The church of Jesus Christ should be the most unified entity on planet earth!
We all recognize the power of unity on the football field. A company working in harmony toward a unified goal brings clarity and prosperity. However, when you can hear the family four houses down the street constantly fighting, you instinctively know they are in peril.
Many churches settle for “close enough” when it comes to the unity factor. Horseshoes and hand grenades do not work in God's church. We have the supreme example in the perfect union of the Trinity. Ephesians 5:1-2 states, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The Godhead is eternally unified. No division exists among the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Theologians are careful not to refer to any person of the Trinity as a “part.”. Parts can be divided or separated. As believers, as the church, as the Gospel voice of Christ on earth, we are to imitate God, including His perfect unity and harmony.
Children often imitate their parents. I remember my oldest son standing at the mirror with me one morning and brushing his teeth. When I moved my toothbrush to the right, he imitated me. When I moved to my bottom teeth, he did the same. In a moment of levity, I started brushing my cheek, then my forehead. Sure enough, he followed right along with a big smile on his face. Christians are called to imitate the unity of the Godhead. Jesus even prayed for it!
Notice Ephesians 5:2, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.” The word “as” is scattered across the New Testament, most often in reference to Christ. The term “as” has positively ruined my life in every sense. We seek to be “as” loving as Tom, our Christian neighbor. We want to be more unified than another congregation that is growing. But, the New Testament perpetually leads us away from comparing ourselves to other believers and leads us to compare ourselves to Christ. Game changer! “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….” The phrase, “as Christ,” scattered across the New Testament, sets Christ, not humans, as the standard for faith and life.
You hear it often. I hear it often. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” I think not. Everyone is entitled to an eternity separated from Christ. Jesus' opinion is the only opinion that matters in your church. And His opinion is for you to walk in love and in unity with other believers. His opinion is that the unity in your church should match the unity of the Trinity. His opinion is that you should be willing to give up your self-centric opinion for the sake of the gospel and your brother or sister in Christ.
The unity of your church and the expression of the gospel to your community are inextricably tied. In my experiences, I have never found a divided church that was effectively advancing the gospel. If the body of Christ cannot unite around the advancement of the gospel, if she cannot drop her quarrels for the eternal condition of men, women, and children, then the church is tethered to empty wells and puny gods. And the “gods” are most often nominal Christians, at best, more concerned with their tradition than the trajectory of their lost community.
Jesus proclaimed, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He made this proclamation when the scribes accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. What a moronic claim! Jesus retorted with a claim equally ridiculous, for a house with a broken foundation is already destroyed.
I have proclaimed it many times: the Christian life is characterized by sacrifice, suffering, and service. If your Christianity reflects the cross of Christ, then sacrifice, suffering, and service must be your posture. There is no place in Christianity for self-centered opinions.
Factions are Limiting Factors
Your church does not have time for “sideways energy.” Sideways energy is an issue that distracts from the advancement of the gospel. Factions limit the nimble nature of the church and are a fire retardant for the power of the Holy Spirit. James 3:1 proclaims that those who teach will be judged more strictly. Your pastor and ministerial staff carry a burden that you will not understand unless you are a pastor or teacher of God's Word. When conflicts arise and unity is marred, the church leaders spend an enormous amount of time and energy attempting to bring all the sheep back into the fold. Meanwhile, the fields are ripe unto harvest while the few and injured laborers tend to themselves and the reciprocal bruising of the flock.
Factions limit the advancement of the Kingdom. Factions wound the soldiers on the field. Factions wound the surgeons who are tending to the soldiers on the field.
Do Not Waste Jesus' Prayers
In Jesus' High Priestly prayer, He prayed: “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” (John 17:20-21 emphasis added, ESV). While praying for the disciples with ever-increasing heavy eyelids, He also prayed, “for those who will believe in me through their word.” Here is a summary of the prayer: make the disciples and those who will believe their message ONE! Just as (ahem) the Godhead is One, make them one.
The last phrase in John 17:21 should take our breath away. “Lord, make them one so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Wow! The implication is that if disciples of Jesus are not ONE, if they walk in the bondage of friction and faction, the watching world will not believe that the Father sent the Son! If you want your community to believe the glorious gospel of Jesus, you must live in unity with other believers, and most especially inside your church.
And so it goes….churches that argue, fuss, and fight do not adequately portray the crucified and risen Messiah to a lost world! Why? Because Christians are just that, little Christs, who demonstrate the love and unity shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Bringing Unity to Your Church
- Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Listening well and holding your speech was the advice of Jesus' half-brother! “What flavor is his gum?” is the question my basketball coach, Coach Johnson, used to ask me about the person I was defending. Was I guarding him close enough to smell the flavor of his gum? In a similar way, what flavor is the gum of the Christian person with whom you disagree? Have you thoroughly listened? Do you understand their concerns and perspectives? If not, it may not be time to speak just yet. Listen first. Speak last! An unknown author said, “Perhaps no human has ever been so perfectly loved as listened to.”
- Ask yourself, “Is my opinion more important than the advancement of the gospel?” Good luck with that one.
- Pair new with new. So many conflicts arise when a church is experiencing change. Many people look to the church in an ever-changing culture to be their constant. Therefore, small changes like the starting time for worship, modes of worship, or program changes are viewed as major. But while ineffective ministries should be tweaked or changed altogether, the gospel of Jesus stands eternal. The gospel of Jesus is the never-changing truth that guides the whole work of the church. The gospel of Jesus is perpetually new, described as springs of Living Water. Jesus is also the New Wine of the New Testament, poured out for our salvation and remembered at the table of Christ. His forgiveness is even new every morning.
Jesus warned that new wine could not be poured into old wineskins. Instead, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. Translation: the perpetual newness of the gospel cannot be poured into worn-out and ineffective ministries. When your pastor is suggesting replacing old ministries with new, he recognizes that the newness of the gospel should not be wasted on ineffective ministries. So, when you disagree, ask questions, have conversations, and know that Jesus said, “new with new.”
The church of Jesus Christ should be the most unified entity on planet earth!
Dr. Jonathan L. Smith is the statewide director of Church Health Strategy for Texas Baptists. A twenty-nine-year veteran of preaching and pastoring, his calling is to equip pastors and lay leaders to grow God's Kingdom. Dr. Smith holds degrees in Christianity and Speech from Houston Baptist University, a Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a D.Min from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.