Purity of the Church and Unity in the Church
In college I worked as the assistant facilities director at the church I attended. Shortly after starting that job, the church hired a new senior pastor. His gift to every staff member was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I still have the book and read it often. Chapter 45 is one of my favorite chapters in the book. It is titled The Purity and Unity of the Church. I read this chapter about 6 months after receiving the book because that same church went through a church split.
About a year after the split, I saw a former member of the church. We made small talk and then she started to explain why she left the church. She said, “I just couldn’t worship in the same church as a pastor who doesn’t hold to____________.” You can fill in the blank. It was something that I would consider a minor doctrine.
This statement led me to think about unity within the church. My thoughts about church unity have been rekindled over the last year because the church has been hit with many different issues. I think we need to address the elephant in the room. The church has been split over politics, BLM, Critical Race Theory, Covid, masks, and vaccines. These issues are important! These topics have theological implications and sometimes, serious theological implications. This article is not about how we should think about these issues but how we can have unity with fellow believers in the midst of disagreement.
As believers we can fall into a trap of elevating our non-essentials beliefs to essential and then excommunicating people who don’t hold to our non-essential. All of sudden the debate about how to stop the spread of Covid has become a gospel issue.
There is a real tension between the purity of the church and unity in the church. A purer church will more closely resemble God’s ideal for the church. This includes doctrine, love for Christ, love others, and personal holiness. A unified church is free from division within the church. You can see where there is tension!1
In the midst of the tension how can we maintain unity with other believers? How can we maintain unity within our church? These are important questions! There is much to say but not that much room. We need to start with the Bible if we want to understand unity.
In John 17, Jesus prays for Himself (1-5), His disciples (6-19), and future disciples (20-26). As Jesus is praying for future saints he prays, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus was both human and God at the same time, and was aware how easily humanity can drift towards disunity. He knew that as people came to trust in him that the diversity would cause friction. Jesus makes three requests in this prayer: 1. That believers would be unified. 2. That believers are unified in the Triune God. 3. That the unbelieving world would see this unity and come to believe in Jesus.
What does unity look like? I don’t think it means that we have identical viewpoints on all things. We can be unified with other denominations even though we hold to different doctrines. We can be unified with fellow believers who think differently about mask mandates. Unity means that we speak highly and lovingly of others even when we disagree with them. It means patiently enduring with those who might not be as “sound doctrinally”. It means worshipping in the same church with those with whom we disagree.
I was recently reading a critical book review of a book that I really like. I made the mistake of reading the comments under the Facebook post. There was a lot of hate coming from both sides. One person called the author of the book a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Other people shot hateful comments at the reviewer. I wonder what a non-believer would think if they stumbled across this comment section?
The unbelieving world is watching us. We can disagree and yet still be unified around the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Our unity affects our witness to the world. Our view on lockdowns is not as important as our effort to maintain love and unity with those who differ from us.
In Philippians 2:2-4 Paul says, “2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Philippians 2:5-11 roots these commands in Christ. Jesus is the prime example of humility and serving others. I believe humility is the key to interactions with people that we disagree with. Especially if the topic is not an issue of sin! We have Christian freedom in certain areas, and it is troubling to me when I see believers breaking fellowship because of minor doctrinal issues. It is even more troubling when the break happens because of personal preference and not doctrine.
What current issue makes your blood boil? How does Jesus’ example of humility help you? Jesus was perfect in his knowledge of doctrine, yet he was loving, kind, and patient with his disciples who sometimes didn’t get it. He would show anger when needed but it was often about prideful actions not towards those who were humbly trying to understand.
Our posture towards believers who disagree with us matters more than the issue of disagreement. Are you humble in conversations with people who disagree? Are you trying to understand their position? Can you love each other after the conversation, or does it cause anger? It is easy to advance our own agenda instead of looking to others as more highly than ourselves. Do you need to repent and make relationships right with others? Let’s be a church that strives for unity and repent when our disagreement causes disunity.
______________________________ 1Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology.784