Can't We All Just Get Along?
The following is an article from our Summer 2008 issue of SALT.
CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
By James McDermott
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. 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.” John 17:20-23
Jesus prayed that those who would believe the apostles’ message would be brought to complete unity and His prayer was answered. Concerning the early church, Luke wrote, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” The results, of course, were remarkable, for “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Wouldn’t you love to be part of a church like that?
Sadly, most Christians have never experienced anything even remotely like the unity the disciples experienced at the beginning. We are divided - divided by just about everything. We are divided by theology - baptism, the Lord’s Supper, tongues, predestination, the end times, Scripture translation, the role of women, the authority of husbands, head coverings, divorce, women working outside the home, church government, Sabbaths, etc. We are also divided by how we apply the theology to our daily lives - home schooling, birth control, courtship, television, movies, books, video games, music, dancing, clothing, medical issues, politics, and food. Finally, we are divided by difficult people who are selfish, demanding, overly sensitive, unforgiving, proud, unteachable, unreasonable, ignorant, insensitive, and lacking grace. And it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the world doesn’t know as it should that the Father sent Jesus and loves him - even as the Father loves us. And it also isn’t surprising that most of us don’t see the Lord adding to our numbers daily (or weekly or monthly) those who are being saved.
Wouldn’t it be nice to change our divided Christian church into a fellowship where “All believers were one in heart and mind”? Since Jesus Himself prayed that we would be brought to complete unity, we should be able to pray for unity with complete confidence that it is God’s will for us. And since we have an example in the Scriptures of a church that actually achieved complete unity, we should believe that it could happen again. For they were sinners just as we are and they achieved unity by the same power we have available to us today - the power of the Holy Spirit. If complete unity is something to pray for, to aspire to, and even to achieve, what must we do to make it happen? The answer is really very simple: to get their results we must become like them and do what they did.
1. ALL OF THEM WERE FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT (ACTS 2:4)
I believe all true Christians have the Holy Spirit living inside them, but we know that the Spirit is stronger in some than in others. The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5) These are all very conducive to unity. On the other hand, some believers have not sufficiently gained control over their sinful nature. The fruits of the sinful nature include: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, and envy.” (Gal. 5) Lasting unity, then, will never be achieved by mere human effort. It can only be achieved by the power of the Holy Spirit in those who are crucifying the flesh.
We see so much worldliness in the church in our culture. Christians have given themselves over to building little kingdoms for themselves that can only last as long as their mortal bodies. We are building careers for money and prestige, we are buying luxurious houses and buying land, we are traveling, and being amused. We are rich in the things of the world, but we are poor in the things of God. The pleasures of this age will pass. We need to crucify the flesh and be filled with the Spirit if we are ever to achieve unity.
2. THEY DEVOTED THEMSELVES TO THE APOSTLES TEACHING AND TO THE FELLOWSHIP, TO THE BREAKING OF BREAD AND TO PRAYER. (ACTS 2:42)
It is hard to believe that in an age where Bibles can be purchased from the dollar store that so many Christians do not read the Scriptures regularly and many have never read the entire Bible. If we devoted ourselves to knowing and understanding the Scriptures, some of our differences would immediately disappear. And when we read the Scriptures we need to read humbly and let God’s Word speak to us. We must try to avoid being stubborn - trying to force our own preconceived, wrong beliefs on the Scriptures. A people devoted to knowing and understanding the Scriptures, and putting what they know into practice, will be like the wise man who built his house on the rock. It will not easily be torn apart.
The early church also devoted themselves to the fellowship. How can we be unified if we are not devoted to the fellowship? Isn’t the fellowship a visible sign of our unity? But I see two common errors that prevent us from achieving our goal.
The first is churches that split people apart. Christians commit themselves to the fellowship and churches turn around and separate them. They segregate everyone by age, marital status and sometimes by gender. Churches, then, are often an impediment to unity. We don’t see in the book of Acts anything like Children’s church, youth groups, singles groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, young married couple groups, and divorced groups. In the book of Acts we see everyone together: women and men, married and single, adult and youth (remember Eutychus who fell out of the window as Paul talked on and on?). What does it say about our faith if we can only have close fellowship with people who are just like us?
The second error was common in the church I grew up in amongst the less committed who claimed to be believers. They didn’t regularly attend church meetings. These were the people we’d see only on Easter and Christmas. However, since I began trying to start a church fellowship in my home a few years ago I have seen a new phenomenon. Some of the most committed Christians I know have shunned formal ties with any church fellowship. They believe the church has become so corrupt that they have separated themselves from organized religion.
But the Scriptures say, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” (Heb. 10:25) And Paul has some detailed instructions for how our meetings are supposed to be run. “Everyone is to bring a hymn, word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” Paul says two or three prophets should speak, two or three should speak in tongues (but only if there is someone to interpret). Paul also says women must remain silent in the churches.
Meetings, then, are not the same as having another Christian family over for dinner. The fellowship is not the same as the group of Christians that visits the amusement park, and the church in this sense is not the people of God wherever they are. I believe very strongly that when the Scriptures say the early church was committed to the fellowship they meant something more than merely informal Christian companionship. Unity may be lost when we see the petty divisions we see in many churches, but unity can never be achieved through separation.
We weren’t meant to be Lone Ranger Christians. Church organization is not synonymous with family organization. We were meant to be organized into local fellowships so we could edify and encourage one another. We were meant to meet together so we could spur one another on towards love and good deeds. The Scriptures say, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2) We need to be devoted to the fellowship.
The early disciples were also devoted to the breaking of bread. This may have involved sharing meals together, but it certainly involved participation in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10). When we come together to observe the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11). But we are also proclaiming the gospel - the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s body and blood. And it is our acceptance of Christ’s body and blood - shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins - that unifies us. The Lord’s Supper, then, brings us back to the basics - to the important foundation of our faith and of our fellowship. Therefore, those of us who take the Lord’s Supper lightly and those who think it unnecessary should reconsider.
Finally, the early church dedicated itself to prayer. Proverbs 3 says, “Trust in the Lord with your all heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” When we pray, we acknowledge him. When we fail to pray we are leaning on our own understanding. We should be communicating with God throughout the day, because there is so much we don’t understand. Prayer, then, draws us closer to God, and the closer we all draw to God the closer we will be to each other.
But the disciples also prayed as a group. Acts chapter 4 says this, “On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. … After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” Later, when Peter was miraculously released from prison by a holy angel, the Scriptures say, “When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” Perhaps many modern Christians do not understand the power of corporate prayer.
3. OBEY YOUR LEADERS AND SUBMIT TO THEIR AUTHORITY. (HEB. 13:17)
Nowhere in the universe is there unity without authority and submission. The Scriptures command us very firmly to obey all kinds of authority. Of course, we are to submit to God above all else, but we are also to submit to men as well. We are to obey our master at work, the governing authorities, parents, and husbands. And submission and authority isn’t a consequence of sin and it won’t go away in the age to come. Even Jesus submitted Himself to the Father.
Despite the clear Scriptural command, we chafe at the thought of submission. And the Scriptural authority that good Christians are most likely to respect the least is the authority in the church. Many of us have come to the conclusion that overseers suggest and those who are not overseers comply if it suits them. But the Scriptures say, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb. 13:17)
I understand that church leaders have often gone outside of their jurisdiction and have tried to usurp the authority of the father on the one hand and of the civil government on the other. I also understand that Paul appointed elders (plural) and not a pastor (singular). Yes, there have been many errors. But these errors do not give us the right to disobey overseers when they are within their God-given jurisdiction.
The church meets, baptizes, observes the Lord’s Supper, teaches, sings, prays, helps the poor, expels the wicked, and supports evangelists. Someone needs to oversee all this. Do you think all this would happen on its own? Paul writes, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.”
The church is the body of Christ and like any body it has structure. It has members working in unity for the sake of the whole body. Christ is the head and our leader, but God Himself has commanded that we obey our church leaders and submit to their authority. Therefore, if we disobey our leaders - assuming they aren’t asking us to do something contrary to the Word of God - we disobey Christ. And without authority and submission there is no unity.
4. ACCEPT HIM WHOSE FAITH IS WEAK, WITHOUT PASSING JUDGMENT ON DISPUTABLE MATTERS. (ROM. 14:1)
Sometimes the most zealous Christians are the biggest impediment to unity. For some people, who know the Scriptures and have firmly decided what they believe, there are no disputable matters. Everything is black and white. Disagreement is prohibited, unless after debate you see the error of your ways. There is little humility and little grace.
It is good that God doesn’t deal with us in the same way. Christ shed His blood on the cross for our sins. He saved us when we were completely undeserving and when we were still stuck in our sins. And He patiently puts up with our sin and weakness even after we are saved. He takes us from wherever we are and changes us - usually slowly because we are stubborn to give up our sinful behavior. Christ is the Good Shepherd who will leave the flock to search for the one sheep who is lost.
But we are not so patient as our Lord. Even a brother who is well along in his Christian walk will be counted unworthy of fellowship over one non-essential, disputable issue. Can we fellowship with someone who doesn’t agree with us on baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or tongues? Can we fellowship with someone who doesn’t agree with us on head coverings, or women working outside the home, or drinking wine?
Paul says, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. … Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Rom. 14:13,19) We are all works in progress. We all have weaknesses and blind spots. We need each other to build each other up, to admonish, and to encourage one another. But if we will only fellowship with folks who have reached our level of sanctification, where does that leave the new believer or the one God is leading more slowly? If we only accept people with the same blind spots and weaknesses, who will help us grow?
Paul writes, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Rom. 14:4) Unity requires a gracious and loving spirit - one that doesn’t require everyone in my fellowship to have all the same views on disputable matters that I have and one that doesn’t make every issue an indisputable issue.
5. SO THEN, NO MORE BOASTING ABOUT MEN! ALL THINGS ARE YOURS, WHETHER PAUL OR APOLLOS OR CEPHAS. (1 COR. 3:21-22)
Since the reformation, we have substituted new names to boast about: Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Menno, etc. Denomination is simply another name for faction and factions are contrary to the wishes of our Lord who prayed that we would be brought to complete unity. If we are denominational partisans who can’t feel joy when God uses a Christian outside of our denomination to bring many people to the Lord, we have our priorities in the wrong place. We are a fly in the ointment of unity.
6. EXPEL THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOU. (1 COR. 5:13)
There is a place in the quest for unity to take an unpleasant stand. Our unity must be in Christ. We are not a social club. We are not a support group. We are not a political action committee. We are the body of Christ and unrepentant, gross sin is like a spreading cancer that must be cast from the body if the body is to survive. Paul says, “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast.” (1 Cor. 5:6b-7a)
It is interesting that we Christians can be so judgmental about those outside the church. We won’t associate with homosexuals. We boycott multi-national corporations. But if a person is inside we often tolerate chronic adultery, fornication, drunkenness, and drug addiction.
We have it backwards. Jesus associated with prostitutes, tax collectors, and “sinners.” Paul wrote, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’ ”
As I said, gross sin is like cancer. It fights against the body until it is removed or the body is destroyed. Unity is impossible, therefore, until gross sin is removed from the fellowship.
7. WARN A DIVISIVE PERSON ONCE, AND THEN WARN HIM A SECOND TIME. AFTER THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM. (TITUS 3:10)
Let’s face it. Some people who call themselves Christians seem to be looking for an argument. They are obnoxious rabble rousers. Controversy and dissension follow them wherever they go.
We must be prudent and learn to discern the difference between a humbly held and sincere difference of opinion and divisiveness. Granted, the Gospel will divide people and the truth may be offensive. And there is a time and place to discuss issues where there may be disagreement.
But these must be done in the right way with a right heart. We are called to be humble and gentle. We are called to make it our ambition to lead a quiet life. (1 Thess. 4:11) Paul warns Timothy, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” (2 Tim. 2:23) Paul talks about the divisive man this way, “He is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind.” (1 Tim. 6:4-5a)
Divisive people are also a cancer that must be removed to keep the body from fighting against itself. “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.”
A group of hot coals stay warmer when bunched together than they would be all separated from each other. Likewise, a group of Christians united in fellowship will be a much more effective witness to the world than if they are separated. But unity is difficult to achieve because the fruit of our sinful nature is disunity. And we will not completely rid ourselves of our sinful nature this side of heaven. Unity is the result of the Spirit, whose power enables us to truly love the whole body of Christ. Indeed, love is the glue that holds us together.
And Satan knows how dangerous a truly unified group of Christians can be. That is why he attacks them at every turn. The early church was under intense persecution and I believe every effective Christian fellowship is at a high risk of Satanic attack. Divisive and immoral people threaten the fellowship from within, and hateful, evil men and godless government threaten from without.
Even though unity seems to escape our grasp, we should pray boldly and confidently for unity because the Lord Jesus prayed that we would be brought to complete unity. There are many believers who share the dream. Since we are all being molded day by day into the image of Christ, we are all in a state of becoming more and more alike in heart and in mind. We need to stay together to quicken the process and to be more effective witnesses in the world.
Jesus said, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.”
©2008 SALT Magazine, 2131 W. Republic Rd. #177, Springfield, MO 65807, www. saltmagazine.com