“United we stand; divided we fall.” So says the motto of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, my home state.
It’s a relatively basic concept. We can do more together than we can do individually.
This is never more true than in the local church.
A church divided against itself will plateau, implode, decline, and lose its voice in the community. And sadly, along the way, people get hurt in the crossfire, some of whom will avoid being part of a fellowship of believers again for years, if ever.
So unity matters.
Local church unity was one of the reasons the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, and in chapter four of that letter, he describes several layers of church unity that should be actively developed.
Paul had opened his letter on this theme – God has brought us all together in Christ.
The first two chapters of Ephesians detail the way in which Jesus broke down the walls dividing us up by ethnicity – Jew and Gentile – and has treated us all with grace and equality at the foot of the cross.
A healthy church is a little bit of heaven on earth, and heaven is an extremely diverse place made up of redeemed saints from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Paul starts out the fourth chapter where we probably would. “Get along!”
Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.
– Ephesians 4:2-3 NLT
We love to talk about trusting the Holy Spirit to keep us together, but Paul says to “make every effort” to stay united, which requires discipleship, selflessness, and a habitual, active practicing of the one another’s of the New Testament.
Unity needs to be the genuine desire of a church.
While unity requires commitment and the intentional cultivation of healthy relationships, there is also a divine, supernatural power drawing us together. We share the same Spirit, who leads the body in a single direction.
One of my favorite definitions of “fellowship” is “two fellows on a ship.” If one of them decides to go a different way, someone is going to drown.
Paul reminds his readers that there are some core doctrinal issues that bind people together in unity within the church. And he does so by writing down what may be an early creed of sorts:
For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.
Ephesians 4:4-6 NLT
Unity can be a very bad thing when everyone agrees about things that are untrue. Christian unity is unity around truth. Paul reminds his readers that there are some essentials which provide the basis of our cooperation and our unity. We can get along if we agree together about such issues as:
- The nature of the church as Christ’s body on earth.
- The nature of the Holy Spirit as fully God.
- There is always hope for eternity because of Jesus.
- Jesus is the risen King and Lord.
- There is one and only one way to approach God – by faith.
- There is only one meaning of baptism – our identification with Christ.
- There is only one God. He is sovereign. He is omnipresent. He is alive forevermore.
If we don’t agree on the nature of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, of the church… Then we actually can’t have complete unity.
There still remain plenty of issues that are subject to interpretation and differ from one strain of Christianity to the next. As the old saying goes, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
The church is a body in which everyone is equal in value. Noboby matters more than anybody else. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders.
While Pastors are no more important in value than any other member, they do occupy a crucial role within the body – leading and feeding the flock. Paul says,
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
Ephesians 4:11-13 NLT
It’s important to note that this isn’t a list of spiritual gifts but rather of people who are spiritually gifted. There is no “gift of pastoring” (as some spiritual gifts tests erroneously include). But there are pastors who occupy the role of a leader, a guide, and more than anything else, a teacher of the Scriptures.
There is also plenty of debate about the so-called five-fold ministry of modern day apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
Some believe the function of both apostles and prophets ceased early in the church’s history, leaving only evangelists and pastor-teachers while others believe that all five offices are still very much active.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle, believing that there are apostolic leaders, prophetic leaders, evangelistic leaders, pastoral leaders, and teaching leaders within the church.
Regardless, the assignment for these leaders is clear – equip believers to carry out the ministry in unity.
I’m convinced that in our present day, there are two lines of thinking that threaten the health of thousands of churches.
On the one hand are pastors who are control freaks. They micromanage and make every church decision with no input or feedback from other wise leaders. They’re afraid of accountability and threatened by any perceived competition to their personal empire. I think these are rare, but dangerous.
Far more prevalent are churches that, in the name of accountability or democratic structure, limit the leadership and freedom of their Pastors.
They trust him to rightly divide the Word, but not to rightly decide how to carry out the ministry of the local church. I believe it’s possible, and even healthy, for churches to adopt a structure in which Pastors are free to shepherd and lead the flock without red tape, committees, or congregational voting (or at least very little voting).
When such freedom and trust are granted, I think most Pastors who wish to honor their calling and serve Jesus well will avoid thinking in terms of their “power” or “authority” and instead will feel the heavy weight of their responsibility to present mature, well-taught believers to God.
And finally, there is a missional unity that can be enjoyed by the local church when we see ourselves collectively as a community of redeemed sinners sharing the task of loving other broken sinners to healing in a truth-teaching, Christ-centered church family.
Paul describes the result of a Spirit-guided, pastorally-led flock in this way:
As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.
Ephesians 4:16 NLT
We’re on a mission. And we don’t have time to get distracted by disputes and division over little things.
When we seek unity and model our walk and our work after the life and ministry of Jesus, the body becomes healthy and balanced. And healthy bodies grow multi-dimensionally.
Healthy churches grow:
- Larger through evangelism.
- Broader through ministry.
- Stronger through worship.
- Warmer through fellowship.
- Deeper through evangelism.
There Is Hope!
I’ve seen the hard side of division within the church. I grew up in a divided church. I’ve pastored churches with years of divisive history.
But for the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a truly united body of people. We don’t worry about who has the power or the authority – we’re too busy on a rescue mission finding more lost people.
We have no committees. We don’t vote on anything. There’s a lot of transparency, mutual accountability, and a positive focus on changing our community and our world for the better by sharing truth, in love, seasoned with a lot of grace.
Grace Hills, thank you for showing lots of love to one another and staying focused on the mission!