The Beauty of Christian Unity in a World of Division

The Beauty of Christian Unity in a World of Division

The Beauty of Christian Unity in a World of Division
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
18 Oct, 2019

Living in a western culture that is ever polarising in terms of values, ideas and political views, we get used to division. The sheer multitude of diverse contributions seems to highlight the absence of unity. Divisive rhetoric is the norm in a cacophony of voices and opinions. Christian values are frequently attacked with uncompromising hatred. Reconciliation and harmony seem unthinkable as well as unattainable. The fault lines can sometimes seem so deep that they are compared to a kind of civil war. The Church can also be the battleground of polarising notions and methods. Where we might most expect to see unity, we see division. How can we display the attractiveness of true unity in a world that is more divided than ever?

Anthony Burgess ministered in just such a period of division. He became involved in a project to unite the whole of the British Isles in the same doctrinal standards and church order. It was a unity that prioritised the truth. Besides the Westminster Assembly, he engaged in important defence of vital doctrines such as justification, original sin and the moral law.

In expounding John chapter 17 Burgess emphasises both the spiritual and visible unity that should exist within the Church. It is not a man-made unity that compromises the whole counsel of God. Burgess deals realistically and honestly with the divisions that exist amongst Christ’s people and the reasons for them. He does not accept that lack of unity is inevitable but boldly calls it what it is according to Scripture: sin.

Burgess gives practical counsel in this area in demonstrating the spirit that Christians ought to have one to another. He will not allow us simply to show regret and concern but do nothing about the divisions of the Church. We are under the strongest obligations, not only to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6) but also to do what we can. In the following extract from his sermons on John 17 he shows the attractiveness of unity.

UNITY IS SPIRITUALLY HELPFUL

Unity is necessary, because by this means a serviceable and beneficial helping one another in spiritual things is preserved. The people of God are compared to living stones built up together. While the stones keep in the building, they support one another, but if they are removed, it falls down. They are compared to members in the body. While they are joined together, there is a mutual ministration to each other, but when divided from the body, no part can receive any nourishment.

So it is here. While the people of God are in union, oh the wonderful help they are to one another! They provoke one another to good works and they stir up one another’s graces. But take these coals away from one another, and then the fire goes out!

And this may be the reason why our Savior does not mention the sanctification and holiness of believers, but their unity, because unity is a special means of preserving and increasing holiness. ‘Two are better than one,’ because of heat and of help, says the wise man (Ecclesiastes 4:10). So it is in this work of grace, two are better than one to warm one another. How greatly your zeal might help against another’s lukewarmness, and your faith against another’s diffidence! If it is so great a sin to see your brother in temporal need, and not relieve him, how much more is it a sin to see him in spiritual need, and fail to help him? He is to be restored (Galatians 6:1). Put this bone in joint again.

Experience tells us that where there are divisions and discord, there is no love, no compassion, no watching over one another. If this unity were established, a man would then strive for the growth of grace in others, as in himself. And therefore, observe that the power of godliness greatly abates when differences arise. There is not that heavenly communion, nor hearty concurrence in the ways of holiness, nor that mutual help of one another, as at other times.

UNITY SANCTIFIES

Unity amongst the godly is so necessary that God many times permits sad and heavy persecutions to befall them. This is so that their discords and divisions may be removed, and they may be more endeared to one another. Times of prosperity in the church produced the greatest heresies and schisms, but the times of bloody persecution made the godly more united. Thus, the martyrs, some of them in Queen Mary’s days, bewailed their differences and the contests they formerly had with one another, but prison and persecution made them highly prize one another. Joseph’s brethren in their plenty envied and fell out with one another, but in their distress they were glad to cleave together.

If sheep are scattered one from another, when a sudden storm arises, it makes them all huddle together. It may be that although just now the godly are so censorious, so shy, so strange to one another, God may in time work so that they will be glad to enjoy one another, glad to have communion with each other. One godly man’s company may then be worth more to you than the gold of Ophir.

If love and godliness do not unite you, take heed lest God sends some out-ward trouble and affliction to put you together. If you do not embrace one another willingly, He may bind you in His chains together. His promise to Judah and Israel, of making the two sticks one, was after the cruel enmity and opposition which had been amongst them.

UNITY STRENGTHENS

Unity confirms and establishes the church. The old rule is that strength united is stronger. Sunbeams united together send out greater heat. It is union in an army, in a nation, in any society, that preserves it. As a wise man said, public societies are immortal, if they do not kill themselves by division. Our Savior confirmed this, when He said, ‘No kingdom divided against itself can stand’ (Matthew 12:25). He brings this in as an argument to show that He did not cast out devils by the help of devils, but by the Spirit of God. Thus, if the people of God cast out error and profaneness by God’s Spirit, then they will not entertain error and profaneness themselves; for this would be to set a kingdom at variance within itself. The old rule is, ‘Divide and conquer.’

It was a unique providence that Christ’s bones should not be broken, to demonstrate by this (some say) that though Christ died, yet He did not lose His strength. We must justly fear that God has some heavy scourge on the godly when they are first divided. If their bones are broken, their strength is weakened, but their evil and misery will not stop there.

Thus, it is a very foolish and weak thing in the godly to continue in their divisions. Do they not have mighty and numberless enemies? Does not the whole world hate them? Is not the world as wolves to the godly, who are as sheep? Now if not only the wolf and the fox, but also one sheep shall devour another, must not this bring utter ruin? The apostle Paul speaks fully of this danger (Galatians 5:15). Observe the notable expression, ‘biting and devouring one another.’ How unnatural this is to sheep! It is dogs that do this! And further, by this means you will consume one another. What the devils of hell, and all your wicked adversaries could not do, you will do to one another. Do not look not on your differences as mere sins, but as heavy omens of God’s wrath. When the veil in the temple rent in pieces, this was a presage of the destruction of the temple.

UNITY IS BEAUTIFUL

Unity is a most comely and beautiful thing to see. It is a ravishing thing to behold such a harmony amongst the godly! Therefore, its completeness will be in heaven. There those many thousands will all have one heart and one tongue to praise God. There will be no difference. One shall not have one way of seeing God, and another, another way. There will be no censuring, such as using reproachful terms one against another. Now the nearer the people of God come to this on earth, the more similar they are to glorified saints in heaven, and to those innumerable companies of angels that do God’s will. The angels have no jarring and contests, one angel is not of one opinion, and another of another. We ought to do God’s will as the angels do it, not only in respect of zeal and purity, but unity also.

One of the Songs of Degrees is entirely in praise of unity (Psalm 133). Unity is compared to the precious ointment that was to be composed so carefully that no one was permitted to presume to make similar oil. It was only to be poured on the high priest. The psalmist also compares unity to the fruitful and pleasant dew on the mountains. The whole psalm is remarkable:

(a) Unity is for us to ‘behold’. The psalm begins with ‘behold’ to draw others to admire it. As if to say, ‘You have seen by bitter experience what disputes and differences produce, now look at this!’
(b) ‘It is good and pleasant.’ Profit and pleasure win everyone. By this we can see our aversion to such unity, that we need those low arguments to draw us. The psalmist does not say it is just, holy and acceptable to God, but simply that it is good and pleasant.
(c) It is ‘for brethren.’ He does not say men but rather ‘brethren’, because sinful discord is apt to creep in amongst them.
(d) It is ‘together.’ He does not speak togetherness of location but of soul. The sweetness of this unity is represented by the oil that was poured on Aaron and then ran down. It must be a peace grounded on Christ our Head and High Priest, which then should diffuse itself to others. Its profitableness is described by the dew. It is from heaven and so sanctifies the barren ground. This concord is God’s gift only and if received it wonderfully blesses the church.

Who would not have rejoiced to live in the days when all believers were of one heart and one soul? What a comfort it would have been, to hear no grudging or repining at one another! But the devil (that envious one) quickly sowed tares amongst them. Ulcers and sores appeared on that body, which once was as beautiful as Absalom’s body. So the apostles urge so greatly that all things should be done in charity, that they fulfill the royal law by loving, that they do not even grudge one another. This unity and peace is so glorious that the apostle makes it a goal. ‘Study (or be ambitious) to be quiet’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11). There is a great deal of carnal and worldly ambition after things that are fading and transitory. Here is godly and spiritual ambition, to be a peacemaker. To be a peace-preserver is the greatest glory God puts on us.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

This article has been drawn from the new book Advancing Christian Unity by Anthony Burgess. It is lightly edited and in the Puritan Treasures for Today series. Burgess speaks of how union and communion with Christ and His people are “the life and comfort of believers.” Giving careful consideration of what Christian unity should look like, Burgess excels at uncovering common causes of division and promoting means to advance unity among God’s people.

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Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.
21 Jun, 2019

​In our digital world, relationships have also become digital. Sometimes this brings the benefit of making those who are far away near but it can also have the disbenefit of making those who are near, far away. Sometimes we see people in the same physical space but they are in their own digital worlds. It can also be easier to use electronic forms of communication when personal interaction would be possible. Why meet up with one friend when you can chat to multiple friends by simultaneous text conversations? But we miss tone, expression, body language, touch and presence. Some studies have concluded that technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because we’re speaking about a biblical priority.

The Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication. It speaks of open and unhindered interaction. In two short letters the apostle John shows the superiority of face-to-face meeting over “paper and ink” (2 John 12; 3 John 13). It is rather startling when we pause to think deeply about who was writing and what he was writing. Writing was useful in the mean time but it was not the best means. It was limited not in mere terms of efficiency but in communicating their love in Christ. Being able to “speak face to face” would make their joy full.

He could write his teaching about the faith but there was no substitute for being able to come to them. Then he could instruct them more fully in a way that would make their spiritual joy full. It reminds us also that audio as well as written sermons are ultimately no substitute for being present at a sermon. No internet preacher can replace the personal concern, awareness and prayers of a pastor who looks into your eyes and situation when he declares God’s Word. When God’s people meet together it also encourages one another (Hebrews 10:24-27). Live sharing and live-streaming a service are not the same thing.

Face-to-face interaction is also an emphasis in the letters of Paul. Twice in the same letter he expresses his desire to “see” the “face” of the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 2:17). He didn’t just desire it, he did everything he could do to make it happen. It was something that was so important to him that he was praying night and day it might happen (1 Thessalonians 3:10). His earnest desire and intention to see them is clear. He even uses the language of bereavement (“being taken from you”) to express his grief. Why did he want to be present with them? Because there was something lacking that needed to be made up through preaching to them and conversing with them personally. There were things he still needed to teach them. James Fergusson reflects on these expressions in this updated extract.

 

1. Christ’s People Need Each Other’s Presence

There is special delight and benefit in the company, presence, and mutual fellowship of the Lords people among themselves. The presence and fellowship of the flock is a special delight to a pastor whose work among them has been blessed by the Lord. Paul’s labours were blessed to the Thessalonians; his absence from them was therefore a great grief to him. For this reason also, he greatly desired their presence.

 

2. Satan Tries to Keep Christ’s People Apart

It is therefore no small part of Satan’s work and business to mar the comfort of any such fellowship. One way of doing this is by sowing strife, division and prejudice among them while they are together (Acts 15:39). Another method is through some way or other scattering them into various places. This means they cannot enjoy the mutual fellowship they would gladly have. Paul says that he was taken from them for a short and the following verse (1 Thessalonians 2:18) shows that this was Satan’s work.

The godly are separated through Satan’s craftiness or malice; this may be in their affections and opinions or in their location. When he has achieved this he does everything to hinder their re-uniting and meeting together again as one. This is how great an enemy he is to the rich benefits that may be had from the communion of saints. Paul says in verse 18 they he would have come to them but Satan hindered it.

 

3. A Pastor’s Presence is Unique

Through the Lord’s blessing, there is a unique power in a minister’s presence and preaching. It is used to begin, strengthen or carry on the work of grace in hearers. This goes beyond what there is in his writings, while he is absent. Preaching has a more explicit promise of this type of blessing (Romans 10:17). Whether behaviour, gesture, or expression, there is almost nothing in the preacher that God has sent to win souls which the Lord does not use to edify one way or another (1 Corinthians 9:22). This is why Paul, not content with writing to them, desires to see their face so much. It is so that he may complete that which was lacking in their faith.

 

4. A Pastor and People Need Each Other’s Presence

A godly pastor delights to be among his flock so much that even necessary absence from them (due to persecution or otherwise) will be grievous to him. It was so with Paul, whose necessary departure from the Thessalonians was no less grievous than a father’s separation from his destitute orphans. This is what the word “being taken from you” literally means.

 

5. Make Use of a Pastor’s Company While You Have it

The Lord’s people have a duty to be wise in making good use of the company and labours of godly and faithful ministers. They may be deprived of them unexpectedly, in a moment and twinkling of an eye. Paul was taken from them for a short time (or in a short time, instantly–as it literally means).

 

6. Christ’s People Have a Bond of Affection Even in Absence

Affection is no small comfort to the Lord’s people in their saddest scattering. Although they cannot enjoy one another’s bodily presence, they may be present with one another in heart and affection. They do this by remembering and thinking about one another’s situation (2 Corinthians 7:3). They should be suitably affected by it (Hebrews 13:3). They should not only pray to God but also by all lawful means to do good to each other (Colossians 4:12). Although Paul was taken from them in presence, he was not taken from them in heart.

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Is Social Media Making Christians Miserable?

Is Social Media Making Christians Miserable?

Is Social Media Making Christians Miserable?
John Brown of Wamphray (1610-1679) was the Church of Scotland minister of Wamphray near Dumfries. One of the great theological writers in the later period of the Second Reformation, he wrote a large number of books and also pastored the Scots Church at Rotterdam.
22 Dec, 2017

Even Facebook themselves now admit that countless studies show social media is bad for us. There’s no doubting its benefit of connecting and sometimes edifying people. The predominant trend of self-advertising, however, fosters discontent with our own lives. It prompts negative self-comparisons. People also find that a virtual community does not replace real community. Online communication may even undermine our face-to-face interactions. Something that brings us together can also create isolation and distance. Edifying one another in the best possible way must not become a casualty of social media excess. Other generations have not faced an identical challenge but Scripture has wisdom for every situation.

Facebook’s former vice-president said recently: “It is at a point where we have created tools which are ripping apart the fabric of how society works – that is truly where we are”. One of the most resonant book titles to summarise our condition is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The author Sherry Turkle, maintains that “as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down”.  “On social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but out profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be”. That can be true even in the way that people present themselves in terms of the spiritual content they share. It’s much easier too to interact in a remote, digital context that reduces our commitment to another believer. In a telling phrase Turkle observes: “the ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind.”  She identifies the symptoms of the malaise with clarity.

“Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they “reveal too much.” They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. It is more efficient, they say. Things that happen in “real time” take too much time. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world “unplugged” does not signify, does not satisfy…We build a following on Facebook … and wonder to what degree our followers are friends…suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection.

Christian community is in danger of being undermined by such trends. How do we address these challenges positively? Scripture contains a great deal of written communication, indeed it is written communication. Yet, amongst Christians, it ranks face-to-face communication far higher than writing. It is remarkable that the apostle John states this bluntly on several occasions. In 2 John 12 he says that he has many things to write but he does not want to write with “paper and ink”. “ I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (3 John 13-14 is very similar).

Writing was limited but unhindered communication would make their joy full. As David Dickson notes, the apostle’s intention was to edify the congregation to whom he was writing. He desired to be present “to instruct and confirm it more fully in the doctrine of faith, that all the faithful…might out of a larger and more fruitful instruction receive more fully of spiritual joy”.

It is a reminder that for all we may read and hear online with spiritual profit, nothing can substitute for someone expounding the Word in our presence. It is also direct counsel that if we want to edify someone as much as we can, we need to see them face to face.

It was the same with the apostle Paul in Romans 1:11-12. “I long to see you” he says. His desire is that they would be together to edify and comfort one another. As John Brown of Wamphray notes, Paul is saying “My love to you is such that I earnestly long to be with you to give you freely of those things which God has given me. Things that may tend to profit and establish you”.

Brown draws out from Paul’s desire important teaching about how Christians need each other and to edify one another in person. Obviously there is also particular teaching for those who have responsibility within the Church for the spiritual wellbeing of Christ’s flock. Paul is seeking actively an opportunity speaking to them face to face to benefit them more than writing. We need to recover this emphasis on the best possible way to edify one another. Giving more time to edifying other Christians in person is essential. Note that it is not merely being together socially but sharing spiritual benefit from our conversation.

 

1. Christian Love Seeks the Best Way of Edifying

Christian love that is strong in itself and arises from a right principle and basis it extends even to those that believers have never seen. It desires to be able to benefit them as much as possible. We can see this in Paul who was most earnestly desirous to see the Romans to be able to do them good

 

2. Every Christian Needs to be Edified

No one is so far advanced in Christianity while they are on this side of the sun that they do not need help and comfort from others. Paul himself confesses that he desired to be comforted or exhorted by the Romans to whom he was writing.

 

3. Christian Fellowship Must Edify

As iron sharpens iron so making right and best use of Christian fellowship rightly is a means by which Christians will be mutually edified and built up. Paul says that his conversing with them would tend towards their mutual comfort.

 

4. How Christian Fellowship Edifies

Christian fellowship is conducted well when it involves declaring mutual evidences of the reality of God’s grace within them. This may involve giving evidence of their knowledge of Christ and faith in Him. They may speak of their mutual experiences of God’s love etc. The mutual faith of both Paul and the Romans was to be known and revealed when they would meet together.

 

5. Every Christian Can Edify

Believers strengthen and comfort one another by means of conversation and other spiritual activities when they meet together. In this they show one another their devotion to and life in Christ. They also admonish and exhort those that are faint and are likely to become weary. The strongest may be profited by the weakest since Paul says that it was by their mutual faith that he would be comforted together with them.

 

Conclusion

We need real and full Christian fellowship and edification and we must not allow other things to inhibit this. We can have true fellowship and edify online but only in a limited way. Social media has its benefits but we need to acknowledge that it cannot substitute for what is real and immediate. We have to learn how to manage its challenges to get best benefit from it. In a dislocated, individualistic world Christians should be able to demonstrate true fellowship that edifies spiritually.

Spiritual Fellowship

Fellowship is a word frequently used by evangelicals today but often it just means little more than being in one another’s company.  Samuel Rutherford shows how believers can stir each other up in spiritual things when they meet together, by prayer and applying Scripture. He makes a compelling case for comforting, encouraging, counselling and even, if necessary, rebuking each other. We are to speak often to one another (Malachi 3:16) and exhort one another daily (Hebrews 3:13) as a means of preventing hardness of heart.

The more the coals are together, the hotter the fire will be.

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