Written By Kelly Purcell, Tonga
On the shores of Lake Tekapo stands a picturesque old stone church that often features on New Zealand postcards. The 100-year-old Church of the Good Shepherd was built using nearby stones, all rough and uncut, held together with mortar to make up a truly beautiful church building.
This picture came to mind as I thought about unity. In the Apostle Peter’s first letter to the believers, he says “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5).
We often think of unity as “being the same”—having the same ideas, opinions, beliefs—when that really speaks more of conformity. But because we’re all rough and uncut “living stones” doing our best for Jesus, we inevitably struggle with differences and conflicts with one another. Ephesians 4:3 describes unity as “of the Spirit”, and so reminds us that unity is not achieved by sheer human effort, nor is it merely about conformity.
That Jesus prayed for unity makes it undeniably important. In John 17:21-23, He prayed (repeatedly!) for His disciples to be one so they would reflect who God is, in order that the world would believe in Him. This means our unity as believers is crucial for people to believe in God and know that He loves them. When we are unified, it puts Jesus on display for all to see.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 describes us as members of one body—Jesus’. We’re meant to play different roles and act as one body to demonstrate love and care for one another, which is how people will know God (John 13:35). Unity is manifested through love, which is what points people to God.
Here are some ways we can strive for unity and partner with God in the important work He’s doing in and through us:
1. Be a good listener (James 1:19)
I am a talker, a sanguine by nature (for those who do personality tests!), so whenever someone is speaking to me, I can be tempted to use that time to think about what to say next. Being a teacher and communicator makes this even more pronounced.
As I grew older, I have learned (mostly through error!) the value of listening intentionally before opening my mouth. James tells us to be quick to hear, slow to speak (James 1:19), and Solomon wrote several proverbs on the foolishness of talking too much and talking before having heard (Proverbs 18:2, 13).
Offense, bitterness, and unresolved conflict creep in when we assume we know what someone else has said or what their intentions are, instead of listening and asking questions to understand better. These put us at odds with each other, making unity hard to achieve.
To avoid misunderstandings, we need to listen carefully, not just to people’s words, but also to their heart behind it. Choosing to listen means we value each other’s roles as members of the same body, and we want to understand how we can work together to address each other’s needs.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Unity is not about agreeing on everything. It is about choosing to agree on, and moving together toward, the important things. For example, a football team is unified around winning the game. They do not have to agree on the uniform style or how much playing time they each get, as long as they win!
When I began attending church, there were things I did not understand or agree with. When everyone in my beginners’ Christian course got baptised right after, I refused because I didn’t want to just do it as part of a “programme”; I wanted to hear from God myself. Sadly, some leaders frowned upon this and urged me to follow the rest of the class.
A similar thing happened when I was taught about being baptised in the Holy Spirit and how speaking in tongues was the sign of that. When I didn’t speak in tongues straight away, I was told I had to keep practising until I did.
Thankfully, as I grew in confidence and maturity, I was able to talk to my church leaders on both issues and a healthy discussion took place. While I still don’t agree with some parts of the programmes, I do appreciate the fruit—that we were given opportunities to encounter Jesus, to be ministered by His Spirit, and have our lives transformed.
Programmes can always be improved, but the important thing—what we can truly agree on—is to see people set free in Jesus.
3. Practise the Matthew 18 principle (Matthew 18:16-17)
Not sweating the small stuff doesn’t mean sweeping the big stuff under the rug. We need to distinguish between differences in preferences and opinions, and actual sinful behaviour that needs confronting.
A good question to ask might be, “Is it just my own preferences that are being challenged, or is this going to deeply affect the way we practise our faith and relate to each other?”
If we break down these verses in Matthew 18, we can find a step-by-step process to address conflict:
- Go directly to the person who either wronged you or had a disagreement with you. Either the person will listen to what you have to say, or you’ll find out that you had the wrong perspective to begin with.
I find it helpful to start with, “This may be a very awkward conversation and I only want to have it because I value you and the role you play in my life.” I want to communicate my desire for us to work towards reconciling.
Once, a lady in church whom I was serving with became upset and yelled at me after I had given her suggestions on how to make our team run smoother. I decided I had to confront her as we could not continue serving together this way. Although I was nervous and didn’t want it to escalate, I approached her anyway.
That didn’t work out as she got quite defensive and made me feel even more belittled. So, I went to a leader who knew us both well. This led to the second phase of the process.
- If the conflict is not resolved through the private talk, find someone who is mature to mediate and give insight.
We sat down and our leader prayed over the meeting, after which we both shared our perspectives. Since we were no longer in the heat of the moment, she was able to explain more calmly how stressed and pressured she would feel whenever people give her a lot of suggestions all at once.
She apologised and we agreed that if I needed to have a discussion with her, I would either make an appointment to do so, or focus on sharing just one or two things if it’s impromptu. We are now good friends and know more about what makes each other “tick”.
In striving for unity, we must strive to be “peace makers” and not simply “peacekeepers”—people who will do anything to avoid conflict and confrontation just to “keep the peace”.
4. Examine yourself (Proverbs 27:17)
God often uses other people to shape us to be more like Jesus. How others respond to us, annoy us, and delight us can show us more of who we are and what issues we need to work on.
I realise that people are often God’s answers to my prayers for wisdom and patience. God doesn’t answer these prayers by dropping a box of patience or a parcel of wisdom from the sky. Instead, He places me in challenging situations with others, which forces me to rely on Him and practise what He has already given to me in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).
As a teacher, I come across students who get on my nerves or who are just plain hard work. Yet God has allowed these people to remain in my life to enlarge my capacity to love, to go deeper in prayer, and to check my own attitude and heart issues.
Every time I feel annoyed, I can sense the Holy Spirit holding up a mirror, showing me that I’m acting this way because I am harsh and critical of myself, which leads me to treat others in the same way.
I often kneel in God’s presence and bring to mind the person I find challenging or hurtful. I then remind myself that God loves them also, and I speak blessings over them. Doing this invites the Holy Spirit to change my perspective and puts me in a position to operate out of love when I interact with them in the future.
We all have people we pray God would change and most of the time, He doesn’t. Instead, He changes our perspectives because what we see can be limited and inaccurate.
It’s important to seek God’s perspective because He sees the whole picture—the trauma, fears, hurt, insecurities, and pain that cause others, and ourselves, to mask or overcompensate with negative behaviour.
This isn’t to excuse the wrongs committed, but when we ask God to show us how He thinks, He may show us the hurt in someone else’s heart so we can be a part of their healing journey.
How can the church operate as one when it’s made up of believers from different cultures, languages, upbringings, personalities, ages, and abilities?
Unity would be impossible without Jesus and the Holy Spirit who holdus together. We are the stones; He is the mortar.
Striving for unity and peace is often messy, but the outcome is one like that old stone church—a house that will stand strong as the years pass, with a beauty that is unfading. A house that can only be shaped by God.
This is the church Jesus is coming back for.