Disunity in the church has always been a problem:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV)
Unity is hard because people are sinful. Unity is hard because our understanding is partial. Unity is hard because the devil strives against it. Unity is hard because some people desire prominence. Unity is hard because the issues we face are complex.
So what are we to do?
Paul doesn’t tell us to stop talking about things. I was in a denomination that tried that approach and it only drove our disagreements underground. Paul encourages these folks to seek agreement – that means talking. That means thinking. That means writing papers and doing research and submitting to feedback; not to “win the argument” but rather so as to achieve unity of mind and harmony in judgment.
Is that even possible?
It must be or Paul wouldn’t encourage us to pursue it. So how do we get there? Or, perhaps more modestly, how do we begin to make progress toward that goal in our generation? A few suggestions:
1. Make the Bible your primary text
We will never achieve unity of mind and judgment if we are all reading from different texts and prioritizing different sources. The Bible has to be our common authority. If you are reading Calvin more than you are reading the Bible, then you are part of the problem. If you are reading Rushdoony more than you are reading the Bible, then you are part of the problem. If you are reading Zahn, Boyd, McKnight, DeYoung, Keller or Carson more than you are reading the Bible, then you are part of the problem. Using a scholar as a guide or a conversation partner is wonderful – but using them as a lens or a cipher leads to tribalism. That is exactly the issue that Paul was confronting in Corinth:
“each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12–13 ESV)
If you really value unity in the church then I think we should agree to make this something of an informal law: if you aren’t reading through the whole Bible every year then you don’t get to read and study other writers and theologians. Those people can be supplements, but never substitutes. If we don’t put something like this in place, then the church will remind divided into petty tribes and alliances.
2. Fear God above the censor of the culture
If we are worried about landing on the wrong side of history or about ending up in the crosshairs of the culture wars we will never achieve unity of mind and judgment because the focus of the culture is always shifting and you can never predict where history will eventually land. Following cultural consensus and attempting to anticipate history is a fool’s errand. But the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fearing in the wrong direction will create currents of compromise and diverging rivulets of innovation and unfaithfulness. Jesus said:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 ESV)
In the same way that we need a common source to achieve unity in the church, so too we need a common objective. The common objective ought to be hearing these words from our Creator:
“‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:21 ESV)
If we are all aiming at that, we ought to draw significantly closer to each other over time.
3. Let love enjoy the prominence it deserves
It is important to get things right. It is important to identify error. It is important to be watchful and wary. It is important for us to make progress towards a better understanding and articulation of our faith.
But none of these things is more important than love.
That is precisely the point that Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthians. The issues there had to do with tribalism and charismatic excess. Paul doesn’t delegitimize human leadership, nor does he delegitimize speaking in tongues, but he does seek to place those things in proper perspective. In chapter 13 he says:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1–3 ESV)
If I have all the charismatic gifts; if I am a heroic and noble leader and yet have not love, I am nothing.
Love is the most important gift!
Love is the most important characteristic of a leader!
Without love you are not qualified to lead and you probably shouldn’t be confident in calling yourself a Christian. Love is the standard, the starting place and the centre. Love is the most important thing.
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13 ESV)
We will never achieve unity in the church until love enjoys the prominence in our hierarchy of concerns that it rightly deserves. Until we care about love more than we care about winning arguments, building brands and attracting followers the dream of unity will remain nothing more than that.
But if we put love in the front seat, and if we fear God more than the censure of the culture and if we make the Bible our primary source and authority then maybe – slowly but surely – by the grace that God supplies – we will achieve unity of mind and harmony of judgment in the church of Jesus Christ in our day.
O Lord, make it so! And may it start with me.
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Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or on Google Play.