Putting Unity Into Practice
By J. C. Metcalfe
Many Christians question, "How do we put unity into practice?" In dealing with this subject, let us look at the passage of New Testament Scripture, Romans, chapter 12.
The first two verses of this chapter speak of the consecration of the Christian to his God based on those mercies so eloquently described in the earlier chapters of Romans. The difference between the Christian and the unconverted man is seen to be the Christian’s ability, purely a gift of grace, to learn to discern and prove in daily experience the will of God. The treadmill that the man out of Christ walks in with such devotion is caring for self, in other words everyone turning to his own way. The Christian is delivered from this complete frustration.
In the light of this, the apostle comes straight to the practical application of this new attitude to the ordinary paths of life. "As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all" (Verse 3, J.B. Phillips’ version).
"The special direction," comments Bishop Moule, "to be taken by this ‘sober thinking’ was the recognition by each Christian of the limits of his own gifts, the reality of the gifts of others, and the position of the individual as only a part of the great community. There is recognition as well of the ever-important fact that ‘gifts’, whether many or few, are the sovereign bounty of God." We all know that this is a "hard saying"--a lesson not easily mastered, and distinctly unpalatable to the old nature within us. But we have to see that it is put as being the first practical lesson in a consecrated life, and yet, it is generally one of the last things we learn.
This fact has been the means of ruining much promising Christian work, and is a cause of many evils in Church life. We try to be Christians, and yet at the same time to occupy the center of the stage ourselves. It just cannot be done. "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble" (James 4:6); and this is said against the background of the grace that He bestows upon His own.
This is the sphere for the outworking of Romans 6:11: "Reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord." Self is dethroned in favor of the Lord Jesus Christ, and this has the closest bearing on our fellowship with others. For this reason the apostle goes straight on to speak of the Church, of which Christ is the Head, and we are the members (vv. 4-5).
What Is "The Church"?
At this point it may be as well to try to define clearly what the Bible means when it speaks of the Church, because Christian unity can only be viewed in the light of it. Bishop Ryle sums up the teaching of Scripture in pungent words: "The Church of our text (Matthew 16:18) is made up of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. It comprehends all who have repented of sin, and fled to Christ by faith, and been made new creatures in Him. It comprises all God’s elect, all who have received God’s grace, all who have been washed in Christ’s blood, all who have been clothed in Christ’s righteousness, all who have been born again and sanctified by Christ’s Spirit. All such, of every nation, and people, and tongue compose the Church of our text...."
In other connections union may be achieved, and even uniformity may be possible, but nowhere can true unity be seen except in the Church of the new creation, born from above by the Holy Spirit through the substitutionary death of the God-Man at Calvary. Such unity is the gift of God to His people to be guarded as great treasure, because by means of it the truth of His grace and power can be brought home with power to the hearts of observing men. It is that maturity of Christian life which brings conviction to the needy (see John 17:20-23). How then does this become a practical reality in the witness of the Christian Church?
God’s Gifts to His Church
The first area to which the apostle directs our attention is that of gifts (vv. 6-8)--dangerous ground for the growth of pride and self-confidence. We need to note the warning given to Israel as they were about to enter the land of their God-given heritage spoken of in Deuteronomy 8:11-18; and to remember that the same possibility is to be found in us. We are given precise instructions as to the use of our gifts on behalf of His Church.
In an army each of the various arms, and also those employed behind the fighting line on supply and administration, are all equally dependent on each other’s efficiency and ability. One branch cannot, and would not dare to undertake the duties of another for which they had not been trained. A successful campaign depends on each one excelling in his own sphere.
It is a great thing to discover, and to give ourselves to the particular ministry which God has earmarked for us, and not to be trying our hand at other things which He has neither entrusted to us, nor equipped us for. That is the reason why the utter consecration, which learns to know and to do the will of God is the vital prelude to any service for Him in the Church. This is not seen all at once, and is not always by any means what we should chose, or for which we think ourselves most adequate. It is learned gradually, and we are fitted into His own niche for us in His own way and time....
The exercise of the gifts will build up a united front, and make a tremendous impact on the life of our day. But the chief problem for each of us as individuals is the single-minded purpose, which accepts death to our own will and preference, and lives having "the mind that was in Christ Jesus." It is impossible to bring anything to Christian life and service but the despised "one-track mind." You cannot serve God and self. The next verse makes this very clear.
Your love, let it be without hypocrisy (v. 9). J. Agar Beet says: "The prominence given in the Bible to love toward our neighbor, creates the danger of a hollow profession of such love. Nothing is more hurtful than this." It is an easy matter to stand on the same platform with someone, who lives sufficiently far away for us to be able to declare our love for him without such a declaration committing us to manifest such love in difficult circumstances. You do not work side by side with him week in, week out. If you did what would happen to your profession of love? It is simple to state our unity with Christians at the other side of the world; it is a very different thing when you rub shoulders with them almost daily in your Church work.
The next phrase is the complement of this one. "Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good" (v.9). The Expositors’ Greek New Testament makes this comment on the close connection between these two thoughts: "Love is not a principle of mutual indulgence: in the Gospel it is a moral principle, and like Christ Who is the only perfect example of love, it has always something inexorable (something which cannot be altered) about it. He never condoned evil."
It is said that Bishop Ryle once suggested a new petition for inclusion in the Litany Service of the Church of England, which went something like this: "From the charity that bids us say that everyone is right, and from the charity that forbids us to say that anyone is wrong, Good Lord, deliver us." In the light of much that goes by the name of love today, I can see what he meant. The love that is free of pretence will seek any means for the blessing and enrichment of the object of its care. It will not allow the loved one to be deluded or dragged down into evil or unbelief if it can by any means bring about his deliverance.
Paul elsewhere puts it as strongly as this: "And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved" (2 Corinthians 12:15). Genuine love is not always requited, but loves all the same. It is content to aim for the highest and best irrespective of return or reward.
The same theme is continued in the next verse: "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another" (v. 10). Here the family relationship of Christians is mainly in view. Children of the Heavenly Father are knit together in a tie that is peculiarly close. We are born of God into union with Him, and with each other. Our attitude to each other can never be akin to the hard, unyielding spirit shown by the elder brother in Luke 15:25-32.
Here is a oneness that we do not create; it is the result of the new life in Christ, which is our common heritage. It crosses all human barriers. In this family life there is an honor that is due from each to all, which is the hallmark of Christian living.
"Spiritual religion," says Bishop Moule, "in its proper nature is the noblest school of courtesy; habituating the man in the refining power of the Divine presence, and constantly rebuking the self-regard which is the essence of discourtesy." The grace of courtesy is not common, and yet it is the stuff from which unity is fashioned. We are apt to excuse ourselves for lack of courtesy by pleading zeal for the truth, but the sad fact is that such so-called zeal can be the pride of the self-opinionated, which is stirred to anger if it is not at once appreciated and acknowledged. We pass straight on therefore to another admonition dealing directly again with this same thought.
"Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord (v. 11). The thoroughness of genuine zeal is here urged--a zeal that is always thoughtful for others. No carelessness or laxity can grow in the same soil as Christian love. The self-forgetful man is always at full stretch, and in a very practical way. He gives himself. In this way he makes his contribution to the fellowship and oneness of the Christians among whom he lives and works. He is his Lord’s bondslave, and therefore the slave of his brethren as well.
After the Lord of Glory had washed His disciples’ feet He said: "Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you" (John 13:12-15).
It is not uncommon for us to be zealous about what we conceive to be our special ministry, but this is different. This fervency is closely linked with brotherly love, in the same way that further on in John 13, the Lord Jesus lays upon His disciples the obligation: "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" (John 13:34). Years later John wrote to the Christians of that day: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also" (1 John 4:20-21).
The Revised Standard Version adopts a rendering of the words fervent in spirit that brings out clearly and beautifully an aspect of this fervency, which some of the commentators prefer: "Be aglow with the Spirit." This gives us a necessary reminder that all true spiritual life is the work of the Spirit of God operating on and through the human spirit. The passion for serving others is foreign to our natural make-up, while enthusiasm for some cause is often part of it. This fervency is part of the Divine nature, made real in us only by His creation of new life within us in Christ.
Such service kindles a like fervency in others, and this is possibly what is meant by the exhortation: "Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works" (Hebrews 10:24). The implication is that this is the purpose for "assembling ourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25). There is no particular virtue in holding services, or attending meetings unless this self-forgetful unity is being built up among the Christians associated with them. "For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).
Further Facets of Unity
Now come the words: "Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer" (v. 12). Here again is another facet of our corporate life in Him. We have the buoyant hope, which encourages all with whom we come in contact. We have the endurance under pressure, which demonstrates, not just talks about, His keeping power. And we are reminded of that constant, active fellowship with God from Whom these lovely traits have their source....
We are apt to misuse prayer. We find it hard not to think of it as a kind of lever, which operates so that God will do what we want, when we want it. Or else we make it an end in itself, so that we may enjoy our times of quiet, and make them a means of personal gain. The truth is that in the stillness we learn something of the heart of God, and are thus equipped to move radiantly, patiently, helpfully in our homes, places of work, and our Churches. Notice how naturally we now move once more to the very practical side of fellowship.
"Distributing to the necessity of saints, given to hospitality" (v. 13). Bishop Moule points out that the word distributing means "communicating," and then adds: "sharing our own with them. This was almost the first instinct of the Church of Christ, and it was felt to be connected naturally with the sublimest truths of eternity." Our fellow Christians are often faced by very practical needs, and there is nothing that knits believers closer together than the sharing of such needs. This "communication" of hospitality is the opening of one’s home to those whom the pressures of life have driven from their own homes, treating as members of the family those who are tasting loneliness and opposition from the world.
John writes to Gaius, and I am using J.B. Phillips’ homely paraphrase: "You are doing a fine faithful piece of work, dear friend, in looking after the brothers who come your way, especially as you have never seen them before. It is a fine thing to help them on their way --it shows you realize the importance of what they are doing. They set out on this work, as you know, for the sake of ‘The Name’ and they accept no help from non-Christians. We ought to give such men a real welcome and prove that we are co-operating with the Truth" (3 John 6-8).
Speaking as one who has travelled widely, it has been a real benediction to receive the kindness and hospitality of many Christian homes, and a link has been formed as a consequence in many cases which is strong and abiding. We talk much about unity in our Evangelical Churches, but there is by no means always that spirit of sharing in practical ways present, and because of this our witness is robbed of its power and effectiveness.
Next we are shown the forbearance that triumphs. "Bless them that persecute you: bless and curse not" (v. 14). This is, of course, generally taken to mean the Christian attitude toward persecution from without, and the times when such gentleness in the face even of death has greatly glorified God and been the means in His hand of winning someone from among the persecutors, are very many. The prayer of the first martyr, Stephen is a case in point: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:60). It is an echo of the Saviour’s own prayer from the Cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Is it not possible, however, that the apostle also has in mind the persecution which comes from within the fellowship? Is it not a considerable contribution to the cause of unity if we can face the bitterness, which can spring up so quickly in Church affairs, not just with outward calm, but with the inward tenderness that refuses to judge, and is the Spirit’s own gift? How prone we are to take offense at criticism. What darkness envelops us when we are opposed by those who work with us, and how quickly a spring of bitterness rises in our hearts, and shows in our attitude defiling many and destroying fellowship (see Hebrews 12:15).
But it is just here that our desire for unity stands or falls. The oneness among those closely linked in Christian work is often marred--if not ruined--because we develop a persecution complex, or seek to "stand on our rights." An atmosphere of distrust is created, and the outsider sees, raises his eyebrows, and passes by.
Now we come to the call: "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep" (v. 15). Such an attitude reveals a gracious disposition of heart. Solomon vividly describes the loneliness both of suffering and of joy. "The heart," he says, "knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy" (Proverbs 14:10). The world is a lonely place. But in Christ we are on the ground of a new relationship, and find that our essential self-centeredness must give way to deep sympathy with others.
The Expositors’ Greek New Testament says: "To weep with those that weep is easier than to rejoice with those who rejoice. Those who rejoice neither need, expect, nor feel grateful for sympathy in the same degree as those who weep." Nor do we naturally quite approve of others having a joy, which we are inclined to feel that we deserve more than they do! Here is something we may learn if we will, and something calculated to build up unity in a way that few things can.
Oneness of Vision
We now turn from heart sympathy, and it is well that we should note the order in which these are given, to oneness of vision. "Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits" (v. 16). The whole thought here is not so much of having the same views, as of being dominated by the same purpose.
Albert Barnes points out that a literal translation of the Greek is: "Think of, i.e. regard, or seek after, the same thing for each other." Then he continues: "That is, what you regard or seek for yourself, seek also for your brethren. Do not have divided interests; do not be pursuing different ends and aims; do not indulge counter plans and purposes; and do not seek honors, offices, for yourself which you do not seek for your brethren, so that you may still regard yourselves as brethren on a level, and aim at the same object. The Syriac has well rendered the passage: ‘And what you think concerning yourselves, the same also think concerning your brethren; neither think with an elevated or ambitious mind, but accommodate yourselves to those who are of humbler condition.’"
It does not require much imagination to see the impact of such an attitude on our relationship with those with whom we work, and with others with whom we have fellowship in the area where we live and witness. I recently heard someone say: "Much of our trouble is that we are so anxious to bolster up our work, that we are suspicious of the work and motives of our brethren."
This is true, and we have to face the fact that it is only too possible to hold the same doctrinal convictions, and yet to have no true unity. The Greek word translated men of low estate may refer either to men or things. It is the pride of seeking advancement that is in mind. Concerning the last phrase, Albert Barnes comments: "The direction here accords with that just given, and means that they should not be elated with pride above their brethren, or to be headstrong and self-confident. The tendency of religion is to produce a low estimate of our own importance and attainments."
Jeremiah’s counsel to Baruch in days of need and oppression bears the same stamp: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not..." (Jeremiah 45:5). It is for us to seek His glory, and the good of our brethren.
"Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (vv. 17-18). Note the comprehensiveness of the admonitions. "No man ...all men...all men..." We do not change because of the company we are in. Our behavior is to be one and the same whether at home, in the Church, or in our social life--everywhere.
The first phrase is expressed even more forcibly in 1 Thessalonians 5:15: "See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men." Bishop Moule renders the second phrase: "Thinking beforehand honorable things; using forethought so as to secure the reality and the appearance of rectitude in your life and its surroundings."
What a hurtful thing thoughtlessness can be! It is possible to be in active Christian work, and to be so busy that correspondence lies unanswered. Others are left in doubt as to our intentions, and unable to make their plans. We do not intend to be discourteous, but we just do not think. This come from imagining ourselves and our work to be more important than they really are, and therefore being careless of the needs and rights of our fellow Christians--indeed of our fellow men. This is a most fruitful cause of disunion, and a legitimate reason for criticism.
Concerning the third phrase, Bishop Moule’s comment is: "Let the peace, if broken, be broken from the other side. The Spirit of the Saviour’s precepts best illustrates this verse; Matthew 5:39-41, ‘peaceable living’ would be impossible, on the Christian side, only when duty to others required him to withstand or expose wrongdoing." This is not a counsel of peace at any price, but is again aimed at the self-hood, which is at the root of most breaches between Christians, and quarrels with our fellow men.
Now comes an appeal opening with a deeply affectionate preface: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head" (vv. 19-20).
"The idea is not," says The Expositors’ Greek New Testament, "that instead of executing vengeance ourselves we are to abandon the offender to the more tremendous vengeance of God, but this--that God, not injured men or those who believe themselves such, is the maintainer of moral order in the world, and that the righting of wrong is committed to Him." The difference is between the attitude of the flesh, which is "prickly" and cannot forgive a wrong, even an imagined one, and must try to get even with the offender, and the man who has learned to lay everything good or bad, joyous or hurtful before his Father.
The habit of dealing with God directly at all times, and the new, Christian disposition to seek His glory, and to rejoice in the real crucifixion of self, is the only way of peace in our own hearts, with our fellow Christians and indeed with all men. The Saviour always sought the good of others. If He, by His Spirit, lives in us, then the same outlook becomes ours. This is the only atmosphere in which the delicate plant of unity can thrive, and grow to perfection. Such unity is the most powerful evangelistic weapon in the Church’s armory. This is no dream having no reality. It is the objective for which the Saviour suffered.
So we come to the climax and summary of what has gone before. "Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (v. 21). It is fashionable to view "victorious living" as a desirable, but rare and not essential accompaniment of Christian profession. The greatest contribution you and I can make to the building up of the Body of Christ in the world, is to allow the Holy Spirit to make these things real in us, and to learn to live in quiet, gracious triumph over evil and unlove. If we fail here, the whole Christian Church suffers and is divided by our failure.
What is the use of discussing unity in the abstract, and spending our lives pursuing a will-o-the-wisp, when the real thing is ready to our hand? In the simple ordinary paths of daily living and work we may make a great contribution to maintaining the unity, which is ours in Christ, and which if kept, gives convincing witness to the world at large.
– Reprinted with permission from THE OVERCOMER magazine.