Disharmony and disunity have existed in the church since New Testament times. The church in Corinth, for one, was most disreputable for its quarrels. Even in modern times, we have known of churches that have gone through schisms or that have even split.
Why People Quarrel?
“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (James 4:1). Quarrels have been part of human society. Children throw tantrums and fight over toys, husbands and wives clash, business partners fell apart, politicians have rows, racial conflicts occur and nations go to war. The source of all fighting is man’s sinful heart. Man’s depraved, egoistic nature is the root of all discord and dispute. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19).
By nature, man is self-willed and contentious. From cradle to grave, man is predisposed to his personal desires and whims. Unless believers “put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication” (Colossians 3:8), they would also be tempted to live for self-interest and self-glory, resulting in bitterness and acrimonious conduct. When two or more people are determined to pursue their own personal agendas, they will soon begin to fight.
Church and Quarrels
Sadly, uncharitable contentions do occur in the church. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:18; cf. 1:11), the reason being that “ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Here, Paul is not saying that believers were in a totally carnal state, but that the Corinthians had been behaving in a carnal or fleshly manner. Paul had already taught that true believers are not carnally-minded as natural men are, but spiritually-minded (Romans 8:1-16). However, when believers do not walk in the Spirit, they succumb to the impulses of the flesh. This is why believers are reminded: “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:16-17).
It is essential to understand that believers are not in an absolute carnal state; he has become a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17) in Christ. The old, carnal man is crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20). They have been changed, being regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Galatians 5:24). Believers are no more in their spiritually dead and absolute carnal state. The unregenerate, natural men are in a totally carnal state. But a believer is now quickened as a spiritual man to live after the Holy Spirit. That is not to say that Christians cannot or will not sin. They are capable of sinning, so they must be vigilant to avoid temptations of the flesh and live in obedience to the Spirit. The Corinthian Christians, instead of choosing to live spiritually, behaved in a carnal manner. Though they were spiritual men, they on occasion exhibited carnal behaviour, which was inconsistent with their actual spiritual state. Hence Paul told them, “ye are yet carnal”. Oh, how tragic it is that Christians act carnally!
It is totally out of character for Christians to engage in quarrels and divisions within the church. It undermines the church’s testimony and effectiveness in the world. It gives an occasion for the devil and the world to scorn at the church. It grieves the Lord, and discourages and demoralises His people. In Galatians 5:15, Christians are admonished: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Quarrels fracture fellowship, rob Christians of their joy, weaken their effectiveness and dishonour the Lord. What a high price to pay for an ego trip!
Church and Unity
God has clearly forbidden quarrels in the church. He encourages unity within the church. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul admonished the feuding Corinthians: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
The first need of the Corinthian church was harmony among its people. It is also the need of many churches today. Take note that this unity comes with proper judgement, being of “the same mind and … the same judgment”. Anything less is not true spiritual unity. Hypocritical unity that tolerates doctrinal errors and unholy living is not what is taught here. We are not simply to be in unity indiscriminately and avoid all conflicts though people pursue ungodly doctrines and unscriptural living.
When congregants differ in doctrine, or strongly disagree with the church leadership and policies, they cannot contribute to the spiritual unity in the church nor serve effectively. Of course, believers are not “carbon copies” of each other. They are different from one another in disposition, temperament, skill and gift, but they ought to be of the same mind in Christian doctrine and living.
If any kind of difference or dispute occurs, it must be resolved according to the Scriptures. Church leaders, who are men of knowledge and spiritual maturity, must make it a point to prayerfully attend to those issues, and advise the church what “seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to (them)” (Acts 15:28). No arbitrary ruling should be made, but the board of elders must make their decision unanimously, and in accordance with God’s Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Their godly counsel must then be humbly sought and obeyed, for Scripture commands believers to “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). Faithful believers then must be in complete harmony with their leaders to obey God’s will. When elders are one in the Spirit, the congregation should submit to the directions given to them by the elders.
Such unity would require much effort and prayer. But it is God’s way for His church to enjoy the sweet blessings of unity, as Paul said to the Philippians, “Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Let us remember the psalmist’s praise of brotherly unity – “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
Dear Gethsemaneans, let us always endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-6), and make Paul’s prayer for the Roman church ours: “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:5-7).