Spiritual unity remains an elusive goal in the Lord’s church. While some form of unity has existed for brief periods over the centuries, allowing a slight respite from bickering and controversy, these times serve as the exception rather than the rule. As such, they remind us just how far we have to go in our pilgrimage upon this earth. Church History recounts a lengthy series of disputes—many doctrinal, many not—and congregational histories often follow a similar pattern, just as Israel did throughout its history. Such arguments demonstrate how difficult unity is both to achieve and to maintain and show how little we learn from our failures generationally. This itself is significant. While the unity declared and described in scripture has remained available since the first century, our execution is sorely lacking.
- Admittedly, doctrinal issues create division. To some degree, this is essential to maintain the purity of the church (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 John 3:3). The identity of the church comes from doctrine given in the scriptures. Therefore, we cannot prioritize unity over doctrine or we sacrifice the very identity of the church for which Jesus died. Nor can God’s people overlook error that allows or even encourages sin (Eph. 5:11). However, some matters, while doctrinal—in that they stem from our understanding of the scriptures—may fall into the category of differences in understanding rather than in differences in practice. In other words, you could worship with someone for years and never know you disagreed. And, in these types of matters, the disagreement would affect little or nothing in terms of practice. Most people have cited the mode of indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:14) as a sample of this type of disagreement, but the true problem lies in our poor efforts of recognizing that other differences might fall into the same category. Therefore, we end up treating this one issue as some kind of spiritual unicorn. We often call this the realm of opinion, but that description probably creates much of the confusion. The mode of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling is still doctrinal; it still comes from the scriptures. And therefore it is far different from opinions about the most expedient manner handling evangelism in the local congregation. It might seem silly to think of congregations dividing over a difference between knocking doors and using mass media to reach the lost, but the past year has demonstrated that some are willing to divide over matters even less spiritually focused. However, we must do more than just admit this; we must learn to prevent the otherwise predictable recurrence of similar division. While some have abused Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 in arguing for “unity in diversity” by overlooking sin and error, others have ignored these passages as if their own opinions and preferences carry greater weight than those of others (and sometimes of scripture). Therefore, it is essential to acknowledge the principles necessary to approach unity biblically rather than to haphazardly continue in the fundamentally flawed manner that has plagued the Lord’s church.
- We must agree upon the verbal plenary inspiration of scripture, its absolute role in providing truth and establishing doctrine, and the logical consistency in hermeneutics required for proper contextual interpretation. This is essential to provide the foundation of truth upon which all other unity can be built and the means by which all differences can, with the right heart and understanding, be resolved (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
- We must agree to value the truth of scripture over culture, tradition, or personal opinion—especially when the scriptures challenge our presumptions (Matt. 15:8-9; John 17:17).
- We must unite in action to implement all that the scriptures require for us to be God’s people, worship as God’s people, work as God’s people, and interact as God’s people (1 Cor. 1:10).
- We must both accept the inevitability of disagreement due to the flaws in human understanding and learn to work through them with patience, uniting on the truth rather than simply dividing into camps, which quickly become schisms, which lead to permanent division (Gal. 5:20).
- We must dedicate ourselves to determining what makes a problem a fellowship issue on the basis of principle with patience, love, and consistency to avoid simply reacting to differences piecemeal and with anger (Rom. 15:5-6).
The past year has taken a heavy toll on everyone. A tumultuous election cycle has divided people politically, a deadly virus has separated family and friends socially. Anger, suspicion, and fear have fractured relationships emotionally. More than that, the combination of all of these has broken many hearts spiritually. And what people need most in order to heal is an environment of unity—in the brotherhood and in local congregations. This is essential for people to overcome their hurt, let go of their pride, embrace learning new things, and begin to grow spiritually once more.
We may not like the unpleasant aftermath of a pandemic or its spiritual consequences on the Lord’s church, but that should never govern our response. Instead, we must develop a greater determination to love God, to love the truth, and to love one another with such fervor that we are willing to let go of our pride, back away from unnecessary disputes, and instead embrace true discipleship once more (Psa. 133:1).