In most ‘churches of Christ’ (Romans 16:16), there is a common appeal to first century Christianity. We can often be heard contrasting the myriads of ‘Christian’ denominations that exist today with the one church that existed in the days of the apostles (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:5). We condemn all of the modern divisions that plague Christianity as antithetical to our Lord’s will (John 17:20-21) and insist that unity can be achieved by a common allegiance, not to human doctrines and manmade churches, but the Word of God (1 Corinthians 4:6-7, et al).
This is an appeal that we ought to make! And these are all valid points that far too many religious people today have failed to grasp.
But I wonder sometimes if we who stand on this soapbox even understand the nature of New Testament Christianity – and what the New Testament says to us and shows to us about Christian unity.
It’s true that Jesus desires the unity and fellowship of His people. While on earth, He prayed that His disciples remain unified (John 17:20-21). The apostle Paul once wrote, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and let there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The theme of unity is interlaced throughout the New Testament. There is hardly a book that does not in some way promote Christian unity – unity in spirit as well as in doctrine and practice. Those of us in ‘churches of Christ’ are right in stressing the importance of such unity.
But we often ignore the overwhelmingly obvious fact that even the first century churches struggled with division constantly!
The Corinthian church was plagued with every kind of division imaginable. Sects had formed within the church (1 Cor. 1:11-13). There was an ungodly tolerance of immorality (1 Cor. 5). They were suing each other (1 Cor. 6:1-8). They weren’t united in their observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-34). The assembly, regrettably, wasn’t a time of encouragement and worship, but rather a time for gloating and selfish ambition (1 Cor. 14).
This was a church where the members didn’t get along and the assemblies were an embarrassment to the name of Christ…and yet Paul still thanked God for them (1 Cor. 1:4), considered them sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2), and continued to work and worship with them.
Paul didn’t condone their divisiveness or their immaturity, but neither did He alienate them or refuse to associate with them. He didn’t react by saying, “I just can’t be encouraged by a church that has so many problems…and so I’m going to go where I can be encouraged.” He didn’t make it about him. Instead, he recognized that this was the Lord’s church in Corinth and was willing to do whatever it took to help them.
Now, there were other churches that did bring Paul much greater joy. For example, he had a great relationship with the brethren in Philippi (Phil. 4:15-19). Likewise, there are churches today that are strong just as there are churches, like the Corinthian church, that have plenty of issues. You might walk out of some church assemblies feeling like you’re on cloud nine, but then walk out of other church assemblies feeling empty or cheated…maybe even upset.
And while it’s true that churches ought to promote unity (Phil. 4:2-3), be sources of joy and comfort to us (2 Cor. 2:3), and conduct assemblies and studies that encourage us in our walk with Christ (Heb. 10:24-25)…
…we must also understand that churches are filled with flawed people…people with a very broad spectrum of personalities and problems.
And therefore, we must cherish the unity we have when we have it, and soak up all of the encouragement that we receive from our brethren and from our assemblies, but we must also accept the reality of the battle we’re all fighting and resolve to stand with our fellow soldiers of Christ through thick and thin, remembering that Satan is our “adversary” (1 Peter 5:8), not we ourselves.
That’s what real unity looks like! It’s not this idealized scene of Christians holding hands and singing Kumbaya…while also remaining in perfect unity on every doctrine and principle of Scripture. Real unity is the shared willingness to stand together and remain committed to each other through every trial, every disagreement, every personality clash as we seek greater unity. And even when divisions occur and brethren have to part ways for the sake of the work (Acts 15:36-40), such chasms need to be quickly and eagerly bridged (Col. 4:10).
On a more practical level, when your church is stained by scandal or infighting or controversy, don’t react by saying, “This isn’t what we find in the New Testament.” No, it’s exactly what we find in the New Testament. You may be discouraged and even reach a point where “going to church” is no longer enjoyable. But do you remember what Paul wrote? “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).
And what did John say about it? “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Our brethren are sometimes not worth loving, and we may want to give up on them. But we weren’t worth loving and God should have given up on us…yet God did love us and did not give up on us. And this is the kind of unrelenting love we’re told to imitate within the church. Let that sink in.
We need to remain committed to our brethren – fellow sons and daughters of God with whom we hope to one day spend eternity in His house – because they are our brethren, not because they are perfect. Like with any family, we need to work through our problems and continue to love each other…because that’s what families do. It’s sometimes ugly. And maddening. And disheartening. But the bond we share is worth fighting for! And the joy we bring each other at the end of the day – because of that bond – is sweeter still than any temporary pain or discomfort we sometimes inflict on each other.
And as we fight these battles together in the trenches of this spiritual war, and as we sometimes even fall prey to friendly fire, we learn more and more the true meaning of love and sacrifice. This is New Testament Christianity; this is true Christian unity – not the Kumbaya nonsense.
Sometimes, discipline has to occur within the family (1 Cor. 5). Sometimes, we have to publicly denounce error that is being touted by fellow saints (Acts 15:1-2). Things can get ugly. But our goal, through it all, is to work through these problems together (1 Cor. 5 –> 2 Cor. 2; Acts 15:1-2 –> the rest of the chapter) and emerge from the trenches more unified, still walking hand in hand. When that doesn’t happen and brethren leave the faith, those who remain must press on!
Yes, we ought to imitate the first century churches, but in doing so, we’re necessarily imitating [divided] first century churches. The hope today, just as it was two thousand years ago, is that we will remain unified through it all so that, in the end, we can bring glory to our God.
“I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” (John 17:20-21)