As Christians, we are commanded to be unified, but sometimes it seems so elusive. Marriages break up, friendships fall apart, congregations split. Over the decades (how am I old enough to say that!?!), I’ve wondered about this idea of unity. As I study the living word and scour the pages of the New Testament to see how Jesus addressed unity, something jumps out at me now more than ever before:
Unity happens through peace, and peace happens through a focus on our Savior.
As followers of Christ, we each have a mission and that is to glorify God with our whole being. To represent Him on this Earth in such a way that others want to know him more. Unity creates this longing. Disunity is repelling. Or in other words:
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. (Mark 3:25 NIV)
Division is Satan’s plan.
So with this clear statement from Jesus, we can guarantee that one of Satan’s main game plans is going to be to try and divide Christ’s believers as much as possible. He will use situations to pluck up our pride, to hold grudges, to assume an ill will from another. He will encourage us to disengage rather than humbly approach each other in grace. Satan will try his hardest to encourage us to put our focus where it doesn’t belong.
Whenever issues arise among believers many immediately fly over to Matthew 18, which is a fantastic passage about the process of how to deal with sin. But not every disagreement is a sin. Sometimes, we just disagree on the importance of an issue or how to be a shining believer in a dark world.
Disagreement doesn’t mean dissociation.
Just because we disagree on these issues doesn’t mean we have to disengage or disassociate from each other and only worship with those who are in fairly close agreement with us. On the contrary, Jesus prayed:
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 NIV)
His prayer was for complete unity in Him. Just like He and the Father are one, he wants us all to be one in them.
But how can we be united if we believe differently on different topics?
Hmmm…I’ve wondered that so many times. And then one day, it was like Jesus said, “Read the New Testament again,” and so I did. You know what I found? Groups of people believing differently on certain topics, even important ones, but still coming together in study and worship of our Lord.
Unity among different beliefs
Where did I see this crazy unity among people who believe differently? In the temple and the synagogues. Jesus himself worshiped at the temple, attended the feasts, made the sacrifices. His official first day on the job happened in a synagogue. He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah about himself and tried to teach the people what the scriptures truly said about it. The apostles and Paul even continued to teach in the synagogues as was their custom. All sorts of different sects within the children of God worshiped and studied the scriptures together: Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and the Way (a.k.a. what Christians were called before they were called Christians). Yes, there was much debate, but the idea is that they still came together.
Never once did God or Jesus say disengage from each other. Instead he used their love for God to bring them together under his banner of love and covered their differences with his blood. Jesus called to each one of them, no matter their beliefs, to come and follow him. He didn’t say they had to be right on every single point before the following began. He asked just that they follow, and in the process of following him they would mature and come to a greater understanding.
Can I still worship with someone who thinks differently?
The reality is that Jesus warned the ones who chose to follow him that they would be kicked out of the synagogues. (I was always under the impression that the church was formed to be separate and apart from what already existed. However, the truth of the matter looks very different. Christ expected his followers to continue to influence others who loved God as well and to continue to worship with them.)
All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.
Sometimes, I feel like many of us have lost the ability to patiently let people mature in their spiritual walk. If Jesus can die on the cross with the words “Forgive them for they know not what they do” coming from his lips, surely we can give each other some grace as we encourage each other on this journey together. Yes, we may believe different on some spiritual matters but if we hold to the truth that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, if He is the only way, then by the grace of our patient Lord, He will work on our hearts as we all mature together.
So then what do we do when we find ourselves in a disagreement with each other?
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the LORD. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The LORD is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:2-9, emphasis added.)
Some of these verses are among my favorites but I had never read them in proper context as a way to deal with disagreements among believers until last week.
These two women who had joyfully served together in the Lord were now at odds. So much so that their dissension hindered their work for the Lord. Paul had to remind them that their focus had fallen from where it should have been. So Paul encouraged them:
This makes me think that some possible back-talking or grumbling was present. Instead, there is a call to gentleness.
Agree in the LORD.
I see this as not agreeing on every point but humbling ourselves and coming back to the fact that we are agreeing to serve the Lord.
Rejoice in the Lord always.
When we lose Christ as our focus, we tend to let pride grow. Putting our focus back where it should be–on Christ–allows us to rejoice in Him and what He has done for us. Humbling ourselves in the situation then becomes easier.
Pray about it and let God guard our hearts and minds.
Justification for our feelings is easy to do, but praying about our hearts and asking for God’s wisdom in the matter will help dissolve those justified feelings.
Focus on what is good and not on what is bothering us about the other person.
Whatever we focus on expands. If we focus on the negative, that’s all we’ll see. But if we focus on their good qualities and their love for Christ, our love for that person becomes stronger.
Can you imagine Satan’s dread when we all come together to fight the true enemy instead of knocking down fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?
For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. (Ephesians 6:12 CSB)
Let’s fight the right fight and unite together as one in our Lord and Savior!