This post is the first of a two-part series on the relationship between agreement and unity, disagreement and disunity. In this post, I want to point out that disagreement is not disunity, and thus (in the positive sense) unity does not require uniformity.
Let’s start with a statement that, hopefully, everyone reading this will agree with: disunity is a major problem among the church. The church is splintered in its expression in spite of being one in Christ. This is a huge problem. However, forcing (or requiring) people to agree with one another about everything does not lead to unity. In the same way, disunity is not caused directly because people disagree with one another.
There are several passages of Scripture that demonstrate that unity can result in spite of disagreement. For this post, I will focus on only one passage: Romans 14-15.
In the very first verse of Romans 14, Paul urges his readers not to quarrel over opinions. (Romans 14:1) From this verse we know right away that there were differing opinions and, therefore, disagreements. In the following verses, Paul illustrates unity in spite of disagreement with two points of theology: 1) eating certain foods and 2) considering one day as more important than others. Each of these are theological issues because the people involved consider the food or the day as important to their relationship with or worship of God.
However, Paul exhorts his readers to remain united in spite of these differences. How should they do this: 1) by each person being convinced in their own conscience, 2) by not passing judgment on others because of the disagreements, 3) by never causing a brother or sister to stumble against their own conscience, and 4) by seeking to please others and not yourself. (Note that this last one is also written in the context of dealing with disagreements.)
Thus, besides each person being convinced of their own opinions, all of the other exhortations focus on the other person, not on the self. As long as we are focused on ourselves, we will seek to lead others into agreement with us. But, agreement with us should never be our goal. Instead, we seek to help each other in our relationships with God. (Of course, if we are not focused on others, then we will assume that WE are correct, that the OTHERS are wrong, and that the only way that they can grow in their relationship with God is for them to change to our way of thinking, understanding, and living. This is NOT what Paul is saying.)
Finally – and most importantly – we all must continually make sure that our focus is on God. As Paul says, God is the source of both endurance and encouragement (Romans 15:5) – both of which we will need to live in unity with those with whom we disagree. But, notice that it is this endurance and encouragement from God that leads to living in harmony with one another and in harmony with Jesus Christ. Harmony (unity) with one another and with Jesus Christ does not come through agreement, but through reliance on God and the endurance and encouragement that he provides.
When we live together in this way – relying only on God, not on our ability to agree with one another – we will find that our lives are lived in unity much like the different voices of a choir (or the different instruments of an orchestra) join together to form beautiful music. Then we will glorify God as with one voice. (Romans 15:6)