Unity in the local church is the goal of every church (or it should be). It is not always easily or readily attained, as a newspaper account about a church in Wales a couple of generations ago testifies:
Yesterday the two opposition groups both sent ministers to the pulpit. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout above the other. Both called for hymns, and the congregation sang two — each side trying to drown out the other. Bibles were raised in anger. The Sunday morning service turned into bedlam. Through it all, the two preachers continued to out shout each other with their sermons.
Eventually, a deacon called a policeman. Two came in and began shouting for the congregation to be quiet. They advised the 40 persons in the church to return home. The rivals filed out, still arguing. Last night one of the group called a ‘let’s-be-friends’ meeting. It broke up in argument. [Told in Great Church Fights, 53.]
As hard as it is to attain and maintain unity, harmony is one of the most fundamental callings of believers and churches, as Jesus reminded the disciples hours before He went to the cross (Jn. 13:34-35). Likewise, the apostles who heard that command passed it on through their New Testament letters. So did the apostle Paul who might be called an “apostle of unity,” because of his frequent calls for church members to delight in their brotherhood.
In Ephesians 4, Paul gives a clear explanation of the origin of the church’s unity and how to maintain that unity. That chapter is the beginning of Paul’s transition from theological truth (Eph. 1-3) to the implications of theological truth (Eph. 4-6). One of the first implications that draws his attention is the priority of unity (vv. 2-3).
It is notable that biblically speaking, unity is not something that believers or the church produce. Paul emphasizes “the unity of the Spirit,” that is, the unity that is generated and produced by the Holy Spirit. That simple phrase is a reminder that believers don’t produce unity — and Paul laid that theological foundation in 2:11-18. Unity was accomplished by Christ on the cross (2:14-16) and was produced and given by the Holy Spirit (2:18) — it’s His unity. Unity in the church is a reality of being united to Christ in salvation (read Jn. 17:20-24). We do not make ourselves unified; we already are unified. Just like a husband and wife do not make themselves one (by definition of being married they are one) so church members do not unite themselves either because by definition of being connected to the Triune Godhead in salvation they already are one.
So what is our responsibility in relation to unity? Paul tells the Ephesian believers and us to be diligent to preserve the unity we have received from the Holy Spirit. We don’t make ourselves unified, but we are called to maintain the oneness we have.
So Paul says “be diligent” — a term that has a sense of urgency and haste. We should be zealous for unity and spare no effort to preserve it. Keeping the unity we have been given is our priority. Like a groundskeeper maintains the city parks that have been entrusted to him, so the believer maintains the unity that has been given to him.
Particularly, Paul says we are to “preserve” the Spirit’s unity — we are to keep and guard the unity so it is unharmed and ready for its intended purpose (e.g., Js. 1:27; 2 Tim 4:7; Jude 6, 21). And both verbs (“be diligent” and “preserve”) are in the present tense, which means God would have us to always be at this task of preserving the unity we’ve been given. That’s also a tacit reminder that we can act in such a way that the unity is either damaged or protected. So we need to work hard at unity, pursue reconciliation with aggressiveness, and be slow to give up on hard relationships.
We do well to ask ourselves, “Am I eager and diligent, making every effort to guard and maintain the unity that God has given the church body? Am I taking initiative to be a preservative of peace?” Such care of the unity God has given us is our calling.
An obvious question is, “how is this unity protected? What do we do to keep the unity we’ve been given?” Paul tells us how we preserve unity “in the bond of peace.” The bond that keeps believers unified is peace. This peace is the message that Christ preached and that produced unity (2:14, 15, 17). And peace is also one of the central messages of the gospel (6:15) and a gift of God to believers (1:2; 6:23).
Paul means us to understand that we have been reconciled to one another through Christ, so all our relationships in the church should reflect that reconciliation. We will preserve the unity God has given us when we pursue peace with one another. Whenever there is disunity, disharmony, conflict, or the intrusion of sin that gives offense and breaks fellowship, we do the things that produce peace — we humbly and completely confess our sins (if we are the instigators of the broken fellowship) and we graciously and generously forgive the sins of others (every time we have been sinned against). At times, those conversations will be hard. But when they are entered into with humble grace, they will ultimately prove to be a blessing to the participants. [Aside: that doesn’t mean that reconciliation will always be produced, but it does mean that if one persistently attempts to reconcile he will experience a clean conscience about his efforts and will be satisfied with his obedience to God. See Rom. 12:18.]
Having been a member of various churches for over 50 years I have seen conflict and broken fellowship too often to remember all the events or participants. But now having been a member and pastor of one church for over 30 years I have also enjoyed seeing many disharmonious circumstances reconciled by the peace that Christ produces through repentance and forgiveness — so that the consistent reputation of our church is that it is a peaceable place.
So, if we want a life that is worthy of and in character of the salvation of Christ we will continue on that course to protect the unity of every relationship we have in Christ and every relationship in this church body. Let us fight — but let us make sure that our fight is a battle to preserve the unity of the body that is produced by and leads to the peace of Christ.