When I think of unity, it is usually in terms of people agreeing on some point to work together to accomplish something significant. In church matters unity is a challenge and always has been. When Jesus prayed the great unity prayer in John 17 before he was crucified, he prayed that not just the twelve apostles and disciples of that time would be united, but that all who would believe on his name through the message they preached might be one as he and the father were one, so the world may believe in Jesus as the one sent from the Father (John 17:20-21). When Paul wrote the Corinthian church in what we know as I Corinthians it was largely on the theme of being united. “Let there be no divisions among you.” He challenged them and us to be of one mind and to speak the same thing. He chided them for following certain men, including Paul himself instead of just following Jesus. He described their division as a symptom of their immaturity, still acting like spiritual babies (I Corinthians 3:1-3). He told the church in Ephesus to “Endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In Jesus desire for unity, did He require everyone to be in full agreement with him on everything for there to be unity? In some areas He did just that. There were matters such as his being the Messiah that people had to believe in order to be saved (John 8:24; 14:6). Jesus stressed that some matters are more important than others. When he was being tried by Pilate, and Pilate tried to get him to answer his questions, he asked Jesus “Do you not know that I have the power to execute you or to release you?” Jesus responded “You would have no power unless it had been given you by the Father, but the greater sin is by those who delivered me to you.”
It’s pretty common to hear people say, “One sin is as bad as another” but Jesus never said such a thing. He made the distinction that if a servant knew what was right and did wrong he would be beaten with many stripes, but if he didn’t know the right thing and did wrong he would be beaten with few stripes. When Jesus was asked, “What is the first and great commandment?” He didn’t respond by saying, “All my commandments are important and you need to make certain you follow all of them.” He said, “The first and great commandment is “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The apostle Paul followed that same line of reasoning in I Corinthians 13 as he discussed the ceasing of the miraculous gifts and said, “Now abides faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”
Think of two illustrations in the Bible of significant things done for the sake of unity. The first is in the story of Abraham. He carried his nephew Lot with him as he left Ur to go to the land God would show him. Both men became very wealthy in the new land they were in. This was so much the case that there arose conflict between Lot’s herdsmen and Abraham’s herdsmen. Abraham called Lot to him and said, “Let’s not have any strife between you and me or between my herdsmen and yours, for we are brethren. Look out over the land and choose which way you will go and I will go in the other direction.” Lot made his choice and Abraham moved on the other direction. If this caused any harm in their relationship it isn’t evident when Lot’s family was taken captive by warring kings that came in against Sodom. Abraham turned his workmen into soldiers and marched out to save his nephew and family from harm. As strange as it seems, there are times when the best thing one can do for unity is to separate.
The other example is of Paul and Barnabas. Paul owed a great deal to Barnabas. He had befriended Paul when he came to Jerusalem after being converted and convinced the church to accept him. It was Barnabas who went down to Tarsus to get Paul and bring him to Antioch where they met with the church for a whole year training disciples. They were partners in the first missionary journey and went together to Jerusalem to defend their work against the invasion of false teachers trying to convince Gentile converts they had to be circumcised and obey the law to be saved.
They traveled together back to Antioch and seemed to be doing well in their relationship. Then Paul said, “Let’s go back and visit the churches we started and see how they are doing.” Barnabas was ready to make the trip, but he had one condition. He wanted to take John Mark along with them and give him another chance to grow up spiritually. Paul was unwilling to give him another chance. That disagreement became so strong that they broke up their partnership. Barnabas went one way with John Mark and Paul went another with Silas.
Neither of them quit the Lord because of their stress with each other. Sometimes people disagree on insignificant matters that have nothing to do with what is right or wrongs, but they aren’t able to get past that disagreement. In such cases it is often wise to separate and both still remain faithful to the Lord.
In every church that grows and keeps growing in service to God, one of the key things is that people have learned not to demand that everyone else agree with them on every matter. Some things are basic and fundamental and there must be agreement on them. But many others are incidental and will not affect one’s salvation either way. The challenge is to distinguish what is fundamental and what is insignificant.
One thing is certain, to keep unity we must not make ourselves the standard by which we decide the faith and loyalty of others to the Lord. None of us measure up to the Lord. So when we measure ourselves by ourselves and compare ourselves with one another we are not wise.
It’s sad when you see people so bent on having their own way in matters of judgment that they are ready to destroy the church instead of giving in on anything. In such cases it is far better for one to separate and go somewhere that agrees with them instead of tearing up the body of Christ.