Pursuing Unity in the Church
I belong to a church that sends out church plants almost every year. We’ve lost our lead pastor, welcomed a new one, multiplied a small group, and this year we’re saying goodbye to our small group leaders. There have been lots of hard changes in the last year and a half that have left some of us reeling and holding back, nursing our wounds. Community is hard when it’s always changing, and saying your goodbyes to people you love can feel devastating.
These kinds of swift changes can lead to division within the church if we do not guard our hearts and minds. The enemy is quick to take advantage of any opportunity to cause strife and discord among the body of Christ.
So how do we as the church remain unified? How should we pursue it? In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul lays some groundwork for what that looks like.
Christian unity requires common belief.
We are unified through the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the fundamental beliefs of our faith, doctrine such as the Atonement, Resurrection, Justification, the Final Judgment, etc. These basic beliefs unite the church. Without them, we are like children “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (v. 14). Responsible Christians make it a point to understand what the Bible teaches.
However, this does not mean there is no room for disagreement on secondary issues. Outside of primary doctrine, there is a wide range of Christian opinion on a number of different subjects. Paul is anticipating this when he speaks about one Christian esteeming one day better than another (Rom. 14:5-12), because there will be disagreements.
But with these secondary issues, we have to be sensitive towards one another, even shelving our own opinions for the sake of other believers. We are to walk 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” (v. 1-3). When Christians become divided over these issues, great harm is done to the church. We can come to different conclusions about things and still maintain unity while being faithful to Christ.
Christian unity is diverse.
This diversity is more than just ethnic or cultural differences, though that is expected (and should be pursued). But it doesn’t stop there. Christians are not called to be clones of one another, nor are we being conformed to any image other than Jesus Christ. Though a group of believers will have an influence on each other, they are not called to be the same.
We have all been given different roles. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (verses 11-13, 1 Cor. 12:1-11). From the very beginning, God intended us to be a diverse group of people, with various strengths and weaknesses, gifts and abilities. Diversity is written into his design for the church.
But, we can only cooperate as a whole when “each part is working properly”. Only then will the “body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (v. 16). This means that the role I’ve been given to build up the church will look different than someone else's role. In order to stay unified, our diverse gifting and roles must be celebrated and encouraged, without elevating one above the other. God shows no partiality and neither should we. We are all indispensable members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27).
Christian unity requires maturity.
Church unity is something every church must grow into. It is a default status in the sense that we are all united in Christ Jesus, but it is also something that requires growth and maturity. It is through the work of ministry that we build up the body of Christ, and we are all of us working towards mature manhood and womanhood (v. 12-13).
It takes a mature Christian to be able to really love people where they’re at and to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Mature Christians seek the good of the church even if it means personal sacrifice, which it always does. Bearing with one another in love means that there will be many believers who test our patience, who are messy, and who require mercy and kindness because of their own lack of maturity.
Paul writes in Romans 15:1-3, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’”.
With maturity there is more responsibility and a better awareness of how unity can be maintained, often at personal cost. But in this, we display Christ’s own character.
Unity within the church is important and must be pursued. Jesus prays specifically for unity in his high priestly prayer, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). Our very model for unity comes from the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, united in perfect eternal community with each other. They have different roles, yet they are all equally God.
And although perfect unity will never exist on this earth as far as human relationships go, what we get to experience in the church is a sweet taste of what’s to come. It is a foreshadowing of the unblemished unity we will someday experience in the presence of God, a glimpse of heaven earth-side.