2020 has been a strange year.
It started with a global pandemic, and now, we are in our second week of worldwide protests over racial inequality, racism and demands for changes in policing. Both of these issues have proven to be incredibly divisive. God-fearing, Bible-believing people, have very different opinions on both of these important issues. If we are not careful, we could render unnecessary and costly damage to the unity of our faith family.
Even experts disagree about the appropriate response to COVID-19. People in our church have different opinions, too. Some people think we should be wearing masks. Some people believe COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. Many are wrestling with fear and anxiety over the potential danger. Some believe we should be gathering for services, and some believe we should not be leaving our houses. Again, we are not talking about left-wing and right-wing media outlets. We are talking about faithful members of our church.
The issues surrounding racial tensions in our country are even more complicated and divisive. The death of George Floyd sparked universal outrage. Almost everyone agrees that what happened to George Floyd was wicked, but beyond that disagreement abounds. Is there a systemic racism problem in our country? In police departments? Should the church be doing something? If so, what? Should the church be saying something? Did we say enough? Did we say too much? Should you make a social media post about it? What is the right thing to post? These questions seem to grow more complicated every day.
These issues are not only complicated and confusing, but they are deeply personal. They touch some of the most foundational elements of life: health, safety, justice, fear, relationships. If we plow ahead carelessly in this moment without recognizing the potential dangers, we risk critical damage to our unity as a church.
Unity is not just a nice accessory that makes for comfortable gatherings. A threat to our unity is a threat to our mission because our unity in a world filled with division serves as a powerful testimony to the reconciling power of the gospel. Divisions in the church undermine our message.
Therefore, we are called to be a people of unity.
In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Paul instructs us to live in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. This means we are to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ that rescued us from darkness and reconciled us to God. This calling includes an eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
So, we must eagerly pursue unity. We must proactively protect our unity of the Spirit. We have “one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
If we share the same eternal hope, bow to and worship the same God, then we must preserve unity. This does not mean we must be in total agreement on every issue. Unity and uniformity are different. Uniformity means there is no room for disagreement. Unity means we embrace one another’s differing perspectives while collectively embracing the essentials of our faith.
There are times when maintaining unity seems easy. There are other times, like now, when there is a noticeable temptation to choose sides. It feels like the culture demands that we draw lines in the sand, and refuse to be at peace with anyone that sees the world differently.
Church, we must refuse this temptation to oversimplify and polarize these issues. We must refuse to vilify those who disagree with us. This is not the way of love and unity. Regardless of your positions on these issues, we must love those who see things differently. We must believe the best about one another, and assume the purest possible motives. We must walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. We must fight to maintain unity, but how?
Reason For Hope
In these first few verses of Ephesians 4, Paul gives us four characteristics to focus on in the pursuit of unity.
First, he says that we must walk with “all humility.” If we are going to maintain the unity of the Spirit, then we must be characterized by humility. The Greek word that Paul uses here means lowliness of mind. John Stott defines it this way, “the humble recognition of the worth and value of other people.”¹ This recognition of the worth and value of others leads us to humbly confess that others might be able to see the situation more clearly than we can. It leads to assuming that our opinions are not always 100% accurate. We can learn from the valuable perspective of others, especially spirit-filled believers.
Second, Paul says we must walk in gentleness. We are bound to disagree with one another, but these disagreements should be discussed with a gentle spirit and tone. Of course, we should not confuse gentleness and weakness. Instead, we should think of gentleness as strength with godly reservation. We can disagree while never losing sight of the fact that our brother or sister is more valuable than getting my point across. It means we should present our convictions without personal attacks, and we should never let the desire to win an argument lead us to inflict pain with our words.
Third, Paul says we should walk in patience. Stott explains that, “patience is longsuffering towards aggravating people, such as God in Christ has shown towards us.”² I am tempted to point my finger when I hear the descriptor, “aggravating people,” but Stott reminds me to look in the mirror. I could never show more patience with the aggravating people in my life than God has shown to me. We must be patient with one another. This means covering a multitude of sins. All of us are going to make mistakes. There are going to be times when one of us says the wrong thing or says the right thing in the wrong way. We must choose patience.
Finally, Paul says we must bear with one another in love. This command assumes that we will be more than aggravating to one another. We will do far worse than aggravate. At times, we will sin against each other. We will go beyond misspeaking. At times, we will intentionally use our words to hurt each other. This is sad, but it is a truth we cannot deny. We have seen it, experienced it, and participated in it. Paul knows this, and he is calling us to bear with one another in love. As James Montgomery Boice comments on these verses, “We are to endure the wrong, suffer the slight.”³
As you read through this list of characteristics, it is not hard to see how they would serve to protect our unity. If we walked together with all humility, gentleness, and patience, and were always bearing with one another in love, even the most divisive and complicated of issues would not stand a chance of dividing us. We would believe the best about one another, prayerfully listen to differing perspectives, and hold fast to the essentials of the faith as we worked through difficult seasons.
The good news is that the gospel gives us everything we need to preserve unity in this season of tension and uncertainty.
The gospel increases our humility. It reminds us that we are deeply flawed. It reminds us that Jesus spilled His precious blood for our brothers and sisters in the church, which means they are more valuable than my opinions.
The gospel increases our gentleness. The gospel is the perfect display of the meekness and gentleness of God. He had all the strength required to execute his wrath on a human race that had rebelled against him. Instead, he showed restraint. Instead, he entered into our brokenness to show us our need and offer us hope.
The gospel increases our patience. As we consider how patient God has been toward us, it should increase our patience with others. That person in the church that aggravates you has not trampled over your heart and disregarded your feelings nearly as often as you have done those things to your Heavenly Father. Yet, He is patient with you.
The gospel increases our ability to bear with one another in love. In John 15:12-13, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Charge To Love
Apply the gospel to your own heart, and love others the way that God has loved you.
Have you been holding up your opinions as superior to the opinions of others? Remember the cross of Jesus Christ, which speaks loudly about our flaws and weakness. We are not perfect, and our perspectives are limited. Ask God to help you walk in all humility.
Do you see someone walking in error or lacking understanding? Remember God’s gentle correction in your times of weakness, and extend gentleness to those around you.
Are you aggravated or angry with someone in the church? Remember God’s patience towards you, and extend that patience to those around you.
Has someone sinned against you in some way? Remember God’s gracious forgiveness, and bear with one another in love.
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
Let us put into practice the famous words of a not so famous German theologian, Rupertus Meldenius, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.”
¹ John Stott, The Message of Ephesians, BST (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 148.
² Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 149.
³ James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 124.