Healthy Responses for Church Leaders: Preserving (not Creating) Unity and the Bond of Peace

Healthy Responses for Church Leaders: Preserving (not Creating) Unity and the Bond of Peace

This is part 5 of an ongoing series. Find the rest of the series here.

Healthy Response #5: Focus on INTEGRITY not unity

Churches of Christ began as part of a movement emphasizing Christian unity. The sad irony of this is, of course, that there are a number of factions within Churches of Christ throughout its brief history and even today. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe any person in the history of Churches of Christ woke up and thought, “I think I’m going to get up and sow some seeds of division among the body of Christ today!” Everyone wants unity! Churches of Christ haven’t had a hard time wanting Christian unity, but we have had a difficult time keeping it.

Unity is an important principle in the New Testament. In John 17, when Jesus prays for his followers, it’s a prayer for unity. “Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.” [1] In Ephesians, Paul exhorts the church to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” [2]

According to Scripture, visible unity is to be one of the marks and characteristics of the community gathered in Jesus’s name.

But here’s the thing about unity—it makes for a terrible goal. It’s a great outcome, but it really is a lousy goal. Unity is one of those things that happens to a community while that community is pursuing something else. If the focus of a community is on creating and sustaining unity, it will—paradoxically—create division. (See above regarding Churches of Christ.) Unity for the sake of unity is not a strong enough foundation upon which to build a people.

Like every congregation of which I am aware, the congregation where I serve has endured some changes recently, and some of these changes have generated conflict. And the response of many, who are deeply and rightly concerned about the Christian principle of unity, is to try to shut down the conflict for the sake of unity. I get that. I’m deeply concerned about Christian unity as well. I’d like to be part of the answer to Jesus’s prayer in John 17.

But when the concern for unity arises as a response to conflict, the question I like to ask myself and others is this one: "Upon what are we unified?” If one avoids conflict for the sake of “unity"—upon what is that relationship unified other than the unwillingness to either party to deal with their differences? Is that unity, or just avoidance?

Check out the larger context of Eph 4:1-6 (CEB):

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The kind of unity Paul encourages the church to maintain (not create), is unity that is already established through the Spirit and “the bond of peace.” In other words, this is a unity that is already based the integrity of the relationship of the triune God (Father, Son, Spirit).

Also notice that the command to maintain unity is couched in the language of following a Christian ethic of life—“lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” You can’t create Christian unity; only God can do that. What you can do is focus upon the integrity of God and God’s purposes for all of creation and then on your own integrity of character and behavior in response to that.

The church isn’t unified so that it can become the body of Christ. This is the understanding that leads us to pursue unity thinking it will create integrity. The church is unified because it is already the body of Christ. This understanding leads us to pursue integrity, which establishes the conditions for unity. This is not through any accomplishment of the church; it is the gift of peace offered by God through the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Preserving unity is a challenge for all Christians. It is a clear teaching from Scripture and described as one of the markers of Christian community. However, without integrity, the conditions for maintaining unity cannot be met.

Therefore, in an effort to preserve unity, Christian leaders must focus upon questions of integrity. Upon what is our foundation built? Are we in prayer and listening to the Spirit? Are we attending to the words of Scripture? Are we personally living into the transformative power of the gospel we seek for our people? How are we living out of our love for God and God’s love for us? How are we expressing love for each other? How are we expressing love for God’s world?

Do you want unity? Good news! God is already one. The church can’t create the unity of the Spirit, because God has already done that in Christ. But if we’d like to preserve that unity in our life together, we must focus on integrity.


[1] John 17:11b, CEB

[2] Ephesians 4:3, CEB

Reclaiming Imagination

Reclaiming Imagination

Electing to Follow Jesus: The Gospel of Peter vs. the Gospel of Jesus

Electing to Follow Jesus: The Gospel of Peter vs. the Gospel of Jesus