Last week, after major league baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals finished their season, having made the playoffs for the third straight time along with setting a team record seventeen-game win-steak, the chief of baseball operations fired the Cardinals manager, cryptically saying they had philosophical differences.
Lesson: It’s not easy maintaining unity.
I recently taught a class here at YTI on Romans through Revelation. Personally, I was astounded at the level of conflict the Apostle Paul endured and sometimes caused. It seemed unrelenting.
When others distrusted his claim of a Christian conversion it was Barnabas who vouched for him. Later, Barnabas suggested a young believer and relative named John Mark be invited to join them on one of their missionary journeys. But John Mark washed out at the mosquito infested area of Pamphylia and headed home. When Barnabas suggested later that they give John Mark another try, Paul and Barnabas had such a conflict that they apparently never worked with one another again.
In another incident, Peter had withdrawn from fellowshipping with Gentiles under criticism from Jewish Christians and Paul “withstood him to the face.” When Paul and Barnabas headed out on one of their journeys from a Gentile Christian fellowship, a group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came up to pressure these new Christians to keep the Jewish law, much to Paul’s frustration. And in 2 Timothy 4, near the end of his life, in prison in Rome, Paul recounts that upon his first defense, everyone deserted him, Demas had left him, and that the metal worker, Alexander, had done him much harm.
All this is merely the tip of the iceberg. So much conflict.
But we need go no further than evangelical Christians in modern history. Spurgeon, the greatest preacher in London, in his day, was often embroiled in theological conflict. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was in near constant conflict with his wife who left him four times, the last for good. Amy Carmichael, who started a great orphanage in India, felt marriage should never interfere with ministry, and General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army was such an autocrat that even family members wouldn’t work for him. Again, so much conflict.
This all leads me to this reality: I’m not an idealist when it comes to unity. To be sure, Scripture is clear that we should live peaceably with all people as much as is possible. But as fallen people work this out, it is often uneven.
So let’s look at some ways we can avoid conflict and promote unity and then some proactive ways of modeling a high value on unity.
I often see unity break down over unnecessary conflict. Someone once said that we need to be patient with one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and ways. And I have watched a lot of conflict erupt and seen unity disturbed by the tension of one another’s ways.
Scripture tells us we can live in a way that exasperates others unnecessarily. I’ve seen a breakdown in unity when people get outside their scope of responsibility before the Lord and begin to behave as if everything is their responsibility.
Recall Jesus’ conversation with Peter about how Peter was going to die. Peter looked over at John and asked, “How about him.” Jesus said, “What is that to you?”
I have seen a breakdown in unity when people deify their views as is they came directly from God, probably on tablets of stone. I have seen unity destroyed and replaced by conflict when leaders simply don’t know how to get along with people, or they don’t complete tasks they said they would do. It may seem mundane, but I have seen more leaders leave ministry because of these two items than some kind of biblical or theological transgression. And I have met leaders who seemed to be energized by the drama that conflict created. Sad but true. I could go on, but you get the point.
Ways to promote unity
Let’s look at six behaviors that promote unity. Unity is promoted when we are/I am:
1) Focusing on the big things. What is my calling and am I faithful to it? We may have enemies of our calling, as Paul did, and we must respond by showing respect to our calling. But there are not nearly as many big things as some people make out. The Apostle’s Creed, a statement of Christian beliefs virtually untouched for 800 years, is only about 115 words long. These are big things. On the other hand, something like people using their phones during a movie—alright, it is frustrating, but it really is not a big thing.
2) Serving others regardless of history. This is one of the reasons Joseph’s story is so endearing. Whether Potiphar, or the warden of the prison, or even his brothers who had betrayed him, Joseph found a way to serve, living by a higher principle.
3) Listening without interrupting. My reality is not the only reality and my reality has limitations. After reading Dee Brown’s Native American history of the conquering of the west, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I realized the limitations of my reality.
4) Clarifying discourse. What is obvious to me is obvious to me. In a few months, I will be teaching the course “Conflict and Leadership,” but my primary texts will not be about conflict but about communication.
5) Understanding your triggers. Nearly everyone has things that “set them off.” Leaders must have skill at self-awareness.
6) Forgiving offenses. Scripture tells us that it is a virtue to overlook an offense. In our present era of social media, we see just the opposite value displayed, with the constant critiquing, like a piano tuner. Jesus, on the cross, said, “Father forgive them.” And Paul, having previously given up on John Mark, who was, yes, the Mark who wrote the Gospel, calls three times for Mark to come to him while in prison in Rome, saying “He will be profitable to me in the ministry.” It is an open admission of his own failure to rightly assess another.
Conclusions? First, there is such a thing as righteous conflict, but it is a far narrower band that we often see exhibited today.
Second, a lack of unity saps energy, drains an organization of needed momentum, distracts from the core mission, and ultimately drives quality people away.
So, what is unity? Elusive to be sure, but perhaps it means this: While being loyal to my core values and calling , I choose to value people, for whom Christ died, and treat them with respect. Perhaps with this building block in place, I can move to energizing a group to rally around a noble purpose that “has laid claim to one’s allegiance” for the sake of others.
And why? Because Scripture teaches that we don’t add but we multiply when we are working in a united way. It is the best stewardship of people and vision. Ecclesiastes 4:12 (New Living Translation) counsels, “. . .but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.”