“My prayer is . . . that all of them may be one” (John 17:20, 21). In these few words of Christ we catch a glimpse of God’s ideal for church unity. Does the church share His view? Shortly after Jesus uttered these words to His Father, one of His “friends” betrayed Him, another disowned Him, a few others lingered in the shadows, and the rest presumably scattered, each going his own way. The question could have been asked, “Is church unity possible?” Startlingly, soon after Jesus’ ascension, the church came together as one man (Acts 2:44). Not surprisingly, the unified, early church experienced unprecedented joy and growth.
Today, the question could again be asked, “Is church unity possible?” Despite present appearances to the contrary, the answer is still, “Yes!” The great High Priest has not changed His prayer; church unity is still God’s will. Is it yours?
In this series of articles we will explore God’s will for church unity. We hope to explore this topic critically, theologically, practically and encouragingly. For now, we look at this topic inquisitively. In other words, the goal of this first article is simply to answer the question, “Why should I care about Christian unity?”
Why are doctors are able to persuade us to take all kinds of medicines, some of which are distasteful, others of which are painful, and most of which are expensive? It is because they have convinced us of the importance of the medication and of our need for it. They have convinced us that it will be better for us to take the medication than to avoid it. So we would persuade you, with the help of God, that this topic of unity is one that you would do well to heed. The topic of unity should be important to you for at least four introductory reasons.
Unity Is a Good and Pleasant Thing
Psalm 133:1 says, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” This clear proposition is introduced by the word, “behold,” which is an interjection. Today, we might use words like, “look,” or “hey!” The point is, someone is passionately calling our attention to this proposition—that person is God the Holy Spirit. God is calling our attention to a good and pleasant thing that He has set before us.
The next two verses describe how pleasant unity is. God first compares unity to precious oil. To understand what God is saying here, recall how soothing it is to apply aloe to sun-scorched skin. So it is when brothers dwell together in unity. Similarly, God links unity to the pleasantness of life-giving water. The water that runs down Mount Hermon provides vitality to the valley below. Usually the most pleasant places on earth are those that receive the most water. Unity soothes like a balm and refreshes like water; it is desirable.
My wife and I like to share our food with each other, especially at restaurants. When I hear her say, “Mmm, this soup is great!” I know what she’s doing. She is letting me know that the food set before her is “good and pleasant.” She does this because she wants to share it with me. Usually, before I can ask, the next thing she says is, “Would you like to try some?” That is essentially what God is doing in the Psalm 133. God is calling your attention to the goodness of unity so that you will be inclined to try it!
God not only draws us to unity by way of analogy, but also by way of explanation. Unity is a good and pleasant thing, says God, because He promises to bless unity. Psalm 133 concludes by saying, “For there (i.e., the place where unity is found) the Lord commanded the blessing—Life forevermore.” The Lord promises to bless believers who live in unity. The reality is that unified believers are blessed because the spirit of unity is the most fitting atmosphere in which to work. This atmosphere is fitting because it is consistent with God’s very nature. His triune nature is one of unity in diversity. It should not surprise us, then, that God chooses to command His blessing where His character is reflected in the unity of diverse people.
In Psalm 133 God states, describes, and finally explains the beauty of unity. His point is well taken. Is not the thrust of this Psalm amply confirmed by our own experiences? Who could argue with this Psalm? Our spirits soar when we are surrounded by unity; such is its goodness.
Disunity Is a Bad and Unpleasant Thing
This is the flip side to this first point. The Scriptures confirm: it is bad and unpleasant when brothers dwell together in disunity. The Proverb says it powerfully: “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (17:1). Have you ever been to a family gathering where the family was not unified? If you have, then you can confirm that it is almost enough to take away your appetite.
Will we admit that our family life does not paint the perfect picture of unity? Will we admit that we all experience the harsh reality of discord? Ask your children. How many children would not say, if they were honest, “I could do without all the toys, all the luxuries of life. But the conflict in our home is painful.” How many husbands could not say the same thing: “I don’t need the perfect meal. I don’t need my house to be perfectly picked up when I get home from work. Just give me peace and unity in my home.” Wives, too, could agree: “I do not need that new mini-van that isn’t all rusted out and that doesn’t have food stains all over the back seat. I don’t need that large paycheck at the end of the week. But I do need unity. I do need quality time enjoying my family.” Our hearts echo the Proverb: Poverty with peace is better than riches with strife. Disunity is existentially painful.
Disunity is also bad and unpleasant in that it is anti-progressive. Disunity squelches the effectiveness of individuals and groups. When my wife and children are standing, as it were, with their arms locked together with mine, I feel like I can do anything. However, when there is conflict in the home, all the wind is taken out of my sails. I feel as though I cannot do anything. Most husbands, fathers, wives, and mothers would agree. Individuals cannot function properly in an atmosphere of disunity. Neither can larger groups.
Amos 3:3 asks, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” Can two horses pull a plow in opposite directions? Cooperative work stagnates in the absence of unity. This is eminently true in the church. The effectiveness of our churches is in direct proportion to the quality of their unity. If the church desires to move forward in good health, then we need to emphasize the importance of unity within the church. In a subsequent article we will note the effectiveness of the early church as they lived in a spirit of unity (Acts 2). Without this unity, their impact on the world would have been seriously impaired.
Of course, the basic reason that divisiveness is unpleasant is because it is sin. “He who loves a quarrel loves sin” (Proverbs 17:19). Sin is always unpleasant. It always spoils. We need to label divisiveness as sin. Although it may be painful, such confession is also liberating. Sin can be forgiven. The pain that divisive sin causes can be healed. God’s forgiveness enables quarrelling sinners to start walking a new path.
Unity Is Part of the Christian Calling
Paul begins Ephesians 4 by exhorting Christians to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called.” Then, in the next six verses, he emphasizes unity. God calls Christians to live the life of a Christian. More specifically, He has called Christians to walk in unity. If you do not choose unity, then you are not walking worthy of the calling to which you were called.
Such was the case in the Corinthian church. Paul writes of their shameful disunity. “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:18). Notice that Paul says, “in part I believe it.” He is saying that it is nearly inconceivable that Christians would have divisions. Why? Because, it is utterly incongruent with their calling! Christians are called out of a world that has been disunited since the fall, and have been grafted into the unity of the family of God. We should not take it for granted that there will be disunity in the church. We should be appalled by it, and we should seek to remedy the problem. Paul does just that in his letter. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you, and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10; NIV). After all, this is what Christ prayed for, that they may be one (John 17:21). Unity is at the center of your calling.
The Salvation of Your Unbelieving Neighbors Depends on Unity
Of course, properly, salvation does not depend on man at all. Nonetheless, God connects Christian unity with His gracious and sovereign work of granting eternal life. He tells us in Psalm 133 that, in the context of unity, God works salvation. Again, this is what we see in Acts 2. The believers there were unified, and God added daily to their number. One of the means that God used for the salvation of many souls was the unity of the church. This principle has been proven over and again in church history. God is saying to us today, “I will work salvation in your community as you dwell together in unity!” Is that what we want? Then we must be interested in unity.
In a woodenly literal sense, the salvation of your unbelieving neighbor does depend on unity, humanly speaking. Just ask them! Ask your unbelieving neighbors why many of them refuse to worship with God’s people. Listen to what they are saying. Very often, they harden their hearts because of disunity within the congregation. Recently, I read the blog of one person who has left the church. He said “I stopped going to church because I realized that religion is quite possibly the biggest producer of hypocrites and conflicts in the world.” Whether this person is right or wrong in his claim is really not the point. The point is that this is the perception of thousands of unbelievers. Listen to what the world is saying. “Christians can’t get along. They fight with each other. Christ prayed for their unity, but his prayer apparently has not been answered. This religion is pointless, and I want no part of it.” The result of this is that such people excuse themselves from the sphere of God’s blessing. They cut themselves off from the means of grace, from the preaching, and from the sacraments. The salvation of your neighbors depends on your unity.
Because this is true, God takes church unity very seriously. In Romans 16:17 God says, “Take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.” This point is reiterated in Titus 3:10. Here we see the hard stance that God takes against workers of disunity within a church. Paul says, “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.” Why is God so harsh? Allow the Scripture itself to answer this question. Paul’s point in his letter to Titus is that Christians must live godly lives in order to make the gospel attractive. Consider a few passages. In Titus 2:5, Paul has just finished giving instructions to older men and women and young women to live godly. Then he adds these words: “ . . . that the word of God may not be blasphemed.” Verse eight is similar. He has instructed young men to be sober minded, “that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.” Finally, in verse ten, after charging servants to fidelity, he adds, “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.” Paul is teaching us that reputation matters in gospel work. This is why God is so intolerant of divisive people within the church. They are a bad testimony for the church. They are a bad testimony for the gospel. They are a bad testimony for God Himself. Unity, when looked at this way, is a qualification for personal and corporate evangelism.
An Invitation to Unity
This goal of this first article was to demonstrate the importance of this topic so that we might give our attention to it. In closing, I would like to remind you how God emphasizes the importance of this topic in Scripture. Yes, He does stress its importance in the form of commands and warnings. These commands and warnings are given in the context of a loving and benevolent appeal. It is as if God is setting a table before us with the tastiest and healthiest food imaginable. He says, “Doesn’t this look good?” Then he commands us: “Come and eat!” Only then does he issue warnings. “If you do not come, there will be consequences. You will not be blessed. I will not work among you. Your life will be filled with strife.” Let us give diligence to the doctrine of Christian unity. And may God bless us with unity, not only for our sake and for the sake of our neighbor, but for the sake of the glory of the triune God.
Rev. William D. Boekestein is the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.