UNITY IN THE CHURCH

(June 21, 2022) Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, challenges all Christians to be unified in these uncertain times…

In Jesus’ prayer just before His arrest in Gethsemane, as He fervently poured out His heart to God the Father, passionately interceded for Himself, His disciples and then for the church.

A particularly striking and challenging emphasis in His prayer for the church was expressed in the following words  ‘May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’ (John 17:23).  

This clearly demonstrates that the unity of Christians was a central yearning of Jesus.   He understood that persuasive gospel outreach in a  much-divided world would be significantly more effective if the church expressed its inherent oneness in Him.

Jesus prayed for unity
Notice that Jesus prayed for unity and not for uniformityin the church.

He was not praying for a ‘cookie cutter’ church in which all Christians believe exactly the same things and behave in exactly the same way and in which all congregations conform an identical pattern!  Paul made that clear in 1 Corinthians 12 where he eloquently explained that diversity does in fact have a place in the unity of the body.  But note – that Paul was referring to ‘diversity’ rather than disunity.’

Diversity enriches the church while disunity divides it. 

Satan hates unity in the church
Christian unity is an abhorrence to Satan who resorts to using self-serving leaders, lies, scandal, heresy, scoffing from unbelievers and conflict (even regarding the most trivial of things) among members of a local church.  Evidently the church is composed of very imperfect people saved by grace certainly, but clearly not yet perfected!  Consequently one is not surprised to see division within the church – but that does not make it acceptable.

From its earliest days disunity found its way into the church! In fact we find a reference to it in Acts 6:1, ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.’ The complaint may have been justified, but as the church’s mission of sharing the good news was making significant inroads into the world and many people were being saved, the ‘spanner’ of complaint would seriously have affected its unity and inevitably its mission. The apostles dealt with the matter wisely and swiftly.

Regrettably the fundamental requirement of unity among Christians appears to be a lesson that Christians find difficult to grasp! Yes, there is ample evidence of the sharing of love, harmonious living and effective cooperation among Christians during its 2000 years history.  Indeed, in the early 3rd century the theologian and writer Tertullian quoted the words of a Roman pagan who had commented, ‘See how these Christians love each other.’

Expressions of disunity
Sadly, however, Tertullian’s quote is not a description that has always characterised Christians throughout the centuries. Today, for example, between churches and among Christians in every church one finds that the spirit of disunity is all too evident with such claims as –

(i) Comparisons

  • ‘My form of church government is better than yours’ says one.
  • ‘My doctrine is sounder than yours,’ says another.
  • ‘My interpretation of ‘End Times’ (or whatever) is the correct one,’ says another.
  • ‘My preference regarding worship music is undisputedly right,’ says another.
  • ‘My view of the style of worship is more respectful than yours,’ says another.
  • ‘My translation of the Bible is correct while yours is definitely corrupt,’ says another.
  • ‘My opinion on this political matter is more in line with the Bible than yours,’ says another.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

(ii) Cliques
Another damaging expression of division within a church are cliques, that is, exclusive groups which signal to those who do not belong  that they are unwelcome. Paul encountered such a situation in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 where he addressed the question, ‘Is Christ divided?’ 

In verses 10,12 and 13 he wrote, ‘I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.’ … What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided?’

Such groups (which are present in almost all churches) succeed in driving people away.

(iii) Consequences
Because of dogmatism, divisions and disagreements we regularly see Christians being hostile to one another, churches splintered, evangelism stifled, ministries ruined, pastors suffering from high stress and burnout, Christians abandoning the church and Christianity being dismissed by non-Christians as irrelevant. 

I realise that this is not a very attractive image of the church, but after many decades in ministry I know that all of the above is true!  Jealousy, resentment, pride, arrogance, dogmatism, assertiveness, touchiness and quarrelsomeness all stoke the fires of division and where such fires are not addressed, great damage is done.

Paul’s appeal for unity
Just as we see in Jesus’ prayer His longing for unity in His church, we also see this same passion in many of Paul’s letters to the churches in which he repeatedly raised this issue.  For example, he wrote:

  • Romans 14:19, ‘Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.’
  • 1 Corinthians 1:10,  ‘I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.’
  • 2 Corinthians 13:11, ‘… listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace.’
  • Philippians 2:2, ‘…  make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.’

There is no doubt that Paul understood that unity among the members of the church was a crucial aspect to church life and was a nonnegotiable component of what it means to be a committed Christian. Indeed Christian unity is one of the dominant themes in his letter to the Ephesians.

In his day the church in Ephesus would have been composed of both Jews and Gentiles who had placed their faith in Jesus.  One would not be surprised to find that the Jewish Christians would have held different views and opinions on many things from the Gentile Christians in their group. For example, for the Jewish Christians the great Jewish festivals would have been very important but less so for the Gentiles.  That could have been a cause of dissension between them with each holding firmly to the conviction that their viewpoint was the right one!

Personal challenge
To the Christians  in Ephesus Paul unambiguously issued this challenge, ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’   (Ephesians 4:3).  Let’s examine this advice further:

First: ‘unity of the Spirit’ 
Paul gave a brief description of this unity in verse 2 where he mentioned four of its characteristics – humility, patience, tolerance and love. The ‘unity of the Spirit’ is unique in that it is expressed in a bonding produced by the Holy Spirit.  He who ‘baptised us into one body’ (1 Corinthians 12:13), manifests His active presence in the unity of those who belong to Christ.

Secondly: ‘keep’ 
While that unity is uniquely dependant on the Holy Spirit, as Christians we have a responsibility to ‘keep’ it. The meaning of the Greek word refers  to guarding or keeping a watchful eye on something to prevent our losing it. 

We have a responsibility of guarding the unity that the Spirit enables us to have lest it ceases to be present.  In keeping with Paul’s comments Peter gave this advice, ‘Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). 

Thirdly: ‘Make every effort’
The Greek word translated by this phrase describes the intensity of our commitment to unity   A laissez-faire attitude to it is completely unacceptable.   This unique unity will not be in evidence apart from our whole-hearted commitment to it and a determination to ensure that this special gift of the Holy Spirit is not lost.

Fourthly: ‘through the bond of peace’
The Greek word for ‘peace’ is related to a verb that means ‘to join.’ (Note also that the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) may also be translated as ‘wholeness’). ‘Peace’ is that oneness that reflects a wholesome and upbuilding unity when believers are committed to giving expression to the prayer of Jesus in John 17:23.

In passing it is further noted that in Ephesians 4:4-7 the word ‘oneis used 8 times. Paul repeatedly used this word to emphasise the importance of unity in the church.   

Unity is not uniformity
Disunity is a symptom of sickness but diversity is not! There is diversity in unity.  In fact Christian unity is enriched by our diversity not despite it.  

Paul graphically reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 12 in which he comments that the human body, which is composed of many parts, is one.

It is not at war within itself, certainly not when it is healthy.  However, when one or more parts of the body is unhealthy, the result is disunity, disharmony and malfunction within the body. 

The antidote to disunity
How much we need to read and internalise Paul’s powerful challenge in 1 Corinthians 13 regarding the priority of love in our relationships with each other which is the perfect antidote to disunity in churches. Note particularly verses 4–8 as found in the JB Phillips translation:

‘This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience – it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.

‘Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails.

‘Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.’

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Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.

His helpful book, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, is offered free, all of Dr Jim’s writings are highly recommended – such as Grace Revisited, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James, and Faith Works – A Commentary on the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and. Link for orders and questions: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com

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One comment

  1. Speaking as a person who has a leadership role in my home church, I really appreciate the Spirit directed wisdom of this meditation, with much practical and spiritual insight.

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