Building Unity Within the Congregation

Those old enough to remember the 1960s do not need a reminder on how divided this country was. The war in Vietnam was tearing us apart as surely as the Civil War had done a century earlier. This time, however, it tended to be a generational thing, with the oldsters defending the government’s handling of the war and the young ones marching in the streets against it. Related to this was the entire generational rift in the culture, with the clothing, the music, the hair styles (beards!), drugs, sex, and the list goes on.

Everything not nailed down was coming loose.

On October 22, 1968, former Vice-President Richard Nixon brought his campaign for the White House to Deshler, Ohio. There, Nixon spotted a 13-year-old girl named Vicki Lynn Cole holding up a sign that read “Bring Us Together.” He mentioned that message and later adopted it as the theme of his administration. The Cole family was even invited to the inauguration. After that, Vicki Lynn faded into obscurity.

Sadly, so did the concern for national unity.

The Nixon administration was one of the most divisive in American history, ending, you will recall, with the president resigning in disgrace, Vice-President Agnew resigning earlier because of kickbacks he had taken as governor, and a number of the highest advisors going to prison. It was a shameful period in our nation’s history.

Unity was a clever idea, Nixon thought. But only that and nothing more.

We’re back at a time when our nation is divided. Hopefully not as severely or as deeply as in the 1960s, but the rift between the “reds” and the “blues” is drastic.

Within religious denominations, division is a constant threat. Doctrinal differences are a constant, social trends inject themselves into church life, and the world exerts its pressures for churches to conform. Personalities complicate negotiations and division often results.

Within your own church membership, the enemy is always at work, looking for wedges to drive between members and the leadership. He walks to and fro, to paraphrase the Apostle Peter, looking for an opening in the wall he can enter to create havoc.

In our never-ending concern for unity within the body of Christ, let’s make a few points here.

Everything stands or falls on the leadership.

If you are the pastor–this website is mostly devoted to pastors and other church leaders–then, the ball is in your court. You own the initiative. You have the power and the right to address the matter of unity/disunity with your people and to begin the process of making things right.

If you pastor a great church that is doing well, the worst thing you can do is ignore this subject. The temptation is overwhelming to assume your church is the exception and that since all is well, you can check this off your list. Bad mistake.

My friend James led a terrific church for over a quarter of a century. He was godly and mature, competent and in charge, and the church leadership knew it. They were fortunate to have such a man as their shepherd and they recognized it. The relationship between pastor and people thrived.

The harmony in the congregation lasted exactly one day after he walked out the door.

As soon as he vacated the parsonage and moved to a city a hundred miles away, ancient hidden and latent rifts in the membership began to surface. Some people wanted the church to be more evangelistic, several wanted it to turn charismatic, and others had agendas of their own.

The first thing we on the outside (I was a neighboring pastor) noticed was the squabbling within the membership over the makeup of the pastor search committee. Soon, it became a full-fledged fight. In time, the committee’s recommendations for pastor were turned down by a divided congregation again and again. The disheartened committee resigned, and some people left the church.

By the time a new pastor was voted in, only half a congregation was left to welcome him. The others had moved out–some to start a new church, others to join local congregations where people loved one another, and more than a few went home and sat down and quit going to church altogether.

How different this story might have been had my friend James taught his people about protecting their unity and dealing with conflict and division. (That said, I need to state the obvious here and admit that I do not know what he did to prepare them since I was not there. I believe he felt the same way we all did, that they were a mature congregation who could handle anything that came up.)

Some pastors have no choice but to teach unity–and the principles that achieve it and safeguard it–in the midst of division and disunity. That is a little like repairing a plane while it’s in flight. It can be done, but only with great difficulty and at tremendous risk.

The best time to teach the principles of unity to God’s people is when the church is prospering and the members think the preacher is God’s gift to them.

Leaders–especially pastors, but all leaders–must know the value of submission, must demonstrate it, and must teach it to their people.

“…giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:20-21)

Theological definitions aside, my working meaning of submission is simply to “give in to the other person.”

You and I have a disagreement over a path to take, a choice that has to be made. Both alternatives are good, no moral issue is at stake. It’s simply a matter of taste, of preference.

I give in to you. “Let’s do it your way.”

That’s submission.

Pastors submit themselves to their people every day of their lives. The phone rings, interrupting his dinner. The pastor whispers to his wife, then grabs his jacket and he’s out the door. Two hours later, he arrives back at home. In the meantime, he has comforted a grieving family or accompanied a frightened member to the hospital or counseled someone going through a crisis.

He would rather have stayed home. His preference was to sit in front of the fire with his wife and enjoy their favorite television show, then retire early with a novel he’s trying to read. But because he was needed, he put his own plans aside.

Submission is a constant in every harmonious family, whether nuclear or spiritual. Parents submit themselves to the needs of a sick child, forego buying an item they’d had their hearts set on to provide for their children, and put off a needed vacation to put braces on the child’s teeth.

The church where a great percentage of the members practice submission to one another is one in a hundred, and destined for great things.

The key to submitting is Romans 12:3.

For I say through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

If harmony and unity are all about submission, then submission is all about humility.

The greatest enemy of the church, the foe of spiritual oneness in any congregation, is an enlarged sense of oneself.

Pride. Hubris, some call it. An excessive sense of “me.”

Self on steroids.

Pastor Kent Hughes tells of a court-appointed mediator finding the roots of a church split that had torn up a community and destroyed a great congregation. The threads of the fight were traced all the way back to a Wednesday night supper in which a self-important church leader grew offended on seeing that a child had received a larger slice of ham than he had been given.

The out-of-control ego is not a pretty thing. It can destroy a good marriage, sabotage a great ministry, defile a pure love and bring a great church to the landfill.

It’s tempting here to say it’s all a matter of spiritual maturity, and it is. But it’s actually simpler than that.

We can choose humility.

Yes, all of you be submissive to one another and be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. (I Peter 5:5-6)

We do not need God to humble us. We can do that to ourselves, thank you.

Confession: Whenever I hear someone pray for God to humble them, if the circumstances allow, I will counsel them afterward that that is not a suitable prayer. God can humble you, but if you know your Scripture, you know when He does it, He uses a heavy hand. Think of what He did to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4. That’s why Scripture tells us to “humble yourselves.”

Simply taking a good look at who God is and who we are ought to do it.

A pastor friend told me of a man who was carrying an argument onto the floor of the church business meeting. “All I want is what’s coming to me,” he bellowed. “Sit down, Henry,” said a little elderly woman. “If you got what was coming to you, you’d be in hell.”

That’s the realization that ought to humble all of us. We are all failures in life and recipients of God’s infinite grace. We have no right to put ourselves above anyone else and a hundred reasons to put them ahead of us.

A parable Jesus told says it well.

Which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and sit down to eat”?

But will he not rather say to him, “Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself, and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink”?

Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.

So, likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.”(Luke 17:7-10)

3 thoughts on “Building Unity Within the Congregation

  1. All points very thoughtful Joe. This may be one of the most important issues we face today. I must admit, I struggle with it. i understand humility and submission, but if one regularly submits to carnal people, the more mature tend to get upset. If one stands his ground on biblical issues, the carnal throw a fit. The more mature grow frustrated and discouraged, and the carnal see blame everywhere but in the mirror. It burdens my soul, as I know, this problem is rampant in our churches. I also know the Battle is the Lord’s. if He cannot change them, I know I cannot. I feel it may be the call of the minister in our age, dealing with these wide divides that exist in many churches, and a biblically illiterate for the most part congregation, that has little understanding that the only true biblical unity is unity in Christ. Divisions over anything other than Christ are unbiblical, and sadly, most of our divisions do not involve Christ and salvation

  2. its avery big challange to us psators so please we need to study it very carfull otherwise we should ask God to give us wisdom on how to speak with the congragation about the issue be blessed remember me in prayers over my minstry iam here serving the lord from mombasa city in klenya AMEN I PST JOHN

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