Having just come from a marvelous Shavuot celebration that lasted all through Memorial Day weekend, which included believers at all different levels of background and observance – everyone from what I would call “straight” church through to Orthodox Jewish secret believers, thoughts of unity are much on my heart. Praying through this, I believe they are much on our Father’s heart as well.
Have you noticed that Yeshua’s prayer for his disciples, recorded in John 17 is all about unity? In context, this prayer is spoken immediately before He goes to the garden of Gethsemane, where his betrayal takes place. This is a crucial moment, leading up to the climax of history, and what is on the mind of the Messiah? Unity. Our unity. In part, as He is praying for His talmidim (students/disciples), He speaks these words:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17:20-25)
Earlier in the same teaching, He instructs His followers, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
One of my friends remarked that this instruction and prayer give the effect of a father who is about to leave the room, speaking to his children: “OK, I’m going away for a little while. Please don’t kill each other while I’m gone.” As a mother of seven, this reading makes sense to me. Yeshua, looking down through history, knew what our greatest challenge would be: getting along with each other.
DISPUTES BETWEEN BROTHERS
Looking through the Bible, this is hardly surprising. Start with Cain and Abel, and go from there. Moses was wearing himself to a frazzle, settling disputes between the children of Israel, when his father-in-law saw what was going on and counseled him to put 70 elders in place to help relieve him of the necessity of paying attention to the smaller disputes. The children of Israel needed to have 70 more authorities put in place to help them settle things!
This wise provision indicates to me that we are to EXPECT disputes to arise in this life. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known“ (I Cor. 13:12). In this world, where our understanding is darkened, we should expect to have some differences with people, including other believers, and we should make provision for resolution of these disputes. Notice that many, if not all of the letters in the Apostolic portion of the Bible seem to have been written at least partially to settle disputes that had already arisen in the believing community.
There are so many examples of division between those who are supposed to be loving brothers in Scripture that I don’t need to go into all of them here. I pray that the Father will bring to your eyes and mind the ones relevant for each reader.
To lighten this up a bit, here’s an old but pertinent joke:
A man is rescued after many years on a desert island.
As he stands on the deck of the rescuing vessel, the captain says to him, “I thought you were stranded alone. How come I can see three huts on the beach?”
“Well,” replies the castaway, “that one there is my house and
that one there is where I go to church.”
“And the third one?” asks the skipper.
“Oh, that’s the church I DON’T go to.”
CLUB VS. FAMILY
This may come as a surprise, but after being so long in the Messianic community (24 years, this Shavuot!), I have noticed that those who have grown up in the traditional Christian community are generally less tolerant of each other than those from Jewish backgrounds, whether believers in Yeshua or not. Maybe it’s just that they’ve had so much longer to internalize the lessons of Moses and the elders than we have. Whatever the cause, I think we can learn some things here, from our older brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s not that they don’t disagree with each other (most of you probably know the saying, “where you have two Jews, you have three opinions”), but they are more likely to have mastered the skill of “agreeing to disagree.”
I have heard the different perspectives explained as a difference between a “club mentality” versus a “family mentality.” Jewish people, in general, no matter what their level of observance, view each other as family members. They might roll their eyes at the loudly declared opinion of their obnoxious Uncle Joe, but they don’t tend to decide that he’s too obnoxious to remain in the family. See this video for a prime example:
Those with Church backgrounds are more prone to view their body as an exclusive one, and pick and choose who gets invited to join up, and even then, keep bickering with those who make it past the initiation, building offense upon offense and taking things personally that aren’t meant that way, getting defensive and causing “church splits.”
To anyone with a basic understanding of Church history, it’s hardly surprising to see this effect at work in the body. While there have only been three major branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform) that make room for huge differences of opinion within themselves, the history of the church is like a gigantic, 2000 year old oak tree with all the big limbs splitting, branching off each other, and forming tiny little independent twigs and even splinters. In one town in Georgia, I counted 22 different BAPTIST Churches – and I’m sure each one has its own reason that it’s got a “corner on the truth”! In my observation, this kind of division in the body is one of the main reasons that people give up and leave fellowship altogether. I have a real hard time understanding the point behind “church planting” in the US. Is that really what we need – MORE varieties of church for people to choose from?
Several scriptures came to mind, as I meditated on this issue, and all deserve consideration. They are all related, but I’m going to tackle them one at a time.
1.) Though Peter’s vision is usually called in as evidence in arguments about kosher/non-kosher requirements, I would like to reference it here because the whole point of the vision, given directly by the voice of G-d, is “what G-d has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). As Peter interpreted his vision, he said “G-d has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28b). Peter had a huge discrepancy in practice from those he was called to minister to, but G-d Himself instructed him to not regard these things as a barrier between men and interfering with fellowship.
2.) “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5). I have noticed many times that when some issue disturbs me in someone else, if I pray about it, the issue is usually something I need to address in my own walk. His principles hold true! Isn’t He good to have given us this insight? “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (I Cor. 11:31).
3.) “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). It is amazing how many judgments and divisions are made over outward appearances! We tend to get so caught up in setting up our “club” around things like headcoverings, tzitzit, etc., and only surrounding ourselves with people who look just like ourselves, that we miss a great deal of fellowship with others who don’t have the same convictions in those areas. It is good to have discussions and find out the stories behind these choices that believers make. These are good things, but our motivation to take them on should not be “fitting in.” If you are curious about people’s choices, please ask them about them, and don’t presume they are doing something to be “holier than thou” (even though that is occasionally the case, it usually isn’t). Ask, and prepare to have your understanding expanded by someone else’s journey! I have talked to my children about how one of the enemy’s favorite lies is that we all have to look alike. G-d made each of us with a different role to play, and when we are busy trying to be like each other, our individual lights are dimmed. We get so focused on comparing ourselves to each other that our focus gets off of where it should be – following Him as He has called us to do.
4.) “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for G-d has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for G-d is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:3-4) All of Romans 14 is marvelously on-point for this argument, though I won’t quote the whole thing, as I’m sure you each have a copy and will be good Bereans and give it a read. It talks about not judging each other over which feast days we observe, as well as what we eat. None of these things are what some would call “salvation issues.” “The kingdom of G-d is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). I urge you to give this chapter a read, if you are experiencing unity troubles in your fellowship!
5.) “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of G-d” (Matthew 5:9). Think about it – what is the role of a peacemaker? Usually, the peacemaker is the one that talks to both sides involved in a dispute and helps each of them to understand the other side’s perspective. I don’t know about you, but when I see one of my children peacemaking between their siblings, it makes me so happy and proud that I want to shower the peacemaker with blessings. I am thrilled to call that one “my child”!! (On a side note, Isn’t the L-rd good to give us examples we can relate to? I love that!)
WHAT I’M NOT SAYING
Yes, we are warned against wolves in the flock: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember” (Acts 20:29-31a). This does not mean that we cast “wolf accusations” against everyone who is not on the exact same page as ourselves. Think about the characteristics of wolves. Wolves enter not by the gate (“he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” John 10:1) – they don’t respect the authority that is in place, or ask permission from the shepherd to teach, but go around the edges of the flock, preying on the weak or immature believers. So we should be on our guard against those who use these wolfish tactics, even if they are dressed as sheep.
Also, I am not saying that we have to include all believers in our general area in every meeting we have. The Father puts some in place to walk on the road together, while others need to camp out in the oasis for a while or take time to stop and tie their shoes, or whatever. Some of us are incompatible as traveling companions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect one another. Give Uncle Joe the space to be Uncle Joe. You don’t need to meet him head on, unless you are being obviously called to confront him or warn him of danger – and you usually aren’t.
I am also not saying that we shouldn’t disagree with each other. This is where “iron sharpening iron” comes in. As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend (Proverbs 27:17). But the goal of discussions and debate should not necessarily be to ultimately convince the other to adopt your own opinion. It should be to consider new ways of thinking about a given topic and thereby refine our spirits with another perspective. There is a reason G-d created us with two eyes. If we open both of them, we gain a more complete understanding of what we are looking at. The goal is not to subject each other to increasing levels of “initiation” and grilling.
SO, WHAT ARE WE CALLED TO DO?
“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). As long as we are judging ourselves, rather than each other, we can’t forget to take a look at this incriminating piece of evidence. We all fail at this standard by doing unloving things toward others on a daily basis, as far as I can tell. I know I do.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the L-RD your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” If we never pick another commandment to try to follow, these are enough. For me, the loving G-d part is easy. He is perfect and holy. Our neighbors, on the other hand, are the challenge. They are imperfect, as we are. This is what grace is for. We should also understand, though, that since “all the law and prophets hang on these two,” if we start trying to keep the various laws and instructions in Torah, we will notice that they will teach us what love and grace look like. As long as we focus on internal alignment of our hearts with the commandments, they will tend to drive us toward love and grace, not away from them. The commandments are there to teach us how to love each other, and are chosen as the path of those who love G-d.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Stir each other towards what? LOVE AND GOOD WORKS!! Let me exhort you: both are important! And neither is accomplished by aligning ourselves on teams against each other. Come on, we can do this, people! Stir each other up, but don’t take offense if someone else doesn’t follow your example or do what you encouraged, or even love someone as you would have them do! Encourage them, stir them up, then LET GO!
“He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
“He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him” (Hebrews 7:25b).
(For additional perspective, see also Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 for discussion on members of the body having different functions, strengths and weaknesses, and also I Corinthians 13 for what love looks like!)
In the spirit of this post, please feel free to discuss or disagree, below! 😉