Max Lucado, tells the following story with wit and style,
Some time ago I came upon a fellow on a trip who was carrying a Bible.
“Are you a believer?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said excitedly.
I’ve learned you can’t be too careful.
“Virgin birth?” I asked.
“I accept it.”
“Deity of Jesus?”
“Death of Christ on the cross?”
“He died for all people.”
Could it be that I was face to face with a Christian? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I continued my checklist.
“Status of man.”
“Sinner in need of grace.”
“Definition of grace.”
“God doing for man what man can’t do.”
“Return of Christ?”
“The Body of Christ.”
I started getting excited. “Conservative or liberal?”
He was getting interested too. “Conservative.”
My heart began to beat faster.
“Southern Congregationalist Holy Son of God Dispensationalist Triune Convention.”
That was mine!
“Pre-millennial, post-trib, noncharismatic, King James, one-cup communion.”
My eyes misted. I had only one other question.
“Is your pulpit wooden or fiberglass?”
“Fiberglass,” he responded.
I withdrew my hand and stiffened my neck. “Heretic!” I said and walked away.
[A GENTLE THUNDER, Max Lucado p. 139, 140)
Though humorous and extreme, Lucado identifies a common problem . . . we are quick to divide over just about anything. Somewhere in America today (probably in many places) one group of people has decided they must start a new church because the one they currently belong to isn’t “doing it” right.
One wag said it well, “to live above with those we love, oh, how that will be glory. To live below with those we know, now that’s another story.” It’s true . . . but it shouldn’t be.
In the conclusion of Jesus’ great prayer, He prays for those who would believe because of the message of the disciples. . . .He prays for us. He prays for the church. The one request that stands out (because it is repeated three times!) is that His followers be united as One.
We are not called to create unity . . . we are called to maintain it. However, before we can maintain the unity that comes from being related to each other in Christ, we must repair some of the damage we have done. This morning let’s talk about maintaining unity in our church and community.
Good Reasons for Unity
The first reason for unity is in verse 21: “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me.” You see, the world may have a hard time understanding or believing in Jesus but they cannot argue with love in His followers. In verse 23 Jesus says almost the same thing: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Jesus tells us that the greatest tool of evangelism is the love we show for each other. Unity is the bedrock of evangelism. People understand the love of God when they see that love manifested in His people.
What happens more often is people are turning away from the gospel because of the bickering between Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised. Who wants to be part of a group that is so divided? Why would you want to enlist in such a troubled organization? People are looking for answers, not more problems. The world is confused by the church today. They feel they find help in one location and then in another location they hear that the help they received came from a fraudulent source. They turn somewhere else and others tell them they are foolish. They hear that those who believe or practice a certain way cannot be true believers. They are confused. They remain lost.
We are like the Midianites in Judges 7. Gideon comes against the huge Midianite army (estimated about 130,000) with 300 men. And he overwhelms the Midianites without raising a sword against them. Gideon, on directions from the Lord, has all the men carry a hidden torch and surround the camp. On the given signal the torches are exposed and the men blow their trumpets. To the Midianites it must have seemed that a giant army had them surrounded (they assumed that each man was a leader of his own battalion.) So what happens? In the chaos, the Midianites begin killing each other! The army fled in terror.
What does this have to do with unity? Simply this: the Devil is using the same tactic against us. He is planting lies in our minds so that we will fight against each other. He sits on the sidelines and watches us do his work for him!
But there is another reason for unity. It’s this: we need each other. In 1 Corinthians Paul likens us to a body, a family. We need the comfort, instruction, gifts the other possesses. We also are depriving ourselves of great joy when we divide. It is certainly true that “variety is the spice of life”. Our differences serve a very important function:
- they keep us from grievous error. When everyone marches in step all the time it is easy to be led astray without even realizing it. Adolf Hitler led a whole nation astray. He did it by silencing all competing viewpoints.
- differences keep us fresh and alive. Differences force us to think about what we believe. It is easy to simply adopt the walk and talk of those we spend time with. We can do this in the church. We conform and stop thinking. When there are differences you are mentally awake and alert. That’s good for you.
- differences expose us to joys we would not have discovered with them. If we were all the same some would never sing the great hymns of the faith. Others would never sing any of the up tempo choruses. Some would believe salvation was solely our responsibility. Still others would think that since God has done it for us there is nothing for us to do but have a good time. Some would never understand the freshness of God’s Spirit, others would never know the assurance that comes from God’s Sovereignty.
The list could continue but hopefully you get the idea. Differences do not destroy us . . . they strengthen us.
I don’t want to undermine the point I have been trying to make of the importance of unity. But I must be careful lest my words be taken to an extreme not promoted in Scripture. I remind you of three important cautions regarding unity:
- Unity must never be at the expense of truth. We are NOT all headed in the same direction. We do NOT all serve the same God. Only those who look to Christ as Savior are really our brothers and sisters in the faith.
- Unity does not mean ignoring controversial issues. We must not ignore those areas on which we disagree. The matters we disagree on are important to our growth and development. We need to talk about: the form of baptism, spiritual gifts, the role of women in the church, God’s place in the process of salvation, human responsibility, the end times and more. These are issues raised by the Word of God. However, the attitude in which we carry on our debate must be one of love: first for God, second for each other. The process of discussion and debate is what sharpens and deepens us . . . even if we never convince each other to change positions.
- Unity is not the same as Uniformity. We are not called to be “the same” we are called to be one. Variety is valuable. In many cases the issue does not boil down to who is “right” and who is “wrong”. Many issues are simply a matter of personality and preference. As I’ve said many times before: Different means “Different”. It doesn’t mean “better than” or “worse than”, it just means “different”.
Steps to Building Unity
Step one: Celebrate what we hold in common
Ted Haggard has a very helpful illustration and description that will help us sort some of this out. Haggard points out that there are really four kinds of issues in the church:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
These items are of “first importance”
- the Deity of Christ (implied)
- the reality of sin and judgment (implied)
- the Sacrificial Substitutionary Death of Christ for our sin
- the bodily resurrection of Jesus
- the inspiration and authority of Scripture
Though there are other items I might add to the list, I won’t.
The INTERPRETATIONS are those things which we conclude from a text. It’s when we say, “this text means . . . ” These are conclusions that we draw. Even though we are careful about our study and our conclusions we are not without error in our thinking. There can be carefully arrived at different interpretations. Here are some examples:
- THAT we are saved by God’s gracious act is an absolute . . .how much God does in the process and how much we do is an interpretation.
- The IMPORTANCE of baptism is absolute . . . .the timing and mode of baptism (how much water) is an interpretation.
- The FACT that the bread of communion represents the Body of Christ is an absolute, HOW it represents his body is an interpretation.
The DEDUCTIONS are those conclusions we draw from putting a bunch of verses together. It is largely the process of developing a “systematic theology”. Again, we do this carefully and with a great desire to know the truth. However, as we assemble our verses there is a great deal of subjectivity involved. (Which verses do you include and which do you avoid? . . .on what basis do you draw your conclusion . . .are you taking each verse in context?). Therefore there is room for disagreement on these issues. Some more examples:
- THAT Jesus will return is an absolute. HOW He will do so (end time charts, etc.) is a deduction.
- THAT God has equipped the saints with spiritual gifts is a fact . . . how these gifts will be manifested in a deduction.
PREFERENCES are outside these circles. They are things we hold which are not based on any specific teaching of the Word of God. They are based on experience, culture, and feelings. Some more examples:
- The importance of reading the Bible is without question . . . .what version you read, how often you read, what approach you take to your reading are all preferences.
- The importance of evangelism is clear but the form the evangelism takes (altar calls, quiet prayers, etc.) is a preference.
- The importance of worship is without debate . . . the style of worship (with the exception of the command to do things decently and in order) is a matter of preference.
- Our music style, dress code, architecture, Sunday School structure are all preferences.
Now here’s the question: Where does our conflict center? If we are dividing over the core absolutes of the faith then divide we must. BUT . . .there must be room for disagreement in the other areas. Augustine said it well; “In Essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”
Step Two: Respect Credible Differences in Interpretation
One of the best experiences of my life was attending a somewhat liberal theological seminary. It was certainly frustrating because I disagreed so often with the teachers . . . but, it was valuable because it taught me that many people have reasoned positions that I disagree with. I used to think that anyone who disagreed with me was simply a mental and spiritual pygmy. All they needed was to be “shown the truth” and they would see that I was right. I learned that some people were careful students of the word and did love the Lord and still came down on different sides of an issue than I did. By listening to these people (in order to understand, not refute) I was able to deepen my own understanding of God.
We must beware of “new” doctrines. We must beware of things that have no “scriptural basis”. But otherwise we should respect the differences others have. We must learn that the person on the poster of an “Ideal Christian” is not us. We can learn and have our own faith bolstered by listening to those who differ from us.
Step Three: Speak Positively of Other members of the Household of God
In our desire to promote our own beliefs and churches we have a strong tendency to belittle and criticize others publically. This should not be done. Those people represent the same Lord. They are family. When they are ridiculed a member of our family is being attacked. We must make a conscious effort to be encouraging and supportive rather than negative and slanderous. Refuse to be party to divisive conversation.
Step Four: Pray for One another
It is extremely difficult to be hostile to those you are sincerely lifting up in prayer. I know it is hard to pray that God work in and through another church . . . . because we want to be the one everyone points to! But different people are reached by different styles and approaches. We must always keep the goal in mind . . . we want to bring Christ to our community not just to our church!
Jesus speaks practical words. There is much at stake. It is true that we need to help each other stay on the “narrow road”. At times we need to extend correction and rebuke. But this should be private and done in love not arrogance.
It is possible that there is one who reads this who is confused and scared from the bickering of the church. On behalf of the church universal may I say: “Please forgive us for our foolishness.” Though it may sound like all kinds of things “are the issue” there is only one issue, and on this we agree: Where do you stand with Jesus Christ? Have you turned to Him as the only one who can rescue you from the futile and aimless nature of your life? Do you recognize Him as the one who pays the price for your rebellion and sin? Jesus is the issue. Where do you stand with Him? I encourage you to get right in that area of primary importance.
And to the believer, it is time that we were clear on what we are about. We are about glorifying Christ, not our particular gathering of followers. We will have different approaches, different points of emphasis, but the same Lord.
It’s time we worked together rather than against each other. Time to encourage rather than divide. Time to work together so our friends and neighbors might be kept from perishing apart from Christ. It’s time to stop making it easy for the Devil.