Jesus prayed for us that we would live in unity. He said that when we do this, people will know that he is who he says he is. Yet developing church unity can be one of the hardest things to do.
Why is it so hard?
Here are some factors that hinder unity – and contrasting factors that help:
Hindrance 1: Focusing on human LEADERS
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas ’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?”
– 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 NIV
When we focus on human leaders, we easily become divided into different “camps” – defined by who we follow. It is tragic that great leaders, who God has raised up to build up the Body of Christ, are readily turned into “Christian celebrities” by their followers – and these gifts can then become labels for factions.
Help 1: Focus on Jesus as Head of the Church
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; ONE LORD, one faith, one baptism; ONE GOD AND FATHER OF ALL, who is OVER ALL and through all and in all.”
– Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV
There are many great leaders in the Church… but there is only one LORD.
There are many magnificent parts to the Body of Christ… but there is only one HEAD.
We need to realise that every human leader (even the “great” ones!) is subject to the Lordship of Jesus. When we see one another as disciples of Christ – even our leaders – we begin to merge into one “camp” – we are all followers of Jesus.
Hindrance 2: Focusing on defending our DOCTRINE
“Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. …Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.”
– 2 Timothy 2:14, 23 NIV
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.”
– Titus 3:9-10 NIV
Paul speaks very strongly into this arena – and for good reason. When we are focussed on our doctrine, we easily get sidetracked into defending our doctrinal differences. These differences may be important to us (because we are sure we are right!), but when they produce quarrels and divisions, they are counter-productive and therefore foolish, even stupid!
The foolishness or stupidity of it is twofold:
i) The issues typically make little or no difference to the message that the lost desperatey need to hear – yet they side-track us from getting the message to them.
ii) None of us have “perfect doctrine” as we “see in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ). We all have “blind spots” and we would benefit greatly if we learned from others who can mature us further – including correcting errors in our own doctrine.
Help 2: Focus on maturing in our doctrine
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we ALL REACH UNITY IN THE FAITH and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become MATURE, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
– Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV
When we call on people who operate outside our “doctrinal camps” for the sake of maturing the Body of Christ, we grow up and grow together. Those who are “outside our camp” can help us to see “outside our box”!
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are gifts from Jesus to the church to equip us and lead us into maturity and unity – let’s embrace them and let them do their work!
Hindrance 3: Focusing on “our” MINISTRIES
“You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed [apostolic ministry], Apollos watered it [teaching ministry], but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. For we are fellow workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
– 1 Corinthians 3:3-9 NIV
When we make our ministries the “main thing”, we become servants of the ministry. Different ministries have different priorities (e.g. evangelism, teaching, social upliftment) – so to focus on them can divide us into “operational camps”. Yet they all have a common purpose!
Help 3: Focus on “OUR” mission
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
– Matthew 28:18-20 NIV
When we “make the main thing the main thing” (making disciples of all nations), both we and our “ministries” become servants of our mission. Then we can partner together, uniting our ministries for the common mission. Together, Paul and Apollos made a formidable team in fulfilling the great commission – we must do likewise!
Hindrance 4: Focusing on FAULTS
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. …May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
– Romans 15:1-2, 5-7 NIV
Teams can quickly fall apart when the stronger members criticise the weaker members for their failings. In contrast, when the stronger members build up the weaker ones, the team grows strong and united!
A tragic criticism of some churches is that “they shoot their wounded”. When we criticise, marginalise and write off the weak instead of building them up into a place of strength, the whole Body suffers and is weakened.
Help 4: Focus on FAMILY
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
– 1 Corinthians 12:21-27 NIV
We rise together and we fall together. If we help the weak, if we honour the unimpressive, the Body becomes stronger – we rise together!
Hindrance 5: The state of the heart: inward focus
As individuals, when we focus on ourselves, we seek our personal good and our success. We are less likely to sacrifice and put others before us. As churches, when we focus on ourselves, we tend to build our own “mini-kingdoms”. We are then likely to regard other churches in our neighbourhood as potential competitors; we can become defensive – or even offensive!
Help 5: The state of the heart: outward focus
As individuals, when we focus beyond ourselves, we will seek the greater good. We will find it easier to sacrifice and put others first. As churches, when we focus beyond ourselves, we will seek to advance the Kingdom of God. We will regard other churches in our neighbourhood as potential partners; we become welcoming and supportive as we seek to build together.
We can make a difference! Let’s build unity!