Do you know how a piano works?

It’s not simple. 88 black-and-white keys that you can press in thousands of different combinations to create a million different sounds, all amplified by three foot pedals that change the tenor or duration of the notes.

But that’s not really how a piano works, is it? 

Not at all. For starters, when you actually press one of those black-and-white keys, a Rube Goldberg type of machine initiates 100 different moving parts to force a hammer to slam down on three different strings per key. If even one of those moving parts fails, or the string is too slack, the note is out of tune and the music is ruined. In all, a grand piano has about 10,000 moving parts, any number of which can be activated during any given composition.

So yeah…pretty complicated.

(If you’d like to see a formal looking man in glasses and a tie explain that process in more detail, here’s a video)

But in my very limited experience, the complexity of a piano pales in comparison to navigating the emotional, spiritual, and psychological makeup of just about any local congregation on the planet. It doesn’t matter if the church is 30 people or 300, the same dynamics are always at play. You have workers and talkers, leaders and followers, givers and takers, and happy and angry. 

Many times these qualities overlaps. No one person is only a leader or only a talker; it’s a complex smorgasbord of opinions, attitudes, and strengths.

Like a piano then, how do you get all these different people to work together and strike a chord? Unity.

Unity at Every Cost and Unity at No Cost

Most of us know that the church is designed to be insular. It’s a “called out” body of people from the world that form their own group, unique in beliefs, practices, and goals. 

How that group is composed, however, can change from body to body. Ideally, everyone would band around doctrines and leave liberties to the individual, but that’s hardly ever the case. The old restorationist doctrine – adapted from a similar phrase during the Reformation – of “In matters of faith, unity. In matters of opinion, liberty” is a slogan easier versed than followed.

Some people, in an effort to include as many people as possible into this group, want unity at every cost. They’ll expense Biblical doctrine, thoughts about salvation and the deity of Christ, and even welcome in sinful lifestyles in an effort to make sure that everyone feels welcome. This seems to be part of the problem with the Corinthian church. They had someone among them who had “their father’s wife,” and instead of mourning, were “arrogant” about it instead (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Most likely, this arrogance stemmed from an over-generous feeling of tolerance.

Still others go the opposite direction, espousing unity at no cost. They won’t bend on their own liberties even an inch – not because they don’t want to, but because they believe their own liberty to be doctrine. It’s right in their eyes, and so it should be right in others. If not, then you’re a heretic. They believe themselves to be true defenders of God’s Word, when in reality all they are are mercenaries for their own personal Tower of Babel.

Both are wrong. Doctrine must be preserved, but so must liberties. We have to be comfortable identifying with people who are different than us, but not in a sinful way. 

Real World Example of Unity

Paul wrote extensively about the preservation of unity. In Ephesians 4:3, he wrote “…be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In 1 Corinthians 1:10, he exhorted the church at Corinth to have “no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Euodia and Syntyche, in Philippians 2, were told to “live in harmony in the Lord.”

One of his biggest challenges though was navigating the turbulent waters of the Roman church. The genesis of this congregation is unknown, but what is certain is that by the time Paul wrote his letter to them around AD 57, it was a strong and diverse group. 

The first several chapters bear out the tension that comes from such a religious melting pot. Chapters 1-3 show the need for everyone to be saved, Jew and Gentile alike, while chapters 4-8 discuss the nature of salvation from Law to faith. Paul covers a lot of ground, but it’s in chapter nine that he directly addresses the relationship between Jew and Gentile in view of both of those major themes. 

“They are not all Israel,” Paul writes in Romans 9:6, “who are descended from Israel.” After the group is done scratching their collective heads at this apparent contradiction, he continues. “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are called children of God, bu the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” In other words, just because you’re a Jew doesn’t mean that you’re part of God’s family, and vice versa.

While that point is hard enough to swallow, this section packs on even more of a punch when you consider the historical backdrop. Around the year AD 41, Emperor Claudius issued a decree that forbade Jews from holding regular meetings at their synagogues, while later, in AD 49, he expelled them from Rome completely (Acts 18:1-2). Claudius died in AD 54, at which point several of those banished Jews started to filter back in. In their absence, the church at Rome most likely became populated by Gentiles, since at least some of the names that Paul mentions in Romans 16 are Roman.

The majority of the names in Romans 16 are Jewish, however. Some of them are listed as Paul’s kinsmen – either a reference to their Jewish status or possibly even direct blood-relations with Paul (Romans 16:7, 11, 13). Regardless, what is apparent is that Paul is writing this chapter at a time when Jewish Christians were most likely being integrated all at once with a largely Gentile church. If you know anything about the church in the first century, that’s a recipe for an old-fashioned shoving match.

Because of this, some commentators believe Romans 16 to be the spiritual high mark of the book, since it involves practical application of the spiritual principles described within. Those same commentators also argue that this list isn’t as much of a “say hi to these people” list as much as it is a “receive them in the Lord” list. If that’s true, then Paul is essentially telling a group of Gentiles to welcome Jews as brothers, despite their cultural differences and religious backgrounds. No easy task.

It’s not surprising that the text right after the list of names in Romans 16 sees Paul “urging” them to identify and root out those who cause dissensions and hindrances in the local church. Clearly there would be some who would oppose this unity, and Paul wants the church to give them no quarter. No mercy for those who would undermind the unity of the local church. He then – very appropriately – ends it (Romans 16:20) by saying “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” No doubt Paul means that in more ways than one.

Our Allies Must Be Greater than Our Foes

Satan is powerful. Depicted as the ultimate adversary against God and His people, Satan pits himself against mankind at every turn, using deception, persecution, slander, and disbelief as agents of de-conversion. 

Yet one of his strongest plays is formulating alliances within ourselves – factions that exist within an already called-out group that splinter the church into smaller subsets. Like little bands of pirates, we battle for control of the high spiritual seas. Every person we can enlist on our side, every pew taken is one step closer to establishing primacy.

Why does Satan do this? Because he knows that we’re easier to pick off if we’re divided. If he can attack little groups of us instead of an entire, united front, he has a much higher chance of ripping apart the flock piece by piece. He doesn’t have to make anyone disbelieve in Christ, he just has to make enough individual Christians disillusioned with the church. If they leave the church, he knows they’ll eventually leave God.

The power of the enemy must be matched and overcome by the power of the hero. In this case, Satan’s offensive prowess must be met by a united front. We have to stay unified. Jesus prayed for it in John 17:20-23: 

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe You sent Me. The glory which you have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one. I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

There are at least three reasons in those four verses why unity is important:

  1. It’s a Reflection of the Trinity – If we are truly to be Godly, then we have to be unified. Did Jesus want to be crucified? No, but He knew that it was the only way that salvation for mankind to be achieved. His love for us trumped His own desire to not go through the Cross. And yet, we won’t even give up our parking spot for a fellow member, much less volunteer to be flayed by a mob of angry Romans.
  2. It’s a Reflection of God’s Love – A unified front is indicative of sacrifice. It shows the world that I will stand by my principles and my kinsman who share the cause. I’m coming into the world not as one, but as a body of one, where the whole is made up of each individual part. For that reason, I will lay down my life if it serves the cause, because I love the Lord and His people.
  3. It’s a Reflection of God’s Mission – Unity can only be accomplished through organization, and since God is not the author of confusion, his people shouldn’t be either. If we all scream ten thousand different things, the message gets lost. If ten thousand people scream the same thing, it’s power.

What’s My Responsibility?

I highly doubt I’ve lost anyone through to this point. Very few people would admit that they’re a divisive brother, for the exact reasons pointed above. They feel like they’re standing for truth. It doesn’t matter that it’s their truth, because truth is truth is truth.

Wrong. The vast majority of church splits happen not because of doctrine, but because someone got their feelings hurt and they look for a reason to get mad. Whatever that issue becomes simply a carrier issue for the real issue: they want control. 

I fear that the body of Christ is becoming more defined by what we’re against than what we’re about. We’re too lazy or cynical to make evangelism our number one priority, so we convince ourselves that we’re doing God’s work by boldly rooting the infidels out of God’s Holy Church. That’s necessary to a point, but as a personal crusade, it eventually leads to a church of one – you.

You’ll never get along 100% with anyone, ever. You don’t even get along with yourself 100% of the time, so what makes you think everyone else will fall in lockstep with you? And yet man will keep trying, won’t they? They’ll rule over local congregations like personal fiefdoms, imposing their will on their more humble counterparts until their voice is the only one in the room.

But in that day that there’s a lone voice, it won’t be yours. And it won’t be Christ’s.

It’ll be Satan’s.

And he’ll have won.

Last modified: October 7, 2019