Unity: A Worthy Goal

The Need for Unity in the Church
Sources vary widely on how many Christian denominations there are in the world, but a conservative estimate is over 20,000 and some estimates are over 40,000. Of course some of those “denominations” are quite small. Furthermore, some denominations agree quite closely on what the Bible says, but disagree on how to administer the church. But we still must recognize that God has asked us to work toward unity.

1 Corinthians 1:10
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.

We are of the opinion that Christians can be much more unified, particularly over doctrinal issues, than the Christian world we see around us indicates. It does take some effort, however. There are some essential ingredients to unity, including humility, logic, wisdom, and a scholarly approach.

Error Hurts Relationships
We all know how painful it can be when someone believes something about us that is not true. Do we really believe that God does not care if we, His children, do not think correctly about Him? Has God changed how He feels about people knowing Him in the last 2500 years? In Jeremiah He said, “My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding” (Jer. 4:22).

God loves people, but He is distressed when His children do not love Him enough to learn about Him, and He calls those people “senseless children.” God wants us to “get it right” about Him, and He deserves that from us. People learn the truth about us from our words and actions, and we have God’s words and actions so that we can learn about Him.

The Bible is God’s letter to mankind, and it should be interpreted like other letters. When we write a letter to someone, we want that person to know what we mean, not just what he or she thinks we mean. In fact, if we write a letter to someone who misunderstands what we say, it is not uncommon that we would be upset with the person. Similarly, God wants us to read His letter and understand Him. While it is true that God’s letter can be hard to understand in places, it still seems that there should not be nearly the amount of division over what it means as we see in the Church today. That seems to reflect a lack of caring and scholarship.

Why There Can Be Unity
Many people think, “So what if different people believe differently? What harm does that do?” Disunity is harmful in many ways, but one of them is that it means that some people are wrong about God, something He does not like or deserve. The reason that we can be unified is that there is one God, and He is the way He is. God does not change who He is when different people believe differently about Him. We are who we are no matter what people believe, and God is who God is no matter what people believe about Him. It is because God exists and is a certain way that we can be unified about Him. We believe He has revealed Himself in His Word, and by rightly interpreting His Word we can be unified about Him in many things.

What Question Are We Asking?
If we are going to be unified in our understanding of the Bible, it is vital that we ask the proper questions about it. Individualism is highly esteemed in these modern times, and it has become fashionable for people to read the Bible and ask, “What does this mean to me?” While that question is important, a much more important question is, “What is God saying?” It does not require any study of the Bible to answer the question, “What does this mean to me?” Any passage of Scripture can mean any number of things to the person reading it. We must realize that God did not write the Bible so we could tell Him what we thought about it. He wrote it for many reasons, but certainly one of them was to guide us in life and tell us about Him. We have to get from, “What does this mean to me” to “What does this mean?” Only when we know what the Scripture means should we then go back to, “What does this mean to me,” and figure out how to apply the Scripture in our lives.

Division is Harmful
Another reason we should care about division in the Church is that it is harmful to both Christians and unbelievers. Division is harmful to Christians because it establishes a “nobody knows for sure” attitude in the Church. This can cause people to give up trying to read their Bible and learn eternal truths. That is a sad situation, because God gave us the Bible so we could know things, not to be confused or to decide that nobody can know for sure about spiritual things.

Division is harmful to unbelievers as well as Christians. Once I was in the shop of a man from a different religion and the topic of religion came up. He told me he did not know what to think about Christianity because every Christian who came to his shop told him something different about it. Christians should greatly desire to have a unified witness to give to unbelievers, and that is an important reason to strive to know the truth and be unified about it.

Unity is Not a Truce
Sadly, one way that some people suggest we become “unified” in the Church is by ignoring the difficult issues and “just getting along.” Someone might say, “Do we have to talk about it?” Frankly, at some point we do have to talk about what we believe if we are going to have genuine unity. God wants us to have “fellowship” with each other, and that means that we have to be able to talk about what we believe and at least try to understand each other.

Ignoring what we believe by agreeing not to discuss it may prevent fighting in public, but it does not produce unity in the faith. A truce is not unity. A truce is when enemies agree not to fight, and it can look a lot like unity (“Look, they are getting along together!”). When Christians try to reach unity in the faith, but still disagree, then a truce and treating each other in a loving and godly manner is the right thing to do. Every Christian is a child of God and a member of the Body of Christ, and if we can have loving and godly relationships with each other that will be a blessing to God and to the world.

Humility
The road to true unity is paved with humility, and humility is certainly one of the most important things one must have in order to properly understand the Bible. In fact, the humility that leads people to a proper understand the Bible is of the deepest kind. To be humble to the truth we must value finding it above our pride, our insecurities, and our friendships.

Pride Will Keep Us from Truth
Pride always gets in the way of truth, and it does so in lots of different ways. For one thing, it is deceptive.

Obadiah 1:3
The pride of your heart has deceived you.

One way pride deceives us is that it can keep us from admitting we are wrong and changing if we find new truth. It can be hard to admit we are wrong, and hard to change things to adjust to the truth we have discovered, but we should. The Christmas story can fall into this category. In the true Christmas story portrayed in the Bible, the magi (sometimes called the “wise men”) were not “kings,” they did not travel as a company of three, and they did not arrive at Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless, the traditional songs, Christmas plays, and manger scenes have become so comfortable that many Christians have no interest in trying to change them even when they learn their traditions are not true according to the Word.

Our Emotions Can Keep Us from Truth
Our emotions can stand in the way of being humble to the truth. The Bible is about life, and life is deeply emotional. A good example of how emotion can stop our quest for truth concerns the state of the dead. The Bible says that when a person dies, he is dead in every way.[1] Death is horrible. Actually, God wants us to get in touch with how horrible death is so that we will greatly appreciate the resurrection and everlasting life. Unfortunately, the horror of death is so emotionally troubling that some people are unwilling to even consider the possibility that the Bible says the dead are dead. Those people are comfortable believing their dead relatives are in heaven, and they will not consider that the Bible could say something different.

Our Insecurities Can Keep Us from Truth
Our insecurities are another thing that can keep us from being humble enough to see the truth or act on it. No one wants to be different or rejected, but truth is a powerful divider. Jesus made this very clear.

Matthew 10:34-36
(34) “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
(35) For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
(36) a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

Wow! What is it about Jesus’ message that would even divide households? People are often so emotionally staked to what they believe that they cannot even talk peaceably about it with people who believe differently. We can often figure out that saying what we really believe will cause others to reject us, and at that point many people take the “safe” road and never mention what they believe. Of course, the word “safe” is in quotation marks because it is not really safe; at best it is only temporarily safe until the Day of Judgment.

Mark 8:38
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

The English word “ashamed” does not carry the full sense of what this verse is saying.[2] It is saying that if we are ashamed of Christ, or if we lack the courage to stand up for him, he will not “stand up” and support us at the Judgment. This makes perfect sense. Jesus gave everything for us, including being tortured and killed. If we do not muster the courage to speak up on his behalf, he will not ignore that fact on the Day of Judgment. Jesus does not ask us to be unwise or obnoxious, but we should ask ourselves if we are hanging out with the right crowed if we do not feel comfortable saying what we believe about Jesus.

Jesus had to be very honest with himself about what he was going to go through or he would not have been able to endure it, and he has been honest about what he expects from us—that we love him with all that we are.

Matthew 10:37-39
(37) “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
(38) and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
(39) Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

To be truly humble enough to follow the road of discovery wherever it leads, we have to get over our insecurities and trust that God will be at the center of what we discover.

Logic and Wisdom
Once we have become humble enough to search for truth wherever the search leads, foundational building blocks to discovering truth are logic and wisdom. God expects us to use logic in life and in understanding Him and His Word. God challenges us to reason with Him. The Bible tells us: “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD” (Isa. 1:18). Following his Father’s example, Jesus used logic in many of his teachings and when dealing with people. For example, the tradition at the time of Christ was that it was considered breaking the Sabbath to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus did not have a verse from the Old Testament that said, “It is okay to heal on the Sabbath.” No such verse existed, so Jesus used logic to show the tradition was ungodly, and pointed out that it was not breaking the Sabbath to pull an animal out of trouble on the Sabbath. Then he concluded: “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12). If we were confident in using logic as a tool of exegesis, we could remove a lot of error from the Church.

A Scholarly Approach
A scholarly approach to understanding the Bible means to approach it as we would any other historical document we are trying to understand. To really understand the Bible, we must understand its content, its words, its idioms, the culture of the times it was written in, the geography of where it was written, the history of where it was written, etc. We expect this of our “experts” in other fields, and we should expect it of our biblical experts too. We do not say this to discourage the average Christian from reading the Bible, and there are many simple and straightforward truths set forth in Scripture that beginning readers can understand. But there are also things that require years of study to understand to the point of being able to teach them to others, and we should require that study of our prominent teachers.

Even to understand the general content of the Bible is no small undertaking, because the Bible is a big book and covers many subjects. Sadly, many people who teach the Bible have never read the whole Bible or read it enough to grasp even some of its more fundamental concepts. Certainly there are some situations, such as in places where the Church is persecuted or where youth are teaching, that we are thankful that many of the concepts in the Bible are simple and easily taught. We want the Christian faith to spread and people to grow by doing, but at the same time, we have to realize that not knowing the Bible leads to disunity in the Church. Every Christian should be striving to honor God by knowing His Word.

The Word Does Not Interpret Itself
We must also realize that we need to know more than just the Bible to really understand it. A commonly held misbelief is that the Word interprets itself, and thus all one needs to understand it is the Bible itself. That is simply not true, but because of that misbelief there are a number of people who will not read a commentary, Bible dictionary, or Bible study help. Of course knowing the scope of Scripture is important in interpreting the Scripture, but it is wrong to think that the Scripture interprets itself fully without help from sources outside the Bible.

Examples of the Bible not interpreting itself are too numerous to count. The meanings of the vast majority of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible are arrived at with help from outside the Bible. We know what a “centurion” is, and that he was a Roman soldier over one hundred men, not from the Bible, but from Roman culture. We know that a “denarius” is a coin worth a day’s wage, not from the Bible, but from the Greek and Roman culture. We use Hebrew and Greek lexicons to know what the words in the Bible mean, but the definitions come to us with the help of the collective literature of those cultures, only rarely from the Bible alone.

We know where the countries of the Bible, such as Egypt or Assyria, are on the map, not from the Bible, but from a study of geography. We know about the daily life and customs of biblical people from the collective literature from and about those cultures, and from archaeology—what we find in the ground. The Bible mentions customs but rarely describes much about them, so we learn the details about them from other sources.

The more we know about the vocabulary, geography, and history of the biblical world, the more we learn about the Bible. If we do not understand the vocabulary in the Word, we cannot understand the Word. A good example comes from the King James Version, which says that Abraham settled in the “plain of Mamre” by Hebron (Gen. 13:18). Modern versions say he settled by the “oaks” or “great trees” of Mamre. Why the difference? In 1611 the translators did not know the meaning of the Hebrew word, and it’s always nice to pitch a tent in a flat place, so they took an educated guess and translated the Hebrew word elon as “plain.” As our knowledge of the Hebrew language grew, it became known that elon referred to trees, and old, huge trees were admired in the ancient world just as they are today. Abraham pitched his tent by those huge trees. This is just one of thousands of examples where our knowledge of the Bible did not come from the Bible interpreting itself, but from a greater knowledge of what the words in the original text of the Bible really mean.

We Will Be Unified
The reality is that Christians will never be totally unified in this life, but this does not mean it is not something that we should work toward now. God says He wants “no divisions” and for us to “be unified in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10), so that means we must work toward this. In a similar way to God telling us He wants us to “be holy,” we do not quit trying just because it is not something we can completely do until Christ returns. God wants us to be unified so we must work toward it. Thankfully, one day we will be unified. Ephesians 4 speaks of a future time when “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

The fact that we will be unified in the future should give us the energy to realize that a good measure of unity is attainable right now. Yes, we may disagree on some of the things in the Bible. But we cannot forget that the Word of God is a document. It is made up of words, and its events and people occurred in a real historical context. If we are willing to humble ourselves to God’s truth, and approach the Bible with prayer, logic, and scholastic integrity, we will almost certainly find that the unity that God said He wanted for us in 1 Corinthians 1:10, is not as far away as some people have imagined. And, if we cannot be in unity about a doctrine or action, we can agree to be considerate of each other, knowing that one day we will all fully know God’s truth.

Endnotes

[1] For more information on what happens when we die, see the book, Is There Death After Life, by Graeser, Lynn, Schoenheit, and the audio seminar: “Death and Resurrection to Life
[2] The Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament by Friberg speaks specifically of the use of the Greek word usually translated “ashamed.” It is epaischunomai (Strong’s number #1870 ἐπαισχύνομαι; pronounced ě-pay-skoon’-ŏ-my), and it means, “denoting reluctance through fear of humiliation; be ashamed, be afraid (to), lack courage to stand up for.”

2 comments

  1. A great article. Am a senior citizen (73) and, in my search for truth over the years, I was involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, mormons, etc… I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but … after reading your materials for a while, am now confused more than ever. No local churches in the Attleboro, Mass area… help

  2. Did you get the help you asked for? If not, feel free to email me at any time and we can discuss whatever is confusing to you.

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