Some couples remain married with a growing joy in their relationship. Some couples fight, bicker and then divorce, believing their differences are irreconcilable. Still others try to push their tensions below the conversation horizon, and continue to live together—tolerably, but with little joy.
Churches can act in similar ways. Like in a good marriage, believers must work to not only maintain the unity, but also grow in joy of fellow- ship with each other.
Sometimes tensions arise due to doctrinal aberrations—which can be handled either in a godly way or in a fleshly way under the guise of doctrinal fidelity. But, like a marriage, the fellowship of the local church can also be strained by “lesser” things. I know of a church that is quite proud of their doctrinal purity, but lives with simmering conflicts that occasionally rise in the strangest ways.
For example, the church was almost destroyed when, during a building renovation project, one faction wanted to use stain on the new woodwork, while another wanted to use paint! How can a healthy church avoid becoming like an old worn-out marriage—or worse, from becoming another church “divorce” statistic?
The foundation of unity
God desires truth. Without this, nothing else much matters. “Your word is truth” John 17:17 (NIV). The first piece of the spiritual armor is the “belt of truth” (Eph 6:14). Paul in his farewell message to the Ephesian elders charged them to “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Ac 20:28 NASB).
The importance of vigilance in right doctrine cannot be overstated. It is rooted not in an abstract concept that God is pleased with us being right. Rather, the ultimate importance lies in God’s estimation of His people—they are precious to Him. It is people, not concepts, that interest God.
Therefore, we must get our teaching right! “For God so loved the world …” The greatest of the commandments is “You shall love …”, “A new command I give you that you love one an- other …”, “The end of this command is love …” Paul began his great church leaders’ manual to Timothy with this: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Ti 1:5). Unity in love, based on the truth of God’s communication to us—that’s foundational.
However, having and preaching the truth in principle does not guarantee unity in practice. It is a curious thing that so many churches who assert right doctrine waste precious time and energy with lesser, internal squabbles. God wants unity even in the context of right doctrine!
Dear to God’s heart
“… I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in you. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” (Jn 17:20-21).
Jesus did not pray that unbelievers would be unified through faith into the body of Christ (true as that may be His desire). In this passage, He prayed for future believers, that they would be unified. The Lord knew that we would have a propensity to- ward divisiveness for He felt it important to include this request in His high priestly prayer, just before His crucifixion.
Paul and Barnabas experienced the truth of this first hand (Acts 15:36-41). Later, possibly drawing on his own personal experience, Paul admonished two conflicting women (he calls them fellow servants) to “agree in the Lord” (Phil 4:2). This propensity toward conflict knows no gender limitations. Clearly, sometimes godly people disagree and have difficulty working together.
How can unity be preserved in the local church? Assuming that doctrinal truth is not in question, here are some practical considerations:
Encourage humility and deference
If Christ-likeness and genuine fellowship mean anything, then there are some practical implications. Scripture tells us to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). If your elders group is experiencing tension, why not read this verse together at the beginning of every elders meeting?
Ask yourself, “Do I need to check my own ego—do I portray the humble attitude of the Lord whom I profess to emu- late?” He “… made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7). He who washed the disciples feet was not speaking esoterically and mystically when He said to do likewise. He was being very practical. Our Lord actually and literally washed their feet!
Practical humility means a real demonstration of serving one another. Jesus knew the frailty of the human ego, so He pulled out the stops in demonstrating what He means in the upper room on His knees. It is the hardest thing to do when we want to get our own way. But, godly elders will do like their Lord.
Editorial Note: This article was first published in Elder’s Shop Notes in January 2005. It is used here with permission of the author. We will post part 2 tomorrow.