Unity & Uniformity in the Local Church

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In yesterday’s helpful post Uniformity or Unity, Jason unearthed an important issue for every Christian to consider; exposing what I agree is a common tendency among Christians to equate unity with uniformity.

Truth be told, I have never met a Christian who denied the importance of unity among Christians.  Unity seems to be one of those things that all Christians see as important.  Yet, I agree with Jason that the picture of unity that many Christians are striving for includes all kinds of requirements that Scripture itself does not prioritize and ultimately amounts to a community of people that look and think almost entirely alike.  Contrary to the way many believers think, unity is not the same as uniformity, and uniformity is not requisite to biblical unity among Christians.

As Jason also suggested yesterday, the level of like-mindedness that is necessary among Christians depends on the nature of our relationships with one another.  For example, I have no problem enjoying fellowship with my Jesus-loving paedobaptist brothers and sisters, though I myself am not a paedobaptist.  However, given our differences over the issue of baptism, living as members in the same local church would prove more difficult than simply enjoying fellowship on occasion.  And so, I appreciate the three tier system that Jason introduced yesterday and believe it to be a wise grid to apply in considering the level of unity called for among Christians.

In this post, I want to address the issues of uniformity and unity in the first tier mentioned yesterday – the local church.  In what ways are Christians allowed (and expected!) to be different in the local church, and in what ways must they be unified?  Those are the questions I will try to answer (though by no means exhaustively) here.

What differences are allowed in the local church?

At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a list of individuals of note in and among the church at Rome (Rom 16:1-16).  We might be tempted to gloss over the list as an irrelevant artifact of church history – but a careful look at the passage shows that the community of believers God had brought together there in 1st C. Rome was quite a hodge-podge sort of group.

In those 16 verses, Paul sends his greetings to 25 individuals (by my count), 3 house churches, and 2 households.  In those greetings, Paul sends greetings to men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freedmen, as well as parents and children.  This actually says a lot regarding the kinds of differences that are allowed in the local church – and makes it clear that external uniformity has nothing to do with God’s desire for unity among his people.

But I think it may help to be even more specific.  Allow me to list out the kinds of differences that are in no way required by God of Christians in the same local church, or at least as many as I can think of off the top of my head.  If I am wrong on any of these, I welcome your push back.

Differences that are allowed in the local church: 

  • Differences in age, gender, and ethnicity.
  • Differences in spiritual giftedness and ministry focus.
  • Differences regarding secondary (and tertiary, etc.) theological issues.
  • Differences in income and employment.
  • Differences in our political leanings.
  • Differences in educational preferences for our children.
  • Differences of opinion regarding the use of alcohol.
  • Difference regarding our favorite authors or preachers.
  • Differences regarding the use and enjoyment of entertainment.
  • Differences in our closest relationships (we all can’t be best friends with everyone).
  • Differences in the way we dress.
  • Differences in our budgetary priorities (i.e. the way we spend our money).
  • Differences in hobbies and extra-curricular interests.

This list is not exhaustive.  Truly, the kinds of differences that Christians are allowed and expected to have in the local church are myriad.  Sadly though, not every church makes room for these kinds of differences, whether intentionally or otherwise.  But, let it be clear; expecting similarity and like-mindedness in matters like these is not the same as being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).  In fact, it is nothing more than a desire for uniformity and is actually counterproductive to growing in biblical unity.

Yet, despite the many kinds of differences that are acceptable in the local church, there are a number of ways in which God expects his people to be very much the same and strictly unified.

In what ways must Christians in the same local church be unified? 

I have no doubt that this list could be expanded, so feel free, dear reader, to add to the list if you like.  However, these seven things should certainly be on the list.  These are things that every Christian in every church should be doing; practices in which we should all be unified.

First, every member should be humbled under the Gospel and grateful to be in the church (Psa 79:13; Col 1:12; 2 Thess 2:13).

Regardless of the church you are in, if you are in a Gospel-preaching church, you are privileged to be a part of it.  If it does not feel that way to you, you have likely lost sight of the wonder of the Gospel itself.  We ought to always be “giving thanks to God the Father, who has qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col 1:12).  It is incumbent upon every member to remember that membership in the body of Christ (both universally and locally) is a gift of God’s grace.  This remembrance is also crucial to resisting the temptation to build the church upon the uniformity of its members.  It is Christ who unites us and his Gospel that has brought us together; not our hobbies, nor our jobs, nor any other external similarity that may (or may not) exist between us.

Second, every member should be striving to see God glorified in the life of the church (Rom 15:5-6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rom 11:36).

The church is not a place for celebrating ourselves, or for reveling in our own unique qualities and characteristics.  A church that is built upon the uniformity of its members is a church that has lost its unity around the worth and honor of God.

When a sinner is truly saved from the just and eternal penalty for His sins, and is given a new heart to love God from and power to overcome the sins that once separated him from his Creator; his purpose and mission in life is radically changed, because the salvation that He has been given is so immense and great.  A sinner that does not want to bring glory to the God who has saved him, is a sinner that has not been truly saved by God.  Wanting to bring glory to God is the natural result of being truly saved by God.

So, what should happen when a group of saved sinners are all put together in the same local church family?  What should be the all-encompassing goal of this group of people?  To glorify the God who has saved them.  Our common salvation creates and establishes a common purpose and mission; to glorify the God who has saved us.  This is the ultimate purpose of the church.  It is what the church is meant to be all about; redeemed sinners coming together to forget about themselves as they glorify the God who has saved them.

Third, every member should be seeking to make disciples of Christ in whatever context God has placed them (Matt 28:19-20; Col 3:16; Eph 5:1-4).

Jesus has made the mission of the church extraordinarily clear.  It is to cultivate, grow, and develop disciples – teaching people to obey all that he has commanded.  Though every member has unique opportunities to carry out this mission – every member must be focused on carrying it out.  What this means is that the outlook of every member of the church must be outward.

By contrast, the drive toward uniformity looks inward. It is not concerned about seeing people bow down to Jesus – but about bowing down to us; not becoming like him, but becoming like us. The call of Christ to make disciples propels the church outward and forces every member to look, not to ourselves, but to Christ as the ultimate pattern for our lives and ministries. We are the students, after all, not the Teacher.

Fourth, every member should be loving others actively and patiently after the pattern of Christ (John 15:12; 1 Cor 13:1-13; Eph 5:2; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 4:11).

Christians expecting uniformity in their churches are notoriously self-centered in focus.  The quest for uniformity in a local church is all about forcing people to submit to my expectations and preferences. Christian love, however, is all about laying down my expectations and preferences to do good to others, even (and especially) those who do not meet my expectations or my preferences. You cannot love a person whom you are expecting to conform to your image; that is, unless you are Jesus himself.

Fifth, every member should be extending grace to one another in all things (Matt 18:21-22; Eph 4:32; Col 3:12-13).

How often the call to be gracious to one another is forgotten! Yet, Christ leaves no wiggle room here. As he has forgiven us, “so [we] also must forgive” (Col 3:13). Yet, before we are brought to a point of needing to forgive our brother, we should have been long seeking to bear with him (Col 3:13a). I would argue that forbearance is actually the antidote in many ways to the disease of uniformity in the church. Rather than expecting one another to fall in line and see our many differences erased, we should be letting all those differences slide off of us like water off a ducks back as we remain focused on what really matters.

Sixth, every member should be seeking to spur on the church to grow in spiritual maturity (Eph 4:11-13; 1 Pet 2:1-2).

Corporate spiritual maturity in Ephesians 4:13 is defined by two kinds of unity; “unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”  Unity of the faith, as I understand it is unity around the core tenants of the Gospel. Unity of the knowledge of the Son of God then, I believe, is a shared personal knowledge of the true and risen Christ.

John Calvin saw the second phrase as interpreting the first, and I do think there may be validity to that interpretation. Calvin comments,

“It was the apostle’s intention to explain what is the nature of true faith, and in what it consists; that is, when the Son of God is known. To the Son of God alone faith ought to look; on him it relies; in him it rests and terminates. If it proceed farther, it will disappear, and will no longer be faith, but a delusion. Let us remember, that true faith confines its view so entirely to Christ, that it neither knows, nor desires to know, anything else.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians)

This knowledge of the Son of God is the measuring stick of the spiritual maturity of the church – and no greater aim exists.  If we desire uniformity in any sense, let it be in the goal that every member is growing in his knowledge and love for Christ, and let us do all we can to see that goal consistently achieved.

Seventh, every member should be mortifying sins that would cause division in the church (Eph 4:25-31; Col 3:8-9; 1 Pet 2:1).

The Scriptures regularly, unequivocally, and harshly condemn sins that cause division in the church (Gal 5:20).  Divisive persons are to be excommunicated and avoided (Rom 16:17; Jude 1:19) and divisive sins are to be directly confronted (Tit 3:10) and put to death within us (Col 3:8-9).  There is no place for these kinds of sins in the church and every member ought to be vigilant in seeing that they find no safety among God’s people.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, there are all kinds of ways in which members of the same local church are allowed and expected to be different.  And yet, there are also many ways we are expected to be united.  I suspect that any church that is focused on this latter truth is happy to give way to the former, for when genuine unity is the pursuit of the church, uniformity is no longer necessary to keep the church alive or thriving.  Churches full of members who major in the second list I’ve provided here are a joy to be a part of – and make room for people from all walks of life to be a part of them, as they should.

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