I love the Church, and because I take God at His word, I am convicted to write about important actions that believers in the Church should take towards one another. Because there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9), and because I believe the word of God to be alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12), I submit to you that if we are willing to receive it, God’s word also has relevance and power to transform us even today.
It’s no stretch to say that divisions across our country, even within the Church, are ever increasing. The old adage admonishing us to ‘never discuss politics or religion’ seems to have gone out the window, and social media seems to have increased the intensity of these discussions. Keyboard warriors express passionately fierce opinions, oftentimes spewing insults, sarcasm, and hatred that they would never say in person, with little to no fear of consequences. Whereas in the past, if one had a disagreement with another, the parties would discuss and reason with one another, sometimes agreeing to disagree, but there was no question that vitriolic hate due to a difference of opinion had no place among loved ones, friends, or acquaintances. President Thomas Jefferson is famously quoted as saying, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Nowadays however, almost the opposite is true—-any difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, is cause for getting irate, unfriending, cutting off ties, and cancelling people. In fact, I had to give some thoughtful consideration as to whether or not even to include that quote, let alone credit its author, a founding father who is now considered controversial. But I digress…
Divisions and disunity are prevalent even in churches across the United States. In fact, according to researcher and theologian Dr. Richard Krejcir, “the top reasons why people leave a church have to do with not being connected in the church and/or being revolted by gossip and turned away by conflict and strife while ineffective teaching and pastoral care are also at hand,” (2007, emphasis mine). Whereas churches, the body of Christ in this world, are commissioned to convert and disciple people to be followers of Christ, the reality is that the insidious nature of division has infiltrated and separated believers from the grace and true expression of love as God intended.
What is the biblically correct way to conduct ourselves whenever differences arise? Let’s dig in and see first what God thinks about the importance of unity. After all, His opinion trumps any opinion (however widely accepted) of people. Then we’ll discover together how the Bible instructs us to treat one another when conflicts inevitably arise.
Several writers of the New Testament encourage us to be at peace within the Church, notably James, Peter, and Paul. James distinguishes between worldly wisdom and godly wisdom, noting how believers should relate to one another: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (Jas. 3:17-18). Peter expresses this idea in his first letter to the Church in the following way: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (1Petr.3:8). Paul’s letters to the churches repeatedly admonish believers to strive for peace and unity. Here are just a few examples:
“…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2:2).
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom.12:18).
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.” (Col. 3:15).
“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor.13:11).
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:1-3).
Jesus Himself offers a prayer on behalf of his disciples and all those who would believe in Him thereafter. The gospel of John, chapter 17 records it and specifies the desire that Jesus has for His followers to live in unity. “…I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one… I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:9-11; 20-23). You see, this prayer for believers to live in unity is not just so we can get along with each other in church; the big picture is that through our love and unity, Christ is seen as sent from God to save the world. Unbelievers will believe that God loves them when we demonstrate that faith in Christ as our Savior changes us and makes us new and we live that truth out in unity with other believers!
Now that we understand the reason behind emphasizing unity within the Church, what do we do when disagreements inevitably arise? If you’re like me, you like a blueprint, a plan of action. Thankfully, God in His mercy has given us just that.
The main takeaways I glean from studying scripture are to forgive, pursue peace, and restore.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians instructs them to forgive. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32). This directive is repeated in his letter to the church in Colossae. “… bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col.3:13). Jesus Himself repeatedly preached a message of forgiving others. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt. 6:14-15). Again in Matthew’s account, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mt.11:25). And in Luke’s gospel: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” We reflect God’s mercy and grace to others (and release it to ourselves) when we respond just as He would: by forgiving those who’ve wronged us.
The second point in gaining and maintaining unity in the Church is to pursue peace. Peace isn’t achieved by accident or in idleness. Rather, we are to chase after it, giving it the importance it requires. In his letter to the Romans, Paul beseeches them to “… pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Rom. 14:19). Additionally, the writer of Hebrews encourages us to “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14). Again, the big picture here illustrates that peace between the brethren (the Church) matters because it points others to Jesus.
Finally, we live out godly unity in the Church when we make it a priority to restore our brothers and sisters who have fallen away, have wronged us, or are struggling in the faith. Each of us at one time or another has wrestled with weakness in our faith, have sinned against another believer, or have fallen short of walking out our salvation well. Rather than judge, gossip, or turn away from our fellow believers, our aim should be to maintain unity through restoration. In what is arguably the most widely-recognized psalm, David shows us that God “restores my soul.” (Ps. 23:3). We are to follow in our Father’s footsteps. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addresses how we can help one another. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing… And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” (1 Thes. 5:11;14). The church in Corinth is instructed in Paul’s second letter to them to “… Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor.13:11).
It’s clear that maintaining unity in the Church matters to God. Jesus and the Father are One, and their desire is for us to be one as they are One. When the Church is united by love, it is attractive to others because it is so different from what the world has to offer. And Lord knows the world needs to see real love, demonstrated in true unity.
Krejcir, R. J., Ph.D., (2007). Statistics and Reasons for Church Decline, Institute of Church Leadership Development, http://www.churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=42346