I can remember a few times when disagreement arose in a church I was a part of, and concern for unity was held up above the pursuit of a transparent honesty and truth (or even a proper venue to give feedback and share concerns or emotions). It seemed like anytime there was a problem that it was quickly swept under a rug lest it cause any disunity in the body. Don’t get me wrong; they did not do this for every circumstance. Also, I am not arguing for a pursuit of disunity, but rather against a pursuit of false unity based in a deceiving outward appearance. This relates to how Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees they were whitewashed tombs because their outward appearance deceived others and themselves to the condition of their inner heart condition (Matt 23:27). I can so easily fall into this mindset of masking what I really am to project that I want others to think that I am, so can leaders of churches.
We are sinners still and our sin keeps throwing kinks in how we organize as a body of believers, but that doesn’t mean we should be secretive about the truth of circumstances (we must be wise about this though). It seems that the response would be, “well, it is a circumstance that the congregation doesn’t need to know about.” This might be true, but if it involves public sin or another kind of public activity with visible members or leaders in the church this will only lead weaker sheep in the congregation to speculation and gossip. It’s right to say, “well, the congregation should not speculate like that…that is ungodly,” but leaders should know that they are leading a body of people that may not be as mature spiritually as they are.
Phillip Jensen has recently written about this kind of thinking in Australian culture, “To be divisive or uncooperative is one of the worst criticisms leveled against anybody. In fact, it bears the most damning label of all: it is ‘un-Australian.’ (By God’s Word: 60 Reflections for Living in God’s World (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2007), 40.)” Later in the same little reflection he wrote that this is usually heralded most by those who are theologically liberal in denominational power and he follows that with three points: (1) the passages in question are regarding congregational unity; (2) based in a common understanding of doctrine and of godliness, not tolerant relativism; and (3) this comes from the same Bible that they spurn as unimportant (50-51). Of these three only the second point is really relevant to the circumstances that I have experienced.
The difficulty with the topic of unity in the church is that on one hand we must seek to maintain it, and on the other hand we must recognize that if there is not an agreement of philosophy of ministry or of a secondary doctrine (secondary to the gospel, e.g. baptism, polity, etc.) then in the sovereignty of God we must trust that we are supposed to go our separate ways for the sake of the gospel and strengthening of churches (Acts 15:36-41). Whether or not Paul was correct to separate from Barnabas on account of John Mark is uncertain, but there seems that there was still an accepted principal in outward separation while having a spiritual unity (if not between Paul and John Mark at least between Paul and Barnabas). In the end Paul came to cooperation with John Mark (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philemon 24; 1 Pet 5:13). At the time of disagreement they agreed to disagree and went their separate ways. Likewise we might disagree with others, but we must recognize that in our separation there is still a spiritual unity if we hold the same gospel. Scripture teaches that we are called sons of God if we repent and believe in the gospel (Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26; 4:6; etc.). If we are believers then we are of the same spiritual family (Mark 3:31-35; all of the following passages use the word adelphoi translated “brothers” referring to siblings in a family (Matt 5:47; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor 1:10; 2 Cor 1:8; Gal 1:2; Phil 1:12; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:4; 2 Thess 1:3; 1 Tim 4:6; 2 Tim 4:21; Heb 2:1; Jas 1:2; 2 Pet 2:10; 1 John 3:13; 3 John 1:3; Rev 6:11; etc.).
D. Broughton Knox pointed out that four attitudes preserve Christian unity: (1) forgiveness, (2) humble-mindedness, (3) thankfulness, (4) forbearance (D. Broughton Knox Selected Works Volume II Church and Ministry (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2003), 35.) Expression of unity is found in the context of relationships. Lastly, Knox pointed out that, “unity is a relationship of persons of God and to one another through the Spirit, and it is modeled on the unity within the trinity, and is brought about by deepening our relationship to God and so our relationship to one another (36).” Unity is Trinitarian! So even as the Trinity exists in three separate persons they still maintain a spiritual union. This is not a perfect analogy, because churches are not perfect as the trinity is, but as we live in separate churches with different philosophies of ministry, different convictions, etc. if we hold in common what the Bible teaches the gospel to be we are in unity. As Iain H. Murray recently quoted J. C. Ryle we should, “Keep the walls as low as possible and shake hand over them often.” No doubt there will be times in the local church that we will have to forbear with each other in our disagreement, but it should not be done in a way that is not truthful and transparent.
Unfortunately, when I have seen the model of a type of false unity I responded with a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than with a hermeneutic of trust. I convinced myself that I was humble, thankful, forgiving, and forbearing; however, in the end my bitterness and lack of joy showed that I was quite the opposite. Unity includes disagreement, but there comes a time when for the sake of unity and distinctive convictions paths need to diverge recognizing that a spiritual unity still exists in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Again, no church is perfect and we must be willing to be open about that as an expression of holiness in repenting from what we once were. We should be open about the disagreement we have for the edification of the body and for a clear witness to the world of what this redeemed people really represents...sinners that are being transformed into the image of Christ. A people trying to live honestly about who they are for the sake of the gospel.
Ephesians 4:1-3 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (my emphasis)