This is the 3rd essay in a series.
“Within the true spiritual church of God I would suggest that unity (real spiritual unity, not just the absence of open fighting) has generally been a brief and passing state, alternatively forming and unforming, since AD 31” … Facebook friend
I agree that unity has been won and lost since the beginning of the church. How is this explained given the unchanging will of God is for “brethren to dwell together in unity”? Are there other forces that work to achieve it or destroy it? And if unity comes and goes, why not after 20 years, try to seize it once again?
Let us consider the NT Church. Was there disunity among the apostles?
The apostolic church had major issues that needed to be resolved. The Acts 15 conference concerned circumcision for the Gentiles. The confrontation of Peter by Paul in Galatians 2 concerned the hypocrisy of Peter on the matter of being justified by works versus faith (vs. 16). The Acts 21 account shows Paul explaining to James and the elders his work among the Gentiles, whereupon the elders believed him and “glorified God”. The nasty confrontation that ensued was not initiated by the apostles, but by Jews from Asia who believed Paul taught against the law (of Moses) and defiled the temple.
We see the apostles resolving major issues in God’s church. I fail to see dissention on their part in the process. I do not even see disagreement, much less division. The apostles in Acts 15 agreed on the decision. They accepted God’s revelation to Paul concerning his work among the Gentiles, and Peter accepted the correction he received from Paul. The discussion remained at the leadership level. Leaders did not branch off in disagreement, persuade members to follow them, and start other groups.
Lesson: We learn from the apostles that leaders can discuss and resolve issues and maintain complete unity, which is what we would expect from converted men.
Here is another example. This time there was disagreement. Paul and Barnabas disagreed on who should accompany them on their next journey (Acts 15:37-40). The contention between them was sharp enough to cause them to part ways. This was a personal matter between two leaders. It certainly did not create division in the church. It did not violate Paul’s maxim: “Let all things be done for edification”. It created no stumbling block for anyone. If anything, it showed that power in the NT church was decentralized.
From the apostles, we move to different kind of example
In a congregation, a certain Diotrephes “loved to have preeminence”, did not welcome Paul, spoke maliciously, did not “receive brethren” and those that did he put out of the church (111 John). Was the example of Diotrephes the norm in the NT church? Whether the norm or not, Paul condemned it. Certainly the example of Diotrephes need not be the norm today. It was not the example set by the apostles. This example again suggests a decentralized power structure of the NT church, for how could one such as Diotrephes gain traction otherwise? By the way, does the expression “did not receive the brethren” remind anyone of the closed door policies of some present day COGs?
Now notice what Paul said to the Corinthian church:
“I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men” (1 Cor. 3:2-3)
“For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Cor. 11:18-19)
The Roman church it seemed had similar issues:
“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple (Rom. 16:17-18)
There is a key difference between what Paul observed in the Corinthian church, and what has happened for the last 20 years in the Churches of God today: The factions, divisions, and dissentions (at least in the Corinthian church) occurred as they came “together as a church”. They remained one congregation, but with issues. At the time of Paul writing his letter, they still “dwelled together” to quote Psalm 133. Perhaps this is due to the ongoing influence of Paul?
But after Paul’s death “grievous wolves” as he called them would enter from outside as well as from within, speaking “perverse things” for purposes of gaining power of others (Acts 20:30). In other words, the division did not originate from differences occurring naturally between members. It came from the targeted, malicious efforts of a few. These few in no way were members of the spiritual body of Christ; they did “not serve our Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul says “note those … and avoid them”. They targeted genuine members of the body whom Paul (sadly) calls “the simple”.
So what ARE the lessons of the NT church on the issue of unity?
Among God’s apostles, we see discussion, some disagreement, but no dissension or division. The apostles remain good examples of unity for the Churches of God today.
We see in a few NT churches, not all or even the majority, the efforts of some whom Paul calls “grievous wolves” seeking to divide the church and speaking “perverse things”.
We see that they succeed (at least in part) because true members have remained “simple”. It would be useful to know what makes one “simple” … vulnerable to deception.
We see that God chooses to allow “grievous wolves” to exist and succeed in creating division.
It seems the lesson from the NT church is that if we desire unity, we must heed the warnings of Paul and strive for it. It is NOT a gift handed to us by God on a platter. If unity is a brief and passing state, alternatively forming and unforming … then after 20 years, why not seize it once again?
What prevents us? Is it lack of love?
Christ said “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christ is talking about the love that people, not corporations, have for each other. Yet, people in a group demonstrate or project their love through the organization that represents them. The organization becomes the working extension its members. When the members let their light shine, so too does the organization. But when the organization isolates its members from those whom they love, love no longer can be expressed. Love is made void.
Love esteems others better, does not seek its own, bears all things … so we strive for unity to express that love. Love is powerful, never fails. If we really have such love, we will attain what we strive for.