Christian unity is a beautiful thing in the eyes of God. It is more than the absence of discord as it includes warm fellowship that is saturated with love and goodwill. “Behold,” David says, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:2). There is nothing like collectively worshiping God with a unified in heart and mind – it is the closest thing to heaven on earth.
This unity is established by the fellowship that all God’s children have in Christ Jesus. The church is one body and is united by one Spirit. This unity is deeper than a shared interest, for it is rooted in the spiritual life that all of God’s people share in Christ Jesus.
But, sadly, not all churches experience such unity. Fractions, discord, and clicks can abound in churches. This is because of two things. One, as wheat and tares often grow together, there are often unbelievers mixed within the membership of the church. Without spiritual regeneration, there is no unity in the Spirit. Two, though Christians have a new nature and are untied to Christ and to each other, they still struggle with sin. Christians can be prideful, harsh, and hurtful. Wherever unforgiveness and pride reside, unity will have a difficult time thriving. Regardless, this means that sin is the cause of discord within the church.
But how do we battle discord? How do we battle sin? What are ways to foster unity in the church? Though not an exhaustive list, here are at least 10 things we can do to maintain the unity of the Spirit within our churches.
1. Understand that Maintaining Unity is Our Responsibility
Paul exhorts us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). Listed here are many of the traits needed for unity – humility, gentleness, patience, and love. The command is for us to utilize these traits in order to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.” This exhortation implies that unity cannot be taken for granted. Selfishness still exists within us all and sin will continue to occur within the church. This is why patience, forgiveness, and love are needed attributes for the saints. If there were no selfishness in the church, then there would be no need for forgiveness. Yet, long-suffering and forgiveness are required because the danger of discord and factions are ever present. We are all called to exhibit and display the fruit of the Spirit because we have been charged by God to do all we can to maintain the unity that has been established by the Spirit. If we disregard this charge, we are living in sin.
2. Understand that Causing Discord is a Sin
Strife and discord are easy to sow, but woe to those who plant such wicked seeds in God’s vineyard. God hates sin, and it is a sin – a great sin – to sow “discord among the brethren” (Pr. 6:19). That which divides God’s people and tears the unity of the church is a great sin indeed. If we are commanded to maintain unity, then we must realize that we sin against God when we initiate discord among the saints.
3. Love the Those Who are Difficult
Because they do not stack well, it is difficult to carry a bundle of crooked sticks. Yet, crooked sticks are easy to carry when bounded by a cord. The Puritan Thomas Watson reminds us that a group of Christians is similar to a pile of crooked sticks that are bound together by love. Our different personalities do not always mesh. Our flaws often rub people the wrong way. But, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Love is “the perfect bond of unity” (Col. 3:14). If we are going to be able to look past the personality flaws of others and maintain the unity of the Spirit, then love must prevail.
A critical spirit that easily finds fault and complains about the slightest disagreement is a symptom of pride and selfishness. Love thinks the best – it assumes people are innocent until proven guilty. It thinks no evil and rejoices not in wrongdoing. If we are to love others as we love ourselves, then we should seek to give people the benefit of the doubt and think the very best of them.
4. Do Not Allow Our Hearts to Pull Away from the Church
We must guard our hearts. Before discord erupts openly, usually it takes place inwardly. Once we become critical and unhappy with a few things – without properly dealing with our concerns – then we will begin looking for problems. But once we start looking for problems, the floodgates will open and we see offenses everywhere. We may not leave the church immediately, but our affections have already started to pull away from the congregation. Though we still attend bodily, our hearts have already exited. Where love and goodwill once ruled, a critical spirit – the saw of disunity – now rules. Slowly, we will start missing church functions increasingly until we remove ourselves altogether – causing a breach in the unity of the church.
We must remember that it is a sin to harbor animosity for a fellow church member without seeking reconciliation (Pr. 10:18). To be secretly offended without seeking to forgive will separate friendships and fracture the unity of the church. Thus, we must be careful to guard our hearts from all forms of resentment, envy, and pride. We must maintain a love for our brothers and never allow bitterness or contention to separate our affections from the people of God.
5. Redirect Gossip with Words of Grace
A critical spirit is contagious. It can spread quickly throughout the congregation. Subtle complaints, even when they are legitimate, often breed discontentment, and discontentment often spreads until it causes division within the church. “I wish the church was more friendly to visitors.” Or, “The church does not focus upon missions enough.” Though these may be proper concerns, these complaints can be mishandled and cause discord.
It often starts with a simple concern, but the concern soon turns into gossip. Rather than seeking to handle the problem in a biblical fashion, the problem is often communicated to others. Moreover, it is natural for us when we hear criticism to respond with our own criticism. “Well you are worried about missions; I am concerned about how business meetings are handled.” We become critical and our critical spirits influence others to be critical. Not only have we sinned in our own hearts, we have led others into this sin. We have ceased to promote unity but rather have shown seeds of discord among the saints.
It is not wrong to have concerns, but once we take pleasure in pointing out flaws and sharing these flaws with others, then we have failed to operate in love. We have spoken against our brothers and this is a transgression against God’s law (James 4:11). Minor concerns should be overlooked – for love covers such things. Yet, when concerns need to be addressed, they should be directed to only the people directly involved, in most cases to the leaders of the church. This should be done in the spirit of humility and with the desire to resolve the issue while strengthening the unity of the Spirit (Gal. 6:1).
A way to maintain unity when we hear others complain about the church (complaints that slander and devalue the name of individuals or the reputation of the church) is to redirect that criticism with words of grace. Paul commands us that we are to “let no corrupting talk come out of [our] mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). This command is to be implemented in every situation. If our communication is not seeking to assist others in their walk with the Lord, then we must refrain from speaking until the Spirit and His Word retunes our hearts.
So, when we hear a person complaining, there is no need to tell that person that he is in danger of gossiping. We simply and gently need to redirect the conversation. One of the best ways to redirect gossip is by saying, “You are concerned about John Doe? We love John Doe. Have you addressed your concern with him? If not, I will be happy to go with you.” This usually does the trick. Regardless, the goal is to always respond in a way that seeks to reconcile and build up our precious brothers – not tear them down.
If we, however, enter into their gossip, we share in their guilt. It is our duty not only to seek to defend the honor of our brothers, but to assist others in refraining from slander. If gossip continues, it will surely bring much disunity within the body of Christ.
6. Identify Yourself with the Problems of the Church
To help guard our hearts from causing division by a critical spirit and by emotionally pulling away from the church we should identify ourselves with the problems of the church. If there are problems in the church (as there always are), then these problems are our problems. We have a responsibility to correct them. We all have sin in our lives, but this does not cause us to separate ourselves from ourselves. Not only is this impossible, but we love ourselves too much to give up on ourselves. We overlook our problems, or we deal with them. Yet, when it comes to church problems, it is too easy to separate ourselves from the rest of the church by saying, “The church does this, or the church does that.” We tend to separate ourselves from the problems in the church as if we are not united to the church body. We begin calling our church by its name and complain by saying, “Grace Baptist Church is not very friendly to visitors.” No pastor enjoys hearing members of the church say, “The church should do this, or the church is doing this wrong.” Rather, we should say, “We could do better at welcoming visitors.” Or, “Our church may need to think about how we can improve hospitality, and I am willing to help.” Identifying ourselves with the problems of the church is a helpful way of addressing a problem without potentially introducing a division within the congregation.
Once we identify ourselves with the problems of the church, the next thing we need to do is seek to strengthen the weaknesses of the church by filling in the gaps. The church may not be as welcoming as it needs to be, but our awareness of the problem should cause us to pick up the slack. Rather than finding fault with the church and building up a résumé of criticisms in our minds, we should seek to be an example of friendliness to all visitors. It is amazing that the person who complains the most of feeling unconnected is often the person who does the least in reaching out to others. If we see a need, then we should seek to fill that need. Our good example will likely influence others as well. We must remember that not all members are gifted alike. We should not expect that everyone would be as concerned about visitors as we are. Yet, no doubt, were we lack, others must help carry our load. If we are not seeking to bear the burdens of others and seeking to strengthen the weaknesses of the church, then we have no business complaining about those weaknesses.
8. Humble Yourself Before God
All these things, however, depend upon humility. While prideful people are never satisfied with others, the meek are amazed that they have friends at all. A true church consists of precious people – the children of God. They may have flaws, but they have Christ living within them. They love the Lord, and they are gifted in a unique way. The world is unworthy of such people. We are unworthy to be included in such a glorious assembly. We need to remain humble and remember this. It is by the grace of God and the grace of God alone that we are counted among God’s precious people. We should always remember that.
When Paul exhorted us to be of “the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2), he did so by displaying the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ. If the Lord is humble enough to accept us, to serve us, and to even die for us, how much more should we be willing to place the unity of the church above our own personal interests and concerns? Who are we to be too good for those whom Christ died?
9. Submit to Church Discipline
With all this said, a major objection remains. “Jeff, you don’t know my special situation.” “It is impossible to maintain unity under the circumstances that exist in my church; there are grievous sins and heretical teaching.” “What am I suppose to do? Am I to act as if nothing is wrong?” Even so, we are still to do all that we can to maintain the unity of the Spirit – we are never exempt from obeying this command. The way to maintain the unity of the Spirit in such circumstances, however, is by following through with church discipline. We are not to gossip or harbor a critical spirit, but privately seek to maintain fellowship with the body by following the instructions of Christ in Matthew 18. We must desire forgiveness and reconciliation. When there are grievous sins within the church, then we must humbly and lovingly address the issue(s) with only the people directly connected or involved in the situation. We must restrain from slander and gossip, and we must seek to restore those who have brought discord within the body to full unity. We must remember that the objective of church discipline is keeping peace and unity within the church body. We must be long-suffering and not strive with others. Everything must be done in humility and be motivated by love.
10. Do Your Best not to Leave a Church Upset
Yes, I know that people leave churches all the time and for the slightest reasons. No longer do Christians seek to maintain the unity the Spirit and work out their differences. Once their feelings are hurt, it is not long before they find a reason to abandon ship. But if church membership includes being united to a spiritual family – where our joys, trials, and sorrows are mutually shared, then to depart from this family is to potentially place a tear within the body. If our union with our Christian brothers is connected with our union with Christ, then we must do all that we can to maintain that unity.
First, it is unbiblical to leave a church without doing our best to be reconciled to all of her members. Being offended is not a warrant to leave a church – not when the Bible commands us to forgive and, if necessary, follow through with steps of church discipline. Leaving a church upset – without seeking reconciliation – is a sin.
Second, it is unbiblical to leave a church without notice or explanation. Simply dropping out quietly may seem like the easy way out, but this brings a division within the unity of the church. How would you like a close friend to stop talking to you without any explanation? Would this not be hurtful? If it is unkind to drop a friendship without explanation, how much more hurtful is it to walk away form a church – God’s people – without seeking do what you can to maintain Christian fellowship?
If we leave a church without striving to do our best to keep the unity of the Spirit, then we have not followed the command given to us by God. When we can no longer remain a member of church in good conscience, and if we have already sought to humbly resolve our concerns with the leadership of the church to no avail, then it may be permissible to leave, but we should seek to leave in good standing and with the blessing of the church. The biblical reasons for leaving a church is a topic for another article, but suffice to say here, leaving a church should done humbly, slowly, and with much sadness.
In the end, we must strive to foster and maintain the precious unity that Christ established by His blood.