Coping with divisive conflict within a Christian congregation is a debilitating experience. Moreover it vitiates any sense of being the good news of the love of Jesus for the broader community. As a bishop ordained to be a focus and agent of unity I have sadly had to intervene in a number of ministry units to try to restore peace and harmony. While our trust in Christ means we are in the process of being inwardly transformed by the Spirit of God, our ongoing brokenness still asserts itself in many ugly ways which constantly threaten our unity as the body of Christ and mar our witness.
It was like this in New Testament times. In Corinth, for example, there were parties ranged around different teachers: the rich did not care about the poor and those with more spectacular gifts looked down their noses on those with less obvious contributions. Since Christians are no different now to then, we will face the same pressures. If they were tempted to polarise around different teachers with particular emphases, we might also create unhelpful factions. If they succumbed to the temptation to regard some members as more important than others, then we might do the same. If they turned legitimate devotional practices into mandatory practices as touchstones of orthodoxy, we will face the temptation to build theological mountains out of biblical molehills and so be suspicious of those who have come to different conclusions before God about things which don’t ultimately matter for eternal destiny. The examples can of course be multiplied as we experience the clash of different personalities and perspectives in our congregations.
We therefore need to heed the strong command to keep on sparing no effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). In God’s sight we are already one through our faith in Jesus, whose death has broken down the racial, social, sexual and generational barriers between us. However, this unity needs to be constantly realised in our daily living by cultivating Christ-like attitudes and behaviour towards each other.
If there is to be peace in our relationships we need to, above all, imitate the humility and gentleness of Jesus. These two despised ancient qualities were transformed by him from vices into virtues. Humility is recognising the worth and value of others above mere self-interest. It is placing a high value on what is best for others. While gentleness is the controlled strength of people in whom self has died and whose life is fashioned by the Spirit, so they are not easily provoked, accept hurt from others without bitterness and do not insist on their rights.
These two attitudes produce patience and loving forbearance. Patience is the spirit which refuses to retaliate. I like the story of the Year 1 teacher who had just finished putting the last pair of galoshes on her thirty pupils, when the last girl told the teacher they weren’t hers. So the teacher removed them only to hear the little girl say they belonged to her sister who had lent them to her. The teacher quietly and without fuss put them back on her pupil. Now that’s patience! It is the spirit which bears the sheer foolishness of others without irritation. It is longsuffering towards aggravating people just like God-in- Christ has shown us. All these relationship words culminate with bearing with one another in love. We need to remember Christ’s love for us was unselfish, uncalculating, forgiving and accepting. It was costly self-giving service.
In short, if we are to maintain the unity of Christ’s body every one of us needs to seek God’s help to act like Christ to each other.