July 7, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 2 Timothy 2:14, 24
Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. . . . And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.
God calls his people to be united, telling us through his word that the unity of those who follow Christ will lead others to believe in Him. And yet Christians have used the very teachings of the New Testament that call us to unity—and our differing understandings of those teachings—as reasons to argue and quarrel and become divided.
A few weeks ago, to celebrate my 60th birthday, I spent a day fishing with my older brother Ted. Our trip required a two-hour drive in each direction through rural western Maine. We spent much of that four hours talking about where we were in our spiritual journeys, and about theology, and about the condition of Christian churches (and the Christian church) in our country. It was a fruitful and meaningful conversation, and also one that was personally challenging.
Along the way, my brother made an insightful comment. He noted first how so much of the New Testament—especially the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the Apostle Paul—is focused on the unity of believers. Paul not only points out how important it is for followers of Christ to live in unity; he also gives frequent exhortations on how we ought to live and speak and act to help preserve or bring about that unity. Ted and I didn’t have to run through a whole list of these teachings because they were familiar to both of us. And, indeed, there are so many of them that we could have spent much of the four-hour ride just enumerating them and commenting on them.
Some of the first examples that popped into my mind were two of the metaphors Paul often used to speak of the importance of unity among believers: the metaphors of a body (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:3-6; etc.) and a building, in particular a temple (1 Corinthians 3:9-17; Ephesians 2:19-22). Often Paul combined these and other metaphors together in a long passage emphasizing unity. We could also consider the metaphor of a _family_–of being brothers and sisters in Christ—to describe God’s people; this metaphor is used even more often in the New Testament by Jesus himself as well as by Paul.
Paul, Peter, and James all addressed unity in other ways as well (with and without metaphor), making frequent exhortations for believers to love one another, to be at peace with one another, and to be united. Consider, for example, Paul’s beautiful exhortation to unity in Philippians 2. This chapter begins (in the NIV translation), “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”
Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17, often referred to as his High Priestly Prayer, is for me the most powerful and compelling description of why such unity is important. “My prayer is not for them alone,” Jesus prayed (John 17:20-21, NIV). “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” If God’s people live out their faith in unity with one another, Jesus says, then we will see our friends and neighbors and co-workers coming to believe in Him. What a powerful word.
Given the importance of this unity, it isn’t surprising that Paul devotes a considerable percentage of his writing—in both his personal and general epistles—giving instruction on how we are to treat one another and the sorts of attitudes we are to have that will help with that unity. Be humble. Don’t grumble and complain. Be patient. Forgive. Bear with one another. Pray for each other. Look out for each other’s needs. Put aside self-ambition.
And this leads me finally to the direct exhortations against arguing and quarreling such as we read in the 2 Timothy 2 passage above—a command Paul gets at using both an adjective (don’t be quarrelsome) and a verb (don’t quarrel). Paul also gets at something similar in the Philippians 2 passage: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Philippians 2:14-15, NIV).
Note that Paul does not say, “Don’t argue or be quarrelsome unless you have a disagreement about doctrine—and you happen to be correct and the other person is wrong. Then arguing is fine. Make sure you win the argument!” His exhortation is much simpler than that, and without the conditions. Why? Because Paul knows the importance of unity in the church, and he knows that arguing destroys that unity. Even arguing about theology. Perhaps especially arguing about theology.
And this leads me to the second part of my brother’s comment to me on that drive to our fishing location. After referencing how important unity was to New Testament writings, and particularly how much of Paul’s writing is devoted to his instructions for God’s people to be united, Ted then noted the sad irony that those very same epistles that Paul wrote to encourage unity are often used by the Christians as the basis for arguments and fights that tear the church apart. Differing understandings of a letter intended to help Christians get along with each other become an excuse for disunity. How is it that we’ve taken writings intended to help God’s people live as a family and a body, and we’ve turned them into theological, doctrinal, and ecclesiological debates that have divided (and continue to divide) the church into countless little fragments—into groups of people unable to work together and often unable even to speak with each other?
Theology is important. Striving to understand God’s word as a way to know God himself more fully is deeply important. (I will return to this in my devotion tomorrow.) But if our striving toward correct doctrine somehow misses the fundamental teachings of Christ calling his people to unity, then our teaching is missing something.
Fortunately, I have seen many movements within the church when Christians of different traditions and scriptural understandings have fellowshipped together in love and mutual encouragement. For several years I’ve been a part of a group of writers of Christian faith from a variety of denominations who come together regularly and learn from one another and care for each other—but with no assumption that we are supposed to agree on every detail of our faith journeys. I’ve seen similar examples of unity play out at conferences and in various churches and ministries. And I am reminded that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church, even in the midst of a divisive culture.
Take some time to read and reflect on either Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17 or Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2. (Or both.) What would it look like to see this unity and love lived out in the church? Consider how divisive and divided our culture is. What might be the witness of a church living in unity and love—even when people disagreed about various interpretations of Scripture?
Where have you seen examples of Christian unity, even among believers who disagree on interpretations? What has it looked like?
How might you live out unity in your own relationships with other believers—even those with whom you disagree on various Biblical interpretations?
If you are aware of any of your own relationships with other believers that have been divided because of disagreements, consider what you could do to help heal those relationships.
Try to find somebody who proclaims a Christian faith and yet comes from a different church or denominational tradition from yourself, and seek how you could live in Christian unity with that person (without requiring either of you to agree with each other on areas of theological difference.)
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you have interceded with the Father on behalf of your people, asking that your followers live in unity. Thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit whose work in our lives brings unity. Even as we give you thanks, we confess our own failings—as individuals, as churches, and as your body—to live that unity out, to live in ways that preserve and build unity, and to follow the guidance of your spirit. Help your people, we pray, to be one, just as you are in the Father and the Father is in you. Let me live in such love and unity with my brothers and sisters in you that those around me will turn to you. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Guard the Tongue (2 Timothy 2:14–26).
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.