Unity is at the heart of Christianity. In the upper room, just before His suffering, the Lord Jesus laid foundational truths for the church. He taught that love for fellow believers is a proof of discipleship, ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’, John 13. 35. The apostle John confirmed this acid test for spiritual reality, ‘We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren’,1 John 3. 14. Writing to churches in Galatia, Paul also emphasized our oneness in Christ despite differences in nationality, social class or gender, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’, Gal. 3. 28.
But if Christians are expected to love each other why are churches rent by schisms? Why are there so many church denominations? Why do newly born-again believers, having sensed an immediate affinity with other Christians, soon find some saints to be irksome and that many others do not share their doctrinal beliefs? To begin with, let us remember that discord amongst God’s people is not new. The Old Testament records repeated infightings within Israel, and the New Testament is littered with divisions between Christians. Early into church history ‘there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews’, Acts 6. 1; even the apostle Paul and Barnabas – both godly men – fell out, ‘the contention [being] so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other’, 15. 39.
Christian disagreement has numerous causes. One of these is doctrinal variation. Never forget that the Bible, being the word of the living God, is an exceptionally complex book and our minds are intellectually limited. Add to this the retention of the flesh nature at conversion, and the ongoing propensity to sin, and it is easy to see how our capacity to fully comprehend divine truth is impaired, even though the indwelling Holy Spirit has been sent to ‘guide [us] into all truth’, John 16. 13. Some of these doctrinal differences have a major impact on church practice and affect who we feel free to have fellowship with. Others have enormous ramifications for our view of scripture as a whole. So, for example, should sisters wear a head covering and be silent in church gatherings? Should baptism be for believers only and that by immersion, or does the sprinkling of infants answer to the New Testament’s teaching on this subject? How do we view the thorny issue of divorce and remarriage? Do we see a distinction between Israel, the nations, and the church which is the body of Christ? Is salvation down to God’s eternal electing purpose or the free-will choice of human beings who are dead in trespasses and sins? Be honest. These controversies divide true believers and probably always will until the coming of the Lord, but by remembering that many of them have raged for centuries we will be more gracious when confronting the opposing camp.
A more sinister cause for splits between Christians is the deliberate propagation of error by ungodly men. Peter made clear that ‘there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of’, 2 Pet. 2. 1, 2. They teach error for money, v. 3. And they do it to gain a following. Paul warned the elders at Ephesus, ‘Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them’, Acts 20. 30.
While doctrinal error is an exceptionally serious cause for strife, sadly, the truth is that most disruptions in local churches boil down to nasty feelings and personality clashes. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians exposes some of these nasty thoughts. The letter expressed Paul’s gratitude for the Philippians’ generous support of his ministry, Phil. 1. 5. It also addressed disharmony within that church, 4. 2. Envy can play a big part when it comes to church rifts. ‘Envy, phthunos’, 1. 15, is ‘the feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing of the advantage or prosperity of others.'1 ‘A sound heart is the life of the flesh: [But] envy [is] the rottenness of the bones’, Prov. 14. 30. Unrestrained envy eventually consumes with bitterness and leads to ‘strife’, Phil. 1. 15. The word translated ‘contention’, v. 16 is erithia, meaning ‘ambition, self-seeking, rivalry’.2 Paul knew of men whose motivation for preaching the gospel was envy, an ambitious flaunting of themselves, and a deliberate attempt to ‘add affliction to [Paul’s] bonds’, v. 16. May God preserve us from the serving out of any desire for personal ‘vainglory’, 2. 3.
Malicious ‘murmurings’ against fellow believers create much hurt and ill feeling, v. 14; after all ‘the words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the inner most parts of the belly’, Prov. 18. 8. Furthermore, by bearing constant grudges, harbouring a critical spirit, and ceaselessly fault-finding we will inevitably disturb the unity of a local assembly. The word translated ‘disputings’, Phil. 2. 14, is dialogismos. Referring to ‘inward reasoning, an opinion’,3 it described the Pharisees’ harsh criticism of the Lord Jesus, ‘And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, dialogismos, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone? But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, What reason, dialogismos, ye in your hearts’, Luke 5. 21, 22. Since the common denominator in all of these sins is pure selfishness, Paul wrote, ‘All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’, Phil. 2. 21.
Any attempt at unifying all professing Christians will almost certainly fail. There are too many differences. So what can we do? We can hold the truth tenaciously as we see it in the Holy Scripture, be ‘valiant for the truth’, Jer. 9. 3, and do our utmost to maintain unity within the local church in which God has placed us, ‘endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, Eph. 4. 3. The Philippian Epistle provides some straightforward ways to achieve this.
A local church should have a unified interest in the gospel of Jesus Christ, support missionaries financially, Phil. 1. 5; 4. 10, 14-16, work together in gospel outreach, 1. 27, and live lives consistent with the gospel message which they preach, v. 27. Linked to this is the importance of having a healthy prayer life, praying for all the saints, v. 4, and being freed from unnecessary anxieties by praying about everything, 4. 6, 7. Such a prayerful interest in each other and the gospel promotes affection between Christians and enables us to fulfil Paul’s desire for the Philippians, ‘If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind’, 2. 1, 2 ASV.
A significant barrier to Christian unity is human pride. Thus, Paul exhorted the Philippians, ‘Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves’, v. 3. We can avert many splits by having a truly humble disposition. The ultimate example of such self-humbling is the Lord Jesus, vv. 5-8. Paul showed his own humility by likening his eventual execution to a ‘drink offering’. In the Old Testament, ‘drink offerings’ consisted of fractions of a ‘hin’ (about one gallon) of wine, Num. 15. 1-10, combined with other sacrifices (e.g., burnt offerings). Paul viewed his own death as merely a small drink offering poured out upon the much larger sacrifice of the Philippians’ own priestly service, Phil. 2. 17. Other shining examples of people who humbly sacrificed themselves for others were Timothy, vv. 19-24, and Epaphroditus, vv. 25-30. These examples remind us that an important aspect of assembly fellowship is emulating godly, humble believers, 3. 17.
Retaining a Christ-centred focus is another useful defence against divisive thoughts. The Philippian Epistle presents Jesus Christ as the purpose, 1. 21, the pattern, 2. 5, the prize, 3. 14, and the power for Christian living, 4. 13. Paul exhorted the Philippians to ‘rejoice in the Lord’, 3. 1; 4. 4. Paul himself counted ‘all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death’, 3. 8-10.
As well as having a strong desire to know Christ better, by looking forwards, ‘forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before’, v. 13, we will be preserved from resentment, from brooding over wrongs done to us, and be helped to confront believers who genuinely wrong us with a sincere desire to forgive them, Luke 17. 3, 4. Such forward thinking will also remind us that ‘our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’, Phil. 3. 20 ASV.
The Lord Jesus so prioritized unity amongst His people that, with Calvary looming, He prayed ‘that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me’, John 17. 21. May we share His desire and do all we can to foster unity within our own local assembly.