Unity – taking a page from Paul

Do you long for the beauty of community dwelling in peace? Sick of divisiveness? Many are. What’s the solution? We would do well to take a page or two from the apostle Paul.

What could Paul achieve with a group of disciples who had become overly enamored with well known teachers? We know well their language: “‘I am with Paul,’  ‘I am with Apollos,’” (1 Cor. 1:12).

This can remind us of today. Ever witness someone enthusiastically praise everything a particular teacher might proclaim or what an author might write? And then in the next breath dismiss or demean another perspective as being too _____________?

From chapter 1 into chapter 4, Paul devalued the thinking of the experts, while simultaneously exalting God’s wisdom! And then for good measure, he also deflated any self-inflated perceptions among those of the church. His purpose? No one can boast in God’s presence.

In these chapters Paul drove God’s people to exalt God’s wisdom in Christ crucified, which is “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing” (1 Cor. 2:6). After observing the church’s divisiveness revealed that they were still worldly, Paul stated in stark terms the reality about Christian teachers. They are just workers. The power resides in God. Furthermore, God will judge the quality of each person’s work. The focus should be upon God, not the human agent. In the end, perhaps God will commend a particular worker. On the other hand if a teacher has destroyed God’s people, God will destroy him.

The bottomline? As this apostle expressed it, “One should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1-2). The standard is faithfulness, not creativity, nor eloquence, nor popularity, nor seeming profoundness.

Accordingly, Paul was indifferent to how humanity, including himself, evaluated his work. The only thing that mattered to Paul was the opinion of the one Judge. This has a way of motivating a person to please God, rather than the myriad of other possible goals that can exist.

In practical terms, what can a church do with this insight? Realize teachers are supposed to be Christ’s servants, not our think-tank saviors. Exalt God and God’s work in Christ. Allow God to judge the quality of each teacher. Finally, don’t go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:4-6).

However, this did not exhaust Paul’s efforts to assist the Corinthian church toward unity. Conflict erupts when different people cling to different values. The more important an issue is to a person, the greater the intensity of the conflict. So how important is it to us that we get our way? Of course, we know best – right?

Paul taught them the powerful principle of placing more value upon seeking the spiritual wellbeing of a fellow Christian, than demanding one’s religious rights or freedom (1 Corinthians 8-10). Stated bluntly, he wrote that to insist upon pursuing one’s own understanding, if this will cause others to violate their conscience, entails both destroying a fellow Christian for whom Christ died and sinning against Christ (1 Cor. 8:11-12). This is a serious matter indeed!

What would happen today if all Christians would value their fellow disciples as being more important than what they think they are entitled to do? Which is more important: My worship preferences or another’s spiritual health?  Another disciple’s spiritual wellbeing or someone’s idea about how the church could grow? The list can go on and on.

To follow in Paul’s steps involves limiting one’s own rights within the parameters Christ provided in order to seek the spiritual wellbeing of others – even if that were to mean something like no more pork BBQ. So just how much do we love others in the church?

In a similar way, Paul called the Philippian church to the unity of “standing firm in one spirit (Phil. 1:27), being “united in spirit, and intent on one purpose” (Phil. 2:2). What can be so powerful and valuable for Christians that it overshadows the squabbles and differing opinions in order to cement the bond of unity?

In Philippians, Paul tied this unity to the mind of Christ. Unlike the attitude that thinks foremost about its own desires, the mind of Christ is characterized by love for others. Once again, Paul guided a congregation embroiled in tension (Phil. 4:2-3) to place greater value upon the wellbeing of each other than upon what I think is best! The mind of Christ undermines self-ambition.

Whatever we might observe about Christian unity, we ought to remember it can only exist as a result of God’s work. After all, we can neither save ourselves nor forge a unified people belonging to God. It is through Christ that God creates his unified people, a people composed of Jews and Gentiles. Christians are the workmanship of God. Our role involves maintaining God’s work. Part of the church’s work involves using the gifts Christ has provided to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. These ideas saturate chapters 1 through 4 of Ephesians.

God’s people should avoid grieving the Spirit by tearing apart his work. All of humanity will know that we belong to Christ, not if we absorb humanity’s latest and greatest ideas, but if we love one another.

Love keeps reappearing as a prescription for divisiveness. We should not be surprised. It is the second greatest commandment.

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