In early February, as we were making our initial coronavirus decisions at our church in China, it didn’t take long to discover there would be many opportunities for disunity. By God’s grace—and as a testimony to the gracious saints in our church—it seems we’ve been able to seek mutual understanding and avoid any huge divisions.
As I see the acrimony ramp up in the United States, I thought I’d share some principles on avoiding disunity.
Reminders to Minister for Church Unity
1. Living out the Great Commandment will look different for different people.
Some will interpret “love your neighbor” as a command to not step foot outside their home for two months aside from obtaining life necessities. Others will feel that “love your neighbor” compels them to get face-to-face time with church members, even if it’s really mask-to-mask time as they keep a comfortable “social distance.”
The former person may indeed struggle with fear or have an underlying idol of health. The latter may struggle with submission or have an underlying idol of independence. But if both genuinely feel they’re trying to honor the commands and wisdom of Scripture, we can be charitable with one another even if we come to different conclusions.
2. People will have different interpretations of statements made by the government or CDC.
For instance, where I live, the government has recommended that people stay inside as much as possible. At the same time, they’ve allowed some places to reopen: parks, restaurants, spas, even high-end fashion malls.
We can be charitable with one another even if we come to different conclusions.
So, what am I required to obey? What does government submission look like? Am I supposed to obey their recommendations, or just their regulations? In my mind, the gap between what the government mandates and what they tolerate has tinges of gray. One church member might say obedience means staying indoors, because that’s what’s been recommended. Another might say obedience can make full use of any allowances the government provides. If I grab lunch with a couple friends—all the while observing requirements to wear a mask and submit to temperature checks—am I submitting to the government or not?
You may have a stance on this question, but that’s beside the current point. For now, recognize that obeying government recommendations isn’t always interpreted by everyone the same way, so we should be careful how we react to those who see things differently than we do.
3. You don’t know everyone’s life.
People have unique pressures and pitfalls. There are stresses in every individual’s life that are outwardly unseen. So, one family may be quicker to quarantine (and remain so longer) because someone has a compromised immune system or a genetic predisposition that is of real concern. Another family may be in a stressful season or have extremely energetic young kids, and they just need to get outside for a bit or have some adult interaction. You just don’t have the omniscience to discern the agoraphobic from the claustrophobic, not to mention all the points in between.
Recommendations for Creating Unity
1. Meditate on 1 Thessalonians 5:12–18.
Slowly read and reflect on Paul’s words:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:12–18)
Ask yourself what it looks like both to respect those who shepherd you and to strive for peace. Then take time to thoughtfully consider where each individual person may be during this difficult time. As I’ve tried to shepherd our church through this season, I’m constantly reminding myself that some people are idle and need to be admonished, others are fainthearted and need encouragement, and some are weak and need help.
Some people are idle and need to be admonished, others are fainthearted and need encouragement, and some are weak and need help.
If I enter every conversation with this in mind—instead of entering to score a point or win an argument—I have a much better chance of preserving relational peace, all while meeting actual needs in the process.
2. Ask lots of questions and seek mutual understanding.
Don’t assume you know why people have made certain decisions. Ask. If you disagree, gently voice your disagreement and allow for some dialogue. You may be able to provide a helpful piece of information the decision-makers don’t possess. Or you may gain a clearer understanding and appreciation for why those decisions are being made.
3. Ministry leaders, over-communicate. And provide clear, written statements on your decisions.
Be sure to have some feedback loops so that anyone under your care has the opportunity to have their questions answered.
Try to schedule as many in-person meetings as you can to check in on how people are doing, and set up video chats if meeting in person isn’t possible in your context. Knowing well the condition of your flock with help you make better decisions and communicate more clearly.
4. Make your decisions without maligning those who’ve made different ones.
If you want to meet with others on Sunday morning and you feel you have grounds to do so (small gathering, taking precautions, and so on), then have your worship service—but don’t call everyone else “pansies” or cowards in the process.
Knowing well the condition of your flock with help you make better decisions and communicate more clearly.
If you decide to cancel your Sunday worship service, be careful with declaring your choice “obvious” or “the only possible biblical decision that someone could make given our responsibility to obey civil authority.”
5. Put the keyboard down.
You don’t need to publicly debate everyone right now. You don’t even need to publicly let everyone know your decisions right now. Have conversations in person as you’re able. Give someone a call. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Agree to disagree sometimes.
We’re all in this together, but we’re not all going to see things uniformly or experience things the same way. Satan would love nothing more than to sow seeds of division during this time. Though we disagree on some things, we can all agree to live out the Great Commandment by pursuing clarity and charity—for the sake of our Savior’s fame and our neighbor’s good.