Some couples remain married with a growing joy in their relationship. Some couples fight, bicker, and then divorce, believing their differences are irreconcilable. Still others try to push their tensions below the conversation horizon, and continue to live together—tolerably, but with little joy. Churches can act in similar ways. Like in a good marriage, believers must work to not only maintain the unity, but also grow in joy of fellowship with each other.
Sometimes tensions arise due to doctrinal aberrations—which can be handled either in a godly way or in a fleshly way under the guise of doctrinal fidelity. But, like a marriage, the fellowship of the local church can also be strained by “lesser” things. I know of a church that is quite proud of their doctrinal purity, but lives with simmering conflicts that occasionally rise in the strangest ways. For example, the church was almost destroyed when, during a building renovation project, one faction wanted to use stain on the new woodwork, while another wanted to use paint! How can a healthy church avoid becoming like an old worn-out marriage—or worse, from becoming another church “divorce” statistic?
The Foundation of Unity
God desires truth. Without this, nothing else much matters. “Your word is truth” (John 17:17 NIV). The first piece of the spiritual armor is the “belt of truth” (Eph. 6:14). Paul in his farewell message to the Ephesian elders charged them to “[b]e on guard for [them]selves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made [them] overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28 NASB).
The importance of vigilance in right doctrine cannot be overstated. It is not rooted in an abstract concept that God is pleased with us being right. Rather, the ultimate importance lies in God’s estimation of His people: they are precious to Him. It is people, not concepts, that interest God.
Therefore, we must get our teaching right!
“For God so loved the world . . .”
The greatest of the commandments is “You shall love . . . .”
“A new command I give you that you love one another . . .”
“The end of this command is love . . .”
Paul began his great church leaders’ manual to Timothy with this: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”(1 Tim. 1:5). Unity in love, based on the truth of God’s communication to us—that’s foundational.
However, having and preaching the truth in principle does not guarantee unity in practice. It is a curious thing that so many churches who assert right doctrine waste precious time and energy with lesser, internal squabbles. God wants unity even in the context of right doctrine!
Dear to God’s Heart
“. . . 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” (John 17:20-21). Jesus did not pray that unbelievers would be unified through faith into the body of Christ (true as that may be His desire). In this passage, He prayed for future believers, that they would be unified.
The Lord knew we would have a propensity toward divisiveness, for He felt it important to include this request in His high priestly prayer, just before His crucifixion.
Paul and Barnabas experienced the truth of this firsthand (Acts 15:36-41). Later, possibly drawing on his own personal experience, Paul admonished two conflicting women (he calls them fellow servants) to “agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). This propensity toward conflict knows no gender limitations. Clearly, sometimes godly people disagree and have difficulty working together.
How can unity be preserved in the local church? Assuming that doctrinal truth is not in question, here are some practical considerations:
Encourage Humility & Deference
If Christlikeness and genuine fellowship mean anything, then there are some practical implications. Scripture tells us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
If your elder group is experiencing tension, why not read this verse together at the beginning of every elders’ meeting? Ask yourself, “Do I need to check my own ego—do I portray the humble attitude of the Lord whom I profess to emulate?” He “. . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). He who washed the disciples’ feet was not speaking esoterically and mystically when He said to do likewise. He was being very practical. Our Lord actually and literally washed their feet!
Practical humility means a real demonstration of serving one another. Jesus knew the frailty of the human ego, so He pulled out the stops in demonstrating what He meant in the upper room on His knees. It is the hardest thing to do when we want to get our own way. But godly elders will do like their Lord.
Encourage Unity Among Leadership
It is so much easier to talk about this than to do it. It is much more convenient to “serve” people by preaching at them or correcting them. And it is hard to serve those with whom we have a sharp disagreement. Many suffer from grandiose visions of being a modern-day Ezekiel or John the Baptist.
What would happen if your elders’ meetings were characterized by men who genuinely loved and served each other? To give examples would seem trivial, because words cannot capture the attitude that transforms a deed or action, no matter how small, into a service befitting the Master’s honor. Jesus said it best: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
Unity among the elders is essential to the unity in the church. The better the personal relationships, the less likely the misunderstandings.
The other day after dinner, I had wanted to go to my workshop to work on a project, but I needed a tool. So I announced to my wife, “I should go to the store, but it will be too late to go down to my workshop when I get back.” My wife, who encourages me to work at my hobby, responded, “I’d really like to see you get working on that project.” I said, “You’re right.” As I put on my coat and shoes, she asked, “Where are you going?” “To the store of course.” “But I thought we agreed you would go to your workshop.” We spent about five minutes trying to figure out how we had miscommunicated. The point is that if my wife and I had a strained relationship, she could have accused me of saying one thing and doing another. I could have accused her of not listening to me. In reality, I had never mentioned to her my need of the tool to finish the project. Our trust is built by the give and take, the sacrifice and service for each other. We knew our after-dinner conversation was simply a misunderstanding, not a symptom of selfishness.
How can elders build their relationship of trust? One group regularly goes out to dinner together with their wives. Some elders meet regularly one on one for mutual encouragement and fellowship. A perceptive elder group will encourage the less verbal elder to speak up. Helping each other out in the mundane issues of life can build up the group. Building strong relationships at this level is paramount. To be sure, this doesn’t mean we all have the same likes and perspective, or that we will always agree—but we want to encourage “. . . being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:2). When elders trust one another, they can celebrate the diversity of perspectives they bring to the table. Resolution of conflicts becomes easier. Therefore, we must foster and guard our relationships with each other on a personal level. To do otherwise will affect the entire church like a cancer.
Encourage Unity with the Body
Unity requires communication and care. There is no better way than to go into people’s homes. Most people will know you care if you take the time to listen to them and understand them. This doesn’t mean you bow to everyone’s wishes; no one expects that. But people will follow the lead of elders if they feel cared for and listened to.
Two questions are helpful to ask: “How can the elders pray for you?” and “Is there anything you feel the elders should know?” Then listen with the goal of really understanding. Ask questions, don’t get defensive, don’t justify—simply try to understand.
This may lead to prayer, instruction from the Word, or practical help. Regardless, they will feel more a significant part of the body because they are being cared for. When elder decisions are made or difficult teaching needs to be given, the congregation is more likely to sense that the elders are acting with caring hearts. Their humility and servants’ hearts will be evident to all. This takes time, but it is well worth the investment.
Quick List for Preserving Unity
- Pray for unity. In so doing you will be imitating the Lord in the upper room.
- Remember who you are: brothers and sisters in Christ. No one is superior to anyone else, whether elder, preacher, custodian, or bulletin folder. To the carnal Corinthians, Paul appealed to the foundational truth that bound them together, the core of his preaching: “Christ, and Him crucified.” We are blood-bought brothers and sisters in Him (1 Cor. 2:2).
- Distinguish truth from application. We must insist on the former but be flexible with the latter. For example, practice of the Lord’s Supper is mandated in God’s Word, but the time of day and length is not. There may be strong considerations for such logistics, but these ought not lead to divisiveness.
- Develop good communication. Decisions made after hours of discussion in elders’ meetings cannot be communicated well in a two-line bulletin announcement. Use your best communicator to be the spokesperson. Do it often and do it well.
- Identify the real source of tensions. Discernment will save much wasted time and energy in understanding what the real source of conflict is. Better to solve the right problem than follow the symptoms to the wrong source. Otherwise, the problem will crop up with a different symptom. In one church, an elder became abrasive and unresponsive to commitments he had made. Confrontation was to no avail. However, God began to work in him, and in the context of a trusting relationship he came to apologize for his behavior. The symptoms turned out to be the result not of a selfish heart, but of much pressure in his secular employment and extended family life. The humbleness that was evident resulted in a stronger, more unified elders’ group.
- Disempower the scapegoats. It is easy to blame others, our evil society, or the idea that we are in the “last times” for difficulties God wants us to deal with in a humble, biblical way. Sometimes it is simply our own self-centered ego that is the problem. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we will move toward unity of heart.
- Keep confidence. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). I remember being at an assembly dinner and as it happened I was sitting near a brother with whom I had some disagreement. During the meal, I noticed him quietly getting my attention. Discreetly, he indicated with a simple hand motion that I had something hanging from my nose. Embarrassed, I quickly retrieved my napkin and corrected the situation without anyone else noticing. My “adversary” could have made a public scene of the matter or left me to my embarrassment. He never said a word about it to me afterwards. I was impressed that he demonstrated true love by helping “cover up” my social indiscretion. How much more would could we help the unity of believers to “cover over a multitude of sins” of the relationship kind.
- Pick your battles wisely. Don’t waste time and “relational energy” on small stuff. One brother does not like the Lord’s Supper setting where the chairs are in a circle, finding it awkward. An older couple prefers an evening meeting at 7 p.m. because of their supper time habits,while a young couple prefers it at 6 p.m. because of their young children’s sleep requirements. Certainly, deference is a small sacrifice in this case.
- Leave the posse behind. In other words, first go to a person with whom you are having tension, one on one—don’t gang up on him or her. Deal with conflicts in a biblical manner (Matt. 18:15).
- Don’t take public swipes. If you are privileged to preach God’s Word from the pulpit or comment during a small group time, don’t use this as your opportunity to proclaim your side of the conflict. Avoid innuendos altogether. Elders should guard the public teaching from personal vendettas or self-serving presentations.
- Admit when you are wrong. Cut your losses. To do anything else will damage your credibility and your effectiveness in resolving any difficulty.
- Treat others with respect, even when they are wrong, or you think they are wrong. Don’t be degrading or condescending regardless of gender, race, social status, or educational background.
God desires unity in both doctrine and in heart. As leaders, we must insist on truth and love!
“Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you.” (1 Tim. 6:20-21)