If you ask a seasoned elder about the most difficult trials in his ministry, what are you likely to hear? You may hear about fierce debates across conference tables during session meetings, sharp words exchanged between elders and deacons, contentious congregational meetings, or tense discussions regarding allegations of abuse between members of the church. At the heart of each of these scenarios (and many more besides) is the problem of disunity in the church.
There is nothing that we can do to guarantee that potentially divisive situations stay far away from the flock. However, God clearly prizes unity among the saints, and His Word supplies us with sufficient encouragement for pursuing such unity through thick and thin. By Word and Spirit, God makes clear to us that unity is impossible apart from a shared commitment to truth.
When we are faced with ecclesiastical conflicts at any level, we might be tempted to compromise the truth for the sake of “keeping the peace.” Our inclination to accommodate, repackage, or soften our message may be well-intentioned. Going out of our way to be kind and gentle is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23) that comports nicely with the saying commonly attributed to Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In fact, this ethos is prevalent in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), which has adopted the aforementioned Augustinian saying as its motto.
We ought to be winsome when deliberating over contested matters, not wanting to bring offense where such is unwarranted or avoidable (1 Cor. 10:32; 2 Cor. 6:3). Even so, there is a more urgent need for a strong commitment to substantive truth in our conversation. Recall Paul’s exhortation to the spiritually immature – but teachable – church in Rome,
“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6).
Notice the primacy of the Scriptures as the truth of God and the basis of the church’s unity therein. The foundation and bonding agent of the church’s unity is the truth of God, and not human winsomeness alone.
Without truth, true unity is impossible. A unity founded on a winsome manner, but divorced from a concern for the infinitely precious truth of God, is a faux unity and a perversion of God’s plan for His church. Consider Paul’s inspired priority of being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14), his zeal for “laying aside falsehood” (Eph. 4:25), and his direct exhortation to Timothy to “retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). Whenever we wrangle over the best way of articulating the Bible’s message, our confessional standards are inestimably valuable for helping us to summarize and unify around the doctrinal truth of Scripture.
The problem of disunity in the church (and in the Presbyterian Church in America) is both present and persistent. If we are to see a renewal of unity in the PCA, we must consider the biblical basis of genuine unity in the truth of the gospel. It is only by a return to the truth of the whole counsel of God that together we can rest in the assurance of Christ’s present intercession for us as a church. It is only in a shared commitment to the settled truth of God’s invincible Word that we can share in the inestimable benefits of Christ’s blood, which was shed so that we would be one in our union with Him. It is only through true faith in the incarnate Son of God who endured the cross and the great hostility of sinners that we can, with confidence, stand shoulder-to-shoulder as His younger brothers and citizens of a heavenly country.
Note: I commend to you Dr. David T. A. Strain’s excellent address from this year’s GRN National Conference held on May 5 and 6 at Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA), “O Church, Arise! A Passionate Plea for Biblical and Confessional Integrity.” The title of the address is “Truth We Confess: Confessional Integrity and the PCA,” in which Dr. Strain discusses at some length how the confessional standards of the church can serve to unify us when we are vexed by looming problems of disunity, disagreement, and discord. The video of Dr. Strain’s address is available here.