It is God’s desire that there be unity between his people, and for that reason Christian unity is a prominent theme in the New Testament. Jesus prays for it in his High Priestly prayer, Luke describes it in his history of the early church, Paul demands it of the congregations he writes to, Peter appeals for it in his epistles, and John displays it in its final perfection in his vision of what is to come. As we each live out the gospel and display the fruit of the Spirit in Christian community, unity should naturally result.
It should. But a look at the average local church shows that this is not necessarily the case. There are often disagreements among Christians, many of them very serious and very heated. Where we ought to be quick to unite and slow to divide, it seems we are often slow to unite and quick to divide. Where the gospel is best protected and displayed in unity we seem to believe the gospel is best protected and displayed in division.
I have often wondered if much of our division stems from a confusion between unity and unanimity. I have often wondered if we demand unanimity where unity would be not only sufficient but also superior. I have often wondered if unanimity is the enemy of Christian unity. Allow me to explain.
I’m sure you know that while every Christian doctrine matters, not every Christian doctrine matters in the same way and to the same degree. Some doctrines are essential to the gospel and mark the difference between believers and unbelievers. Some doctrines are urgent to the practice and health of the local church and therefore tend to mark distinctions between different churches and denominations. Some doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not to the degree that local churches need to divide over them. And some doctrines are unimportant to gospel witness and community and have no business being the basis for any division. (That’s not to say they are objectively unimportant; they are unimportant when it comes to unity. For more on this breakdown see Finding the Right Hills To Die On.)
The great majority of disunity with any local church takes place at the level of the important and the unimportant. This stands to reason since churches usually form around the levels of the essential and urgent so that those who deny the essentials of the faith cannot be part of any legitimate church and those who disagree over the urgent matters typically join different churches in the first place. While a member of a church will occasionally cause disunity because his convictions on baptism have changed from paedobaptist to credobaptist (an urgent issue), it is more common that he will cause disunity over a peripheral, non-urgent matter such as whether the church should baptize children who profess faith or whether it should wait until they are young adults. While a person may cause disunity in a church because she has become convinced of exclusive psalmody and is convinced God forbids instrumentation in worship (another urgent issue), it’s more likely she will cause disunity because she dislikes the specific forms of instrumentation a church chooses to use, a distinctly non-urgent issue. Again, most disunity in the local church sneaks in at the levels of the important and unimportant, not the essential or the urgent.
For matters that are essential and urgent, unity requires unanimity. There is no room for different opinions or varying convictions related to the divinity of Jesus Christ or his virgin birth. There is little room for varying convictions on who ought to be baptized and on whether worship services will include time for prophetic utterances, at least when it comes to the formal doctrine and practice of a church. A church cannot thrive when half the members are convinced that the miraculous gifts are still in operation and are set on practicing them in worship while the other half are convinced those gifts have ceased and that it would be sinful to attempt to practice them in worship. These are the matters that distinguish church from church and denomination from denomination. But in matters that are “merely” important or unimportant, unanimity is no longer necessary. In fact, demanding it may even be harmful. Where in the greater matters unity is protected by unanimity, in lesser matters unity may be damaged by unanimity.
This is because as we flow from essential matters to unimportant matters we move away from issues that necessarily distinguish true churches from false churches or issues that distinguish completely different traditions within Christianity, and we arrive at matters of individual conscience and even personal preference. Unity in matters of conscience or preference no longer demands unanimity. We no longer need to all believe the same things. In fact, true unity is displayed when Christians accept and love one another despite different convictions on such matters—matters like remarriage after [legitimate] divorce, whether young children participate in programs or remain in the service, what Bible translation is used for the sermons, and so on. We see the Bible address matters of this kind in Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8, and so on, and the Apostle’s plea is always for peace, love, and unity. These passages need to be worked right into the fabric of the local church so every member’s instinct is toward unity rather than division.
As a local church carries out its ministry, as it attempts to serve broken and messy people with all their complexities, as it attempts to navigate life in a hostile culture, it will inevitably be faced with areas in which leaders and members disagree among themselves. There will be different instincts, different impulses, different feelings, different opinions, and different convictions. The church will need to be skillful and oh so humble in determining the nature of the disagreement. Is this an issue of essential Christian doctrine? Is it an issue of urgency when it comes to the health and practice of the church? Or is it an issue of lesser significance that should have no bearing on our unity? In other words, the church will need to be skillful in determining whether this is an area in which unity depends upon unanimity, or whether it’s an area in which unity will be undermined by the demand for unanimity. It will need to be humble in setting aside matters of preference out of love for others. It will need to always remember that God has called us to unity without uniformity, that God’s purpose is to destroy division, yet without negating distinction. It is this kind of unity that is beautiful to the eyes of both God and man.