Why unity is so important in your church
The new norm: division and divisiveness
Unfortunately, I have experienced the sorrow of division. Growing up, my dad sought to be a faithful pastor. He was a pastor of a small church in northern Maine at one point. The church began to grow, people were accepting Christ, getting baptized, and joining the church. There were some long-standing members in the church that didn’t like what was happening and they started slandering him until his reputation was so hurt that he needed to step down from his position. I was a part of another church that went through a very heartbreaking church split because of a well-loved but domineering preaching pastor. It took about five years to really pull out of that and move forward.
It is very rare to find someone who has not been hurt by a church in a profound way. In a very individualistic society, it is much easier to faze in and out of churches when we like what it teaches or offers (or dislike what it teaches or does). The type of unity that the Bible commends and commands is rarely experienced. In fact, when a church tries to move in this direction, it’s easy to be skeptical and defensive.
The call to fight for the joy of unity.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
It is both good and pleasant when a church lives its life together in a unified manner. It’s like the anointed blessing of God in so much abundance that it covers us with God’s blessing from the top of our head to our feet. It is here (in unified fellowship), that God has commanded the very blessing of eternal life. In other words, when we live in a unified manner, we experience a taste of the world to come, where we will live eternally in perfect unity.
I truly believe that if we want to experience a taste of heaven, experience the joy of our Savior, and provide a faithful picture of Christ to the world, we need to fight for unity in our churches. Satan wants nothing more than to divide believers in the local church. My goal is to briefly sketch out three biblical realities around this idea of unity, followed by a warning and some practical exhortations.
1) Scripture is clear about the goodness of unity.
We’ve already seen in Psalm 133 that we experience goodness and joy when we dwell together in unity. We experience the blessing of God’s very life. But consider these passages as well.
When we pursue unity, the God of love and peace dwells with us.
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 Corinthians 13:11
When we live in unity with each other, we glorify God together.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When we are unified, we will be effective, be built up, and experience the love of Christ.
From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
When we are unified, the world will see Christ in us.
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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.”
2) Scripture is clear about the dangers of division.
Consider this passage from 1 Corinthians 1.
10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided?
1 Cor. 1:10-13
Paul is clear. When the church is divided, it is a clear sign we are both 1) not following Christ faithfully and 2) presenting a false picture of Christ to the world.
In 1 Cor. 3:3 Paul says that when there is jealousy and strife, we are giving way to our sinful flesh and not the Spirit. In Phil. 4, we learned of Euodia and Syntyche, who were fighting and their effectiveness at “laboring together for the gospel” was destroyed. We also read countless times of false prophets, wolves, and divisive people who come into the church and cause havoc (1 Cor. 12:25; Jude 16-18; Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 16:17-18).
This is why leaders of God’s church are called to act so drastically in response. Consider Paul’s exhortation to Titus:
10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
3) Scripture calls the church to be unified as a picture of God’s unity.
Consider Paul’s reasoning in 1 Cor. 12 where he says, “12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” In other words, our unity is a picture of who Christ is. As we are unified, we show the world the unity of Christ. His reasoning is the same in Eph. 4 where he calls the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Why? Because there is “one God and Father of all.” This is how we (Eph. 4:1) “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling. We are one because God is one. This is also why John can say that if someone says he belongs to God but is divided from his Christian brother, he is a liar (1 John 4). The unity of God makes us a unified people.
Unity is rooted in the gospel, itself. We create a picture of the unified nature of God and our union with him by living in a unified way in the church. In the local church, we are “incarnating” visibly the invisible reality of our union with Christ. This is the core purpose of why the church exists. The church is the visible picture of God’s glory on the earth. If we are not living in unity with each other, we are not creating a faithful picture of who he is.
4 ways to pursue unity as a local church
As the infant church is living on mission together in Acts 2, we see the kind of unity they experienced, along with the kinds of things they did to experience it. This is just one example in scripture of how to pursue unity. But in this we see that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42, 44). Out of this, I would summarize the biblical teaching on the local church’s responsibility to display and pursue unity in four main exhortations.
1) Define the gospel you affirm.
So much of the biblical commands to pursue unity revolve around this idea of being of “one mind” (1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 3:28; Phil. 2:2; 1 Pet. 3:8). The church is commanded to hold firm to the Word of God, right doctrine, and the gospel of Jesus Christ as its basis for unity (Rom. 16:17; Eph. 4:14; Gal. 1:8; Titus 1:9, 2:1; 1 Tim. 1:10, 4:16, 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 3-4; Jude 3; 1 John 4:1). So, consider how your church can be very clear about what you believe about the gospel and how you will proclaim it together.
2) Define the family you commit to.
The unity that we experience in a church also comes from knowing who the “members” are and feeling truly connected to them (1 Cor. 12:21-26; Eph. 4:1-16). We have dozens of one another commands that assume we know who we are obeying them in relation to. Pastors and members have a clear relationship of authority and submission they are called to live in (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:21; Titus 3:1-2; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5-7). Church discipline is commanded in order for the church to define who are truly believers in their midst (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:12-13; 2 Cor. 2:6-8; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:14; Rev. 2:2). Because of these reasons (and more), consider how your church can define who the members of your church are and how you are to live together as a faith family.
3) Define the mission you pursue.
Every believer and every church has the same mission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). Defining how this mission will be pursued by your church is important in order to live in unity together. A great example of this is Euodia and Syntyche in Phil. 4. These two women experience the depth of unity by their missional living together (“contending together for the cause of the gospel”). However, they started disagreeing and this broke their fellowship and their ability to live on mission together. Unity and mission go hand-in-hand. As one goes, the other goes.
4) Pray together often as a church.
Scripture gives countless examples of praying together as a church. Interestingly, there are times when unity is prayed for (John 17:20-21; Acts 2:42, 44; Rom. 15:5-6). There are other times when the church’s unity is fostered by prayer. When we approach God’s throne and enter his presence together, there is particular power and unity to be found there. This is why Jesus says that when believers come together in his name, they will experience a unity in God’s presence not experienced when in isolation (Matt. 18:19-20). So, consider how you can cultivate a culture of praying together to spur on this unity.
A final warning: beware of Satan’s schemes
As we pursue unity, there are many things that will labor against that pursuit. Satan is the accuser of the brethren, he sows discord, and does all that he can to make sure that churches divide because a divided kingdom cannot stand (Matt. 12:25-26). So when we see the seeds of division starting to appear, we need to see this as a spiritual warfare issue. We do not fight each other, our battle is against Satan and his forces (Eph. 6:12). In light of that, we need to be sober-minded and alert, ready to see the ways in which he may seek to destroy the unity we are called to experience and display.
First, Satan uses distraction. He distracts us with the busyness of life so that we miss opportunities to love and support the body. Second, he uses deception. Satan will lie to us, planting evil thoughts in our heads about others, about the church, and even God. Third, he uses derision. Satan will condemn us, reminding us of our sin and making us discouraged so that we don’t serve others and get involved in the life of the church. Finally, he uses division. Satan will tempt us to idolize our own preferences (styles of worship, models of ministry, ways to evangelize, how often to do the Lord’s supper, etc.). It is crazy how small things like carpet colors have divided churches. These things kill churches and bring shame on the name of Christ.
This is why humility, love, service, and prayer are so often paired with calls to unity. If we are going to be a faithful display of God’s glory in the world, we need to pursue unity. There is great joy available for us in unity and great dangers in the lack of it. May we humbly, prayerfully, and resiliently fight for unity together and so picture the spiritual unity we already have secured for us. For the glory of Christ alone.