Maintaining Christian Unity in a Polarized Time

When I was still in seminary, I had the opportunity to preach in an old congregational church near Boston founded in the year 1642. It had a sanctuary that could seat 1,500 and a pulpit so high that its ascent required two sets of stairs. They even broadcast the service on television; all heady stuff for a seminarian. Or so I thought. The morning I preached there were approximately thirty people in the congregation, and they all sat as far apart from one another as possible in that vast sanctuary.

I think about that picture as I look at the situation many congregations face today. We live in a highly polarized time, fueled by political differences and competing media environments. Even within congregations, different members are receiving their information from very different sources. We can’t even agree on what is true. And in this pandemic environment in which we cannot see each other as often as we used to, it is almost like we are sitting in the same sanctuary, but apart, each in our own world.

Disagreements happen

In this time, each of us must make an extra effort to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). But here is a point that many miss—disagreement among Christians will inevitably arise and that is not always a bad thing. In fact, it can be very good. Otherwise, we would not be called to sharpen one another (Proverbs 27:17). Biblical truth must prevail over preference and tradition. When we are shown to be wrong by our fellow brothers and sisters, we have a wonderful opportunity to grow in faith and humility, and thus, in unity. I cannot tell you how many times I have been given that opportunity by losing a vote or argument—blessed beyond measure.

But as we think about our differences, especially in our political opinions, we must remember what Paul says in Romans 14. Many of the choices we make are matters of Christian freedom in which brothers may differ:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

Romans 14:5

Maintaining Unity

Paul tells us that there is something more important than an outward conformity on secondary matters: following one’s conscience, while maintaining unity with brothers who make different choices. I am no engineer, but I understand that some of the safest suspension bridges are those with a degree of flexibility built into them in order to withstand earthquakes. It makes for some frightening online videos of bridges swaying in the wind, but without the flexibility the whole bridge would collapse if one part came under strain. Is it possible that we also need some flexibility as we approach matters of conscience? Today some Christians are so inflexible in all of their thinking that if one small beam or joint is removed, their whole system collapses.

By contrast mature believers have a degree of flexibility built in so that if some small detail of their thinking is challenged, they may sway a bit on that or even change their mind, while yet still holding to the fundamentals of the faith that keeps the bridge intact. Wisdom enables us to make distinctions so that our main beams and towers remain intact and will not budge.

We hold to the essentials of the gospel, no matter what. However, we might be persuaded to change our minds on less critical matters. We are not undone if the earth shakes and if we find ourselves swaying a bit, we do not panic as long the bridge itself remains built on Christ and his gospel. Wisdom enables us to major on the majors, keeping the main thing the main thing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

We must humbly confess that the Bible is not always as clear on some matters as we might wish. So, what do we do? It’s really very simple: keep studying and learning and in humility, agree to disagree. We are all wrong about some parts of our life and doctrine; we just don’t know what they are yet. In the meantime, we stand on Christ and his perfections.

Humility in Conflict

Humility must stand right at the center of our lives, if we are to have any success. We must all submit to one another in our different roles (Ephesians 5:21). Very often, a doctrinal fight or political disagreement is really just a smokescreen for something else that is going on, some power struggle between leaders, each believing that they are standing on principle.

Gene Edwards illustrates this principle well in his unique book about church conflict entitled, A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness. The three kings in the book are Saul, David and Absalom, whom Edwards uses as a parable to study the dysfunction that leads to power struggles in many churches. The book is a reflection on David’s response to the threats that both Saul and Absalom pose to his leadership. One passage is particularly poignant, based on the episode in 1 Samuel 19 in which King Saul hurls his spear at David, trying to kill him:

David had a question: What do you do when someone throws a spear at you?

Does it not seem odd to you that David did not know the answer to this question? After all, everyone else in the world knows what to do when a spear is thrown at them. Why, you pick up the spear and throw it right back!

“When someone throws a spear at you, David, just wrench it right out of the wall and throw it back. Absolutely everyone else does, you can be sure.”

And in doing this small feat of returning thrown spears, you will prove many things: You are courageous. You stand for the right. You boldly stand against the wrong. You are tough and can’t be pushed around. You will not stand for injustice or unfair treatment. You are the defender of the faith, keeper of the flame, detector of all heresy. You will not be wronged. All of these attributes then combine to prove that you are also, obviously, a candidate for kingship. Yes, perhaps you are the Lord’s anointed.

After the order of King Saul.[1]

We Have a Choice

So, we always have a choice when we face conflict in the church, whatever the issue involved. We can pick up the spear and hurl it back, hoping to win the battle and keep our position, even in the cause of truth and justice. Or we can put church unity at the very top of our list, just under the gospel itself. And if we do that, we may lose the battle, it is true. We may even lose our church and have to move on, but then again, it was never ours to begin with. And we will not become a King Saul. We will lose the earthly battle but sow a harvest of righteousness.

And no matter whether we think a doctrinal issue is worth fighting over or not, we must always lead with humility. Fight for the gospel with humility. Argue for other important truths with humility. Acquiesce in minor matters with humility. And always be prepared to be corrected by anyone who argues God’s truth accurately, even as David submitted to Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, in a beautiful display of the powerful submitting to the weaker, simply because she was right. That is the kind of “wisdom from above” which is “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

I am convinced that if you pursue humility and love towards your opponents, doing your best to be at peace with all men, you will experience unity with them in Christ. It may be one-sided for a while and perhaps for a long while. But you will do right by Christ and his Body. You will do your part to grow the Church into the unity of the faith and the stature of the fullness of Christ. You will be part of creating a harvest of righteousness, sown in peace, as one who by God’s grace, makes peace.

Content for this post was adapted from Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down by Christopher A. Hutchinson ©2018.

[1] Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1980), pp. 15-16.

Rediscovering Humility Frontcover

Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way up Is Down

Most of us value humility, especially in other people. But Jesus taught that humility is central to the Christian life. Author Christopher Hutchinson invites the church to follow Christ—both individually and corporately—in this high calling.

About the author

Christopher Hutchinson

Christopher Hutchinson, MDiv, is the senior pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris and his wife, Kirstan, have two grown daughters. He is the author of Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up Is Down.

1 Comment

  • Thank you Pastor Chris! I have just discovered this treasure trove and plan to return often. Please keep reminding us of how to be sane and what it looks like.

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