Lessons of Harmony in the Church

When we call for unity in the church, it’s not just that we don’t want dissent. It’s not that we hate division, although we do that.

Unity is far more than the naysayers being gagged or rebellion put down. The old joke goes, “You can tie two cats’ tails together and throw them over the clothesline and you’ll have union. But you will not have unity.”

Unity is a positive quality.

When the rowing team refers to perfect moments in their boat, they do not mean the time they won a race. A perfect moment is when they feel all eight oars in the water together, working in perfect harmony.

At such moments, we’re told, the boat seems to lift right out of the water. Oarsmen call this the moment of swing.

In an old Reader’s Digest article, Olympic oarsman John Biglow says what he likes most about that perfect moment is it allows one to trust the other rowers. A boat does not have “swing,” he says, unless everyone is exerting equal effort, and only because of that was there the possibility of true trust among oarsmen.

The athletes put it in the form of a formula:

Equal Effort + Synchronization + Lift = Trust.

Now, if we apply this to the body of Christ—a local congregation is usually a lot more than eight people, but regardless of the number—we will see what lessons of harmony and unity it yields.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Ps. 133:1).

And when the Day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place … And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple” (Acts 2:1, 46).

Here are seven things we know about unity among the Lord’s people:

1. God desires unity in his people.

This is not an optional add-on. Unity among the people of the Lord is one of the essentials. Without it, nothing gets done. With it, anything can be achieved that God wills.

Paul wrote, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). Earlier he had said to that church, “(You will) make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Phil. 2:2).

2. Unity is the byproduct of God’s people focusing on him.

I’m about to say something that is not as simple as it sounds: The church that keeps its eyes on Jesus is a unified congregation.

What complicates it is that there is a second layer involved here. Yes, we are to stay focused on the Lord Jesus in our hearts and minds, in our worship and our service and our message. But a part of that means obeying the leaders God has put in place within his people.

Anyone who reads the Bible from cover to cover comes away with many instances where God interprets resistance toward his appointed leaders as rebellion against himself. He said to Saul of Tarsus, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4–5) When the misguided zealot attacked God’s people, Jesus took it personally. Likewise, throughout the Old Testament, the Lord considered how people treated Moses or Joshua or Joseph or Jeremiah as them treating him in the same way.

I remind anyone who requires it that Acts 20:28 says the pastors/elders are appointed as overseers by the Holy Spirit.

“Obey your leaders” (Heb. 13:17).

Now, to the layman who insists, “Well, we too are holy. The preacher takes too much upon himself,” I refer you to the times Miriam and Aaron and certain “men of renown” tried that same stunt against Moses. God dealt with their rebellion in a hurry. (See Numbers 12 and 16.)

Note: Granted, there are exceptions to “obey your leaders,” in that leaders can sometimes be wicked, self-centered and harmful to the ministry. In this case, each church should have a team of lay leaders who rise up and take action. But the “obey your leaders” is a general rule to be obeyed with common sense and dedication to Christ.

3. Unity is a living thing.

The eight men in a boat who are stroking their oars through the water at the same time may be experiencing that “perfect moment” one minute and total chaos the next. Eight people are contributing to the harmony, but any one of them can disrupt it.

A church can be unified today and catfighting tomorrow. Yesterday’s attention to godly matters—the Lord’s purpose, obedience to him, etc.—will not suffice for today.

4. Unity is a fragile thing.

So much that has to do with church relationships should be stamped “fragile.” The bond between the deacons and a pastor can be strong, the harmony sweet and the effect glorious. However, let one deacon or the preacher get out of fellowship with the Lord and that bond is immediately stressed to the point of breaking.

Threats to unity within a congregation abound. My brother-in-law’s moving company could have saved the church money had they employed him to move the new preacher to our city. Someone’s child gets sent home from church camp for misbehaving, and bingo, a parent overreacts and causes trouble. The head deacon’s daughter had the church scheduled for her wedding and because of a foulup in the office, someone else gets it and she has to go to the VFW hall.

Some unity sabotagers are major: doctrinal conflicts, moral issues, biblical questions. If the preacher has run off with the organist—leaving their spouses and children—even if some members want to welcome them back (“What will we do without the organ?”), leaders take their stand and hold their ground. If some members leave because they didn’t get their way, it’s a small price.

Some are minor. “But we always have the flowers in the sanctuary the third Sunday of June. It’s our anniversary. Everyone knows that.” The new secretary had not known this history.

Well, it’s my time to be named Senior Adult of the Year. Lord knows I deserve it. As a result, we cut out naming Senior Adult of the Year altogether.

“That child got a bigger portion of ham on his plate than I did.” In one of his books, Kent Hughes tells of a church split traced back to the chairman of deacons being peeved when a child received a larger slice of meat at the midweek church supper than he.

5. Unity is all about love.

Paul writes of believers having their hearts knit together in love (Col. 2:2). That’s why he calls love the perfect bond of unity (Col. 3:14).

Think of your home. Have you ever thought that a family member was trespassing on your rights or had slighted or offended you? And have you ever decided to “bite your tongue” rather than call attention to it because doing so would turn it into a major issue. You made a tiny sacrifice for the sake of unity. That’s love.

“Love covers a multitude of sins,” we’re told in 1 Peter 4:8. Whatever else that means, it surely refers to the one loving deciding to overlook (“forbear”) certain flaws in the behavior of another rather than call attention to them. The person who says, “Well, I speak my mind. If I think it, I say it.” is doing no one a favor and has installed the flesh in the driver’s seat of his/her life. Love does not do such a hostile thing.

A pastor friend told me that just before leaving his church—out of anger that she had not gotten her way on some issue—a lady said to him, “I know I got in the flesh there. But tough!”

That’s what the absence of love looks like. Personally, I pity the pastor of the next church that lady lands in. She’s trouble looking for a place to happen.

6. Disunity is one of the enemy’s chief aims.

“God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33).

Remember back to the last time your favorite team won a championship. In the media coverage, at some point someone credited the achievement to the unity of the team.

Then, think back to the most disastrous season your team experienced. Was it characterized more by unity or division?

I rest my case.

One of the numerous titles of Satan given in Scripture is “accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10). And why would he devote time and energy to accusing God’s faithful? Clearly, to divide them with suspicion and anger and finger-pointing.

7. Leaders must be constantly on alert to deal with disunity whenever it begins to arise.

We are not talking about keeping down all dissent. Sometimes a pastor or the entire leadership team of a church can go off course and it’s necessary for someone to call them down. Not all dissent is wrong; not all dissension is bad.

But most of the division and dissension I’ve observed in churches for the 60 years I’ve been a disciple of the Lord Jesus has been fleshly stuff. Someone didn’t like the preacher. Someone wanted a different kind of music. Someone’s child was overlooked. Someone insisted they build a new church plant and others resisted. Someone stole money or committed adultery or condoned leaders who did.

The matter that divided my home church, resulting in the pastor leaving and initiating the decline that eventually put that incredible congregation out of business forever, was on the surface simple: Should the church cancel the Sunday night radio broadcast of their worship service? At issue was whether they could afford it.

As with most divisions, this started small and spread beyond control. By the time it made it onto the floor of the church business meeting, people were so entrenched in their positions that I fear if the Lord himself had shown up to call both sides down and urge repentance upon them, he would have been hooted off the platform.

A longtime member of the church I grew up in once said regarding another matter, “If it’s sin, we’ve been sinning all these many years, and I don’t see no reason to stop now.” That kind of carnal attitude has no place in the family of Christ.

Still, someone has to step up and speak out against the conflagration that threatens to destroy a church. Someone has to want to honor Jesus Christ so much that nothing else matters.

Someone has to exercise courage.

Ideally, it’s the leadership who does this.

Protecting the unity of a congregation requires two things: the courage to confront and a willingness to yield to those who confronted.

The news told of a young mother who was driving her small sons somewhere. She pulled onto a major highway without looking, and was immediately hit by a truck. The truck careened across the highway and hit other cars, injuring several people. As I recall—not sure about this—no one was killed. The young mother was cited by the police, the article said, for “failure to yield.”

Failure to yield. It sounds ominous.

It is that.

Half the divisions that occur within the body of the Lord’s people could be stopped in their tracks if believers would faithfully yield to their leadership, to one another, to the Lord himself. These, let it be emphasized, are all one and the same.

“Submit to one another in the fear of the Lord” (Eph. 5:21). That’s how it’s done.

How sweet and pleasant indeed it is when God’s people dwell together in unity.

Once experienced, no relationship ever feels the same without it.

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This article originally appeared on JoeMcKeever.com and is reposted here by permission.