Monday, June 3, 2024

Unity in the Church: And the Boundaries of Unity

You can tell when you walk into a church, and spend any amount of time there, whether that church is united or not. What is Christian unity? We know it when we see it. We can feel it.

You can feel the peace around the table. You can sense the peace and unity in the service, the bible studies, the business meetings, and so on.

There is general unity. The believers there love Jesus, they are humble, and they enjoy the peace of unity. They don’t allow their egos to break it.

Similarly, we can tell very quickly when there is disharmony, disunity. You can sense the hostility. You can sense the annoyances and anger. You can see the pride and ego in the eyes of the people there who want their way. There is faction, rebelliousness, and it’s toxic.

For Christians to be united in any way is a testimony to the world that Jesus is real. I recall being in Escanaba, and there was a unity of 14 churches that had all agreed to join forces to create a rotating homeless shelter. And I always remembered that, being at the meeting of those church leaders, and seeing their unity, to work together to help the homeless was a powerful witness of Christian unity.

Yet at the same time, there is also a boundary to unity. We as Christians cannot be united with false teachings, sometimes the suggestion of unity is used as a guise to implement false teachings.

A church may split, if half the church says we are going to go against what the Bible says. We are going to throw out God’s design for marriage, and change it. Well, in that case, the true church should split off from those false teachers, because we cannot have fellowship with darkness. We cannot have fellowship with lies. That is the line.

But Jesus longs for the fellowship, the unity of true believers. He prays for it famously in John 17.

John 17:1-5 says, “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”

We have a perfect example from Jesus about what it means to walk in unity. On Earth, Jesus sought to do the perfect will of God the Father.

He was always focused on one thing: What is my Father’s will?

God gave Jesus work to do, and Jesus did that work successfully, joyously, and even when it was very hard and painful.

If our eyes are focused on God our Father in heaven, humbly seeking to do His will, we will walk in unity.

If we are self focused, and prideful, and rebellious, we will cause disunity among the believers.

So much of this, when we talk about unity, is going to be internal.

Next Jesus says, verses 6-8, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”

Jesus reveals the Father to us. Who is God? Jesus reveals the Father to us perfectly.

In unity we find our example in Jesus himself. How can I be a person of unity, a Christian of unity? By being an accurate example of Jesus to the world.

Jesus in His prayer here is talking about the disciples in a particular way, he says they obeyed the Father’s word.

It says they “accepted His word.”

They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.

That is something I honestly believe about Jesus, that the Father really did send Jesus. I really believe that every word of the Bible is true. I accept His word as it is written.

Do you accept the word of God as written?

A hallmark of a person of unity is that they honestly accept God’s words as written.

But be on guard friends. It is very easy, so very easy to begin to twist God’s word to suit our desires.

We start to soften certain aspects. We start to ignore certain bible verses that make us uncomfortable. This is becoming increasingly common in modern Christianity. You see once prominent denominations that were so firmly embedded in truth, now going off into error. They change the word of God to suit their desires. The United Methodist church split. Even organizations like Cru and intervarsity are beginning to stray on certain key issues of our day.

The Salvation Army itself, is wrestling with these issues.

The hallmark of a man or woman of unity is that they first of all humbly seek to do God’s will, but second, they are a man or woman completely dedicated to the revealed word of God.

And I mean even up against your own theology that you hold right now. I think about the theology that I held ten years ago, and wow, what garbage it was. More and more I’ve allowed the word of God to disrupt my theological understanding. So many things I heard from so many bible teachers I later realized just weren’t true.

Know the word. Know it intimately and deeply. And then you’ll be able to discern.

Now watch out at the same time. You’re being told how important unity is. Suppose suddenly many leaders and pastors and groups start proclaiming that that its ok to have multiple wives. Or groups and leaders start saying, actually stealing is ok, or God’s grace means you can live in sin. Or we can redefine marriage. Or we should stop believing in miracles.

And then when you say, "Wait a minute that’s not what the Bible says" they say well you’re causing disunity by arguing with us about this.

That is false. Don’t ever fall for that trap. So many times false teachers bring in destructive heresies and false teachings, and then when Christians speak up against them they say, “Why are you causing disunity in the body?”

It reminds me of when King Ahab in the Old Testament saw the prophet Elijah he said to him, “When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” -1 Kings 18:17

King Ahab is the one troubling Israel by leading the nation into idol worship. But he accuses Elijah of being the one causing trouble.

Biblical unity does not mean unity with unbiblical garbage and false theology. Christians must stand up boldly against false teachers and false teachings. Always remember that.

Next it says, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” -John 17:9-12

We find in God protection, a power that surrounds us as Christians, that knits us together, and keeps us functioning as one.

Jesus held his disciples together in His power. Now the Holy Spirit holds us together as believers. God’s power keeps us united.

You may ask why then do church splits happen? You hear about it, I recall when I was in the upper peninsula, a very prominent church had split, the pastor had been removed, and he took with him half the congregation, and they started meeting at a local hotel conference area. Why does it happen?

I’ve seen it happen with The Salvation Army. The current corps officer leaves and the church vanishes once they leave, and it’s very sad.

Why would these things happen if God’s power holds us together? Because there are three factors at play in all things, God’s power is one. Second is free will, that is, human decision. Third, we'll talk about in a moment. 

I am nestled safely in the power of God holding us together, but with my own foolishness could I get all out of whack and cause massive problems? I certainly could.

It happened several years ago here, and several people left the church over a change in leadership. I've made dumb decisions as a leader that caused problems in the church as well. 

Friends, back when I was a young Christian I caused problems with the pastor because I was young, and energetic, and opinionated, and I put stuff on social media I should’ve never posted and it caused problems. Thankfully I’ve repented of that bad behavior.

That’s why its so important to know God’s word, go back to point two, we’ve got to build this understanding of unity one upon the other.

The scriptures show us a series of barriers to unity which come from 
Galatians 5:19-21 ESV, "Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."

The scriptures warn about dissensions, intentionally acting in a dissenting way against a faithful leader. 

The scripture warns against factions, and I’ve seen factions form in churches, this group against that group.

The scripture warns against backbiting, slandering others behind their back. Yet how often do we do that?

The scripture warns about selfish ambition, when instead of doing things for God’s glory, we do things for promotion and to show off ourselves.

The scripture warns about strife. Strife is the idea of showing that you’re better than someone else, arguing to show yourself as the correct one constantly.

The scripture warns about divisions. Being divided, intentionally splitting, and splitting off, and dividing up, and it's ugly. 

Sometimes to consider unity, we must look at what disunity looks like. I think we’ve all seen churches that are united, and it’s a glorious thing.

“How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalms 133:1.

And we’ve also seen churches that are divided, and it’s unbearably uncomfortable and miserable to behold.

So we see God's power, and human free will at work. What about the third factor? The third factor is Satan/demonic influence. 

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” -John 17:13-19

Jesus prays and ask God the Father to protect his disciples from the evil one.

The evil one seeks to sow disunity among the body of Christ. We’ve seen it so many times throughout history, denominations splitting, churches splitting, believers divided, friends divided, and it’s ugly.

We have to remember that it’s not just ourselves that we’re fighting against when it comes to unity, we also have an enemy seeking to sow disunity.

If the enemy can get you upset about something, some decision that was made, some issue or controversy, whatever it might be, he can drive you out. I remember there was gentleman who attended the church, and he felt that I looked at him in a way that indicated that I didn’t like him, so he had left the church.

Don’t let the enemy peel you off from the body of believers. The enemy wants to target you, make you feel different, get you to run away from the safety of the flock, get mad about something, and then he’s got you where he wants you, disconnected from the body of believers, alone, isolated, and then he moves in with the lies and false thoughts, and pretty soon, he takes you out, sin takes over, and it’s a shipwrecked believer.

Next, it says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 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—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” -John 17:20-23

Next point, Jesus has given us the glory he received from the Father. We are now shining people, noble people, different people, set apart people, unique people. We must walk in that uniqueness and know that we are different.

You wear each day the rob of righteousness of Jesus Christ, His perfect righteousness, was His gift to you. And in exchange He took your filthy garments of sin and deleted them on the cross.

How then could you walk in the sins of disunity? We cannot. We must not. We are different people now.

Last scripture portion, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” –John 17:24-26

Jesus promises to continue to live within us, reveal the Father to us, and to make sure that the love the Father has for Jesus, will continue to go from the Father, to Jesus, to us.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

When we are united, knit together, connected, and of one accord, of one mind, then we will manifest true, deep, real love, and that will prove to the world that we are Christians. And that love will win many over to become Christians.

Now you may be thinking to yourself well, that will just naturally happen in a church. I think that’s somewhat true. I think it’s also not quite right. We need to be intentional about loving each other. We need to be intentional about helping each other. We need to be intentional about praying for each other.

How often do you connect with another church member during the week? When did you last pray for a brother or sister? When did you help a church member with a project or a need during the week? Well the church will handle that. You are the church! Others aren’t going to do it for you. You need to make it happen.

Last point today, I want to direct you to the beginning of the message. Unity among Christians is beautiful. But there is a limit to unity. It’s this: There can be no unity with falsehood.

The book of Jude talks about this. This has been attempted in the church from time to time. We attempt to be so unifying that we try to include false teachings. We try to include other religions, other philosophies, and then the people behind this celebrate how unifying they are being. But it’s a false unity. If you believe in Jesus and I believe in atheism, we can tolerate each other, befriend each other, but there can be no Christian unity there. One of the major flaws of American society is we’ve tried to include so much, be such a big umbrella of ideologies and philosophies that we’ve destroyed our social cohesion. Some ideas and philosophies are good, some ideas and philosophies are not good. But we're so desperate to be inclusive, and show our virtue, that we bring in bad ideas, and they harm our society. Similarly, in the church, if we bring in bad ideas, bad theology, false teachers, wrong teachings, under the flag of being inclusive and open, it will harm the body. 

False teachers often come in with ideas that contradict the Bible, contradict our faith, and when we challenge them and say, no, that’s not what the Bible says, we’re accused of causing disunity. But we should stand up against false teachings, not unite with them. 

Avoid the seduction of trying to show how open and inclusive you are. It's a tempting desire, it feels very virtuous. Conversely it feels a bit ugly to tell someone, that idea is not who we are, that concept is wrong. But it's necessary. Our society has struggled with this basic principle, and it's led us to ruin. We can't let it lead the church to ruin as well. 

The basic principle is this: Humble unity in love at all costs among Christians, dogged protection of the truth from evil ideologies and false teachings at all costs.

Review Main Points:
1. Unity is humbly walking in the Father’s will

2. Unity is being completely committed to God’s word

3. God’s Power keeps us united

4. The Enemy seeks to destroy unity

5. In Christ’s Glory we are shining people, noble people, set apart people (able to be united)

6. God’s love is made manifest in unity

7. Unity’s limit is there can be no unity with falsehood