Unity in the Local Church
By Fred Zaspel–
It’s shameful, but the fact is that in many respects the story of the Christian church is a story of fightings and splits. We admit it when we sing — “by schisms torn asunder.” There is scarcely a Christian church anywhere that has not endured it. “I didn’t like what he said!” and “I didn’t like the way he said it” have bred more church divisions than we could ever count. Countless churches endure with people lined up on either of two sides of some non-essential issue that has been blown way out of proportion, lifeless existence, stifled worship services, and the church unable to move ahead — and continuing like this for years. It’s a sorry commentary on us, but it is reality.
The simple fact is that the church is really very often a walking contradiction. We are redeemed saints, and we are redeemed sinners. We are people in whom God has begun a glorious work of salvation, but that work is not yet complete. We have faults of all kinds — some major, some minor, but all potentially explosive. One person has a particular sin or just something about him that just rubs me wrong. And of course I have my own quirks, faults, and hot buttons. And we both have pride. And with a combination like that there is potential for all kinds of disaster.
Shameful as it is, it is an old problem, and you might be surprised to notice how often the apostle Paul addressed the topic, urging the churches to correct this glaring problem. Sometimes he will write and say, in so many words, “Brothers and sisters! What we hold in common vastly transcends the petty differences that exist among you.” This is essentially what Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6 — the common essentials of our Trinitarian salvation constitute a oneness established by God himself among us that is unbreakable and eternal.
At other times the apostle will write with a rebuke that is a bit sharper. “Brothers and sisters!” he will say in so many words, “the way you are behaving is a denial of the gospel! It strikes at the heart of what we are! We believe and preach, don’t we, that we are one in Christ? And don’t we believe and preach that the gospel overcomes all lesser differences among us?” (This is Paul’s argument in Eph. 2-3). “And don’t we believe and preach that the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms a man from the inside out?” (This is Paul’s overall argument in Eph. 4-6). “Don’t you see what your actions are saying about you?”
But in Ephesians 4:1-3 the apostle does something more. Here he counsels us concerning how we may promote peace and unity in the life of our own congregation.
Interestingly, it is only at this point that the apostle has arrived at the “hortatory” section of his letter. Up to this point there have been no exhortations or no commands, only instruction in the verities of the Christian faith. But now (Eph. 4:1) he turns to exhort us how to live, and he says, “I urge you therefore to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” That is, this that you believe has certain ethical implications, and we must be sure those implications are evident in the way we live. We must live in a way that is consistent with the gospel we profess. And significantly, his first point of specific exhortation concerns the peaceful unity of the congregation — “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3). The gospel we profess ought to be evident in the peaceful fellowship of the people of Christ.
Then in verse 2, the apostle gives a very simple prescription for achieving that peace to which he calls us. With four simple exhortations he marks the path to accomplishing peaceful church unity. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Here is his prescription for local church peace.
First, he says, “Be completely humble.” Humility, “lowliness of mind” as the King James version translates it, a naturally self-effacing disposition. This is the first step toward peace. There is just nothing that will disrupt the peace in church life like pride. My feelings, my way, my concerns, my agenda — these are what matter! And with a spirit like that, disunity is inevitable. But cultivate humility on all sides, and unity is unavoidable.
Second, “be gentle.” Be meek. This is simply humility in action. Power under control. Restrained rather than selfishly self-assertive. A meek person is one who does not always have to insist on his own rights, one who does not have to “get even.” It is that unresisting disposition of mind that enables us to bear without resentment or retaliation the faults and injuries of others. A person who is meek is teachable (James 1:21). A person who is meek does not always have to have his own way, and he does not blast or condemn those who disagree with him. Can you see how this would promote peace in your church?
Third, “with patience” — “longsuffering,” as the KJV renders it. Our basic problem is obvious — we are all sinners. Every one of us has faults. And not only do we have faults, but we also have various quirks and oddities that just rub others the wrong way. This is true of every one of us. And so the fact is if there is going to be peace we must be patient with one another. We must be willing to “suffer long” with those who irk us. Just as God has been patient with us. And make no mistake about it — this is the standard (Eph.4:32). To “walk worthy” of our high calling in Christ we must deal with one another as Christ has with us. We must say, “In view of the fact that God has been so patient with me, even though my sins against him are far worse and far more in number than my brother’s sins against me, I must be patient.”
Finally, he commands us to “bear with one another in love.” This expression is similar to “be patient,” but it focuses on enduring difficulty and offense. It calls us to self-restraint when others do things that rub us wrong.
And notice Paul says we must do this “in love.” That really says it all, doesn’t it. If I love you, I won’t have a great problem “putting up” with you. My children have faults, but because I love them I have no real trouble accepting them as they are. And likewise they with me. Just as the Lord with us. Love is the key.
And all this we do, “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Can you see again how Paul is dealing here with root issues? Do you think that a cultivation of humility, meekness, and loving patience would enhance the “getting along” factor in your church? Would not all this sweeten our fellowship?
And notice that the apostle is not calling us here to “establish” unity. No, he calls us to “keep” it, to guard and protect it. Our unity in Christ is already an established fact. The essentials of Ephesians 4:4-6 constitute our oneness. No, Paul’s command here is a familiar one. Very simply, it is this — “Be what you are!” Live up to your calling. You have been made one in Christ, and that oneness must be evident in the way you get on with one another in the congregation. Out of our recognition that God has already established our eternal unity in Jesus Christ, we must make it our determined goal to display that unity in uninterrupted “peace.” “Keep” the unity. Put it on display by a continued peace among yourselves. This is the command.
One day we will all be brought together under Christ to a perfect realization of this goal. In that great day we will together bow before him and sing his praises. In his presence we — together — will worship him as never before. It is our solemn duty to put that unity and peace on display today so that outsiders looking in will always see the glorious truth of the life-transforming gospel displayed in our relationships with one another.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).