Dictators and church unity

North Korea's recent claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb set off a firestorm of controversy around the world, and, according to government controlled media outlets, renewed a sense of nationalistic unity and pride among its citizens. Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea from 1948 to 1994, created a religious philosophy called Juche that emphasizes self-reliance, nationalism and loyalty to the country's leader. For sixty-seven years the Kim dynasty has run a political alliance called the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. Following the country's most recent elections, held on March 8, 2009, the election committee stated that 99.98% of all registered voters cast votes, with 100% support for the ruling party. 

Throughout history, dictators have used a combination of religious, military and political power to unite their subjects.  Is there any place for these methods in God's church?

Ellen White wrote, "The cause of God is to be free from every taint of injustice. It can gain no advantage by robbing the members of the family of God of their individuality or of their rights. All such practices are abhorrent to God" (Christian Leadership, 31). Jesus eagerly anticipated the special meal He shared with His disciples before His death. "When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them,  'With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God'" (New King James Version, Luke 22:14-16). Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. "Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest" (verse 24). Furthermore, everyone had dirty feet. While Jesus would have appreciated having His feet washed, He was more concerned with the attitude of His disciples then the condition of His feet. 

Jesus could have commanded Peter to wash His feet. "Peter, I am God. Wash my feet!"

Jesus could have manipulated Peter into washing His feet. "Peter, if you wash my feet, you will be the greatest in My kingdom!"

Jesus could have used force: "Peter, if you don't wash my feet, I'll call fire down from heaven to destroy you!"

Jesus could have used the unity card: "Peter, for the sake of unity and keeping the peace, you should wash my feet!"


Instead, Jesus taught His disciples the real spirit behind true unity by demonstrating an example of loving humility. "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded" (John 13:3-5).

By washing His disciples feet, Jesus provided us with glimpse into the true character of God. He also set an example for us to follow. "So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:12-15).

After washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus encouraged His disciples and provided them with much instruction (see John 14, 15 and 16).  He gave a simple illustration to demonstrate how true unity in the church can be accomplished. "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). If we are connected to Christ the way that a grape is connected to the vine then we will be united to all the other grapes on the vine, experiencing true unity.  

After encouraging His disciples, Jesus prayed for His followers. He prayed for us, "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me" (John 17:21). Jesus knew that the world would not believe that God the Father sent Him as long as His followers remained disunited. Despite the importance of unity, Jesus did not resort to manipulation or force to impose unity on us. Instead, He set an example for us of how we should deal with those in the church who threaten church unity. Through humble service and intercessory prayer Jesus broke through the hard hearts of His disciples. 

By the illustration of the fruit and the vine, and by the demonstration of unity in His own life with God the Father, Jesus Christ showed us how true unity can be achieved, without dictatorship.