Family Reunions and Church Unity

When was the last time you attended a family reunion?  That interesting time of celebrating the “union” that exists among members of a family.  There is brother Bob who tends to drink a bit too much and then share his opinions about others a bit too loudly.  There is crazy aunt Matilda who is convinced that she has every disease known to man and that there are several worldwide conspiracies designed to imperil her future security.  There is the matriarch or patriarch of the family surrounded by young ones listening to tales of the good old times or the bad old times…that seem to be getting better or worse each time they are recounted.  Then there is weird uncle Louie…well, you know, some things are just better left unsaid.

We Are Family…Like It Or Not!

You have heard it said, “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.”  That comment contains some deep theological truth as we apply it to the church.  Every family has a ‘crazy aunt Matilda’ or ‘weird uncle Louie’ that are still invited to the family reunions because, after all, they still are part of the family.  Every church family has the equivalent of these aunts and uncles.  If we communicate to them that they are no longer welcome at our Sunday or mid-week “reuinons”,  then we as a church, as a family, as a body suffer.  If we really believe that Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 are true then we dare not exclude anyone – and that includes ourselves – because ALL of us have a unique role a vital function to carry out in the body of Christ…his church.

As we think about Christian “unity” we need to recognize that, in one sense, it is NOT based on our best intentions or efforts to “get along” with others in the church.  This aspect of unity is based solely on the fact that we have, through faith in Jesus Christ,  the same spiritual Father.  If we have genuinely trusted in Christ then we share a common life (Col. 3:4);  we are all born of one Spirit (John 3:5);  we have one Father (Eph. 4:4);  we are all one body (Rom. 12:5).  So, like it or not, we ARE family.

If I am an authentic believer, then this aspect of Christian unity is a fact that needs to be reckoned with and accepted by faith.  I  may be positively impacting those with whom I am united through demonstrating practical love towards them or I may be negatively impacting those with whom I am united  through sinful attitudes and actions BUT,  regardless of my impact on them,  I am still united with them…for better or for worse!

This unity among believers does not mean uniformity.  In fact, it should recognize and even prize variety.  The one Spirit gives a variety of gifts (I Cor. 12:4).  The one body has a variety of members (I Cor. 12:14).  Contrary to some modern conceptions of unity, biblical unity is not the absence of conflict and sometimes involves significant differences of opinion among believers.  Yet, this need not threaten us or sidetrack the church.

This can be illustrated with the human body.  When I go to the health club different members of my body can have some serious differences of opinion.  My quadriceps may be saying, ‘Go for it!  Add another 50 pounds to the leg press.’  While the nerve endings in my knees may be saying, ‘Hold it a minute!  If those stubborn quadriceps get their way this knee is going to blow out and the whole body will be laid up for weeks!”  That short term ‘conflict” between my quadriceps and the nerves in my knees is actually beneficial for the overall long term health of my body.  My quads are seeking to push my body to grow in strength while the nerves in my knees desire to pursue excellence but not at the expense of permanent joint damage.

Likewise, in the body of Christ,  the different members using their various gifts may disagree but the disagreement can, if handled biblically, actually lead to a healthier spiritual body in the long run.  In I Corinthians 11:19, Paul states that differences are necessary in the process of sorting out truth and evaluating members of the body.  A strong disagreement between Paul and Barnabas is described in Acts 15:36-40 over whether to take along John Mark on their second mission trip.  Paul was strongly opposed to including him because of his previous abandonment of the team on their first mission trip (Acts 13:13).  Barnabas wanted to give his cousin John Mark a second chance on this second trip.

I believe this strong  “difference of opinion”  was the result out of Paul’s and Barnabas’ different spiritual gifts.  Paul was an evangelist called to reach the unreached (Rom. 15:20).  He had no time to nurture an immature believer because he was heading to the front lines where the opposition was intense and he needed to know his troops would stick together in the midst of adversity.  Barnabas, on the other hand,  was an encourager as well as an evangelist.  He was given his name by the church because it meant “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36).  He was able to see the potential in people despite their past failures.  In fact, it was Barnabas who was instrumental in getting the young church to accept Paul despite his previous persecution of Christians (Acts 9:27).

Who was right?  I this case, I don’t think it was a matter of right and wrong.  Paul and Silas accomplished great things on their second missionary journey.  Yet, John Mark did mature and grow under Barnabas’ mentoring.  So much so that at toward the end of Paul’s life he actually wanted John Mark to come to him because he was “helpful to me in my ministry” (II Tim 4:11)

Since We Are Family…Let’s Work Hard To Show It!

Even though we are united as believers due to our common spiritual parentage, there is an aspect of unity that must work itself out in the real world experiences of the church through much effort and serious prayer. In Ephesians 4:3 the Holy Spirit says this,  “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  In Romans 15:5 He says this, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.”

I believe that the reason the Lord put I Corinthians 13 right between two chapters on the operation of spiritual gifts is because of the potential challenges inherent in having different gifts operating to build up ONE body.  Unity amidst diversity will only be realized in the life of the church when we operate with supernatural love recognizing our gifts are designed for the building up of the body not for personal glory.  That supernatural love will only come as we diligently seek to abide in the Lord and as we pray that this type of sacrificial other-centered love would permeate this local body of believers.

We are all people in process…and some of us need more processing than others!  However,  none of us have yet arrived at a point of spiritual perfection (I Jn 1:8-10).  So, it is vital that we learn to accept one another as Christ accepted us (Rom 15:7).  How did the Lord accept us?  With all our baggage and all our hang ups!  Now the Scriptures are clear that this does not mean the acceptance of sin (Matt. 18:15-20) but it does mean that even though we are commanded to confront a sinning believer it must be done with gentleness and love (Gal 6:1; II Tim. 2:24-26).

As we move forward as a church, we can expect opposition from the Evil One.  Therefore, it is extremely important that we make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit. This means that when conflicts and differences of opinions arise, and they will, we need to exert the effort required to work through the situation instead of simply sweeping them under the rug or running away from the conflict.

Since We Are Family…Let’s Grow Together In Our Understanding of God’s Word!

There is a third aspect of unity that should be constantly growing and increasing…that is our unity in “the faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”  This is not a unity that exists already and must be maintained but a unity that develops and grows as the church functions according to God’s design.   When you see the words “the faith” mentioned in the New Testament it almost always refers to the content of our faith (‘doctrine’ or ‘theology’ we would call it) not the exercising of personal faith or trust in Jesus (see Col 2:7; I Tim 2;7; 3:9; 4:1;  II Tim 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:13; I Pet. 5:9; Jude 1:13).

This unity regarding the understanding of Christian truth and intimate knowledge of Jesus develops over time as the church is built up through the proper exercise of spiritual gifts. Ephesians 4:11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ..

These verses imply that reaching this type of unity is a dynamic process that takes place over time as the body grows and matures.  This means that  a proper understanding of doctrinal truth takes time and is worked out in the context of the body of Christ.  Yes, there are certain doctrines in Scripture that are clear and very important – pertaining to the nature and character of God, the basics of the gospel and salvation, the nature and destiny of man, and the nature of God’s Word, the Bible.   In these primary or major doctrines of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 13) we dare not tolerate unorthodox views.  Paul and Peter were very intolerant when it came to these foundational or core beliefs being assaulted (see Gal 1:6-9; I Tim. 1:3; 6:3-5; II Pet. 2:1-3).

However, we must admit that there are parts of Scripture that are not crystal clear to us and are challenging for us to understand (I Cor. 13:12; I Pet. 3:15-16).  It is in these areas where we need to wrestle with the text and pray for understanding and deeper insight.   Yet, this striving for unity in “the faith” must be carried out in love recognizing that our brothers and sisters who, at this stage in the Christian growth, may have a different interpretation of a particular text are still our brothers and sisters.  Growth in unity of doctrine must be couple with growth in our intimacy with Jesus.  If our “”knowledge” creates a proud uncharitable attitude in us it is not genuine biblical knowledge (I Cor 8:1-3).  I’m sure we all know people with a large amount of biblical data stored in their synapses but who are devoid of genuine concern and care for other people.

We need to remind ourselves that our maturity in Christ is not primarily evidenced by our ability to amass doctrinal knowledge but by the fruit of the Spirit becoming increasingly more visible in our lives – especially the demonstration of sacrificial love (I Cor 8:1; Gal 5:22-23; I Tim. 1:5).

I will paraphrase the great preacher Chrysostom, “In Essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty, patience and study.  In all things, sacrificial love.”

So, the next time you come to the family reunion of God’s children, sit down next to crazy aunt Matilda or weird uncle Louie.  Who knows, you may just learn a something new.  But, even if you don’t,  one thing I know you will learn for sure is how to better love those with whom  you are already united in Christ.  And do you know what?  They may be sitting down next to you for the very same reason!