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How seriously do we take unity within the body of Christ? Are we guilty of holding steadfast to our interpretations of the truth rather than the Truth Himself? Are our friendship groups filled with people that agree with us at every point? Have we made idols out of our ideologies?

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4 NKJV).

Sectarianism is described as the “excessive attachment to a particular sect or party, especially in religion”.

Sectarianism is an issue that has plagued the church for millennia and is still affecting the church now. We appear to not have heeded the warnings of Jesus and Paul. Denominations have become a source of division, where we hold tightly to our creeds and view as enemies those that disagree with us.

Jesus makes it clear to His disciples (and consequently every believer) that “he who is not against us is on our side” (Mark 9:40). So what causes sectarianism?

Dissecting the problem

The issue is not having strong convictions, in fact, Paul exhorts that we should “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine…”, (Ephesians 4:14 NKJV) we should know what we believe and why we believe it.

Christians should seek the truth diligently as we follow the One who is the Truth (John 14:6); however, sectarianism is more insidious. Sectarianism (within Christianity) occurs when there is greater allegiance to a set of beliefs or values than there is to Jesus.

Sectarianism says that you are not part of my tribe, therefore you don’t belong. This stance is foolish as it directly contradicts what Paul teaches in Ephesians 4. Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”. Are we noticing a reoccurring theme in this passage? Unity.

Jesus didn’t call us to be Calvinists, or Charismatics or Presbyterians but to be disciples. Jesus isn’t making multiple churches, but one church and He has already drawn the lines of division, why are we drawing more?

Jesus said, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life, and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36 NKJV). There are children of wrath and children of life, we need not make more distinctions.

Helpful differences

hands together
All images from Unsplash

Are different denominations or theological systems inherently bad? No, I don’t think so, they can be helpful in characterising what a person believes based on a diligent and spirit-led study of the word of God. It is important to note that biblical denominations aren’t born out of differences in the primary issues of Christianity but the secondary issues.

Primary issues include the deity of Jesus, justification by faith, a literal heaven and hell and a trinitarian God. These are the “non-negotiables” of the faith, what we believe about these issues isn’t up for debate. You either believe it or you don’t and what you believe points to whether your conversion is real or false.

Secondary issues is where the point of contention lies. Secondary issues include how baptism is done, the regularity of participating in the Lord’s supper, whether to use instruments in a worship service or whether women should be pastors. These are secondary issues because they are not foundational to the Christian faith, they are nonetheless important and whatever our viewpoints are they should be grounded in scripture.

The danger of disunity

Paul warns the Corinthians: “for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?”. We would be foolish to believe that this warning is merely for the Corinth church.

Paul directly links strife and divisions to carnality. This is ought to deeply concern us since a carnal mind is at enmity with God (Romans 8:7). Where we hold our theological, political or sociological beliefs so dear that we are willing to alienate or demonise people that disagree, we ignore what the cross accomplished, unity.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility”. (Ephesians 2:14-16 ESV).

As Christians, we shouldn’t be characterised by what we disagree on but by love.

John 13:35

God is building one body, with no body part of greater value than the other. Paul says, “And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

Theology is not for us to develop in the knowledge of God so that we can make enemies of all those that disagree with us, instead, we should be humbled by the vastness of our God and realise there is simply no way that I can comprehend Him in this life by myself. Instead we ought to pray that we “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19 NKJV).

God has ordained it in His infinite wisdom that together we would try and comprehend the vastness of His love for us in Christ. Imagine, rather than arguing over whether tongues is a heavenly language, all kinds of denominations coming together to earnestly pray for this kind of unity within the body.

Remember the words of Jesus “For he who is not against us is on our side”. (Mark 9:40). Reformed brothers and sisters, Pentecostals and Charismatics are not your enemies! Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters, Reformed people are your family!

We are one bride, one body, one church.

God hates division. It defiles His church. Paul asks us today “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).

Christ isn’t divided, neither should we be.

Eager for Unity

“Therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to 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”. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV)

We ought to be eager for the unity that Christ died to establish. Irrespective of our differences we have this one thing (amongst others in common) we have been saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

It is love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit when we are converted (Romans 5:5) not the ability to argue with fellow blood-bought believers over their theology. We strive for unity because it brings peace. And Jesus proclaims that blessed are the peacemakers for these are the sons of God (Matthew 5:9). Jesus bought peace between us and God and now He says, go and do likewise.

Now, I must confess, I have held far too tightly to my reformed position that I have been hostile towards people in my heart and mind, as well as speech. This is wrong.

God has not called me to be so theologically right that I don’t realise that I am being blinded by the plank in my eye. I apologise for this and I praise God for exposing my sin.

Perhaps, you need to confess this too? I implore you to examine yourself according to the scriptures and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the wicked ways within you.

We cannot take the unity that God commands lightly. God gives commandments, not suggestions. When He says something it is incumbent upon us to obey.

What can we do?

I most certainly do not have all the answers, but I believe in the scriptures God has given us some instructions that will aid us in promoting the unity that the Holy Spirit Himself is forming in us.

  1. Be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:17). When having conversations with people ensure you are listening more than you are speaking. Don’t hear to answer but listen to understand. Every disagreement doesn’t have to develop into an argument. In fact, we should strive for disagreements to not end up as arguments.
  2. Develop relationships outside of your denomination/tribe. It’s very easy to demonise people you don’t know. Make friends with people that disagree with you. To paraphrase what Micah Fries said, “You have more in common with a Christian Iraqi refugee than you do with your best friend of 15 years that doesn’t know Christ”.
  3. Promote peace. Psalm 34:14 ESV “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it”. We aren’t just exhorted to seek peace but to pursue it. In every situation.
  4. Avoid foolish debate: 2 Timothy 2:23 ESV “ Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels”. Engaging in every debate is un-Christlike and most likely due to pride. We should endeavour to avoid all foolish debate because it only produces tension that obstructs unity.

It is my prayer that as believers we will be characterised as peacemakers eager to live in the unity that Jesus Christ bought for us with His blood. If we are all eager to promote peace, then we will undoubtedly live in unity.

God, help us to be eager to be united as you build Your church for Your glory. Amen.

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