Unity ≠ Uniformity

Brothers and Sisters,

On Sunday, we considered how to live as citizens of the earthly city in a manner consistent with our heavenly citizenship (Phil 1:27-30). Our three marching orders, we saw, are to stand firm in one Spirit, strive together for the Gospel, and cast off fear in the face of intimidation.

Although we didn’t dwell too much on it, the idea of unity lies very much at the heart of that passage. This Sunday, as well, we’ll see that this letter is very much concerned with how we get along with one another in the body of Christ.

We sometimes confuse unity with uniformity, thinking that we should all become carbon copies of one another—like a bunch of Christian pod people.

But that isn’t the case.

To be united in Christ isn’t to think the same as everyone else but to share in Him as our ultimate object of devotion and highest authority. It’s to say that, no matter how we get there, we’re all heading in the same direction. No matter how we parse out the particulars of life and ministry, we’re all sold out for Jesus together.

As I thought about this, I couldn’t help but recall Paul and Barnabas. For years, these two men labored side by side for the gospel and saw incredible fruit. In Acts 15, though, we read of an argument and a parting of the ways. They patched things up somewhere down the line (Col 4:10), but their days of ministry partnership ended with that split (as far as we know).

Christians often read that story as a failure of Christian unity. I don’t. Paul and Barnabas were lock-step in their love for Jesus and commitment to the church’s mission. Their spat wasn’t over theology or philosophy of ministry; it was over whether a particular guy (Mark) ought to go with them on their next journey.

Each side of the argument had its merits; there was no apparent “right” or “wrong” decision. In the final analysis, then, Paul and Barnabas had a tactical disagreement about how best to advance the Gospel. Their split did not harm their unity in Christ. Paradoxically, it enhanced that unity by allowing them to move forward in the way that would best bring glory to Christ and the gospel to the nations.

Like Paul and Barnabas, believers will sometimes have to separate for the sake of unity. But, if we’re honest, those times are few and far between. Too often, splits and departures boil down to bruised egos and wounded pride. We could’ve stayed together, but we decided it’d be easier to go our separate ways. That is not the unity for which Christ prayed (John 17).

In the church, we will experience a diversity of opinions about how best to love God and one another. That’s a good thing. So long as we keep our hearts fixed on a unity that transcends our differences—our unity in and for the gospel—we won’t be tempted to demand uniformity (“it’s my way or the highway”). Instead, we’ll see others’ diversity as a genuine gift given for the building up of the body and advance of the church’s mission (Eph 4:7-16).

I pray that, as we continue to partner together for the gospel, we will come to appreciate one another’s unique gifts. I hope we will encourage one another to bring the full weight of our individual gifts to bear upon our gospel labor.

As we do, may we all enjoy the deep gospel unity in our diversity that can only come from a God who is both One and Three.

In Christ Alone,