DAY 21 Protecting Your Church You are joined together with peace through the spirit, so make every effort to continue together in this way. Ephesians 4:3 (NCV) Most of all, let love guide your life, for then the whole church will stay together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:14 (LB) It is your job to protect the unity of your church. Unity in the church is so important that the New Testament gives more attention to it than to either heaven or hell. God deeply desires that we experience oneness and harmony with each other. Unity is the soul of fellowship. Destroy it, and you rip the heart out of Christ's Body. It is the essence, the core, of how God intends for us to experience life together in his church. Our supreme model for unity is the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are completely unified as one. God himself is the highest example of sacrificial love, humble other-centeredness, and perfect harmony. Just like every parent, our heavenly Father enjoys watching his children get along with each other. In his final moments before being arrested, Jesus prayed passionately for our unity. It was our unity that was uppermost in his mind during those agonizing hours. That shows how significant this subject is. Nothing on earth is more valuable to God than his church. He paid the highest price for it, and he wants it protected, especially from the devastating damage that is caused by division, conflict, and disharmony. If you are a part of God's family, it is your responsibility to protect the unity where you fellowship. You are commissioned by Jesus Christ to do everything possible to preserve the unity, protect the fellowship, and promote harmony in your church family and among all believers. The Bible says, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." How are we to do this? The Bible gives us practical advice. Focus on what we have in common, not our differences. Paul tells us, "Let us concentrate on the things which make for harmony, and on the growth of one another's character." As believers we share one Lord, one body, one purpose, one Father, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism, and one love. We share the same salvation, the same life, and the same futurefactors far more important than any differences we could enumerate. These are the issues, not our personal differences, that we should concentrate on. We must remember that it was God who chose to give us different personalities, backgrounds, races, and preferences, so we should value and enjoy those differences, not merely tolerate them. God wants unity, not uniformity. But for unity's sake we must never let differences divide us. We must stay focused on what matters most-learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, and fulfilling God's five purposes for each of us and his church. Conflict is usually a sign that the focus has shifted to less important issues, things the Bible calls "disputable matters." When we focus on personalities, preferences, interpretations, styles, or methods, division always happens. But if we concentrate on loving each other and fulfilling God's purposes, harmony results. Paul pleaded for this: "Let there be real harmony so there won't be divisions in the church. 1 plead with you to be of one mind, united in thought and purpose." Be realistic in your expectations. Once you discover what God intends real fellowship to be, it is easy to become discouraged by the gap between the ideal and the real in your church. Yet we must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections. Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension. Other believers will disappoint you and let you down, but that's no excuse to stop fellowshiping with them. They are your family, even when they don't act like it, and you can't just walk out on them. Instead God tells us, `Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love." People become disillusioned with the church for many understandable reasons. The list could be quite long: conflict, hurt, hypocrisy, neglect, pettiness, legalism, and other sins. Rather than being shocked and surprised, we must remember that the church is made up of real sinners, including ourselves. Because we're sinners, we hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. But instead of leaving the church, we need to stay and work it out if at all possible. Reconciliation, not running away, is the road to stronger character and deeper fellowship. Divorcing your church at the first sign of disappointment or disillusionment is a mark of immaturity. God has things he wants to teach you, and others, too. Besides, there is no perfect church to escape to. Every church has its own set of weaknesses and problems. You'll soon be disappointed again. Groucho Marx was famous for saying he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would let him in. If a church must be perfect to satisfy you, that same perfection will exclude you from membership, because you're not perfect! Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was martyred for resisting Nazis, wrote a classic book on fellowship, Life Together. In it he suggests that disillusionment with our local church is a good thing because it destroys our false expectations of perfection. The sooner we give up the illusion that a church must be perfect in order to love it, the sooner we quit pretending and start admitting we're all imperfect and need grace. This is the beginning of real community. Every church could put out a sign "No perfect people need apply. This is a place only for those who admit they are sinners, need grace, and want to grow." Bonhoeffer said, "He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.... If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we keep complaining that everything is paltry and petty, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow." Choose to encourage rather than criticize. It is always easier to stand on the sidelines and take shots at those who are serving than it is to get involved and make a contribution. God warns us over and over not to criticize, compare, or judge each other." When you criticize what another believer is doing in faith and from sincere conviction, you are interfering with God's business: "What right do you have to criticize someone else's servants? Only their Lord can decide if they are doing right. " Paul adds that we must not stand in judgment or look down on other believers whose convictions differ from our own: "Why, then, criticise your brother's actions, why try to make him look small? We shall all be judged one day, not by each other's standards or even our own, but by the standard of Christ." Whenever I judge another believer, four things instantly happen: I lose fellowship with God, I expose my own pride and insecurity, I set myself up to be judged by God, and I harm the fellowship of the church. A critical spirit is a costly vice. The Bible calls Satan "the accuser of our brothers." It's the Devil's job to blame, complain, and criticize members of God's family. Anytime we do the same, we're being duped into doing Satan's work for him. Remember, other Christians, no matter how much you disagree with them, are not the real enemy. Any time we spend comparing or criticizing other believers is time that should have been spent building the unity of our fellowship. The Bible says, "Let's agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don't drag them down by finding fault. " Refuse to listen to gossip. Gossip is passing on information when you are neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. You know spreading gossip is wrong, but you should not listen to it, either, if you want to protect your church. Listening to gossip is like accepting stolen property, and it makes you just as guilty of the crime. When someone begins to gossip to you, have the courage to say, "Please stop. I don't need to know this. Have you talked directly to that person?" People who gossip to you will also gossip about you. They cannot be trusted. If you listen to gossip, God says you are a troublemaker. "Troublemakers listen to troublemakers.' "These are the ones who split churches, thinking only of themselves." It is sad that in God's flock, the greatest wounds usually come from other sheep, not wolves. Paul warned about "cannibal Christians" who "devour one another" and destroy the fellowship.'' The Bible says these kind of troublemakers should be avoided. "A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler." The fastest way to end a church or small group conflict is to lovingly confront those who are gossiping and insist they stop it. Solomon pointed out, "Fire goes out for lack of fuel, and tensions disappear when gossip stops." Practice God's method for conflict resolution. In addition to the principles mentioned in the last chapter, Jesus gave the church a simple three-step process: "If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him-work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won't listen, tell the church." During conflict, it is tempting to complain to a third party rather than courageously speak the truth in love to the person you're upset with. This makes the matter worse. Instead, you should go directly to the person involved. Private confrontation is always the first step, and you should take it as soon as possible. If you're unable to work things out between the two of you, the next step is to take one or two witnesses to help confirm the problem and reconcile the relationship. What should you do if the person is still stuck in stubbornness? Jesus says to take it to the church. If the person still refuses to listen after that, you should treat that person like an unbeliever. Support your pastor and leaders. There are no perfect leaders, but God gives leaders the responsibility and the authority to maintain the unity of the church. During interpersonal conflicts that is a thankless job. Pastors often have the unpleasant task of serving as mediator between hurt, conflicting, or immature members. They're also given the impossible task of trying to make everyone happy, which even Jesus could not do! The Bible is clear about how we are to relate to those who serve us: "Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?" Pastors will one day stand before God and give an account of how well they watched over you. "They keep watch over you as men who must give an account." But you are accountable, too. You will give an account to God of how well you followed your leaders. The Bible gives pastors very specific instructions on how to deal with divisive people in the fellowship. They are to avoid arguing, gently teach the opposition while praying they'll change, warn those who are argumentative, plead for harmony and unity, rebuke those who are disrespectful of leadership, and remove divisive people from the church if they ignore two warnings. We protect the fellowship when we honor those who serve us by leading. Pastors and elders need our prayers, encouragement, appreciation, and love. We are commanded, "Honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you along in your obedience. Overwhelm them with appreciation and love!" I challenge you to accept your responsibility to protect and promote the unity of your church. Put your full effort into it, and God will be pleased. It will not always be easy. Sometimes you will have to do what's best for the Body, not yourself, showing preference to others. That's one reason God puts us in a church family-to learn unselfishness. In community we learn to say "we" instead of "I," and "our" instead of "mine." God says, "Don't think only of your own good. Think of other Christians and what is best for them." God blesses churches that are unified. At Saddleback Church, every member signs a covenant that includes a promise to protect the unity of our fellowship. As a result, the church has never had a conflict that split the fellowship. Just as important, because it is a loving, unified fellowship, a lot of people want to be a part of it! In the past seven years, the church has baptized over 9,100 new believers. When God has a bunch of baby believers he wants to deliver, he looks for the warmest incubator church he can find. What are you doing personally to make your church family more warm and loving? There are many people in your community who are looking for love and a place to belong. The truth is, everyone needs and wants to be loved, and when people find a church where members genuinely love and care for each other, you would have to lock the doors to keep them away. DAY TWENTY-ONE THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE Point to Ponder: It is my responsibility to protect the unity of my church. Verse to Remember: "Let us concentrate on the things which make for harmony and the growth of our fellowship together." Romans 14:19 (Ph) Question to Consider: What am I personally doing to protect unity in my church family right now?