August 12, 2014

Unity is not uniformity

Again, these key verses for this two-month look at the New Testament church give an image of strong solidarity. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21)

Did these first Christians ever disagree? Were there any church splits as so often happens today? Yes and no. This incident from Acts tells of a sharp difference of opinion, and what was done about it.

“And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (Acts 15:36–41)

Paul may have been right to say John Mark should have been loyal, but Barnabas was also right in offering this man a second chance. Both leaders got their way. Eventually John Mark must have proven himself. Later in history, Paul writes letters to the churches he established and mentions this man in a far different tone.

In Colossians, Paul says, “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord . . . Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him) . . .   These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me . . .” (Colossians 4:7–12)

In 2 Timothy, he writes, “Do your best to come to me soon . . . Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:9–11) and in Philemon, he includes him in his greetings to the recipient of this letter, calling him a “fellow worker.” (Philemon 23–24)

Instead of letting their disagreement start two new denominations, such as “the Reliable Believers” church and the “Church of Second Chances,” they went ahead to the task at hand. They were also “commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” and God in His grace kept them joined together in the work, putting the Gospel ahead of personal preferences.

Getting along is the ideal, but differences are inevitable. What I do with them is important. I do not agree with every Christian on every point of theology and practice, but I do agree that God supplies grace to keep us from division that separates the church.  
Lord, help me be gracious to all, realizing they also need grace to put up with my ideas and ways of doing things. Unity isn’t about uniformity, but about being one in Jesus Christ.

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