When Christians Dwell in Unity
by David Coffin
All believers have experienced this truth: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1). Sadly, we have also experienced its corollary: “How bad and miserable it is when brothers are divided.” Is it possible for brothers and sisters to disagree and yet maintain unity? By God’s grace, we can know this blessedness even in the midst of disagreement. To do so, we must keep firmly in mind and heart three considerations: the presuppositions of disagreement, the provocations of disagreement, and the practice of disagreement.
The Presuppositions of Disagreement
Behind Christian disagreement lies a more fundamental truth: believers are in union with one another as they are in union with Christ. In Christ alone, we have redemption and forgiveness. The mystery of the Father’s will is revealed in His plan to unite all things in the Son (Eph. 1:4–10). And in Him, we are united to one another as members of His body (1 Cor. 6:15–19). The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this teaching with concise clarity: “All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him . . . and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces” (WCF 25.1). In this we are taught that our unity is a gift, not an achievement.
This truth does not deny that there will be some who are only in outward appearance united to Christ and His people, and in the matter or the manner of their disagreement with other believers, they will prove otherwise. As John explains, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19a).
The second presupposition of Christian disagreement is that God Himself has appointed each member of the body. The Lord is building His church; it is by His will that each member has his place (1 Cor. 12:18). I can be confident that the one with whom I have a disagreement has a place in the church for our Lord’s good purposes.
The third presupposition of Christian disagreement is that when disagreements trouble the unity of God’s people, it is because God has appointed them. “Christians . . . are never in the grip of blind fortune, chance, luck, or fate. All that happens to them is divinely planned, and each event comes as a new summons to trust, obey, and rejoice, knowing that all is for one’s spiritual and eternal good” (J.I. Packer). The “all” here certainly includes disagreements between believers. God has ordered these disagreements for His glory and our good. God intends our faithful dealing with disagreements to be a means of grace.
The Provocations of Disagreement
Here we must understand that disagreements in the body of Christ are not all due to sin. Some, of course, are the fruit of the remaining power of sin within (James 4:1–4). Such disagreements can finally and only be overcome by godly exhortation, confession, and forgiveness. This, however, does not exhaust the possibilities. Some disagreements arise because there are matters in Scripture that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Disagreements here require patience, careful debate (Acts 15:7), and humble teachability if we are to preserve unity. Some of these differences may prove to be beyond resolution, but in that case, in matters not essential, believers may remain united in the heart of the gospel while charitably living apart with respect to the matters that conscientiously cause them to differ. Likewise, some disagreements arise from different perspectives, rooted in the finite limits of our points of view.
The Practice of Disagreement
As we have said, our union to Christ and to one another is His gift, not our achievement. But the manifestation of our union is both a calling and an achievement. As Calvin taught us, what is true of us in Christ must be “ratified amongst us by reciprocal harmony and brotherly love.”
The calling: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The achievement: unity requires real effort, effort that begins in a heart filled with a holy delight in unity. Pursuit of that delight must be guided by the truth. Calvin reminds us, “God’s truth . . . is the only bond of holy union.” To that end, we must regularly recall the presuppositions stated above, nurturing mind and heart in these realities. So too, in dealing with differences, we must offer others the judgment of charity, a willing assumption of the best and most honorable motives on the part of those with whom we differ. In dealing with differences, we must be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). This wisdom is enshrined in Gerstner’s Law: “Do not debate a point of contention until you can state your opponent’s position to his satisfaction.” And, of course, in addressing differences, we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). That is to say, we must as we speak seek the good, the upbuilding, of the one with whom we disagree (v. 29).
Disagreements among believers come as a summons from God to respond in faithfulness to His providential appointments. Though there may be those who mean disagreements for evil, God means them for good (Gen. 50:20) and we can entrust ourselves to Him (1 Peter 4:19). And so, beloved, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3).