By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
It’s important to note that Jesus’ longest and most fervent prayer was for the unity of the church:
“… that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21)
Unity in Christ. That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning. What is the secret to Christian unity? What causes churches to become divided; for members to get at odds with each other? And what effect does the unity of the church – or lack thereof – have on its witness and its ability to make disciples and grow?
Now, relax. I’m not here to step on your toes. I don’t have a hidden agenda. I don’t see you as a conflicted congregation. Sure, you’ve had your ups and downs and I’m guessing you’ve had your share of disagreements over the years, but that’s natural. All churches do.
Just so you know, Kathy and I have had a great time getting to know you over the past three months. You’ve allowed us to come into your hearts, as well as your homes; you’ve been open and honest; you’ve received us warmly and treated us kindly. We could not be more impressed and grateful.
So, listen to the sermon as objectively as you can and consider how it applies to you. What I want to explore is what scripture teaches us about the dynamics of a healthy family, because, after all, that’s what the church of Jesus Christ is, or ought to be – a family of faith, brothers and sisters in Christ working together for the common good.
The first passage comes from the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians. He says,
“I don’t cease to give thanks for you…. (and I pray that) the Father of glory may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of (Christ Jesus)…. He raised Him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places…. He put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things for the (church), which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:15-22)
When it comes to unity in Christ, this is Rule Number One: Jesus Christ is the head of the body, not you or me or anybody else. He alone is head of the household. When the pastor or individual members of the church violate this rule, you can be sure conflict is on its way.
Truth to tell, most conflict in the church has to do with power struggles and the basic question of who’s going to call the shots.
Trinity Church wanted to celebrate its 40th birthday with big homecoming celebration. They invited all the former members who’d moved away to come back for the festivities. They asked all the former ministers to take part in the service. It was big deal for everyone, and on the day of the homecoming, the place was packed. Afterwards, there was dinner on the grounds, where old friends ate together and swapped stories from the past.
Not all were happy memories. The church had seen a lot of conflict over the years, and to be honest, some of the former members who had come for the homecoming came from across town.
It just so happened that one of the former ministers and one of the lay leaders during his tenure met face to face in the middle of the sanctuary after the service. Two big guys. Up to this point they’d made a wide circle around each other. It was now a moment of reckoning.
I watched as they renewed old acquaintances. At first they shook hands awkwardly and spoke formally. Then one blurted out, “I should have apologized to you years ago.” To which the other replied, “Oh, no, I was the one who was out of line.” Before I knew it, these two old geezers were hugging each other and crying tears they’d held back for years. When they went home that afternoon, their old wounds were healed. They were reconciled at last.
Jesus Christ is head of the church. Never forget that. When it comes to maintaining unity in the body of Christ, it’s Rule Number One.
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Rule Number Two is this: Every member of the body of Christ is important to the well-being of the whole. Each has a vital role to play. In a healthy church, there are no peons, and there are no VIPs. Here’s how Paul described it:
“For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
He goes on to say,
“If the foot would say, ‘Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,’ it is not therefore not part of the body…. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be? (1 Corinthians 12:15-17)
“The eye can’t tell the hand, ‘I have no need for you,’ or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need for you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. Those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, on those we bestow more abundant honor” (1 Corinthians 12:21-23)
In a healthy church every member counts. Every member is valued and loved and treated with respect and given a job to do within the range of his or her ability. No one is overlooked or taken for granted.
An economics professor greeted his new crop of MBA hopefuls with an announcement. He said, “We shall begin with a short examination.” With that he wrote one question on the board, “What is the cleaning lady’s name?”
The students snickered. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then he said, “If you hope to manage a large corporation one day, first gain the respect of the people who make it successful. Your success will depend on them more than you will ever know.” It was a lesson they never forgot.
In the church of Jesus Christ, every member is essential to the well-being of the whole.
Here’s Rule Number Three: Conflict is inevitable. It’s the natural result of two or more healthy egos working together: You see it one way, I see another. Unless you’ve got a church full of doormats, you can expect to have a certain amount of conflict. We will not always agree on all things. Duh!
The good news is that conflict is not the root of division. Division occurs when conflict goes unresolved or when it’s resolved in a way that’s hurtful. Jesus said,
“If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar,
and there remember that your brother has anything against you,
leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.
First be reconciled to your brother,
and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24)
Did you notice who’s supposed to make the first move? Listen again: If your brother has something against you, you take the initiative. Don’t wait for him to come to you.
And take note of this: As far as Jesus is concerned, reconciliation trumps worship. Leave your gift and go find your brother. Talk it over. Find a way to resolve your differences. Then go back and make your offering.
There’s also the Matthew 18 approach. It goes like this:
“If your brother sins against you,
go, show him his fault between you and him alone….
If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother.
But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you,
that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the (church).
If he refuses to hear the (church) also,
let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
So often, when there’s conflict in the church, the one who’s upset tells everyone but the one with whom he or she is upset. As Dr. Phil would say, “And how is that working for you?”
When you’ve hurt somebody’s feelings – or when somebody hurts your feelings – the hardest thing in the world is to face them, one on one. You want to avoid them like the plague. And, make no mistake about it, they want to avoid you, too, as if the less said, the better.
It doesn’t work that way. Unresolved conflict never goes away. It just sinks to a deeper level, and if you don’t do something about it, it’ll fester and grow and lead to even worse conflicts in the future.
Conflict is inevitable. What’s important is how you resolve it. Ironically, conflict can bring you closer to the other person when you go about resolving it in the right way. It can actually help you get to know each other more intimately and take each other more seriously.
And, if conflict is inevitable, so is anger. That leads to Rule Number Four: It comes from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, where he says,
“Be angry and don’t sin.
Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:26)
Listen: Anger is an emotion, nothing more, nothing less. It can be an intense and powerful emotion – even overwhelming, at times – but it’s still only an emotion.
Like conflict, it’s not anger that’s the problem, but what you do with it. To hurt someone intentionally because you’re angry is a sin. To channel your anger in a positive and constructive way is a virtue.
Candy Lightner’s daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver in 1980. She was thirteen years old. Candy’s anger was off the charts. She was livid beyond words. But instead of attacking the driver who’d had killed her daughter, she attacked the problem of drunk driving.
Well, you know the story. She founded the organization called MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She didn’t stop drunk driving, but she made a dent in the problem. And because of her efforts, Cari did not die in vain. Her death served as the catalyst for change.
Be angry, but do not sin. That’s the first part of the rule, and the second part is just as important: Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.
We’re all guilty of nursing wounds and holding on to grudges, as if we think it’s a way of punishing those who’ve hurt us. That’s counter-productive. When you hold on to your hurt or anger, you only punish yourself.
The best thing you can do is to get it out of your system – go to the gym and work out, hit a bag of balls on the driving range, chop firewood, clean the house, weed the flower beds, give the dog a bath – whatever works for you – get it out of your system and let it go. Unresolved anger is a poison that kills everything in its path.
Let’s wrap it up. Before leaving this earth, Jesus prayed for the unity of the church that would bear his name. And for good reason:
• When we live and work together in the name of Jesus Christ, we present a clear witness of faith to the world around us. Others catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God by the way we love and respect each other, and by how we’re able to confront and forgive each other, speaking the truth in love. As a result, they’re drawn closer to the throne of God’s grace, and the church prospers and grows.
• Just be aware: The opposite is also true: When we’re divided and at odds with each other, our witness is lost, and the world fails to take our message seriously.
Christian unity is as important as what we profess to believe, the programs we offer, and the good deeds we do for others.
What’s the key? Four basic rules:
• Rule Number One: Jesus Christ is the head of the church.
• Rule Number Two: Each member is essential to the well-being of the whole.
• Rule Number Three: Conflict is inevitable. What’s important is how you resolve it.
• Rule Number Four: Be angry, but don’t take your anger out on others; and don’t hold on to it overnight.
Oh, I almost forgot: Rule Number Five: When in doubt, refer to Rule Number One––Jesus Christ is the head of the church.
As you know, I often like to end a sermon with a hymn, and I can’t think of one more appropriate to the theme of Christian unity than this:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, (sisters), we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
(So) Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.