This article is a call to get to work! Thus far we have looked at the topic of unity in a somewhat conceptual manner. I say this, not to minimize the previous three articles, but to build upon them. I hope that you have been convinced of the need for unity in your life and in your church. I hope that your mind was enlightened by our exposé of false unity. I hope your soul has been lifted up by our affirmation of the reality of Christian unity through the triune God. All of this is important.
But now we must take action. Ironically, while Christian unity is a communal phenomenon, the obligation to maintain unity ultimately falls upon the individual. The question we should be asking is, “What must I do to promote unity?” The answers suggested below are not revolutionary, but they are essential. The first two have to do with acquiring the necessary attributes. We cannot “do” unity unless we have the prerequisite mechanics. The concluding points are practical suggestions for expressing solidarity.
I would suggest that two of the greatest roadblocks to unity are a too-high view of self and a contentious tongue. If this is true, then humility and gracious speech are two essential attributes for unity.
Attributes for Unity
The Importance of Humility
“Why can’t we all just get along?” At a basic level it is because we think too highly of ourselves. Take this test. Have you ever said to one of your peers, “Don’t look at me like that”? Have you ever said to your parents, “You have no respect for me”? Have you ever said to your teacher, “You don’t treat me fairly”? Husbands, have you ever hollered out in a rage: “No one can talk to me like that!” Wives, have you ever said, “I don’t like the way you talk to me!” If you answered yes to any of these questions you may struggle with humility. Notice the emphasis: It is all about me! Our exalted view of self is a roadblock to unity because pride essentially says, “I and my needs are more important than you.”
Teaching “the art of self love” in our public schools and elsewhere is quite unnecessary. We do not need to be taught to love ourselves; it comes all too naturally. When my son was very young he stared me down and said, “Dad, you’re the worst.” Why? I had dared to upset him. This mindset of, “I am the best” and “you are the worst,” although not always manifesting itself quite so clearly, is natural.
The spiritual life reverses the way we naturally view ourselves and others. At the heart of humility is a modest view of self. Ephesians 4:1–3 teaches a counter-cultural view of self: “ . . . with all lowliness and meekness . . . endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit.” To glorify God in our relationships we need a lowly mindset. That is to say, we must have a realistic view of ourselves. We must realize that we are sinners and that we are created beings who are just one part of this great universe that God created for his own glory.
The complementary attitude to a low view of self is a high view of others. Romans 12:10 says, “In honor giving preference to one another.” Throughout his writings, Paul models a proper relationship between self and others: I count my life as nothing. But I do what I do for the sake of others (cf. 1 Cor. 3:7; Acts 20:24). According to Paul, our attitude should be: “I am the worst; you are the best!”
Notice how this attitude facilitates unity. We have all been around people who monopolize conversations. They honor and give preference to themselves. This never promotes unity. We also know people who, in honor, give preference to others. Those are people you want to be around. If everyone in the church had this attitude, we would experience a powerful spirit of unity.
How can one develop humility? First, be convinced of its importance. Humility is a tell-tale sign of imitation of Christ who humbled himself “in lowliness of mind esteeming others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3). Corporate unity cannot exist without personal humility. Second, repent of your pride. Change comes only through repentance. Third, pray for humility. James says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2).
Finally, develop humility by practice. Ideally, this practice would start when you are young. Parents, please take note of this. Our children naturally think that they are the best, some more than others. We need to teach our children to have a low view of self and a high view of others. Bold and regular exhibitions of pride should result in discipline. Those who are no longer young might begin to develop humility by starting small. Start by asking two questions: “Whom is God calling me to honor today?” And, “How can I demonstrate that honor by giving preference to that person?
The Importance of a Self-controlled Tongue
When you get to heart of the matter, the cause of most divisions among people are words. “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Prov. 26:20, cf. 16:28). Words fuel the fires of discord. The goal, then, is to tame the tongue.
Easier said than done, right? James says that you can more easily tame a wild stallion than your own tongue (3:3). He wrote, “It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). The tongue is deadly in the sense that, as Jesus said, slander is murder (Matt. 5:21, 22). The tongue is untamable and deadly apart from the power of God. But in the power of his Spirit, God does give directions for taming the tongue and thus promoting unity.
First, understand the purpose of your mouth. It is not just for eating! God could have created us with an orifice for inserting food that bypassed our lungs and went straight to our bellies. Nor is it just for breathing; we already have noses for that. The purpose of your mouth is to speak words; not just any words, but words that glorify God and build up our neighbor. James says, “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men . . . My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (3:9, 10).
Second, be quick to listen. In other words, we are to use our mouths in the designed order; we have two ears and one mouth. Good listening will promote unity since it avoids harmful speech. “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (Prov. 15:28). “He who answers a matter before he hears it; it is folly and shame to him” (18:13). Without real listening we cannot respond properly.
Here are a few suggestions for effective listening. First, pay attention. Some of us need to learn the definition of attention. It is “a selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity.” People know when we are paying attention or not. An important signal of attention is eye contact and body language. Conversely, interruption clearly signals a lack of attention.
Second, be slow to speak. Being slow to speak may, in fact, mean speaking less! “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). “He that hath knowledge spareth his words . . .” (Prov. 17:27). An intimidating by-product of speaking less is silence. Good listening, however, allows for silence. “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive” (Prov. 17:28). When we do speak, consider asking a question. This reinforces the importance of our conversation partner.
Even if we follow all of these suggestions, we still might be tempted to blow out with harsh words. In this case, it might be prudent to get out of the situation. Taking a physical break from the situation can help deliver us from the temptation to say something hurtful. We certainly know how a situation can escalate. Leaving for a time can preclude that escalation. It also allows the hurtful thing that the other person said to echo in their minds, hopefully leading to repentance. Of course this may not happen, and we have to be prepared for that.
Building on these two essential personal attributes of unity, here are a few practical suggestions for actively pursuing unity:
Focus on Family
The family is a microcosm of the church. To the extent that this is true, we can trace disunity in the church back to the family. I believe there is a growing sense of division between parents and children.
A survey was taken several years ago in which seventy-five students from a conservative church were asked two questions. The first was “Is your home happy?” Only three children answered “yes” to this question. The second was, “What one thing would you see changed in your home that would make you a happier person?” Almost every student answered this question by saying, “I wish our family could get along.”1
Children think that their parents do not understand them and, what is sadder, do not care to understand them. I have heard students say that their parents are too busy for them. Parents sometimes think that their children are a nuisance; that they are ungrateful and immature. If we are really concerned about church unity we should begin by assessing our level of concord with those closest to us.
What about unity among siblings? One simple approach to facilitating unity among siblings is to recognize the mentoring opportunities and obligation that inherently exists between brothers and sisters. Younger children need to view older siblings as mentors. They should learn to honor them and learn from them. Older children need to view younger brothers and sisters as apprentices. For better or for worse, they are models of Christianity to those who look up to them.
Including outsiders is the counterpart to the previous point. We must begin with our own family, but we must not restrict our vision of unity to the confines of family, an easy thing to do. We like to be with our close friends. But how often does this desire become the favoritism that James warns against (2:5, 6)? Paul says that those less prestigious parts of the body are just as essential to the body. He wrote, “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor 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” (1 Cor. 12:24–26).
We need to start thinking outside our typical social group. The church I pastor has begun to look at every gathering as an opportunity to invite outsiders (even including the “church” picnic). At the same time, “outsiders” need to be willing to accept invitations. It does feel strange to be invited to do something with someone for the first time. But perseverance will prove the value of personal involvement.
Settle Disputes Quickly.
“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out” (Prov. 17:14). In other words, the more quickly you stop a leak in a dam, the easier it will be to repair. The more quickly you stop a breach in unity, the less damage it will do.
One of best ways to quickly settle a dispute is to overlook small issues. “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends” (Prov. 17:9). With longsuffering, we should bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). In his commentary on this verse, Calvin wrote that we will never forbear until our “natural fierceness has been subdued, and mildness acquired” (thus, the importance of humility above).
When it is not possible to overlook a matter, we should strive to be the first to give in and admit our fault in the matter. For a pointed illustration (from an unlikely source) on the stupidity of failing to do this, consult Dr. Seuss’ story, “The Zax,” in The Sneetches and Other Stories. When your brother has something against you, Christ says, “Agree with your adversary quickly . . .” (Matt. 5:25). What heartache would be prevented if we implemented this principle!
Mind Your Own Business!
Minding your own business does not necessarily mean not getting involved in other people’s issues. But it does preclude meddling. “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own” (Prov. 26:17). It also precludes getting involved in a conflict simply out of curiosity. If you are going to get involved in a “quarrel not your own,” it must be with the intention of healing the breach. While this principle is applicable universally, it is particularly important in small churches.
Avoid Divisive People
“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Rom. 16:17). It often happens imperceptibly. We tend to take on the characteristics of those whom we are around. My favorite “hangout” is a farm near my hometown. I used to occasionally sneak off to the farm to hang out with the guys, thinking my wife would not notice. Yet, every time I came home she would say, “You’ve been to the farm haven’t you?” I had acquired the smell of the farm animals simply by associating with them. This is true of human relationships, as well. We take on characteristics of those around us. Paul warns us to keep away from divisive people so that we do not become like them.
Another reason we are told to avoid divisive people is to give them a firm warning of how offensive their behavior is. By avoiding them are saying, “We want no part of your behavior. Divisiveness stinks; we do not want to take on that smell.”
As suggested earlier, “It’s time to get to work.” There is much work to be done. It should be obvious that although believers are unified by their mutual union to the triune God, there are nonetheless numerous practical obligations to maintain unity that fall upon us. Too often Christians complain about the state of the church without taking a critical look in the mirror. If there is a lack of unity in our churches, each of us should learn to say, “It is my fault.”
Do you have a humble character, or might your personal pride be a roadblock to unity? Do you have a tamed tongue, or might your words be dividing the body of Christ? Seek humility and a self-controlled tongue. Then begin with family, include outsiders, settle disputes quickly, mind your own business and avoid divisive people.
1. From Debi Pearl, Created to Be His Help Meet, (Pleasantville, TN: No Greater Joy Ministries, 2004), 177,178.
Rev. William D. Boekestein is the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.