The rallying cry of the church is the gospel, living and proclaiming the message of Christ’s cross instead of grouping ourselves around voices that cater to our personal preferences. That is the message the Apostle Paul made clear to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:10-18).
There are two pledges we need to make to God and to each other in the church of Jesus Christ: 1) I will be a unifying church member; and, 2) I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires.
God desires for Christians to get along and to work together, and that cannot happen if all we want is what we want. Jesus himself said to his disciples and to us as his followers: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Unity in the church and communicating the message of forgiveness and love through the cross can only happen when people seek to be gracious to each other so that a watching world can see the validity of Christ within us.
Christians all have a responsibility as followers of Jesus to be a source of unity and not division. Paul said to the church at Ephesus that all believers are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Unity does not just happen; it must be pursued and be a common value of everyone in the church. Paul said to the church of the Colossians that the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are to be tied together with love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:14). To the church of the Philippians, Paul was equally straightforward by saying that we are to be like-minded, having the same love for each other that we have for Jesus, being united in spirit and purpose. We are to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility we are to consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-4). Unity is common theme in all of Paul’s letters, and he considered it as a top priority that all the churches uphold the cross of Christ and sacrifice anything less in order to communicate God’s love in Christ to others.
The specific problem in the Corinthian church was their allegiance to different individuals, that is, playing the game of favorite preacher and pastor and grouping around how that particular pastor teaches and does ministry. It is a classic case of church members saying to each other: “That’s not how so and so did it!” Following our pet preachers ends up in division because people then focus on the methods of ministry rather than the substance of the ministry itself: the wondrous cross of Christ that saves us from our pettiness and transforms us into forgiven people who spread forgiveness and healing through cauterizing wounds and being peacemakers. In other words, our primary loyalty is to be Christ and the message of the cross, and not to particular personalities or programs.
The sin of the Corinthians was misguided loyalties, and the answer to wrong priorities is to have Jesus and the cross our central and guiding allegiance. The Corinthian believers were emotionally tied to the pastor who baptized them and who was a significant force for good in their lives. It is more than understandable to have a special relationship with the pastor who baptized your children, or taught you, or was there for you when you needed it most. What is not okay, however, is following that pastor as if he/she is Jesus, and insisting that church be done the way my favorite preacher does it. Christian unity means to agree with one another about the good news of Christ, and let everything else be a matter of lesser importance. Can you live with that?
Here is a sobering reality that has been true throughout church history and is no different today: not everyone in every church is there to follow Jesus – and as long as that is a reality, there will be schisms, factions, cliques, divisions and disunity because the visible church always has a mix of righteous and unrighteous people within it concerned more about power politics than humbly following Jesus and spreading his message of forgiveness.
Yet, also a reality is that sin in the church has been taken seriously throughout history as something that destroys its unity and purity. It has only been in the last three-hundred years that sin has been viewed as something that is only personal, and a matter between the individual and God. In the early churches believers desiring to repent of their sins would typically spend a period of time fasting and praying and then appear before the entire church to make a public confession. I am not necessarily endorsing that method for us, but the message remains essential: to agree with one another and make peace by stopping the bleeding and bringing healing to the community of the redeemed. The power of Christianity is in the blood of Jesus to forgive sins, and not in trying to ensure things get done the way we think they ought to get done in the way our favorite people do them.
Thom Rainer is a nationally recognized church researcher. In a survey of churches in membership decline, he found several common dominant behavior patterns that emerged. Here are a few of them, and they all bring some form of disunity:
- Worship wars. One or more factions in the church want the music just the way they like it. Any deviation is met with anger and complaining.
- Viewing the preservation and protection of the church building as one of the highest priorities, above the church members’ spiritual growth and maturity.
- Particular programs are held in such high regard that, even if they are not effective, the church keeps doing them.
- Attitudes of entitlement. A sense of deserving special treatment and attention.
- Greater concern about change than the gospel. Rainer says, “Almost any noticeable changes in the church evoke the ire of many; but those same passions are not evident about participating in the work of the gospel to change lives.”
- Evangelistic apathy. Very few members share their faith on a regular basis; they are more concerned for their own needs, and not so much of those outside the church.
One of the jobs of church leadership is to make sure that there is unity around the things that are most important to God. Christian unity is not built on trying to keep everyone happy; it is built on the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul said that the cross of Christ is more important than anything else, no matter how important we think that “something” may be. Christians must unite around the gospel. All the practical and important stuff of human life must be shaped and governed by the cross of Jesus, because that is where God’s power saved the world and where true hope lies for everyone.
Paul did not demand that all Christians be identical. Instead, he invited us to identify with Jesus Christ first and last. We all need God’s will done in our lives more than we need our preferences realized. If that seems foolish, then let’s embrace foolishness because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God for those who believe. Even so, come Lord Jesus.