By Steven Clark Goad
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” This slogan is often quoted in various forms by leaders within the Restoration Movement. It’s a grand motto and one I especially cherish. Philip Schaff (nineteenth century church historian) refers to this as “the watchword of Christian peacemakers.” I wish to address the middle leg of this tripartite formula for harmony among siblings in Christ.
Many biblical texts refer to our desperate need for being united in our faith. Paul offered his thoughts when he wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). This is a powerful affirmation for the role our unity plays in the community of faith. It seems to me that many among us have missed what unity is and what it is not. It is something we are to keep, not manufacture (Ephesians 4:3).
We Are Not Clones
None of us were stamped out with the same mold at some celestial factory. We are individuals and develop and think as such. Some along the way seem to have forgotten what Jesus clearly spoke to Martha, who was more worried about kitchen duties than eternal matters. “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed . . . Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41, 42). Mary was in the living room at the feet of Jesus. Martha was concerned more with lunch than with the Lord.
The church has spawned many issues about which to debate and pummel. Sadly some of us end up being too judgmental when we ought to be offering love and solutions for solving our dissonances. Satan loves to keep the pot stirred. My opinion doesn’t trump your opinion. It’s OK to have an opinion, even if it seems to clash a bit with someone else’s. Jesus settled once and for all what the greatest commandments were. We are to love God above all others and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Those two commands alone would go a long way in healing some breaches that have occurred over the years among followers of Christ.
Many of our clashes and jars have been the product of what some call patternism. It is the concept that the Lord has marked out a specific pattern to be copied. Some want us to exactly duplicate every example found in Scripture. One Christian brother even wrote a book titled When Is An Example Binding? He tries to determine which examples we are bound to imitate and which are merely historical occurrences. When we start insisting on the examples we deem binding and refuse to accept the examples others say are binding, we are already in trouble.
We have no authority to bind our personal opinions on others as tests of faith and fellowship. Since we have examples of the Lord’s Supper being observed in upper rooms, should I attempt to bind that example on everyone for all time? What if someone doesn’t see my inference as binding and believes communion can be observed in a basement or on the first floor? This may seem petty, but the discord that threatens our unity is over matters of opinion mostly. It should never be “my way or the highway.” We must always seek out God’s way.
We have developed various traditions over the years. Traditions are wonderful if they don’t get in the way of the church’s mission and the unity we are to enjoy in Christ. But to make a tradition binding on others is a mistake. Traditions allow for individuality within congregations without disrupting the closeness that is to be embraced.
In his classic film The Toymaker, Alfred Wallace portrays two hand puppets busily enjoying each other’s company in complete abandon. They assume each is a copy of the other, for they have yet to look into a mirror. Seeing each other as carbon copies, their mutual ignorance does not allow them to see that one’s face is striped while the other’s is spotted. When they finally discover their differences, they grow suspicious of each other.
Is that what we do at times? My tradition doesn’t mesh with yours so somehow you must be misguided. We aren’t toys. We are flesh and blood carbon units created in the very likeness of God. Some of us are tall, some short. Some are male and some are female. We have various shades of complexion. But we are blood brothers and sisters in Christ and have something in common no one else has. We are part of a united family, a community of Christians whose main reason for living is to glorify God and aid others in seeing the Lord we serve.
Division Is Sin
A small town in Texas has five congregations that all sprang from the Stone/Campbell movement in pioneer America. Why? If they were together they would have a marvelous fellowship with more than 800 in attendance. Yet they choose to meet separately. I have often stated that lighthouses aren’t in competition. What kind of message does such an arrangement in a small town project?
In the infant church, in spite of the problems and personality issues that needed to be addressed, Paul never told any fellowship to split and form a sound or faithful congregation. That silence screams volumes. Not once do we see him lobbying for a preacher change or scheduling a debate over the marriage/divorce/remarriage issues of the day. Peter never extolled any virtues of separatism. Why must we?
“The Scripture will never keep together in union and fellowship members not in the spirit of the Scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the Bible as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for unity with all Christians; yet refuse fellowship with such as dissent from their notions” (Barton W. Stone, 1835).
Consider the seven ones of Ephesians 4. They are as follows: one body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, Father. Which of these can be dispensed? They seem to be nonnegotiable. If we couple these with the words of Jesus to put God first and others next, will we not be able to enjoy the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Surely we can do this.
Steven Clark Goad is a minister and freelance writer in Blythe, California.