for “church”—ekklesia. No one would translate it “church” here, however. We translate it, and rightly so, as “assembly.” But it is the word for church—however blatantly contradictory of the idea of the word it so often represents!
Permit me to suggest, then, that if there is a lesson to be had from Demetrius, the silver-tongued silversmith in this ancient city of Asia Minor with its ugly, gigantic Artemis statue, it must be the lesson that unity, harmony, togetherness—one accord—proves nothing! The word “unity” should not be used as if it were inherently virtuous. Neither the tightness of locked arms, nor the volume of raised voices, nor the passion of moved hearts is proof of any good. Some unities may be powerful and effective in producing one accord. But their fruits betray their virtuousness.
We have already cited one such fruit: “Some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together” (Acts 19:32, NASB). Note the further fruit of this unity: “The city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia.” Gaius and Aristarchus can tell that they are in trouble, strangers from the province of Macedonia, across the Aegean Sea. Here is unity, the unity, the one accord of an ekklesia
. Unity by Demetrius.
And there is more: “Alexander was thrust forward by some of the Jews, who encouraged him to explain the situation. He motioned for silence and tried to speak in defense. But when the crowd realized he was a Jew, they started shouting again. . . .” (Acts 19:33, 34, NLT).† The single basis given in the text for shouting him down was that he was not from the right category, although he was part of the ekklesia. If there is discrimination within the oneness of one accord, what then constitutes the oneness of the one accord, where some shout one thing and some another, where Gaius and Aristarchus tremble for their survival, where Alexander may not speak because he is a Jew?
Demetrius and Christian Oneness
Leslie Pollard’s Adventist Review article of several years ago “What Do We Do With Differences?” allows us to look at our questions in the context of Christian oneness today. Pollard has labeled as “reject-the-idea-of-difference” the kind of mindless “Demetrius unity” that arrests the Macedonians and shouts down the Jew.5 People who reject the idea of difference see differences as obstacles. Another writer, Okera Bishop, explains it this way: All non-Trinidadians are weird because they act differently from Trinidadians, and Okera Bishop is Trinidadian. Thus, for Bishop, being Trinidadian is normal, while difference from Bishop in appearance, accent, or otherwise, must be categorized as “weird.”6
Paul’s guiding passion in ministry would not permit him this option. He lived under obligation to all humanity in the name of God, to become all things to all persons, that he might by all means save at least some of them (see 1 Cor. 9:22). When the blinding light of the Damascus road closed his eyes and opened his soul to the reality and claims of Jesus, the change in Paul’s self-perception offered the world an example of true newness of identity in Christ. His words to the Corinthians show that what he once boasted of (Phil. 3:4-6), the very marks of his human existence, had now become relegated to a secondary and negotiable status. No longer would he be what human nature indicated. Instead he would be whatever gospel obligation dictated. He would not necessarily be any predetermined thing, even Jewish. He could be like a Jew—a metaphor (1 Cor. 9:20)—if necessary, just as freely as he could be anything else, so long as the end result was the spreading of the gospel.
As General Conference president Jan Paulsen stated during his message on the last Sabbath of the 2005 St. Louis General Conference, “It is important to know that God is not owned by anyone.” “Including Demetrius,” we might add, and including all our favorite groups, theologically Adventist, genetically Abrahamic, or otherwise. The triumph song of unity Paul learns to sing distinguishes neither Jew from Greek, nor slave from free, nor male from female. For in Christ, all of these become one (Gal. 3:28). There are associations, unities, evangelistic strategies, and church communities possible on the basis of Jewishness or Greekness, Blackness or foreignness, slaveness or maleness, sameness or differentness. But they are, more often than not, rival unities, mutually exclusive identities. And as real and powerful as they are, they are disqualified by their limitations from being the ground of universal oneness.
Five Suggestions for Unity
Paul’s analogy of the church as Christ’s body is a metaphor calculated to speak to the integrity of our oneness in Christ. The image occurs in four of his letters—1 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians. Focusing on Ephesians, it is five years after the madness of the Demetrius accord and from a place of imprisonment that Paul circulates—to a church of Asiatics and Europeans, Jews and Gentiles, freemen and bondservants, men and women, to saints who survived the riot of one accord in the Ephesian theater—a word on the harmony that they and we may know by being in Christ.
The church is Christ’s body, Paul tells us (Eph. 1:22, 23). Under the Spirit’s ministrations it will grow up into Christ, its head (Eph. 4:4-15). Only then will it work to perfection (verse 16). Read all of Ephesians 4, Ellen White reminds us, and find God’s plan “so plainly and simply revealed that all His children may lay hold upon the truth. Here the means which He has appointed to keep unity in His church, that its members may reveal to the world a healthy religious experience, is plainly declared.”7
And what is that means? It is the Spirit’s apportioning of the church’s gifts “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12, NASB).
Which brings up my first recommendation: 1. When you think “we,” think one. Think “one nation and one priesthood” with Peter (1 Peter 2:9). Think one family and one body with Paul (Eph. 3:14, 15; 1 Cor. 12:27; Rom. 12:4, 5; Eph. 1:22, 23; Col. 1:18; 3:15). “I am talented” is not as good as “the Spirit has given this gift to the church.” “I need to stay in office” is not as good as “this is what is best for God’s church.” We are one!
Thinking one will preserve us from Demetriusness, and from Okera Bishop’s mock categorization: “I am Trinidadian; you are not. Therefore you are weird.” Thinking one will save us from the kind of chagrin I recently experienced after four days of hospitalization. For whatever reason, I emerged with a useless left arm. So what? I thought. I am right-handed. But then the truth dawned: who attends the right arm when the left arm cannot move? I learned the lesson the Corinthians needed: when one member suffers, the whole body suffers.
I learned a little more about thinking one.
Thinking one will make it much harder to countenance bias and stigma, and much easier to sit on the floor in a Buddhist center studying the Bible with Thai worshippers. James Zachary writes of an encounter during an international meeting in Canada. A man carrying copies of the Koran and the Bible comes face to face with another carrying only a Bible. One wears the black suit and hat of a conservative Jew, the other, the white gown of a Muslim believer. For a moment of uncertainty they face each other. Then, tentatively, they ask the question: “Are you an Adventist?” What follows is an embrace of unity as men of two worlds rejoice that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church we share the miracle of oneness in Christ Jesus.8
Think one, and confound the categories that entrench church institutions on the basis of color, or region, or tradition, or fears about facing the fact of the twenty-first century. Thinking one will open the door for efficiencies of the Spirit in church departments, conference configurations, and Adventist higher education. It will replace the notion that our allegiance can be given to only one institution or department at a time. It will make us rethink the multiplication of universities for the sake of national, regional, or personal ambition. When we think one, we will have to discard the notion of elected office based on proportions, ethnic groupings, and gender, instead of on the basis of the Spirit’s gifts to the church. Thinking one will encourage us to make sacrifices for Christian education that are in the spirit, and not merely in the name, of heaven’s sacrifice.
But thinking one is not alone enough, and that brings me to a further suggestion: 2. In our zeal for oneness we must first commit to individual sanctification; we must first crave our personal holiness even more than we do corporate, committee, or institutional surrender to the Holy Spirit. There are such things as spiritual priorities. Working out your own salvation always precedes setting the next person straight. “First,” commands Jesus, “take Demetrius out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (see Matt. 7:5). “Take the log out” means that the log is in. “Take the log out” means it won’t leave on its own. “Take the log out” means “I have a problem. So please help me, Jesus!”
Here is a third suggestion on behalf of unity: 3. Live the social sacrifice as Jesus lived it. Sacrificing time—spending two weeks on a mission trip, giving to missions when I could use the funds for my local church—is often easier, much easier, than the risk of being the stranger, the God in Nazareth. The Jew on the West Bank. The Yankee in Appalachia. Or something closer than that—like worshipping across town where our subcategory may be outnumbered, where we may not in our self-preserving logic “belong,” “fit in,” or feel “accepted.” What does Jesus say in Mark 8:35-38 about the logic of Demetriusness, the attempt to save our own souls? It is the vulnerability and the expense of Jesus’ love that wins me over, and will win you over, too. It’s love and love alone that will break down all the walls of division and separation, suspicion and discrimination, and triumph in the end.
4. Believe in the church—the organized, institutional church, led by the General Conference. Yes! The increase in targeted giving, in local support for locally defined projects, is wonderful, inspiring, and satisfying, but it is a perilously Demetrian spiritual exercise. We could conceivably generate more missions giving through that approach and yet work against our own best interest. Believing in the organized church will increase support for those leaders on every level who have a global view. My commitment to projects in deprived places of earth, to which my head elder and his wife have traveled, shouldn’t diminish my support for the judgments of people who know not only of those places, but of a hundred others besides, and can make more strategic recommendations. We can do more than we expect through greater vision and international cooperation.
5. Lastly, cherish finitude. God didn’t make a mistake by giving us limitations—physically, intellectually, or financially. His love and our love for one another in the family will teach us all more and more to depend and trust in Him and in one another. And it will certainly make us long for the day we can be together with Him forever. Cherish finitude.
It’s All About Jesus
My church pursues oneness, and it should, for it is good. Jesus prayed that we should be one. Ellen White describes that beautiful goal as “reveal[ing] to the world a healthy religious experience.” Jesus speaks of our oneness as the proof to the world that the Father sent Him here (John 17:21-23). It is not the articulation of doctrinal theses from microphones, superstations, and streaming videos that is divine, but the harmony of believers achieved by the work of the Spirit.
My church seeks unity. God will answer Jesus’ prayer: unity will emerge. But as we pursue unity, let us not forget that there is more than one kind of “one accord.” Demetrius reminds us of the dangers of an accord that depends on genes inherited, or jeans worn; a oneness that depends on where our mothers happened to be when we made our entrance, or a unity based on the color of jerseys in a stadium. There is even a kind of unity that leaves many of its own number feeling frightened and insecure—but that is not the unity achieved in Jesus. Let’s not be seduced by the numbers of which we remind one another—20,000,000 worshipping every Sabbath, in 203 countries. Let’s not be seduced by the rhetoric of national colors, or caucus strength, or personal charisma, or any other thing.
When Jesus starved and thirsted and wretched and suffered and died on Calvary, He was making us one in Himself. And all of us, from Ephesus to Thailand to Mexico, all of us need to join Him. We need to get into His “one accord.” Jesus’ self-sacrifice was God’s way of breaking up all the logjams, of ending all the partisan riots, of drawing back together all the scattered, broken, separated, straggling ends of His universe, turning all together again through the sacrifice of His Son. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth,” He says (Isa. 45:22, KJV). God was forging a new accord—based on Jesus—looking to Jesus and to Him alone; believing in Jesus and Him alone. This is the true unity, the real “one accord.”
It’s not about Demetrius; it’s about Jesus Himself: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14, NRSV).‡
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible (updated), copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
†Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
‡Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by
1Giancarlo Biguzzi, “Ephesus, Its Artemision, Its Temple to the Flavian Emperors, and Idolatry in Revelation,” Novum Testamentum 40 (1998),
p. 279. Camden M. Cobern, The New Archaeological Discoveries, sixth edition (New York, London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922), p. 463, reports that the temple measured 160 feet in width by 340 in length.
2See Sharon Hodgin Gritz, Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991), p. 39.
3Cobern, ibid., p. 464.
4Gritz, ibid., p. 40.
5Leslie N. Pollard, “What Do We Do With Differences?” Adventist Review, Nov. 2, 2000, pp. 8-13 [1760-1765].
6Okera Bishop, “A Place at the Table,” Adventist Review, Aug. 16, 2001, pp. 8-13 [1192-1197].
7Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1117.
8James H. Zachary, “Meeting Them in Their Culture,” Adventist Review, July 8, 2004, pp. 8-11 [1016-1019].
Lael Caesar is a professor of Old Testament in the religion and theology faculty at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.