In Matthew 12, Jesus incites the anger of his adversaries by healing a demon-possessed man in the presence of a Jewish multitude. These impressionable Jews began to wonder if he might be the King and Savior for which they’d been waiting. The Pharisees, a leading political sect of the Jews, were not so enchanted. They couldn’t deny what they’d just seen with their own eyes, but nor could they concede that this man might actually be the Messiah. Since they couldn’t believe that this wonder was accomplished by the power of God, they quickly concluded he must have done it by the power of Beelzebub – Satan himself. In his rebuttal, Jesus made this instructive statement: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” This statement apparently applies to the spiritual world, but it certainly applies to this world as well. United we stand, divided we fall. In any kingdom, including the kingdom of God, unity is precious and importance.
An Appeal to Christian Unity
In John 17, the writer records some of Christ’s last words before his crucifixion. He was praying to his Father. Of all the things he might have mentioned, the unity of his people apparently was one of his chief concerns. He said in verse 11, “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.”
What kind of oneness does Christ want among his people? Ephesians 4 may help to explain. Starting with verse one, the Apostle Paul explains the nature of Christian unity: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love,3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
The unity that can exist in the Church is a kind of oneness that we just won’t find in the world. The body is one because we share one spirit, we are perusing one hope in heaven, we serve one Lord Jesus, our unity is defined in terms of one faith, washed by one baptism, and we submit to one God. This, Paul says, is the unity of the Spirit. In the world, unity is encouraged on the basis of our common humanity. Not so for the Church. By the indwelling of the Spirit, Christ’s disciples can put away the inherent divisions of the human nature and walk in unity with God and with one another. When Christ unites us, nothing can separate us, and nothing else matters. In Christ, Paul says, “…there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
One Body, One Mind
Sounds easy, right? Not really, or at least not always. The current Christian landscape is ample evidence to show that such unity is not so easily achieved. Pursuing unity can at times be a painful but important process. The Lord knows the difficulty of this situation, and so his constant messages through the New Testament is to be one body, and in particular, one mind. Romans 15:5-7, “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, 6 that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.” Literally, to be like-minded is to set our affections on each other, to intently give our attention to each other. The idea implies a certain degree of intensity, not a passive process. To be of one mind, like he says in verse 6, means to think and act unanimously.
In the writings of the Apostle Peter he also emphasizes the important position of unity and unanimity in the Church. He says, “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; 9 not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9). In the Church there is no place for greed or grudges, reviling or revenge. Achieving real unity in the Church requires a special kind of selflessness and self-sacrifice. All of our love, energy, and ambition, is first directed not towards self, but towards others in the Christian family. This is the mind of Christ and this is mind that must be alive in the members of the Church if it will be the body the Lord wants it to be.
God Hates Division
God wants unity, he loves unity, and he hates division. There are only few things that the Bible says the Lord hates, but division makes the list. In Proverbs 6 Solomon names seven things that are an abomination, the last of which is “one who sows discord among brethren.” Being divisive and causing division are some of the greatest crimes we can commit against God.
The group at Corinth is one biblical example of a congregation that was giving themselves over to this abomination. The situation is described in 1 Corinthian 1. Starting in verse 10: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. 12 Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” In Christ there ought to be unity and simplicity, but this isn’t the nature of humanity. As Christians we pledge our allegiance to one Lord, Christ.
Biblical Reasons for Division
How important is it to keep division and contention out of the Church? Titus 3:9-10 makes some strong statements about how we should deal with division in the body. “But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. 10 Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.” Paul makes it clear that some things simply cannot be tolerated in the Church – needless arguments, contentions, disputes about the Mosaic Law, genealogies. All of these things are unproductive and dangerous. The Church needs unity; these things yield only division. Interestingly, though, what’s the resolution to a situation like this? If a congregation does a have a divisive man or woman in their mist, God says reject them.
God wants unity, but sometimes unity must be forsaken for the sake of self-preservation. There are a few times in the Bible where God actually discourages unity in the Church. The example in Titus 3 is one of those situations. When someone has proven by their actions that they will bring nothing but trouble to a church, God says they shouldn’t be welcomed in the congregation any more. Romans 16:17 says the same thing: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” There are other biblical examples where God requires some kind of separation for the preservation of a pure Church.
First Corinthians 5 is one classic case of this sort of unfortunate circumstance in the Bible. A man was found to be living in fornication, he showed no remorse, made no effort to change, and it was destructive to the moral of the whole congregation. What was the fix to this problem? First Corinthians 5:4-5: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” What does he mean by that? He explains further in verse 11: “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person.” If the fornicating man wouldn’t live like a member of the body, Paul said he shouldn’t be accepted in the body. Like one who is bent on causing division, sin is also a biblical reason for separation.
In 2 Timothy 2:15-18 the Apostle Paul introduces one more situation which will sometime require us to forgo unity for the sake of our souls. He says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 16 But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. 17 And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, 18 who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some.” Divisiveness requires separation, sin requires separation, and here the Apostle says that standing firmly for truth will sometimes require separation. If our unity is not built on and around truth, God says there shouldn’t be unity at all. Once the truth is forsaken, unity, of necessity, must also be forsaken. In other words, doctrine makes a difference.
Truth should never be abandoned for the sake of unity, because truth is what gives us unity. Ephesians 4, a passage already considered in this article, describes some of the most basic tenets of faith. There is one body and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and only one God. The oneness of the Church is built on these truths. As such, these truths will unite us, but sometimes, sadly, they will divide us. These truths will make a church the Church, and the absence of these truths in a congregation will expose it as not the Church.
Unity is good and profitable, but only in the appropriate environment. It’s one thing to reach out to the world; it’s another to embrace the world. The moral and doctrinal purity of the Church should never be sacrificed, not even for the sake of unity. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” The church will not stand divided; divided it will fall. But if it will stand, it must stand on truth, resisting the poison of contention, separate from sin.
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.