By Daryl Crouch
The bar on church unity may be a little higher than we think. While all-out church conflict is far too common, is it possible that we assume a quiet church is a healthy church? Is it possible that the peaceful church, whether sluggish or successful, is more divided than it may appear?
Notice how the apostle Paul set expectations for unity among the believers at Corinth:
“Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction. For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by members of Chloe’s people, that there is rivalry among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10-11).
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are “urged” to seek out agreement, to develop unity in understanding and conviction, and to remove personal rivalries. This is a larger mandate than simply “getting along to go along.”
So if we are to develop an environment for biblical unity in our church family, if we are to focus on the things that actually weld us together in Christ, there are at least three myths to avoid.
Myth #1: The absence of church conflict reveals church unity.
Just because members of our congregation aren’t in open conflict with one another doesn’t necessarily mean our church is unified.
Divisiveness certainly undermines unity, but the absence of conflict may signal that passivity has set in.
It may indicate that church members don’t feel they have a place to go to voice legitimate concerns.
It may mean that church members are simply compliant to the wishes of the pastors or other leaders.
It may show that church members have adopted an “us-and-them” mentality which applauds the direction of the church without personally investing in it.
This isn’t the kind of unity Paul urged us to pursue. Instead of assuming that a quiet church is a unified one, wise leaders will create an environment that encourages deeper thinking, tougher questions, and challenging conversations.
In a unified church, leaders won’t allow the desire for quick and easy progress around leadership expectations to overshadow the need for healthy, long-term progress for the welfare of the congregation.
Whatever our church polity looks like, leaders will make the effort to invite early input on ministry initiatives from a broader group of people. We will move at a pace that gives more people more opportunity to invest more significantly in the ministry over a longer period of time.
Myth #2: Strong financial giving reveals church unity.
Strong financial giving often lures leaders into the belief that everyone in the church is excited about and fully invested in the ministry. It’s true that financial giving remains an important metric of health and progress in every local church.
While some Christians will actually withhold their tithes and offerings because they do not like the direction of the church, most people, however, who currently give regularly, proportionately, and sacrificially, will continue to do so even if they don’t fully understand or support the ministry.
We all know about significant church conflict that has pilfered the church bank account. And we know that many immature or marginal church members haven’t yet developed the spiritual discipline of giving.
But low simmering apathy or frustration among faithful believers does not always affect the way they give. They love Jesus. They want to live on mission with Him. They want to obey the Bible.
They intend to be faithful to their church through thick and thin. So they’ll continue to give because it’s the right thing to do, and because they want to see the church be as effective as possible.
Pastors, then, should pay attention to giving trends, but we shouldn’t assume that the current bank balance tells the most important part of the story.
Myth #3: Doctrinal agreement reveals church unity.
When the Bible preaching and teaching ministry is a priority in the local church, church members will naturally develop a more robust interest in theological issues. Unity around the core doctrines of the faith is essential for a healthy congregation.
But what seems to be a pattern among Bible-believing evangelicals is the tendency to declare our unity around the essentials of our faith and then to divide around secondary theological issues. The distinction between unity and uniformity comes into play at this point.
Unity not only recognizes important distinctions, but embraces them as healthy and complimentary to effective ministry. Uniformity, on the other hand, rejects the value of diversity of thought and instead insists on “sameness thinking” on matters well beyond the core doctrines of the faith.
So it’s possible that a congregation could fully adopt a doctrinal statement that outlines core theological convictions, yet pursue ministry priorities and preferences around secondary issues.
Pastors and leaders are wise then to fully embrace the essentials of our faith, lead the church to build ministry initiatives around those essentials, and then model humility, love, and generosity when questions around significant non-essential, secondary issues arise.
When the apostle Paul called for agreement in understanding and convictions, it doesn’t seem he expected uniformity on every issue. Instead, he called for a common understanding on what is essential and what is non-essential for Christian unity.
Leading diverse congregations challenges the most capable pastor, but one thing more difficult than the hard work of building a unified church is keeping the false peace of a divided one.
Daryl Crouch is the executive director of Everyone’s Wilson, a network of gospel-loving churches working together for the good of the community. Prior to this role, he pastored churches in Texas and Tennessee for 28 years. He and his wife Deborah have four children.