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Why does Paul write about unity?

Author: Bible Society, 25 June 2024

Unity was a key theme of Paul’s teaching and he wrote about it in many of his letters to churches. Just like believers today, the Christians of the early Church had fallings out and arguments that caused division, so Paul had to remind them to strive for unity.

There are many reasons to strive for unity in the church but the main ones are that division distracts us from sharing the gospel and tears apart relationships. Being united isn’t always easy though.

Churches are diverse places, full of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, with different life experiences, gifts, ideas and priorities. Setting aside these differences to pursue the more important goals of sharing the good news about Jesus, living in a way that reflects God’s love to the world and growing in spiritual maturity requires Christ-like humility.

When we’re humble enough to put God and the needs of other people above our own thoughts and desires, we’re more able to unify around what really matters and not be distracted by differences in opinion or preference. 

Here are three thoughts about unity in the church:

1. Unity in the church glorifies God

When there is unity in the church, the focus is solely on God. Instead of focusing on what divides us and becoming more entrenched in our differences as we argue and take sides, we’re to keep our eyes on Jesus and the life we’re called to in him. One approach leads to hurt, misery and separation, while the other leads to us living fruitful and productive lives for God.

In Ephesians 4 Paul writes about unity in the body of Christ – the church. He urges believers to ‘live a life worthy of the calling you have received’, telling them to ‘be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love’ and to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verses 1–3, NIV).

The image of the Church being like a body with many different parts that all function together is one which Paul uses a few times (see also Romans 12.3–8). The picture is of individuals, all with different gifts and contributions to make, coming together as a united people, valuing each other and working together to bring glory to God.

Instead of competing and trying to get glory for ourselves, it’s all about glorifying God. Valuing others and championing and supporting them in their efforts to serve God is a great place to start.

2. The Church is called to help settle disagreements

Not only does Paul urge believers to be unified, but in several of his letters he addresses division among leaders and disagreement between church members, and he reminds us that we all have a role to play in bringing about reconciliation.

For example, Paul dedicated the majority of the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians to addressing the division in the church there. It seems the believers had divided themselves into factions based on who had baptised them and which preachers they preferred. Paul pointed out the absurdity of this kind of thinking. It’s not for us to take pride or build a sense of superiority based on the person who preached the gospel to us or baptised us. All that matters is that we put our faith in Christ, believing in the salvation he has secured for us through his death and resurrection. It’s the power of the gospel that is important, not the status or eloquence of any preacher.

In Philippians 4, Paul makes specific mention of a disagreement between two women in the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche. He doesn’t go into the specifics of their falling out, but focuses on the responsibility of church members to help them reconcile instead. His tactic is to remind them of what unites them instead of their differences. Both women believe in the Lord so they should ‘be of the same mind in the Lord’ (verse 2). They’ve both ‘contended at [Paul’s] side in the cause of the gospel’ and along with the other believers, their ‘names are in the book of life’ (verse 3). In the light of all this, aren’t their differences insignificant?

We recently spoke about this on The Rooted Podcast, where we have been working through Paul's letter to the Philippians.

As Alec Motyer puts it in his commentary, The Message to the Philippians, when the church aids the settling of disagreements and quarrelling, ‘we see what the church would be like were it true to its nature ... as where there is agreement to what the gospel is, there is no room for personal disagreement’ (p. 201).

3. There is no division in heaven

It’s all too easy for us to get bogged down in the concerns of the here and now but in his letters, Paul reminds believers to think about where everything is headed. He points to the fact that Jesus is coming back, there will be a final judgement day and those whose names are in the book of life are looking forward to eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth. One day we’ll be living in perfect unity with God, with each other and with all creation.

Writing to the Philippians, he reminds them of the now and the not yet of the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges that all around them people are ‘living as enemies of the cross of Christ’ but reminds them, ‘our citizenship in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ …’ (Philippians 3.18,20). In the light of this they should imitate his attitude, ‘forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead … press[ing] on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called [them] heavenwards in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3.13–14).

There may be differences in how we view things in the here and now but as Christians whose true citizenship is in heaven, we are called to live with an awareness of this on the earth. 

There’s no division in our shared future, so we are called to live in unity today. We’re to live distinctively, shining like lights in a world which is divided and dark. This is a huge challenge but when we remember the humility Jesus displayed in his time on earth, we can use that to inspire our behaviour and strive for unity now. We are one body, united in Christ.

To learn more about the letter to the Philippians, tune in to The Rooted Podcast, available on all major streaming platforms. 

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