THE PREACHER’S ROLE IN UNITY IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
by Russ Bowman
From the book
BEHIND THE PREACHER’S DOOR
“These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:…one who sows discord among brethren” (Prov.6:19)
On the night of His betrayal, Jesus gathered His apostles together to share a crucial, intimate observance of the Jewish Passover. This must have been an evening full of nervous anticipation, both for the Lord and His apostles, though for different reasons. Jesus had entered Jerusalem five days earlier with a public reception befitting the anticipated Messiah. He had displayed His power and wisdom in the miracles He performed and in His victorious confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders (Mt.21-23). He had uttered parables and offered prophetic insight into future judgments (Mt.24-25), and in so doing, fanned the flames of Messianic fervor throughout the city, and particularly among His own disciples. Those eleven faithful men knew that something was going to happen, and it must have been an exciting, but confusing week. Jesus had repeatedly predicted His death, reminding them even during this very week that He would “be delivered up to be crucified” on the Passover (Mt.26:2). Yet they still seemed shocked when it happened. Were they expecting some divine intercession? Did they anticipate that Jesus would change His mind and overpower His enemies? Would they witness the angelic host intervene? Or would they themselves be empowered to rise up against the opposition and deliver their Lord? We are simply not told what they anticipated, though it stands to reason that they were looking for some kind of Messianic drama.
Jesus, on the other hand, must have been concerned for these men. He has convinced them of His Messiahship. They had been given evidence even of His divinity. He had taught them and led them and corrected them and prepared them. And now He was about to leave them. He knew what would happen at His death. He knew they would forsake Him (Mt.26:31f), knew Peter would deny Him (Mt.26:34), and knew that they would ultimately stand fast and do the work for which He had prepared them. Yet the next three days would be crushing for them, and Jesus is clearly concerned about them as He gathers them together for the Passover meal. What an example, that the Lord would be so mindful of His followers when faced with the terror and agony of His own death!
God does not record all of the events and conversations that took place during this meal. John, however, offers the most detailed account of the evening (Jn.13-17). Jesus washed their feet and illustrated the kind of humble servitude that He desires among His people (13:3-20). He told them that one of them would betray Him, and even went to far as to identify Judas to Simon Peter (13:21-26). It must have pained the Lord to see the reaction of the other apostles, as their curiosity degenerated into an argument among themselves about which one would be the greatest in the kingdom (Lk.22:20-30). And as Judas left to complete his treachery, Jesus tried to prepare them for the things that they were about to see. John 14-17 chronicles Christ’s final words to His apostles before His death. Their faith was to be tested, inspired, and finally promoted. But on this night, He was concerned – “Let not your heart be troubled…” (Jn.14:1). So Jesus spoke of His leaving, His preparations, His sending of the Spirit, His expectation of their fruitfulness, and His assurance of their success. And He completed the instruction with a prayer in Jn.17 – a prayer which culminates in His plea to God that these men, along with all who would believe on Him through their work, “be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us…” (Jn.17:20-23). Their unity would be indispensable when faced with the world’s hatred and opposition (v.11-19), and that same oneness would stand forever as an invincible testimony to the divine nature and authority of Jesus of Nazareth (v.21-24). The task placed before the apostles was overwhelming. They were fishermen and religious scholars; political rebels and Roman minions; guileless men and sons of thunder; prone to impetuosity and given to ambitious contentions. Yet they were to be one, and thus the example for all of those who would embrace their testimony. And so they were.
Unity among God’s children is a challenging goal. In His epistles to first century Christians, God appeals for oneness over and over and over again. And such a resounding repetition should not surprise us, for unity in Christ is a curious achievement. After all, we who come to the Lord bring with us almost innumerable differences. Male and female. Black and white. Rich and poor. Influence and anonymity. Diverse religious backgrounds; distinct national loyalties; various social, educational, political, ideological perspectives. And moral histories that range from pristine to perverted. While Americans tend to view our nation as the world’s melting pot, the truth is that God’s church long ago secured that distinction. And yet, in Christ, those things that once divided us are to no longer prevail. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28). We must recognize that Jesus, in His prayer for unity on the night of His betrayal, was not looking merely at the ambitious arguments of His apostles, but at the overwhelming potential for division among the untold numbers of disciples who would follow. Disciples like us.
If we are to appreciate the role of a preacher in the maintaining of unity within a local church, we ought first to appreciate the role of every disciple in such. Preachers are, after all, not exempted from the admonitions and commands of God that involve unity. And all too often, it is an ugly unity that permeates local churches. Personalities clash. Trespasses are forgiven but not forgotten. Prejudices arise. Feelings are “sleeve worn” and often injured. Personal failings are exposed. Patience wears thin. And yet people “stay together for the sake of unity”. A begrudging togetherness is not unity. God does not call His people to harmony – “a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of different parts.” He calls us to oneness. The question is, “How do we achieve oneness?”
Unity is, first of all, a function of individual devotion to Christ. Paul pleaded with the Corinthian church that “you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Cor.1:10). The context of that admonition suggests that the Corinthian brethren were being polarized due to divided individual loyalties (v.11-13). It’s not difficult to see how a church might be torn apart when people offer their allegiance to various teachers. Paul’s solution to the problem was that they remember that “of Him (God) you are in Christ Jesus” (I Cor.1:30) and that they belonged to God (I Cor.3:9f). When we are concerned first and foremost – or perhaps more appropriately singularly and solely – with pleasing God, then and only then will unity be possible among disciples. After all, such was the basis of the unity between Christ and the Father. In the prayer of Jn.17:20f, Jesus asks that His followers be one, “as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You.” And that singular mind that united Jesus with His Father was His consistent determination to do the will of the Father (Jn.4:34; 5:30; 6:38f; 7:16,28f; 8:28f; 9:4). If my goal is to please God, and your goal is to please God, then unity among us is all but guaranteed. But if our loyalties are found anywhere else, division is unavoidable.
In Gal.3:26f, Paul reminded those divided brethren that they had all “put on Christ” and that such mutual devotion had changed them. They were no longer different. They were all one, because they were all now like Christ. The same argument is offered as the basis of a variety of “one another” instructions in Col.3:9-16. We have “put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (v.10), and every earthly distinction has been dissolved in our mutual acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord (v.11). Again, if I have “put on Christ” and you have “put on Christ”, then unity is insured.
Secondly, unity is a function of personal devotion to Christ’s Word. Jesus consistently equated discipleship with adherence to His teaching. “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn.14:15). “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed” (Jn.8:31). “But why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Lk.6:46). It is often the case in the present general religious environment that people “serve Christ” according to personal preference. Many choose a church based upon the programs, worship, or doctrines that they prefer, rather than upon the basis of God’s revelation. In such circumstances, unity occurs only when your preferences are the same as my preferences. And Christ is dethroned as Lord in favor of ourselves. In Eph.4:4f, the “one body…Spirit…hope…Lord…faith…baptism…God” are all foundations of unity which have been designated and revealed by God in His Word. They are not subject to whim and opinion. These elements of our service are clearly described for us in the New Testament, and our allegiance to that revelation supplies a basis for our unity. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians that they “speak the same thing…be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Cor.1:10) demands a common standard which we can adopt as the basis of our speaking, our mind, and our judgment. If I am following the Word, and you are following the Word, oneness must result. True unity is impossible in the absence of such. When we begin to focus on anything else – our own opinions, preferences, desires, traditions, etc. – unity will flounder.
Thirdly, unity is a function of personal disposition. Oneness demands a common Lord and a common standard. But ultimately oneness demands a common selfless dedication toward the Lord, the standard, and others who are similarly inclined. People may well claim some allegiance to Christ and His Word, but that allegiance is evidenced only in a total submission to both. The “personal devotion” previously noted is demanded by Christ in Mt.16:24 – “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” And the path that Jesus would have us follow calls us to unity with others who are following Him. Given our common Lord and standard, one would think such unity would be natural, yet ultimately it is our attitude toward other disciples that makes unity achievable. In almost every epistle, Paul admonishes, encourages, instructs, and implores his brethren that they be unified. He reminds the Romans that we will stand in judgment before God, not before other Christians (Rom.14-15). He scolded the Corinthians for their divided loyalties (I Cor.1-3), warned them about the divisive egoism of their own liberty (I Cor.8-10), and encouraged them to edify one another as a part of one body (I Cor.12-14). He told the Galatians to “through love serve one another” rather than suffering the destruction of their own contentions (Gal.5:13-15f). The Ephesian letter revolves around our common adoption in the family of God, where the union of Jew and Gentile stands as testimony of God’s wisdom (Eph.1-3). Concluding that thought, Paul begs them to walk “with lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph.4:2-3). He directed the Colossians toward “one another” obligations which grow out of “new man” allegiances (Co.3:1-16f). And his directives to the Philippians are perhaps the most instructive for those devoted to unity. “…fulfill my joy by being likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus…He humbled Himself…” (Phil.2:1-8). A group of disciples who serve Christ in devotion to His Word with selfless, humble, and sacrificial minds will consistently be unified. His will will be their will. His goals will be their goals. His character will be their character. His attitude will be their attitude. They cannot but be one. However disunity and division are inevitable when self intervenes. Division always – always – begins with “I”. When my opinions, wants, preferences, feelings, ambitions, jealousies, prejudices, ego or any other selfish concerns begin to drive my “service”, then I will dissolve any possible unity with other Christians.
No one is exempted from these principles. Yet, disciples sometimes forget who we are, and Who we serve. Unity is all too often sacrificed when we are faced with circumstances that try the practical expressions of our faith. Occasionally, perhaps, a Christian will completely lose his/her confidence in God due to some life crisis. But more frequently we simply forget that faith in Christ demands patience or self-control, poverty of spirit or meekness, forgiveness or self-sacrifice, mercy or kindness. Some problem arises that affects us personally – a moral failure, a doctrinal issue, a wrongdoing – and we retain our conviction that God is and that He rewards His people and that Christ died on the cross for our sins and that we can be forgiven. But we forget what those truths demand of us. We fail to be godly. And we fail of oneness.
I suspect that every individual disciple and every local congregation has some experience with such a circumstance. Who knows how many local churches exist in this country alone, as a result of disciples who failed at unity in times of difficulty. Rather than conform to humble godliness, we are prone to “go worship elsewhere”, even if “elsewhere” doesn’t yet exist. Unity is tough. It demands that we face one another, swallow our pride, admit our mistakes, listen to others, forgive and receive forgiveness, deny ourselves, focus on others. Honestly, its often easier on us just to go and “start a new work.” Easier, but not right. How can we be one when Christians in one congregation will not recognize or worship with Christians in another? Do we really believe that such disunity will exist in heaven?
Those who serve God’s people in positions of leadership bear a great responsibility when it comes to unity. Because leadership – whether in some designated capacity (overseers, deacons, teachers, preachers), or whether in some “unofficial” role (a man/woman of repute, talent, experience, age, etc.) – exerts influence. Peter called for elders to be “examples to the flock” (I Pet.5:3). Paul demanded of Timothy that he be “an example to the believers” (I Tim.4:12). Older men and older women are reminded of the import of their character and example in Tit.2:1-5. Those who lead must be ever aware of the impact of their activities, attitudes, reactions, and judgments. Yet, unfortunately, division often reigns because those who lead God’s people, lead them away from each other. And whether or not it should be so, it is the voices of preachers that often rise above the fray, and herald the dissension.
Preachers, due to the nature of their work, possess the capacity for great good, and for great evil. Their job is to proclaim the gospel (II Tim2:2; 4:1f), and such proclamation lends itself to the possibility of great influence. As teachers of the Word, preachers are often consulted for their knowledge, or confided in because of their experience. They become objects of affection as those who lead people to the gospel, and the variety of personalities and abilities and styles that distinguish them sometime result in preferences and even allegiances. Is that not what Paul describes in Corinth in I Cor.1:10f? It is not particularly difficult to see how the “pastor system” in modern denominationalism arose, for people at times pedestalize their ministers, and ministers at times accept and even promote such. So much influence can be a heady temptation toward self-importance. And all that is necessary for problems to arise is a simple objection, criticism, or even disagreement. Suddenly, the preacher’s ego becomes threatened and the process of self-defense, self-promotion, and the systematic decimation of the “enemy” begins. Sermons begin to revolve around the issue at hand. Private conversations are salted with innuendo and suggestion. People are encouraged to side with one man and against another. “The Issue” becomes a litmus test of allegiance, and the true work of preaching the gospel, building up the body of Christ, and seeking the lost is somewhere misplaced in the congregational civil war.
Shame on us, when we would divide the body of Christ over personal pride.
Those of us who preach need to be reminded of our place, much as Jesus reminded James and John when they wanted to destroy a Samaritan village – “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” (Lk.9:55). It would naive to ignore the potential influence that we exert as preachers and teachers. But it is egregious when we forget who we are. Our work is to save souls – to promote Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We must maintain at all times an honest and singular devotion to that goal. We are not promoting self, no matter how impressed we may be with our own opinions, preferences or judgments. In fact, when we become impressed with such things, we have failed of the very discipleship that we proclaim. Preachers are amenable to the demands of the beatitudes (Mt.5:3-12). We are disciples who must manifest humility, service, self-sacrifice (Mt.20:25-28). We are obligated to “add to your faith” virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love” (II Pet.1:5f). We are exempted from no demands regarding discipleship, and are in fact instructed to be examples “in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (I Tim.4:12). Our aim is to serve God’s people, and to do so God’s people must come before self, no matter the attack, the criticism, the problem. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil.2:5f) ought to be hand-written and sitting on the desk of every man who stands before others to proclaim the good news of salvation. And at the end of the day, no matter how many sermons we’ve preached, no matter how many souls have been saved, no matter how much good has been done – “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” (Lk.17:10). Paul reminded us that the power is in God’s Word (Rom.1:16; I Cor.3:5f), not in ourselves.
Do such admonitions to humble service demand compromise and concession? No. And yes. As heralds of God’s Word, we cannot fail to defend such against attack, perversion, misrepresentation, or abuse. While elders are assigned that role in local churches (Tit.1:9), so are evangelists (Tit.1:10-13; I Tim.1:3f; 4:1f; 6:11f; II Tim.4:1f). We must be willing to engage in conflict – “casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God” (II Cor.10:5). And if the declaration of truth results in division, so be it. The Lord promised such (Mt.10:34f). But we must also remember that spiritual warfare is no call to personal dominion. Our attitude must ever be humble, merciful, caring, godly. The “servant of the Lord” in I Tim.2:24 is the evangelist in his work. And where issues revolve around opinion, preference, personality, or discrepancies in maturity, preachers ought to be first to concede our own liberty, for such is the demand of mature leadership and godly influence (I Cor.8:13; 9:19-23; 10:29-33). If division is to take place, let it be because of truth, not because of our disposition.
James warns us all concerning the particular challenges that are borne by those who teach. He cautions those whose ambitions drive them to such public service, “knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment” (Jas.3:1). The warnings about the tongue are offered to teachers who use theirs so frequently. But it is the spirit of “envy and self-seeking” (v.14) that James is decrying. It is a sad reality that people sometimes disguise personal ambition behind the facade of gospel proclamation. That simple warning ought to prompt those who preach to ask themselves continually, “Who am I pleasing?”
Unity within a local congregation is a challenge. So many distinctions must be subdued so that Christ is what permeates each individual, and thus the collectivity. Oneness is possible, and powerful when accomplished (Jn.17:21f). And though Jesus prayed for such, He is not offering so much a wish, as a command. If we are to be united to Him, we have no choice but to pursue unity with one another. Single-minded devotion to Christ and to His Word by every disciple will produce such. But such devotion begins with the attitude and aim of each individual – “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph.4:2-3). And that includes preachers.