Peace and Unity in the Church

Here's a paper I wrote up to present to my Shepherding Group.

"Whether the fiery trial of contention or of persecution is greater is hard to determine. God has wrought to free us from the one; we have brought upon ourselves the other. Every man is angry that others are not of his mind."

-Jeremiah Burroughs

"We are… concerned that God’s glorious purpose for Christ’s church is often eclipsed in concern by so many other issues, programs, technologies, and priorities. Furthermore, confusion over crucial questions concerning the authority of the Bible, the meaning of the Gospel, and the nature of truth itself have gravely weakened the church in terms of its witness, its work, and its identity.

We stand together for the Gospel- and for a full and gladdening recovery of the Gospel in the church. We are convinced that such a recovery will be evident in the form of faithful Gospel churches, each bearing faithful witness to the glory of God and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

-T4G Statement

"I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

-Ephesians 4:1-3

Peace in the church is a tough issue. What does it even mean? How do you know that it’s there, or that it has ended? When should a pastor sacrifice theological preference for unity, and vice versa? When is it ok to make a decision that you know will split a church? Perhaps most important, how do you seek peace and unity without losing hold of the truth?

These and a million other questions with varying degrees of importance come up in the life of most any churchman, especially local leaders. How should they be dealt with?

My own understanding of disagreement in the church began in my Plymouth Brethren church back home. There, disagreement in the church regarded things like whether women can speak in the worship service. It was strong and peaceful in most ways, but we had our share of people leave fellowship because they couldn’t handle certain changes.

Later in life, I was part of an American Baptist Church. Here the issues became tougher, because the church had disagreement in a variety of areas. Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism, what to do with the missions budget, how church governance should be structured, what should be taught in Sunday School, things like that. I learned to hammer out compromises. We also learned what it was to love each other in the midst of disagreement. I enjoyed attending the Together for the Gospel Conference during this time, but the theological agreement there seemed pretty distant from my local church.

Finally, I came here to Louisville. I assumed churches full of seminary students would easily agree on most things. But sure enough I’ve seen churches struggling through the same questions regarding degree of discipline, strength in the statement of faith, and disagreement on church direction.

There are many ways we could discuss this issue, many avenues we could explore. From a personal standpoint, I have done a lot of reading and discussing with friends and mentors as I try to work the various perspectives out in my mind. However, today I want to focus on one in particular.

How can we, as future pastors and leaders, prepare ourselves for the disagreements that are inherent to almost every local church?

First, here are a couple Bible passages that I found to be helpful:

Philippians 2:1-7

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

Romans 15:1-3
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”

Colossians 3:12-15
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

As we can see here, Paul views the problem of maintaining unity as one that begins within ourselves. The answer is a constant humbling of ourselves, by considering others better than us, by not causing others to stumble, by being an example, and by promoting a culture of gentleness and forbearance.

You can see a unity-loving attitude of the heart in the work of Jeremiah Burroughs. Burroughs was a Puritan pastor who wrote many great books and sermons. As he neared the end of his life, he wrote a sermon series that became a book called Irenicum, which I have been reading of late. In that book, he gives 5 rules for knowing in what areas we should bear with our brethren. They are a tad wordy, so I’ve put them into my own words.

Burroughs Rules to Know in What Things We Are to Bear With Our Brethren

1.) Do not use overly restrictive rules to highlight differences in non-essential theological convictions. If a man is willing to hold his area of small difference quietly and in submissive peace, don’t attempt to force him to chose between the church and his conscience.

2.) Do not spend your time and focus on stamping out non-essential errors.
Focus instead on preaching the whole counsel of God.

Consider these things:

-God chooses to reveal some things, “darkly,” and we should not seek to prosecute our perspective on those things more harshly than Christ ever did.

-Sinful men have no right to strain justice to the limits of uncharitable perfectionism.

-We should be more forbearing in the things we enforce than in our personal practice. Remember, you are responsible for those you lead in a particular direction!

-We should not take and use more power over men than the Apostles did.

-Perfectionism tends to stifle discussion and growth in faith and practice.

-Perfectionism encourages idleness and pride in a congregation and its leaders.

-Perfectionism encourages ignorance.

-This spirit in a church encourages rejection of new insights.

3.) Do not cast a person out of the church but for something ALL churches should cast them out for.

4.) Do not hinder great goods for the sake of opposing small evils.

5.) Do not seek to fight evils that can only be removed by God.

With these and other authors and situations, I am slowly learning what it means to love both truth and peace, and to pursue them simultaneously.

So today, based on the things God has been teaching me, I leave you with three exhortations:

First, develop your theological triage while you are here in seminary. Dr. Mohler likes to use this metaphor, where nurses in a hospital are able to determine which are the most important injuries vs. the least important. As a pastor or elder, it will be up to you to know which issues are of theological necessity, like the gospel or Christ’s divinity, which issues separate churches, like credo- vs. paedo- baptism, and which issues can be dealt with through humble forbearance together in the church, like eschatology. Now is the time to start fleshing out your understanding of which categories these issues fall into.

Second, use your time here to cultivate personal discernment. This means that we should take every opportunity to learn from our professors, pastors, elders, and other students. We should share ourselves with them, so that they can better give us wise advice and the knowledge that comes from experience. Your future churches will be thankful that you cared enough about their welfare to learn as much as you could about peace and unity in the church without fudging on the Truth.

Third, look for opportunities, as a member or leader in your local church, to promote godly unity. As Ephesians points out, this sort of mature, gospel-centered unity is the purpose of the church and a reflection of God’s glory.

Brothers, joining hand to hand
Brothers, joining hand to hand,
In one bond united,
Pressing onward to that land
Where all wrongs are righted:
Let your words and actions be
Worthy your vocation;
Chosen of the Lord, and free,
Heirs of Christ’s salvation.

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