Gift and Task

The Church - 7

Gift and Task
Unity in the Church
(Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16)

The multitude of different Christian denominations and sects, 33,800 at last count (David B. Barrett, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2000, p. 24) is often invoked by critics as invalidating the church’s message of God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ for all peoples of the earth. But disunity is not limited to the church. It is a widespread human phenomenon, reflected in marriage breakdown, family discord, social disintegration, class struggles, civil wars, and international conflict. Unity is as rare as it is needful in human relationships. In this message, seventh in a series on ‘The Church’, Rob Yule, minister of St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, shares some practical experience and biblical insights about unity, including the relevance of what he calls ‘Jesus’ Disputes Procedure.’

The temperature was crisp, hovering around zero, and a weak sun lit the yellow plaster walls and orange tiled rooves, as I made my way by tram through the historic Central European city of Prague, with my friend Pavel Tuma, first post-Communist director of the newly-reestablished Czech YMCA, to visit the famous Strahov Monastery and Library. The tram rumbled past Letenska - the large open area where a million people gathered in one of the great demonstrations that brought about the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia in November 1989.

Pavel spoke to me of his memories of that momentous time. What struck him most, he told me, was the extraordinarily ‘gentle mood’ and sense of togetherness that he experienced in that vast crowd at that time. People, he said, were incredibly tender and courteous to one another, as they waited patiently for buses, trams and trains to demonstrations. The Communist authorities, of course, refused to schedule extra services for an event targeted at them. But there was no pushing or shoving for the few public transports that were running.

Only on three occasions in his life, Pavel Tuma reflected, had he experienced such togetherness. One was in 1945, at the end of the Second World War; another was in 1968 during the Prague Spring; and the third was in November 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, so-named on account of its gentleness and absence of violence.

Unity as a Gift and a Task

Unity is never simply a human achievement. As my Czech friend’s memories indicate, unity always has an element of sheer grace, something miraculous about it. Unity is something given by God, but it is also something, paradoxically, we are called to seek after and maintain.

The God-given aspect is stressed in Ephesians 4:4, ‘There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ The human task is expressed in Ephesians 4:1-3, ‘I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’

Jesus earlier, in his final prayer for his followers, in John 17:22-23, also spoke of unity as both a gift and a task. ‘I pray for those who will believe in me...that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are one in me and I am in you....I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me.’ He prayed that their unity, worked out among them in their relationships, would be a reflection or outworking of the unity that already existed between himself and the Father. Their unity, the task which they would have to work at, was to be based on the already established unity of Father and Son in the Trinity, and of Jesus and his followers.

Unity as the Responsibility of Leaders

Paul uses an interesting metaphor to illustrate the challenge that unity is to elders and Christian leaders in the local church. He urges them to avoid deceitfulness and dishonesty in relationships and instead to speak candidly to one another in love: ‘speaking the truth in love we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’ (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Ligaments suggest both strength and suppleness. They are the part of the body that holds other members or limbs together, giving flexibility, allowing movement, absorbing jarring, yet strong enough to hold the body as one organism. That is exactly the role that leaders play in the community of believers, the Body of Christ. Leaders have to be strong and resilient enough to survive the pressures and responsibilities of their job, yet also to be flexible, adaptable enough to know when to give ground and when to hold ground on an issue.

A former Director of Education in New Zealand, Charles Beeby, used to have on his desk the slogan: ‘Sail by the compass, but lie by the wind.’ That expresses exactly the kind of wisdom and flexibility leaders need to have. Some leaders have no goals; they don’t sail by the wind, but are too compliant, vacillating back and forth, going nowhere. Other leaders are too rigid or goal-orientated; they don’t have the patience or flexibility to tack back and forth to achieve their objectives. To hold a church together in unity, leaders must be like ligaments or cartilage, simultaneously strong and flexible at the same time.

Unity involves Everyone

But unity is not only the task of leaders. It is the responsibility of everyone in the Body of Christ. We all have a part to play in ‘maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ Jesus spelt out what is involved for us as believers in living in unity with one another, in Matthew 18:15-17:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Here, in what I call ‘Jesus’ Disputes Procedure’, are three clear stages we should use in handling conflict or settling misunderstandings that could give rise to disunity between people:

1. Don’t spread gossip or talk to other people about someone else. First go directly to the person who has offended you and talk directly with them. You will often be able to quickly resolve the matter, or you may indeed find that your concerns are groundless or are misplaced rumour or hearsay. Sadly, most people ignore Jesus’ counsel, and talk to everybody else except the person concerned - and this only inflames misunderstanding and disunity.

2. Secondly, if the person won’t respond to your going to him or her directly, take along another friend as a possible mediator or witness, to observe the person’s reactions, and if possible persuade them themselves to be more responsive to your concerns. Only if this fails are you permitted to go to the third stage, namely,

3. Take the matter ‘to the church’ - that is, to the church leadership or eldership, to formally or judicially hear and decide the issue. This should be the last step, and only the official ruling body in a church has the power of excommunication, ‘to treat him as a pagan’ or an outsider.

If we observed these procedures in our everyday relationships as Christians, most potential sources of disunity would be avoided, and the blessings of unity spoken of in Psalm 133 would be experienced: ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!...For there the Lord ordained [or, as the Authorised Version renders it, ‘commanded’] his blessing, life for evermore.’ If we would only get our act together, and live in unity with one another, revival would be an common occurrence. The tenderness and gentleness experienced by my friend Pavel during the Velvet revolution, would be an everyday reality among us.

Rob Yule
10 March 1996
Revised 28 August 2000

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand