The story is not a pleasant one when a Church becomes a center of conflict instead of love. Yet the story is not exceptional either as many of our letters in the New Testament reveal.
I smile when people say they wish they could just get back to the way it was in the New Testament Church. Sometimes I ask, “Which one?”
Start with the earliest expression depicted through the letter we call “James.” What was happening that James had to write, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). A survey of the book reveals less than calm circumstances in the Church.
Move forward a little to the Churches of Galatia. Imagine how bad it had become for the apostle to write, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:13). A little later he wrote, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:25-26).
Why were the believers in Ephesus told to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? The repeated emphasis on pursuing peace reminds us that there never was a local Church where unity did not take effort. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace…” (Romans 14:19). “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).
We must check the tendency to want an easy path or a quick formula. On this side of heaven, we cannot experience uninterrupted peace — especially in our relationships.
Yet our desire for the full experience of the peace we’ve found in Christ is part of the normal Christian life. We are a people who sigh with hopeful expectation for God’s final transformation. Our longing for peace is a powerful result of the ministry of the indwelling Spirit.
“we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:23-25).
Walk by the Spirit
Part of the reason we continue to struggle for unity is that the spiritual change in our salvation is not subtraction of the flesh but addition of the Spirit.
To experience true unity of Christian fellowship, we must “walk by the Spirit.” We cannot overcome the pull to “gratify the desires of the flesh” in our own strength. We are weak. We are only vessels of clay, yet God put His treasure in such vessels “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). We must remind ourselves often that we are weak and God is strong. “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God” (Psalm 62:11).
The Spirit of God who lives in us (II Corinthians 1:21) is the one who enables us to break the power of canceled sin. But we must be humbly honest about the conflict. “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other” (Galatians 5.16-17).
The apostle makes a significant connection between halting the destruction of relationships and walking by the Spirit.
“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:15-16)
Here there is a direct connection between protecting relationships from destruction (bite, devour, destroy: all metaphors from the animal kingdom) and the role of the Holy Spirit. Avoiding destructive relationship happens when we (v.16) – walk by the Spirit; (v.18) – be led by the Spirit; (v.25a) – live by the Spirit; (v. 25b) – keep in step with the Spirit
Galatians 5:16 — “so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). The apostle is saying, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15” (Phillips). To protect Christian community (relationships) from destruction, each member must “live or walk by the Spirit.”
By acknowledging the reality of conflict in this life, I am not encouraging anyone to settle for mediocre relationships. I am more concerned about protecting believers from a dangerous kind of discontentment based on misguided expectations of utopian fellowship in this life. But settling is never an option for those who are being continuously transformed into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18).
When spiritually changed people are immersed by one Spirit into life together we should look for reconciled relationships! Community life of this kind (in marriages, families, and local Churches) among those who are walking by the Spirit (being filled by the Spirit) will be distinguished by the fruit of the Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Imagine any relationship where these qualities are absent. Now imagine what relationships would be like where these qualities flourish. It is worth noting that each quality in this fruit of the Spirit also appears in the NT as an action commanded of us. This reminds that we are not passive recipients of the activity of God. Unworthy recipients? Yes! But not passive recipients.
“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13).