No Christian would say he is for division in the church. Divisiveness stands condemned (1 Cor. 1:10). Even the newest believer knows that we are given warnings not to tolerate those who would cause division (Rom. 16:17–18; Titus 3:9–11). And any church that has division will certainly not be a healthy, growing church.
Conversely, we know that the New Testament reveals a strong emphasis on unity and community in the church. As believers we have a declared unity:
- The church has one Head: Ephesians 1:22–23.
- Christ is building one church: Matthew 16:17–18.
- The church has one foundation: 1 Corinthians 3:11.
- All believers have a “sevenfold unity”: Ephesians 4:4–6.
- All barriers to unity have been broken down in the Gospel: Ephesians 2:11–19.
Those are the objective realities. But how do these objective realities work into our practice ? How do we come to the place where we are united in the same mind and the same judgement (1 Cor. 1:10)?
We need to recognize that unity, peace, agreement, community, and cooperation do not come naturally to us. What does come naturally to us is alienation and disunity. In fact, it can be easily demonstrated that our culture is running headlong away from community. In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000) we have a piercing analysis of the breakdown of relational culture. Trends over the last twenty-five years include a 58% decline in those attending club meetings, a 33% decline in family dinners, and a 45% decline in having friends over. Americans belong to fewer organizations that meet face-to-face, we know fewer of our neighbors, and we even bowl alone (not on teams). Indeed, several cultural factors are at work to drive us farther away from community: the transiency of our society, rootlessness, the Internet, the technological transformation of leisure, and many other things.
Yet regeneration and conversion change our bent toward alienation (Eph. 2:11–20). Instead of viewing ourselves as loners and strangers and individualists hiding from others, we must now view ourselves as part of a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
In our creed (the Westminster Confession of Faith, 26:1) we are instructed: “All saints…being united to one another in love….have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” Our confession is not overstating the case when it uses the language of “obligation.” For this is exactly what the New Testament frequently does in its “one-anothering” imperatives. Listen to a smattering of these obligatory mandates: we are commanded to love one another (John 13:34–35; 15:12); we are commanded to welcome one another (Rom. 15:7); we are ordered to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11); we are mandated to show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9); we are told to be kind to one another (Eph. 4:32); we are commanded to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10); we are ordered to pray for one another (James 5:16); we are told to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2); we are mandated not to grumble against one another (James 5:9); we are commanded to serve one another (Gal. 5:13) and to bear with one another (Col. 3:13).
Unity and community will not “just happen” in your congregation. The body will only grow in unity as we obey these “one-anothering” commands. This is akin to a marriage-loving unity, which doesn’t just appear overnight! It happens as a man and a woman care for one another through hard times, as they serve one another, as they speak gracious words to one another, as they overlook a thousand small slights, as they forgive each other, and as they use all the other “means of unity.” Just so, your church will only grow healthy and strong as they practice “one-anothering.”
How can you and your family help the growth of your local congregation in unity? Here’s a plan for this month:
Week One: plan to show hospitality to another family in the church, call them now and invite them over for Sunday lunch.
Week Two: plan to encourage three people in your church that you know are discouraged.
Week Three: strategize on where you can serve. Yes, it will cost you time and energy, but you will be building the unity of the body.
Week Four: spend time each day praying for different members of your church — the church’s children, the deacons, the senior citizens, the elders, the teachers and Bible study leaders, and finally pray for your pastor and his sermon preparation.