In this modern day and age, it seems that there is no end to the strife and division that plagues churches. Congregation members continually wrangle over matters big (e.g. how best to serve God in the children’s ministry) and small (e.g. who prepares the best refreshments). Yet, even as we consider the state of our own churches today, let us be reminded that this is not a new thing under the sun (Ecc 1:9).
Division and strife were equally present in the early new testament churches. We see the apostles constantly beseeching churches to be united. James (Jam 4:1, 5:9, 16) and Peter (1 Pe 4:8) write to Jewish and Gentile believers to live in unity, while Paul wrote to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:10-11), Ephesian church (Eph 4:3), and to the Roman Christians (Rom 12). Thus, we see that while strife has been present among Christians since the beginning, equally present is God’s call for His people to live in unity.
The Reason for Unity
Why is unity so important? Simply put, unity is important because love is meant to be the distinguishing mark of a Christian. Just as policemen are known by the official-looking uniform they wear or how new BMT recruits can be obviously identified by their absence of hair, Christians are called to love one another to the extent that the world would be able to recognise a Christian by the fact that he loves other Christians. Christ Himself gives us this commandment in John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Unlike various groups in the world who distinguish themselves based on an external form of dress or appearance, we Christians are called to distinguish ourselves from the world by loving other Christians as a reflection of the same unconditional manner that Christ loved us.
Unity in Service
Does this mean that we are not allowed to disagree with others in the church? Not necessarily. There is room for us to have our own opinions, but we are called to show love one to another when expressing these opinions. There are many situations in church today where deciding on the best way for the church to serve God is based on a matter of conviction. Support for these convictions may not be necessarily directly found in the bible. For example, the great commission commands Christians to spread the gospel to all nations (Mat 28:19-20). Based on this passage, a member of the church may use this verse as a way of supporting his view that there needs to be greater emphasis on the overseas mission work that the church is doing. However, a different member of the church may also argue that based on this verse, it is equally important for the church to reach out to local people of different races and socioeconomic statuses. Both individuals have a different opinions on the best way to serve God based on the same bible passage. In such a situation, we show love and demonstrate Christian unity by distinguishing what the bible says from our own interpretation of scripture. We understand that both members have a common, united desire to serve God and obey the great commission, even though they may disagree on how best to fulfil it. We should also practice humility according to Rom 12:10 “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;” and Php 2:3 “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” When we are clear that both parties’ opinions are biblically sound through calmly listening to one another’s opinions, we should consider showing love and accede to the other person’s point of view if further disagreement is likely to engender strife.
Unity in Doctrine
“Nothing unites like having a common enemy” – A worldly idiom that holds a grain of truth. While members of a church must be willing to prefer one another when it comes to matters concerning conviction, the church as a whole must remain united and uncompromising when it comes to matters of doctrine. False doctrine has been a big source of strife in churches since new testament times. Furthermore, it is especially dangerous because it enters churches stealthily. We see Paul marvelling at how quickly false doctrine crept into the Galatian church in Gal 1:6-9. We also see various apostles giving warnings regarding many false teachers and the dangers that they possess (e.g. Acts 20:29-31, 1 Tim 6:3, 2 Pet 2:1-3, 1 Jo 4:1, Jud 3-4). In light of this danger, we are commanded to take a firm stand against such false teaching. We are called to mark and avoid false teachers (Rom 16:17) and to have absolutely no association with them (Gal 1:9).
Finally, in order to be able to identify false teachings, we are called to spend time diligently studying God’s word. This is an encouragement for us to individually (2 Tim 2:15, Ti 1:9) and collectively (Act 17:10-11, Col 2:6-7, 1 Th 5:21) grow in our biblical knowledge. As the church grows in firm understanding of God’s truth, we become more united in standing against error.
The Source of Unity
Having to spend arduous hours studying God’s word and having to constantly eat humble pie and prefer others over ourselves does not sound like an enjoyable task. In our own strength, it would be impossible for us to behave in such a manner for the sake of Christian unity simply because these are things that the natural man hates. Thus, let us be encouraged that in contrast to the worldly man, we have been given the Spirit of God which enables us to love God’s Word and others more than ourselves.
More than that, let us understand that we desire Christian unity because it is a fulfilment of Christ’s command to love one another. John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” In this command, we see that Christ also gives us the source of strength that we can draw from when practicing love for one another – it is to meditate on Christ’s love for us. As He has loved us, so we ought to love one another. The next time we feel unwilling to show love and give in to fellow Christians, let us consider this – If Christ Himself was willing to show love for a sinful person such as I, even to the point of dying for me, how can I be unwilling to show love for a fellow sinner whom my Master has also died for.
As we continue living in imperfect churches on this side of eternity, let us continue to consider the love of Christ. In honour preferring one another, let us be united in service and in doctrine.