How can unity be preserved in the local church? Assuming that doctrinal truth is not in question, here are some practical considerations:
Encourage unity among leadership
It is so much easier to talk about this than to do it. It is much more convenient to “serve” people by preaching at them or correcting them. And it is hard to serve those with whom we have a sharp disagreement. Many suffer from grandiose visions of being a modern day Ezekiel or John the Baptist.
Genuine love and care
What would happen if your elder meetings were characterized by men who genuinely loved and served each other? To give examples would seem trivial, because words cannot capture the attitude that transforms a deed or action, no matter how small, into a service befitting the Master’s honor. Jesus said it best, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15).
Unity among the elders is absolutely essential to the unity in the church. The better the personal relationships, the less likely the misunderstandings. The other day after dinner, I had wanted to go to my workshop to work on a project, but I needed a tool. So I announced to my wife, “I should go to the store, but it will be too late to go down to my workshop when I get back.” My wife, who encourages me to work at my hobby, responded, “I’d really like to see you get working on that project.”
I said, “You’re right.” As I put on my coat and shoes, she asked, “Where are you going?” “To the store of course?” “But, I thought we agreed you would go to your workshop.” We spent about 5 minutes trying to figure out how we had miscommunicated. The point is that if my wife and I had a strained relationship, she could have accused me of saying one thing and doing another.
I could have accused her of not listening to me. In reality, I had never mentioned to her my need of the tool to finish the project. Our trust is built by the give and take, the sacrifice and service for each other. We knew our after dinner conversation was simply a misunderstanding, not a symptom of selfishness.
Building a relationship of trust
How can elders build their relationship of trust? One group regularly goes out to dinner together with their wives. Some elders meet regularly on a one-on-one basis for mutual encouragement and fellowship. A perceptive elder group will encourage the less verbal elder to speak up. Helping each other out in the mundane issues of life can build up the group. Building strong relationships at this level is paramount.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean we all have the same likes and perspective, or that we will always agree—but we want to encourage “… being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose… (Phil 2:2).
When elders trust one another, they can celebrate the diversity of perspectives they bring to the table. Resolution of conflicts becomes easier. Therefore, we must foster and guard our relationships with each other on a personal level. To do otherwise will affect the entire church like a cancer.
Encourage unity with the body
Unity requires communication and care. There is no better way than to go into people’s homes. Most people will know you care if you take the time to listen to them and understand them. This doesn’t mean you bow to every- one’s wishes, no one expects that. But people will follow the lead of elders if they feel cared for and listened to.
Two questions are helpful to ask: “How can the elders pray for you?” and “Is there anything you feel the elders should know?” Then listen with the goal of really understanding. Ask questions, don’t get defensive, don’t justify—simply try to understand. This may lead to prayer, instruction from the word or practical help.
Regardless, they will feel more a significant part of the body because they are being cared for. When elder decisions are made or difficult teaching needs to be given, the congregation is more likely to sense that the elders are acting with caring hearts. Their humility and servants’ hearts will be evident to all. This takes time, but it is well worth the investment.
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 3 tomorrow.