How is Christian unity supposed to work? Early in my Christian walk, I went to a Bible college where I had several liberal Christian friends. Their idea of unity was to accept everyone unconditionally, no matter what they believed. I even remember discussions about accepting Muslims as saved because, after all, they believed in the God of Abraham. Now, it’s true that we are to show love towards others, but their idea was that everyone was right, no matter what.
The battle cry of my liberal friends was, “Doctrine divides; love unites.” As such, I noticed that they did not have much in the way of doctrinal statements—nothing like the ones you find in conservative Baptist churches. What they believed about God was a mixture of Bible and what was popular in culture. Culture, especially, seemed to determine what they believed. If culture believed this or that, they would turn the Bible on it’s head to make it fit.
What is biblical unity? That’s what we’ll look at here. In biblical unity, first…
I. SCRIPTURE IS FOUNDATIONAL
Why put Scripture first, and not something that seems to us to be more naturally conducive to unity, like love? Because the Bible is the foundation of everything a Christian knows. If you put love first, you have a liberal church, not a biblical one. The way a liberal church achieves unity is by stripping away everything that could possibly be disagreed with and reducing doctrine to the least common denominator. That isn’t really unity, it’s uniformity.
A. Loving The Lord From The Bible
How do we know that Scripture should be put first?
Matthew 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
Matthew 22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
Matthew 22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Loving the Lord comes first—but wasn’t Scripture supposed to be first? Think about this: how does one love the Lord? A Muslim claims to love the Lord—my liberal friends would say that he would go to Heaven because he did. How do we know when we a actually loving the Lord and not just having an emotional feeling or loving a made-up God?
Jesus defined love for the Lord very simply, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And where do we find his commandments? In the Bible. That’s why Scripture has to be first in our lives as individuals and as a church. The first commandment from the Bible any one must obey is the command to repent of our unbelief and to believe in Jesus Christ. Have you done that?
When you hold to the Scripture, people, even other Christians, will often accuse you of judging them, or being legalist. Let me tell you something: legalism is not having laws or rules. If legalism were having laws and rules, then God is the biggest legalist of them all! The Bible has over a thousand commands, rules, and laws in it.
What is legalism? Legalism is the attitude with which you hold those rules. If you are simply stating what the Bible says as you best understand it, in an attitude of humility and love, then you aren’t judging anyone—the Bible is judging them. If anyone is judging, it’s them—they’re judging you by accusing you of judging them!
So obeying Scripture does not make you a legalist.
B. Understand Where The Other Is Coming From
What happens if we have differing interpretations of the Bible? That’s a tough spot, to be sure, but one thing that we cannot do is throw out or water down the Scripture in order to achieve unity. One bit of advice that I can give, and really, urge you to do, is that I think it’s always wise to study both sides of an issue that you are having with a brother or sister. Truly study their side—not just what those on your side says about their side. Try to understand where they are coming from.
I am grateful for my time in a Lutheran Bible college when I first became a Christian. I studied and defended issues like a liberal interpretation of the Bible, infant baptism, being able to lose your salvation, and so forth. When I came to a conservative Baptist position, it wasn’t because it was something that I inherited, it was something that I had studied out in the Bible for myself from both sides. On many issues now, I can understand where someone who disagrees with me is coming from—sometimes I can even argue their position better then they can!
In studying both sides of the issue you might decide that you were wrong after all or you might strengthen your own position. One of the biggest problems in disagreements between people is that they will characterize the other person incorrectly. For example, they assume that if they believe this, or do that, then there’s no way their heart can be right with God.
In Romans 14, Paul said that there was no difference in a person’s relationship with God by the virtue of what side that they might take in an issue:
Romans 14:6 He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
You see, both sides are honoring God. Both sides give glory to the Lord. It’s not that one is godly and the other is a sinner.
When we honestly study the other person’s argument, we have the opportunity to clear away the misconceptions we may have of them. That goes a long way in achieving unity. Again, it doesn’t mean that those two sides will agree—that’s uniformity—but they will have unity.
In biblical unity, first…Scripture is foundational, and then…
II. LOVE IS MANIFESTED
A key feature of those who love Christ and stand on the Bible is to be love for one another. Jesus commanded it:
John 13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
John 13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
Unfortunately, we are confused in our culture about what loving one another means. The general consensus is that love for one another means that you need to accept the other person’s sins as not being sins. You need to accept their definition of truth as being truth even if it directly contradicts yours. This is most prevalent in the homosexual debate right now, but it can occur in any number of situations. “If you are to love me,” someone might say, “you have to agree with me.” I say, “If I agree with you, then we’d both be wrong!”
That is not what biblical love is. If that were the case then Paul would have never confronted Peter about giving into the Jews. Paul would have never admonished the Corinthians about their immoral behaviors. If that were the case, we would throw the Bible out the window because truth wouldn’t matter any longer.
So what is biblical love for one another? Well, just as loving Christ means obeying his commandments, so loving one another is obeying the commandments given to us about how to treat one another. Some time ago, I looked up all the “one another” commands in the Bible (John 13:34 is one of them). Then I wrote a summary of those commands:
- To love one another with a pure heart fervently as Christ commanded us. To show our love in hospitality, compassion, and kindness (Romans 13:8; John 13:34; Ephesians 4:32; 1 Peter 1:22, 3:8, 4:9).
- To honor one another, seeking to place one another ahead of ourselves. To serve and submit one to another (Romans 12:10,16; Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:2-4; 1 Peter 5:5).
- To not use our liberty in a way that is a stumbling block to one another (Romans 14:13; Galatians 5:13).
- To avoid speaking evil of one another, holding grudges, lying, gossiping, and to seek to end quarrels with one another quickly by forbearing with one another and forgiving one another (Ephesians 4:31-32; Colossians 3:9, 13; James 4:11, 5:9)
- To lovingly admonish and exhort one another to love and to good works. In meekness, to seek to restore a brother or sister overtaken in a sin (Romans 15:14; Galatians 6:1-2; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25).
This is how we are to love one another—by obeying the commands God has given in the Bible about how to love one another. None of those commands include agreeing with someone else’s sin and treating it as not a sin, as our culture wants us to do.
In biblical unity, first…Scripture is foundational, and then love is manifested, and then…
III. LIBERTY IS CAREFUL
The final piece of the puzzle of Christian unity has to do with our use of Christian liberty. In fact, this may be the most important and practical part to achieving and maintaining Christian unity in the church. Let’s direct our attention to Romans 14,
Romans 14:19 Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
Romans 14:20 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
Romans 14:21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
First, we see that liberty is careful…
A. To Maintain Peace
Notice what he is saying—“follow after the things which make for peace.” What peace? Peace between brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s getting along with each other. In every practical way, we must pursue peace among one another. If we are a strong Christian and we have a brother who is nagging us about not doing something that we know we are free to do: we set aside our freedom to buy the peace.
Is it worth it to give up a freedom for peace among brothers and sisters in Christ? How much do you value peace? How much do you value a life free of conflict, of anxiety, of stress, of sleepless nights while you fume over the squabble you are having with a brother or sister?
B. To Not Destroy God’s Work
Paul says here, “for meat destroy not the work of God.” In the early days of Christianity there was a debate about whether or not it was right to eat meat that had been sacrificed at pagan temples (It was cheaper in the market). Paul was saying that if a Christian came across another Christian who thinks it’s wrong to eat that meat, then that Christian was supposed to abstain also, for the sake of the other Christian’s conscience and so that he… “destroy not the work of God.” The word for “destroy” (κατάλυε from καταλύω) means to annul or put to an end something. How is it that we might destroy the work of God in another Christian? Paul explained that it had to do with a person’s conscience.
Romans 14:5 One man esteemeth one day [a special holy day] above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
That last phrase, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” is referring to a person’s conscience. Our conscience is that part of us that alerts us to the right and wrong things to do.
A conscience can be desensitized to a sin or sins, and that is what is called in the Bible a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2). It’s like when your fingers get callused from playing guitar or some other kind of work and they become less sensitive to pain.
A weak conscience is just the opposite of a seared conscience. A seared conscience is insensitive to sin; a weak conscience is—oversensitive—about sin. A weak conscience believes that abstaining from meat, in this case, is the best way to glorify God.
Messing with someone’s conscience is a dangerous thing to do, and the Bible cautions us against it.
1 Corinthians 8:12 But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
1 Corinthians 8:13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
Your job isn’t to train their conscience. Your job, we learn from 1 Corinthians 8:13, is to protect their conscience. Someone else is in charge of training their conscience, but that is a different sermon. The fact is, messing with someone’s conscience is as dangerous as heart surgery. It is heart surgery on a spiritual level.
The Lord is the master surgeon of our hearts. He knows right where each of us is, and has a plan to get us where he wants us to be. John MacArthur wrote,
We would consider it an appalling crime for someone to deface a Rembrandt painting, to shatter a sculpture by Michelangelo, or to smash a Stradivarius violin. How infinitely worse it is to tear down a work of God, a man “for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15). (Romans, MacArthur New Testament Commentary, [Chicago: Moody Press, 1991], Ro 14:20)
We could destroy the work God is doing in another Christian’s life; we could also cause other Christians to be pulled into the incident, causing more damage and spreading it to others in the church. I came across this story that helped me firm this up in my mind:
Imagine a married man named Joe who’s been taught all his life that if he ever takes off his wedding ring he breaks his marriage vows [I know, we think that this would silly, but that’s part of the point—don’t write off your brother’s beliefs without coming to understand him]. This belief about his wedding ring—a belief we might consider odd—has been passed down in Joe’s family from generation to generation. You can imagine that Joe would be very cautious about never taking off his wedding ring, because in his mind that means he’s unfaithful to his wife.
Now imagine Joe has a friend named Randy who’s never even heard of this teaching. Joe and Randy decide to get together on a Saturday to work on Joe’s car, because Randy is a good mechanic. As they get ready to work on the engine, Randy takes off his wedding ring and puts it in his pocket so it doesn’t get engine grease on it. Can you imagine Joe gasping as Randy takes off his ring? And can you imagine Randy saying, “What’s the big deal? I just don’t want to get it dirty. It has nothing to do with how much I love my wife.”
There’s the set-up, what does Randy do? Well, one response might be to bust Joe out of that silly wedding ring superstition. Imagine Randy pressures Joe to take off his wedding ring [he might convince him that it’s dangerous to wear a ring and be a mechanic, you might catch it on something]. Joe gives in to the pressure and takes off his wedding ring. Now in Joe’s heart, he feels as though he’s broken his marriage vows, he’s been unfaithful to his wife. Even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking off your wedding ring, to Joe, he’s just violated his promises to his wife.
Now imagine how that action might effect his marriage. As Joe goes home, he inwardly feels guilty. For the first time in his life, Joe has crossed that line, at least the line in his own mind. Perhaps Joe might be tempted to do other things to cross that line as well, perhaps like take his new secretary to lunch, even though he knows its not a good idea. You see, what’s no big deal [or a debatable matter] to Randy could ultimately destroy Joe’s marriage. (http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-ofwhat-timothy-peck-sermon-on-christian-love-37687.asp)
That’s the sort of thing that can happen when strong Christians don’t restrict our freedom for the benefit of our weaker brothers and sisters. Now, I know that sometimes the other Christian you are dealing with isn’t really in danger of having their conscience damaged; sometimes the other Christian is just a plain grumpy, critical Christian that needs a 2×4 from the Lord. You will have to be careful to make that judgment.
But for the honest Christian who really has a problem with a liberty you are taking, remember this: the power of the conscience and the power of convictions are very strong, it’s dangerous to play surgeon with that. Instead we should commit to loving that brother or sister over the long haul, being patient for the Lord to work in them. Let me close with a passage from Philippians that you might want to meditate on this week:
1 If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, 2 Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. (Philippians 2:1–4)