How important is church unity? It’s important enough for Jesus to spend time praying for it:
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you (John 17:20-21).
It’s important enough for Paul to call for it from his imprisonment:
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-2).
And it’s important enough for the early church to emphasize it, even it church unity meant carrying a burden. And for the church in those days, it was indeed a burden.
The gospel had begun to spread beyond the Jews. Spurred on by the persecution that had fallen, emissaries of the Christian faith began to preach the gospel among the Gentiles. Churches were started, and those churches were starting to embody the glorious variety God intended. Every nation of the earth was being blessed with the knowledge of the good news of Jesus.
But not everyone was happy. In Antioch, the city from which Paul’s missionary journeys had launched, there were Christians who were ethnically Jewish who argued that the Gentiles who were coming to faith had to be circumcised before they would be recognized and welcomed into the church. In other words, they were proposing that the pathway to Christianity, for the Gentile, led through Judaism. Become a Jew and then you can become a Christian.
It was a critical moment for the early church, one in which they would have to articulate beyond any doubt what it meant to be a Christian. And so the leaders of the church considered the matter and then wrote a letter to make the issue very clear. The text of the letter is recorded for us in Acts 15:
For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—not to place further burdens on you beyond these requirements: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things (Acts 15:28-29).
There you go. The Holy Spirit decided to not place the burden of circumcision on these new believers. They were Christians by grace, through faith, in Christ… alone. And yet the church leaders did not allow these Christians to remain burden-less. They did tell them to do a few things – to abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.
Why these things? The sexual immorality part makes good sense to us today – we as Christians know that this is not God’s will of sanctification for us in Christ. But what of these other burdens?
These are the burdens of church unity.
The church leaders knew that Jewish Christians would struggle with things like this – things that had become so ingrained to them in their culture. Things that the Gentiles felt a sense of freedom about. Things that could cause pride or bitterness in the church and compromise its unity. And so the burden would be born by the Gentiles.
We would do well to ask ourselves the question of whether we are prepared to bear the burden of church unity. Are we prepared, since we see unity in Jesus’ body as so important, to take on some measure of personal cost for her sake?
It might mean that we choose to intentionally invest in and befriend people we wouldn’t ordinarily gravitate towards. It might mean that we choose not to exercise some of the freedom of lifestyle that we have thanks to God’s grace. It might mean we choose to hold opinions to ourselves regarding someone’s teaching or singing or whatever. In each case, there is a burden to be born.
And in each case, we should ask the question of whether the cause of unity in the church is worth it.