Many years ago the founding fathers of this nation envisioned a society unparalleled and unrivaled by any in the annals history. They saw a country in which people of varying cultural backgrounds and religious faiths could live together harmoniously, united under one American ideal–freedom. Thus the motto emblazoned on The Great Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum–out of many, one. Sadly, we have learned throughout our short history that maintaining that sense of national unity is extremely difficult. What began as a small collection of Colonists all working together for a common purpose quickly transformed into a nation of millions of people, many of whom solely motivated by their own desires. “Today what unity we had is fracturing as self-conscious, competing, and even hostile groups selfishly pursue their own way.”
The portrait of the church found in Ephesians 2:14-16 bears some interesting points of similarity to the purpose of the founding father’s in establishing our Country. Paul wrote,
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.
Through His death, Jesus removed the Old Law and every other obstacle standing between Jew and Gentile unity, thus joining the two together with God and with one another in His body, the Church (Eph. 1:22-23). God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 3:9-11) is a singular entity composed of individuals of every language, culture, and life situation (Gal. 3:26-29) united together in heart and mind (1 Cor. 1:10), governed by the same system of faith (Eph. 4:4-6), and working together for the same purpose (Phil. 1:27), to God’s glory (Rom. 15:5-6; Eph. 3:21). According to Ephesians 2:14-18 the fulfillment of this purpose is the reason Jesus died.
But sadly, the unity and purity of the church have been attacked since her inception. Acts 5:1-11 records the account of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about their giving. Acts 6:1-6 reveals a “complaint” against the Hebrews by the Hellenists because their widows were neglected. The Corinthians had denominated themselves (1 Cor. 1:10-17), Paul wrote of “false brethren secretly brought in who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Gal. 2:4), and Jude wrote of “sensual persons who “cause divisions, not having the Spirit” (Jude 19). Disrupting the peace and unity of the body of Christ is a very serious matter, and such actions actively fight against the purpose for which Christ died! Thus every Christian is charged with the responsibility of “endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
Fulfilling the command of Ephesians 4:3 is only possible by applying the attitudes in Ephesians 4:2–lowliness, gentleness, long-suffering, and forbearance. These qualities are focused in two different directions. Gentleness, long-suffering, and forbearance have to do with how we treat one another as brethren. They each require us to look externally, beyond ourselves. Are we kind to one another, or rude? Are we patient with one another, or do we pounce too quickly? Are we willing to put up with one another’s personality quirks and help foster spiritual growth, or do we ostracize and reject those with whom we simply don’t mesh? We are charged to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and inspect fruit closely (Matt. 7:15-20). Timothy was to command some that they teach “no other doctrine” nor engage in useless speculation and idle chatter which turned people away from Christ (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Even Elders in sin are to be “rebuked before all” (1 Tim. 5:20).
But the most difficult component of “endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit,” is internal. It is often easy for us to spot false doctrine, sinful behavior, or unauthorized practices in others, but sometimes very difficult for us to see them within ourselves. The first attitude listed in Ephesians 4:2 is lowliness, or, humility. Unity is often disrupted because we allow our pride to shoot to the top of our priority list. Paul wrote, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Timothy was to “take heed” to himself and tovthe doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). Certainly the principle of Matthew 7:1-5 must apply here. Though it is necessary for us to fulfill our scriptural obligations in looking outside of ourselves, it is just as necessary, perhaps even more so, for us to look within ourselves first.
Too often we think too highly of ourselves and allow our purposes to outweigh the Lord’s. Preachers, unfortunately, are particularly skilled in this area. We may say something that sends ripples throughout the brotherhood and, for whatever reason, be unwilling to accept culpability for the fruit produced. Consider, for example, the recent controversy over the doctrine of the “Renovated Earth.” In its early stages, many of the proponents of that doctrine would openly admit that it was a novel doctrine, and would likely not be accepted by the brotherhood at large. And yet they taught it, wrote about it, and defended it anyway. Further, many of these same brethren would adamantly say that the doctrine is a matter of judgment. And yet, when pushed, they doubled down on the doctrine and played the victim. That same scenario has recycled itself many times over. A brother writes or preaches something that he suggests the church has gotten wrong all along, then when he’s challenged he points the finger at everyone else as if they are the problem–as if they are the ones who have disrupted the unity of the church. Perhaps a good look in the mirror would be appropriate.
If something is a matter of doctrine, then by all means preach it, write about it, and defend it with everything you have. True unity is only possible when there is doctrinal unity (Eph. 4:1-16; 2 John 9-11). But do so with the right attitude. Remember that Ephesians 4:15 governs Ephesians 4:11-14. But if something is a matter of judgment, why disrupt the unity of the church unnecessarily? Romans 16:17-18 says,
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.
Note that while they are certainly implied, the passage does not specifically mention false teachers. It mentions those who cause division in the church because of their own selfishness. This passage must be read with Romans 14 in mind. A brother who pushes a matter of judgment to the point of divisiveness ought to be “noted” and “avoided” just the same as the brother who preaches that baptism is not essential for salvation.
Our country may be hopelessly divided at this point, but the same cannot and must not be said about the Church. Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers…” (Matt. 5:9) and the church must be full of Christians who value peace over conflict. But peace does not happen by accident. James wrote, “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jas. 3:18). One commentator’s translation of that passage stands out –“peacemakers produce, in the atmosphere of peace they create, the harvest of righteousness.” It begs the question, “What am I doing to create an atmosphere of peace within the body of Christ?” The flippant attitude present in many podcasts and blogs is not it. Throwing something out haphazardly or attacking sound brethren of the past as if they were Biblically ignorant is not only disrespectful and unwise, it harms the unity of the Lord’s body.
There are times when brethren must divide over matters of doctrine (2 John 9-11). Those times have come in the past and they may come again in the future. But they should be approached with patience, gravity, and tears. Would to God we would prevent them by loving the Lord so deeply that we put the Kingdom first, and strive to be peacemakers.