I remember the first time I ever preached on Christian unity in a Church. I preached from John 17 with passion and energy about how Christian unity is a sign to the world, a message to the world, about who Jesus is and the power of the Gospel. I thought the sermon went well. After the service I was in the foyer of the Church waiting for a family to come and chat with me about a funeral. As this was happening, many members of the Church were gathering in the next room for coffee. Unbeknown to me, one of the people stood up and asked for quiet. She then went on to say that she had started going to yoga classes and wondered if anyone would like to come or whether they should host them in the Church hall. Immediately, another lady stood up and started to shout, “yoga is of the devil, it’s really dangerous, don’t go.” Another person then joined in and said, “my daughter is a yoga teacher, and its done wonders for her.” Then a fourth voice joined in and began to detail all the problems with yoga and how it is a form of idolatry. Just as all of this was happening, voices were getting louder, and people were becoming more animated, the family I was waiting for arrived! It was not a great demonstration of Christian unity. Now, I’m not trying to sway your opinion on yoga. I’m not sure it’s a great endeavour for a Christian. But that’s slightly irrelevant. I so, however, think it’s really important prioritise unity in the local Church. Unity built around truth and built around the Gospel.
Unity with other Christians is a big deal. We all know Jesus prayed for it in John 17. We also know that Christian unity is even better than oil being poured over Aaron’s head. It’s even better than oil being poured on Aaron’s head, beard, and clothes. I know that sounds a bit odd to us, but we find this example in Psalm 133.
The bottom line is that Christian unity is really good. God really likes it! I am one of three boys. I think as we grew up, we fell out a lot! I now have four daughters, who actually get along really well. It is a blessing! It’s not always perfect by any means, those moments of falling out are always tricky. But when my daughters are united together in love and friendship, it delights my fathers’ heart. Is unity in the Church a big deal? Well, it seemed to be for Jesus. But we live in a world were unity isn’t actually that necessary. We can split, divide, separate into our own homes We don’t need each other, most of us. In the Christian world it is easy to start a YouTube channel tearing apart others. It’s incredibly easy to leave the Church and join another one. It’s easy to tear apart leaders and highlight weaknesses. Gossip, slander, unkindness, they are all very easy. But unity is not easy. There is a cost to it. But we also know that unity doesn’t come at any cost. Some people, in the desire for unity, ditch all common sense. I believe what we need is a unity built upon truth. Unity based upon a common understanding of the Gospel.
No doubt you are aware of Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17 for his followers to be one. But also, Jesus tells us that there is a missional and evangelistic aspect of Church unity.
Certainly, Paul is concerned about this in the Church in Galatia. He is deeply concerned that unity is front and central and important. There is an incident in Galatians 2 where Peter and some Jewish believers stop eating with Gentiles, and Paul is deeply concerned about Church unity. What would the unbeliever think if Jews and Gentiles don’t eat together? What would new converts think if Jewish Christians would not eat with them? What would Jews think of themselves and the Gospel if they would not eat with Gentiles? Paul says that this hits at the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus became accursed on the cross so that this sort of thing would not happen.
I remember being a teenager and playing football (soccer). I think I probably thought I was the next Alan Shearer. If you have no idea who Alan Shearer is, that’s fine. He was a big deal when I was 15. But, when I played football, every time I got the ball, no matter where I was on the pitch, I’d try and score. That might mean dribbling past people, it might mean making outlandish shots. Unfortunately, my vision far outstretched my ability, and I often missed or lost the ball. What that meant is that most of the time, people didn’t want to play with me. I was not a team player! One of the core things Paul gets us to think about in Galatians 2 and 3 is the nature of Jesus death. His penal substitutionary death for us is meant to lead to a tangible level of unity in the Church. It’s not all about me, my desires, wants, feelings, and preferences. It’s about the kingdom, striving side by side together for the Gospel. One of the most fundamental practical aspects of the Gospel is Gospel unity.
Now, an important thing to note is that this is not unity at any cost. Actually, in Galatians 2 when Peter stood condemned and was acting contrary to the Gospel and Church unity, Paul confronted him about it. What we find, though, is Paul appeals to the Gospel as a source of unity. Peter was “not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel”[ii] and so Paul rebukes and appeals to the Gospel in order to foster a greater unity between the early Jewish and Gentile believers. I think there are a few things that this incident between Paul and Peter in Antioch may help us with:
- The unity of believers is really important. We see this in Paul’s letter to Galatia, and his retelling of the Antioch incident in Galatians 2. Unity between Jew and Gentile in both Galatia and Antioch is critical to Paul’s understanding of the practical outworking of the Gospel.
- There is a place for gently rebuking those who are, even unintentionally, are fostering disunity. In this passage we find Paul rebukes Peter, but that does not signify the end of the relationship. Peter still goes on to speak incredibly highly of Paul in his own letters. It is also important, I think, to say that rebuke isn’t the ultimate goal!
- One person can lead many people into practices that foster disunity in the Church. We see that with the situation in Galatians 2 with Peter. Some people from James come, then Peter is led astray, then other Jews. Then, even Barnabas is led astray. Surely, they thought, this was no big deal. Perhaps they were succumbing to peer pressure. Perhaps they genuinely thought they were being obedient to the Torah. Perhaps deep seated race issues were at play. Whatever was happening, we see a ripple effect in the Church of growing disunity.
- One person can so desire unity in the Church that they can be a catalyst for greater cohesion, love, grace, and Gospel centred togetherness in the local Church.
This overarching concept can be summed up in Paul’s words in the letter to Ephesus when he says “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”[iii] The concept here is just the same. Through the death of Jesus unity can occur. Unity between Jew and Gentile, yes. But also unity between man and woman, young and old, Egyptian and Ukrainian. The Gospel of Jesus breaks down the dividing walls of hostility. Then, into that, we are called each of us, to be unity makers not unity breakers.
But, it is worth thinking about how that might look. Certainly, the image of unity entailing never speaking up about Gospel issues doesn’t line up with what Paul shows us in Galatians 2. But, at the same time, nor does it advocate a critical spirit. One gets the impression that Paul isn’t doing this all day every day! It’s only when the Gospel is at stake. I think it may mean for some of us, speaking with an elder or Church Leader if there is something majorly wrong in our Church, Network or Denomination. There is a place for those 1:1 conversation. I also think when a Church is consistently either not preaching the Gospel fully, or actively teaching against Gospel principles, then it may well be that separation needs to occur. That is never easy, and I think it should always be a last resort. But, I also think, for others it may need to be asked whether your grievance with a Church, brother, sister or friend is really based around an imposition or distortion of the Gospel, or whether you should instead die to yourself in order to increase unity and grace in the Church. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”[iv] The shocking claim Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 6 is it is better to suffer loss, be wronged, be cheated, be hard done to for the sake of the unity of the Gospel, than it is to win an argument and be vindicated by men. This is a challenging tightrope walk, with no easy answers. Each of us must ask ourselves, if we are facing these issues, does the Bible teach that it is wisest to challenge Gospel issues for the sake of unity, or be willing to suffer for the sake of unity. If this is a live issue for you, I thoroughly recommend speaking with the pastor of your Church in more detail.
[i] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Ps 133:1–3.
[ii] Gal 2:14, NIV
[iii] Eph 2:14, ESV.
[iv] 1 Cor 6:7, NIV