In the past two years we have been called into numerous ministry situations in which there was a notable lack of unity among the leadership team, throughout the church as a whole, or both. In seeking to help these leaders faithfully respond to these situations, we found ourselves going back to first principles: Why is unity important to God? What is He seeking to accomplish through our demonstration of unity? What are the practical prerequisites for unity to flourish? What factors hinder the development of unity?
In the final hours of his life here on earth, Jesus prays that we, His disciples throughout the ages, would be one. Throughout the letters that Paul and Peter wrote to the early churches are numerous exhortations to be like-minded and unified. King David devoted a Psalm (133) to the idea that brothers dwelling in unity is good and pleasant and precious. And from that position—God’s people dwelling together in harmony—God’s blessing is experienced. In the sixth chapter of Proverbs we read that God hates a person who sows discord among brothers.
God clearly thinks this matter of unity, or the lack thereof, is profoundly important. Why? What’s the big deal?
We’ve got work to get done around here! There are decisions to be made; plans to be developed; goals to be reached. If everyone just does what they’re supposed to do, and we accomplish our goal, God will be so pleased with us.
If we accomplish all these things that we’re focusing on, won’t God be pleased with us? These are good things we’re doing. If we accomplish them we’ll have had a great impact on the Kingdom of God. Peoples’ lives will be improved; the church will grow; families will be helped. So let’s just get to work and get it done!
Afterall, as leaders, are we not all about plans and tasks and goals and impact? That’s why God called us to ministry; that’s the task He’s given us.
Do you ever encounter this kind of thinking in your ministry? It is extremely common throughout our churches. And it is absolutely wrong! It is unbiblical, off-the-mark, and harmful to the cause of Christ.
What It Is
What is this thing called “unity?”
The simplest, most concise definition of “unity” is “oneness, a state of being one.” Note that unity is not about any given action or series of actions, but is an overall state of being.
“Unity” is also “the state of being combined into one or joined into a single entity, as of the parts of a whole.” This definition brings out the notion of different pieces coming together to make a larger single entity. Like a car that is made of thousands of separate components, distinct pieces joined together to make a more complex entity.
Another definition of “unity” is “oneness of mind, concord, harmony, or agreement,” which begins to focus on the nature of the relationship among the separate components. Going back to the car analogy, are the various components working together in harmony so that our ride is smooth and pleasant, or does the car need a tune-up because the spark plugs are misfiring, the oil is thick as tar, and the shocks are shot? An organization’s degree of unity is reflected in the members’ thoughts about each other and the quality of their interactions with one another.
But we are more than the components of an automobile; more than a collection of replaceable parts, any one of which could be superseded when it wears out or is defective. “Unity” in a church or ministry organization implies that there is an undivided completeness in which nothing is missing. Every piece is in place and functioning well, making an undividable whole. Together, we form an indivisible unit. We are much more than the sum of our parts. Together, all of us form something new that is whole and complete and indivisible. That is biblical unity. This truth is beautifully described in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 and Ephesians 4:1-16.
What It Isn’t
There are two words that we often incorrectly associate with unity. If we lead our team and organization out of a wrong understanding of unity we will readily develop unhealthy and unholy patterns of behavior.
The first of these “not unity” words is “uniformity.” “Uniformity” is the state of being uniform, identical, consistent, unvarying, or conforming to the same view. Uniformity is all of us looking alike, thinking alike, and speaking alike. This is NOT unity. We can be unified and still be different. Being unified does not require me to sacrifice my individuality.
The second “not unity” word is “unanimity.” “Unanimity” is the state of being unanimous, in complete agreement, or of the same opinion. Unanimity is all of us always seeing things in exactly the same way. This is NOT unity. We can be unified and still disagree with each other. Being unified does not mean suppressing my opinion or my perspective. Indeed, God intentionally designed us to be different for our benefit and His glory (more on that in a soon-to-be-posted separate article).
Note the different emphases of these words:
- Unanimity is focused on the nature of our decision-making.
- Uniformity is focused on the nature of our appearance.
- Unity is focused on the nature of our relationships.
God wants us to be unified; not all appearing alike; not all thinking or acting alike; but being in a state of oneness, perfectly fit together in harmony, and complete.
Unity in the Godhead
Do you ever wonder why God wants us to “play nice” with each other? Why He authored the love chapter, and listed the fruit of the Spirit, and gave us all the “one anothers” of scripture? Why does He care about these things?
It's because in relating in such a manner we exhibit the very character of God. We reveal His nature. God Himself, by Himself, before all time, before anything was made, was not alone, not one, but three. The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God. Yet, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, and so on. Three persons, one God, relating intimately for all eternity, in perfect harmony, perfect relationship, perfect love. Diverse, yet one.
It is worth noting some key truths regarding the Trinity. From the Gospel of John we learn, regarding the Father and Son (and with no disrespect of the Spirit intended), that they are both eternal (8:56-58; 17:4-5); of the same essence (14:8-11); equal(5:18); and one (10:30; 17:20-23). They are each God (5:18; 20:27-29). So it shouldn’t be surprising that God cares deeply about unity: He is perfect unity.
God cares deeply about unity because He IS perfect unity.
While it is not possible for man to fully comprehend this aspect of God’s nature, His three-in-oneness, yet He desires to reveal it to us, and did so in His Word. He desires that we know this about Him.
Unity is a state of oneness; but it also impacts the nature and character of our relationships. Our state of unity is reflected in how we relate to one another. Since God is perfect unity, it should be possible to learn some interesting things about the practice of unity by examining the nature of God’s relationship with Himself. Again from the Gospel of John, we learn the following regarding the nature of the relationship between Father and Son:
- loves the Son (3:35; 5:20)
- knows the Son (10:15)
- never leaves the Son (16:32)
- reveals all things to the Son (5:20)
- gives all judgment to the Son (3:35; 5:22-23)
- seeks the honor of the Son (5:22-23)
- loves the Father (14:31)
- knows the Father (8:55)
- is at the Fathers side (1:18)
- follows the leading of the Father (5:19)
- keeps the Fathers Word (8:55)
- honors the Father (8:48-49)
There are interesting parallels in the relationship between Father and Son; indicative of differing roles but equal value. These descriptions also say much about the depth and richness of their relationship, and gives us insight into why He cares so much about relationship.
God cares deeply about intimate relationship because He IS perfect intimate relationship.
John 17:20-23 and Ephesians 5:22-33 teach us something very important about the nature of our relationships in the church. From John,
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Jesus is literally in the final hours of his life here on earth; the final hours of his ministry with his disciples prior to his death. And at that critical point in time, his attention is drawn to you and me, his followers who have believed in Christ through the ministry of the original disciples. Jesus prays for you and me; and his prayer is that we would be united. In that prayer, the standard that Jesus establishes for our unity is profound. It is Himself: that we would be united to the same depth and richness as He is united with Himself. And the reason Jesus sets this high standard is so that we would be a testimony for Him.
This is amazing: our unity in the church is designed by God to be a model of His unity. Our relationships are intended by God to model the content and character of His relationships within the Godhead. And the purpose of this kind of deep, rich unity is to reflect Christ to a lost world.
Our ability to grasp the doctrine of the Trinity is limited. To fully comprehend “three-in-one” is frankly, beyond us. We cannot fully understand the nature of the relationships between the persons of the Godhead. Yet God says to us: Be like us. Relate like us. Love like us. Honor like us. Know like us. Submit like us. Be as one, like us.
Think about the typical interactions we have with our fellow believers. Consider the degree to which these interactions are callous, indifferent, harsh, or hurtful. Is this kind of relationship in any way reflective of the relationship God has with Himself? This reality ought to convict us, embarrass us, challenge us, and drive us. We are small and mean and brutish. We ought to be so much more than we are!
Lest We Forget
We’ve been focused on Father and Son, and do not want to neglect the important role of the Holy Spirit regarding our unity. The book of John has much to say regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Here is a sampling:
- dwells in us (14:15-17)
- empowers us to testify (15:27)
- confirms our union with the Godhead (14:20)
- guides us to all truth (16:13)
- reminds us of God’s Word (14:26)
- glorifies the Son (16:14)
- comes from the Father (John 15:26a)
- makes Christ known to us (16:15)
- testifies about the Son (15:26b)
In addition, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 teaches us that the same Spirit within each of us compels us toward God-glorifying unity. In light of His presence in each of us, how can we fail to give unity a priority? In team settings, how can we drive forward with our agendas, our plans, and our goals, and ignore the need for developing unity? With our fellow believers, how can we offend one another, ignore one another, disregard one another? And yet we do, all the time.
Key Aspects of Biblical Unity
There are several important dimensions to biblical unity that we need to keep in mind as we seek to develop unity in our churches and organizations.
First, biblical unity is the primary evangelistic program of the church (John 17:23). We all agree that a well-functioning church needs an effective, fruitful evangelism program. We appropriately exert significant time, finances, and people towards the development and execution of effective outreach programs. Yet, it is our unity that is the foremost evangelism program of the Church, instituted by Christ Himself. Consider the hypothetical (yet all too common) situation of a disunited, cantankerous Body of Christ which nevertheless places tremendous effort into reaching the lost. How effective can such efforts ultimately be? The word “hypocrisy” comes to mind.
Second, biblical unity requires love as the essential binding virtue (Colossians 3:14). Our conduct towards one another will be harmonious only to the degree that we “put on” love. This passage in Colossians exhorts us to “dress ourselves” in love. Now, think about the manifestation of love—what it looks like in the trenches of life and ministry. It is described in great, practical detail in 1 Corinthians 13. Love manifests itself in patience, kindness, and the avoidance of envy or boasting. Love in practice is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. Instead, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. That’s what love looks like. Have you seen love pervasively practiced in your church, in your life, in your ministry?
Third, biblical unity requires growth and maturity among the flock to more fully reflect Christ (Ephesians 4:13). This is our job as leaders and servants of Christ: to present everyone mature, reflecting Him. What fruit are your labors producing? Without maturity, our people will not demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, the “one anothers,” or love; and our relationships will not model those within the Godhead.
Fourth, biblical unity requires each body part to be built up in love and to fulfill its role (Ephesians 4:16). Unity recognizes differences in roles, responsibilities, giftedness, talents, and experiences. It honors that diversity, not in the politically correct sense of the word, but in the biblically correct sense of the word.
Fifth, biblical unity is developed out of a practice of honoring one another (Philippians 2:2-8). Do we truly esteem our fellow laborers and hold them up as better than ourselves? Do we demonstrate this attitude in our words and actions? Or do we barely tolerate them? Do we just endure them, considering them as our “cross to bear”?
Sixth, biblical unity requires deep relationship; that we know each other (Colossians 4:7-15). Do we invest time into learning about our ministry colleagues: their hopes, dreams, and desires; their fears, longings, and hurts; their strengths, giftedness, and skills; their opinions, views, and perspectives? Life and ministry is not all about us and our hopes, dreams and desires. As a leader, I have a responsibility to invest in my fellow laborers, to be a help to them, and encourage them in their lives and ministries.
Hindrances to Biblical Unity
In light of the above, there are some situations which will significantly impair our ability to be unified. As leaders we need to be sensitive to avoid these “tar pits of disunity.”
Our sinful nature (Galatians 5:19-20). Each one of us must be on guard against our flesh, which will war against Spirit-led, unity-forming patterns of thought and behavior.
Spiritual immaturity (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). If we allow our people to remain in a state of spiritual immaturity, we are setting ourselves up for destructive patterns of discord, faction-forming and division.
Leadership immaturity (Prov 4:7, 15:22, 19:2, 29:18). We can be our own worst enemy if we fail to grow in our understanding of biblical leadership, gaining leadership wisdom from His Word, preparing ourselves for the inevitable rough waters of ministry, and being prepared to lead my people forward in God-glorifying service.
Sowers of division (Proverbs 6:19b; Romans 16:17-19; Titus 3:10-11). There are those among us who are serial sowers of trouble. Such individuals need to be lovingly, humbly, and biblically confronted less they wreak havoc to godly plans.
False teachers (Colossians 2:8-10; 1 Timothy 1:3-7, 6:3-5; Jude 4, 16-19). The New Testament letters contain numerous warnings against false teachers who seek to lead the sheep astray. These warnings include not only clear doctrinal error, but also foolish and fruitless debate about meaningless matters.
Followers of men (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 4:1). Prominent names are commonplace in today’s Christian circles. Be careful to not ascribe too much weight to man’s words. Paul gives us the proper perspective to have regarding men of God: we are all slaves to Christ.
Differences that readily become divisive, of which there are many. But especially: matters of theology (Titus 3:9), methodology (Acts 15:36-40), traditions (Mark 7:6-9), culture (Colossians 3:11), and personal conscience are areas that we tend to argue and divide over (Romans 14).
Being in a state of unity is a necessary prerequisite for receiving the blessings of God. If God’s hand of blessing isn’t on our labors, then we labor in vain. So we must be unified before we can move forward with God-honoring, God-blessed ministry. Those things we are seeking to accomplish in ministry must properly flow out of that which is more important, more foundational: our state of oneness, our unity.
Unity is demonstrated in our relationships so how we relate with one another—the nature and character of our interactions with one another—is what is most important to God. The quality of our relationships is of higher priority than the goals we are seeking to accomplish. That’s odd, not what we naturally think, but true nonetheless.
So, how are you doing on developing and practicing God-exalting unity? Consider the following assessment questions:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent is my leadership team biblically unified?
- In what ways does the character of our leadership meetings reflect unity or the lack thereof?
- Review the “Key Aspects of Biblical Unity.” Which of these need to be strengthened within my leadership team? In my organization/church?
- Are there any “elephants in the room” among my leadership team that hinder our unity? Within the organization/church?
- Review the “Hindrances to Biblical Unity.” Which of these are currently active in my church/organization?
- What specific actions would God have me take so that I and my people would better reflect His unity to those around us?