Christians are often concerned about our responsibility to preserve the unity of the church. This is an important task. Our unity does matter. Sometimes, however, unity becomes the end in itself. We make unity the most important task of the church.
Paul talks about unity in Ephesians 4:1-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ (When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
What Paul has to say here about unity is helpful. Firsty he talks about our responsibility to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. We don’t create unity. Unity is of the Spirit. But we do have a role in maintaining unity. We need to take that seriously.
Then Paul talks about the gifts that Christ gives. Some of us are apostles some prophets, some pastors and teacher. But why? Why are we given these gifts? “[T]o equip the saints…..for building up the body of Christ”.
And then Paul says something important, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” It seems to me Paul is telling us our task is to grow in faith. Christ gives these particular gifts so that all of us may grow up, that we mature, that we become like Christ. Unity is the result of that maturity in Christ.
We grow, we are built up into the body of Christ and as we mature in Christ-likeness, unity is the result. Unity in the church, locally and globally is important. But unity comes from the Spirit and not solely by our efforts. We are to be growing, maturing. Our concern is to becomes faithful disciples of Jesus.
So how do we preserve the unity of the church? By doing our best to be faithful as we understand the will of God. As all of us grow in faith, as all of us strive to be more faithful, unity will result. Don’t forget, there are many things we in the church do agree on. We are one in Christ not because we all agree but because Christ makes us one.
This is important when we consider issues that may split the church. We are not called to hold the church together at all costs. Christ is in charge of Christ’s church. We are called to be faithful, to mature, to grow. Because none of us is fully mature, none of us completely faithful, there is not total unity in the church.
But we are growing, each at our own pace, each out of our particular traditions and circumstances, and so we need to be gentle with one another. We must, as Paul says, “speak the truth in love” to each other. We need to disagree well- knowing that our disagreements will be temporary. We are all growing. We are all maturing. And someday we will be fully united with Christ and with each other.