/ Kyle E. Sims

Random Thoughts About Unity In The Church

As a churchman, it breaks my heart to see brothers separated and divided over issues in many of our congregations, presbyteries, and denominations. I have friends from all over the Reformed World and many of us are dealing with issues. I want to give some general thoughts about our present needs.

In Psalm 133, the psalmist writes how it is both good and pleasant when brothers in unity dwell. How right this is! Think about how some things are good for you. At one point kale chips and cauliflower mashed “potatoes” were the rage among those seeking to eat healthy. While these are good for you they are clearly not as pleasant as potato chips and real mash potatoes. At the same time a double cheeseburger and fries or a banana split is pleasant but not very good for you especially if you eat them regularly. However the Psalmist says it is both good and pleasant when there is unity among the Lord’s people. 

It is good when there is unity because it is usually a catalyst for peace, purity, and prosperity within the church. The church can flourish when there is unity because everyone is pulling in the same direction and there is love for each other and the church as a whole. The apostle Paul tells us that we have to die to ourselves (Romans 8:12-13; Galatians 5:24; Philippians 3:8). Nowhere is this more important than in the church for whom Christ died and where He commands and empowers unity among his people. 

It is easy to think that unity should be one of the great strengths of the church. Since we all have a common salvation. No one is special in the church, each of us are sinners saved by grace alone. The only thing we bring to our salvation is our need. The Lord provides all the saving work. This common point should humble us. There but by the grace of God go I. There is nothing more repugnant to the glory of Christ than an arrogant Christian, especially a Reformed Christian. Division in the church should break our hearts, because it goes against the clear teaching and even prayer of the Lord for us His church. (John 17:22-24). 

It is easy to cover our disunion with a veneer of righteousness. We can think we are standing for righteousness and can be almost cavalier in our demeanor. I remember once seeing a man smiling and wringing his hands, when I asked him why he was so happy, he said it was because he was going to go do Church discipline. Thankfully this was a young man, who I pray has grown out of this attitude. Having dealt with many church discipline cases, the proper attitude is one of sackcloth and ashes.  It should humble and distress us to see the church divided.

Here are a few ideas to help all of us when we find ourselves among divided brothers.

First, seek the Lord. Unity is not something we can achieve on our own. Look at how divided our world is today. There is no hope of true, lasting, and powerful unity in the church without the Lord’s help. 

Second, confess to the Lord your sin. You must approach these situations fully aware of your own possible, if not probable, sin you are bringing into it. It is so easy for us to impute motives, think the worst, and not give good will to brothers we are at odds with in the church. It is easy to think that we are on the Lord’s side and thus we can let loose with our righteous indignation. Make sure you are truly on the Lord’s side before you do. 

Third, think the best of your brothers. There are times when you must question motives and intentions. But ultimately it is only the Lord who can judge the hearts of men. You must take your brother at his word. 

Fourth, let it roll off your back. There can never be any unity in a church where there is a constant running to the pastor or session with complaint after complaint. We are all saved by grace and must live with each other in grace. 

Fifth, deal with real problems. We should let little things roll off your back. But issues that are serious must be dealt with quickly. Actions that could destroy the unity of the church must especially be dealt with because of the danger. Social media has given us a platform to air our grievances. But there has always been email, letters, and the tongue that can destroy the unity of the church. How careful we must be about what we say and write. Even if you are correct in what you say, it can still be sent in the wrong way. James is correct that the fire the tongue (or keyboard) sets is from the fires of hell (James 3:6). 

Finally, keep the Word of God percolating in your heart and mind. Consider these passages:

[14] For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14 (ESV)

[1] So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, [2] complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. [3] Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4] Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, Philippians 2:1–5 (ESV)

I find it helpful to meditate on Matthew 18, notice the flow of this chapter and how it is intertwined to make a larger point. 

Jesus begins this chapter by teaching that the greatest are those who humble himself like a child (Matthew 18:4). Here is the attitude you must have in dealing with division in the church. Humility is not where the world starts but it is where the church must start. 

The next pericope deals with temptation (Matthew 18:7-9). Here there is a particular warning to those who lead God’s people into temptation. Jesus says it is better, figuratively, to cut off an offending hand or foot than go to hell with them. This passage is clearly designed to make us look inward and check our hearts. 

The Lord’s love for his people is seen in the next passage (Matthew 18:10-14). The Lord cares about each of his people. He is like the Shepherd that will leave the 99 to seek the one lost sheep. You must love all of God’s people. You can’t write off someone that the Lord Jesus died for and loves. There are times that we declare people outside of Jesus. But for those inside we must pursue with love and humility to see them restored. 

It is now that we come to the part of Matthew 18 we often think about related to Church discipline: What to do if your brother sins against you? Mind you that this is dealing with personal and private sin. Matthew 18 is not some type of ecclesiastical Miranda rights that throw out allegations of sin. No you may deal with someone for failure to handle it correctly but it doesn’t mean that allegations just disappear. What is set out is a simple way for things that rise to the level of addressing. Go to your brother, while this is not required in public and general sins, it is not a bad idea to establish the facts and give an opportunity for repentance and restoration without formal actions. But there is a clear process that is to be followed. 

Note well how this chapter ends with a warning. The parable of the unforgiving servant should give each of us pause as we deal with sinning brothers. Who are we not to forgive, who have been forgiven so much? How can we not forgive when we have been told to forgive seventy-seven times? Note the chilling words at the end of the chapter: 

[35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35 (ESV)

This should give us all pause as we deal with division and discipline in the church. 

On the positive side, we should see the good and pleasant blessing God commands and makes possible for his church by the gospel. On the negative side, we should see the stern warning of breaking the peace and especially of not forgiving our brother. This is not a light matter, the Lord desires for us in humility to seek unity. It is not a nice suggestion, it is the Lord’s will for his people. 

My encouragement for those who find themselves involved in conflicts and discipline cases in the church is do not take these situations lightly. Walk carefully through these interactions. Do not choose your side based on your friends or political allies. Do not allow the methods of the world to enter the work of the church in these areas. Pray for peace and unity. Seek it and work for it. Expect God to bring unity and reconciliation when we die to ourselves and love each other as Christ teaches us and shows us. 

I leave you with Paul’s final thoughts in 2 Thessalonians: 

[13] As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. [14] If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. [15] Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. 2 Thessalonians 3:13–15 (ESV). 

Kyle E. Sims

Kyle E. Sims

Director of Seminary Admission and Church Relations at Erskine Seminary. Principal Clerk ARP General Synod. Pastor since 1999. 6’ 11” former Basketball player.

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