Unity in the Church: Why It Matters & How to Live it Out
Unity—what an easy word to pronounce but a difficult word to illustrate. In its adjective form, we reference unity often. Just think about it. . .The United Nations, United Healthcare, United Airlines, United Methodist, United States, United Postal Service, and many others.
But how much unity is there really in this fallen world? We see disunity everywhere—from nations to sports teams to political parties to marriages and even to churches. With all the disunity in the world, we should desire to see Jesus’s prayer in John 17 fulfilled in our churches:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
I preached a sermon recently on the topic of unity. It was an overview of 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this letter to a church in one of the leading cities of his time—Corinth, in southern Greece. It was a very progressive city with much commerce and immorality and idol worship. There was a group of believers in Corinth who were struggling to figure out how to live their Christian faith in unity. As always, the ancient text of the Bible is very relevant for us today! I am more convinced than ever that God is satisfied with nothing less than to see his people unified.
The Basis for Unity
In 1 Corinthians, Paul presents the basis for unity, and it is found in the person of God himself. How? In three key ways:
- Christ’s cross unifies his people: First Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross is not just a glitzy ornament to wear around one’s neck or to put as an ornament in a building. It is the horror of the death of the Savior at the hands of sinful men for the salvation of his people. He is what unifies us!
- The Father’s choice unifies his people: First Corinthians 1:26-28 says, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” Instead of letting the idea of God’s choosing his people bring division, wherever you are in that debate, please let the Bible help provide unity in God’s choice. He chose us in him before the foundations of the earth (Eph. 1:4). It’s a far cry from my tryout for the college soccer team—something I still remember to this day. I can see the room and the white board where the coach listed the names of those who made the team (and I was one of them). The difference between that illustration and the “choosing” of God is that I did not deserve for him to choose me. True believers are humble because of undeserved grace. That unites us
- The Spirit and the Church unifies his people as his temple: First Corinthians 3:16 reminds us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” In this verse, Paul comes on strong with the basis for unity. The Spirit indwells God’s people, and we are his temple, his dwelling place—all of us. Together. This is something I pray for in the College Park Family of Churches and for the global church.
How to Model Unity
After giving a basis for unity, Paul shows many areas where unity should be clearly demonstrated in the church—something the church at Corinth struggled with, as do we. As Paul encouraged the church, we can show unity in:
- Our relationship status: In marriage and singleness, we are admonished to show unity (1 Corinthians 7). In Corinth, some converts found themselves in an unhealthy marriage because their spouse was a pagan. Paul admonished them to strive to live in unity with them (vv. 15-16). He then gives a strong statement to singles, encouraging them to live in the state that God has called them to and to live well in the body of Christ, devoting themselves to the Lord (vv. 25-35). Church, we often present a poor testimony to the world as we do not take care of our marriages or do not respect our singles. Yet, all of us are either one or the other! Let’s commit to unity in those core relationships
- Our church worship: First Corinthians 11 is the key New Testament passage on the Lord’s Supper. In it, Paul challenges the Corinthian believers to be unified rather than fight when partaking of the Lord’s Supper, because people were fighting during the supper! All taking communion (notice that word) assumes a unified body ingesting the elements which represent the most unifying reality of Christ’s death for us. Paul tells them, and us, to be unified before taking communion.
- The resurrection: Part of the answer is that the church in Corinth had all sorts of division. They disagreed on what to eat, lawsuits, morality questions, gifts of the Spirit, end times, and many other debates—like us today. So, Paul ends his letter with a description of the event that will unify all God’s people—we will be resurrected together! In chapter 15, Paul shares a final admonition: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. . .your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” That eternal view can help provide unity, because if we had the resurrection in sight, I’m sure we would not find so much to disunify us.
How to Seek Unity Without Uniformity
Unity without uniformity. Is it possible? God says yes! He does not expect the church to be made up of clones. He created variety and that often trips us up. The key is to know which are the core essentials versus the areas in which there can be variety:
- Theological interpretations: Paul does not allow for heresy and recognizes there are core truths that cannot be compromised. But, he also knew there are different categories of biblical truth (1 Cor. 3:3). Knowing which truths are non-negotiable and which require tolerance is called theological triage, and we’re called to apply wisdom in that regard.
- Ethnicity: As Paul often does in his epistles, he tries to break down racial and ethnic barriers in this letter. Scripture calls for a united Church of all ethnicities who are called by the Father, bought by the Son, and indwelt by the Spirit (1 Cor. 1:24).
- Areas of Gifting: The Church is a group of different people all gifted to support the mission. As Paul shares in 1 Corinthians 12: 4-7, there should be no jealousy or division over place among God’s people.
- Convictions: Read 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. They communicate God’s Word concerning love and liberty and unity. We can live in unity.
This article barely scratches the surface of God’s call to unity—I did not even talk about 1 Corinthians 13 and the strength of love for unity. But I trust these words will encourage you toward unity, all the same. There is much to pray for in our churches, but I think Jesus’s prayer that began this article should be high on our list of prayer: that we all may be one as he is one. To God be the glory!