We can find examples of disunity among God’s people throughout the Bible. But the apostles’ experiences can be particularly relevant for us. The following examples speak of three kinds of disunity:
The disunity that results from overzealous, prideful loyalty to our leaders.
10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas'”; still another, “I follow the Messiah.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12; see also 1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
The problem was not the leaders themselves, but that people treated them like celebrities. The surrounding culture encouraged this way of thinking; philosophers asked their followers to be loyal as a way to achieve moral improvement. Rabbis had their “schools” of rival interpretations. Indeed, Paul had to admonish the Roman church about what he called the “pattern of this world,” which we might translate as “cultural trends”:
2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
The disunity that results from showing favoritism.
1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
James speaks to the socioeconomic differences among believers. Rather than showing hospitality to all, some believers were treating the poorer worshippers as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. James minces no words when he calls this behavior “evil.”
The disunity that comes from focusing inward instead of outward.
Paul warned the Philippians,
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Paul knew that self-centeredness and parochialism cause disunity. This is still true today. For example, organizations that are overly focused on their own programs or funding can end up building boundaries that exclude. Paul was glad to commend churches that looked beyond their own borders:
“25 I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-26).
God’s path to achieving unity begins with first looking to the example set by our Messiah, Yeshua:
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Messiah Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)
Second, we are to look at ourselves for a reality check. There are no celebrities in the kingdom of God. Rather,
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
Moreover, we are all members of the same body:
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. (1 Corinthians 12:21-22; see the full passage, 12:12-27)
Following the “simple” path to unity is easier said than done! Much more could and should be said about the practical ways to unpack all this. This article is meant only to focus on pitfalls that lead to disunity and principles that will help us avoid those pitfalls. By God’s grace, let’s encourage one another in learning way to put Paul’s and James’ words into practice.