Wouldn’t it be great if unity in the Church was never threatened or disturbed?
Yet we know this isn’t reality for many reasons. A primary one is that when people receive God’s gift of salvation, it doesn’t result in subtraction of their sin nature but addition of the indwelling Spirit. And one of the primary characteristics of the sin nature is conflict. In fact, the very presence of the Spirit of God often intensifies the conflict.
“The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other” (Galatians 5:16-17, NLT)
We continuously experience conflict or the absence of peace within our lives and all around us. “Near the beginning of our history, we human beings broke the harmony of paradise and began to live against our ultimate good…” “The real human predicament is that inexplicably, irrationally, we all keep living our lives against what’s good for us have so often chosen to live against God, against each other, and against God’s world” (C. Plantinga Jr.). The absence of peace (shalom) runs like a fault-line through all of human history and every human heart. Someone once cynically suggested that peace is that glorious moment in history when everyone stopped to reload.
We’re not at peace with:
- our bodies — are threatened by many opposing forces. This is why we diet, exercise and contract sicknesses and diseases.
- our minds – are threatened by anxiety, depression, evil thoughts and much more.
- our environment – threatens to destroy us if we don’t respect its powers and our dependency on it: We can have too little or too much rain; too little or too much sun. The destructive forces are many (storms, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc…).
- our selves – Sometimes we observe people who never seem to be able to get their “act together” and we ask, “What’s her problem?” Someone answers, “Oh, she’s got issues.” Other times, after years of struggling, we’ll say of someone, “He’s finally at peace with himself.”
- our relationships – There are endless difficulties with family, friends and neighbors. Is there ever guaranteed peace and reconciliation between people? No. It’s almost always the opposite: conflict, hostility; revenge and war. Whether it’s individual to individual, race to race or nation to nation — absence of peace is real and often tragic.
We must be realistic about these matters. Let’s not be shocked or overly discouraged by conflicted. Instead, we should answer the call to protect unity and be good stewards of conflict for growth and learning.
Consider how believers are directed to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Or, consider the instructions to the spiritual leaders of the Church in Ephesus:
“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!” (Acts 20:28-31a).
There will always be significant threats to unity among followers of Christ. So the key to unity is not the removal of all conflict (that happens in heaven) but a deep and shared commitment to reconciliation among the followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus spoke realistically about ways conflict could potentially disrupt peaceful relationships. But the importance of protecting unity is found in the urgency He placed on pursuing reconciled relationships. Jesus addressed this from two potential sides of conflict:
1. Your brother has something against you:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
2. Your brother sins against you:
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17, NLT).
In each example, whether offended or giving an offense, followers of Christ must take personal responsibility and initiative in pursuing reconciled relationships.
A contrast of two ways to live
Consider the divisive nature of the eight characteristics of the works of the flesh from Galatians 5. It is the longest list of sins and is placed with sexual, worship and excess sins. These are sins against peaceful relationships.
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: …hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy… I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21).
By contrast, consider the qualities of love. These are anti rivalry. These are peace building qualities.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Cor. 13:4-7).
Which list would you prefer for the group you belong to?
v. 17 – The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; (unsoiled), then
- peace-loving, (peaceable)
- considerate, (gentle)
- submissive, (yielding)
- full of mercy and good fruit,
- impartial (undivided)
- sincere. (non-hypocritical)
v. 18 – Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
- The prayer of Jesus John 17:23 -Jesus prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
- The passion of God Proverbs 6:16,19 – “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: …. a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”
- The call of the Church Romans 16:17-18 – “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” Philippians 2:14-16a – “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…” Jude 16 – Watch out for those who have secretly slipped in among you. “These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”