The Difficult Call to Promote Peace and Unity in the Church

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Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from The Peacemaking Church: 8 Biblical Keys to Resolve Conflict and Preserve Unity (Baker, 2018).

“Mr. Heffelfinger, I’m sorry but there’s no easy way to say this. You have cancer. Get to treatment yesterday.”

Those words, spoken in 2005 by an oral surgeon about a fast-growing, killer tumor on the right side of my tongue, set in motion a furious campaign to save my life. Before hearing the “all clear,” I endured the big three: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Gratefully, God preserved my life and kept me preaching, albeit without 30 percent of my tongue.

Any survivor will tell you—the “c” word changes your life forever. Quite the tutor, cancer. I’d never voluntarily sign up for it again, but I wouldn’t trade its lessons for anything. Among them? What a difference it makes when a doctor employs just the right bedside manner. My oncologist modeled an approach with his patients that made me want to come out a better pastor on the other side of treatment.

Dr. G had no problem shooting straight with me when I needed it. More than once he said, “We sent you to hell and back to save your life.” But never once did he demonstrate anything less than the kindest, most compassionate, and gentlest of demeanors. Most of us have heard horror stories about doctors schooled in the Marquis de Sade curriculum of bedside manner. Not my Dr. G.

Laced with Grace

Many of us in the body of Christ could learn a thing or two from someone like my oncologist. Our failures in this regard indict us saved-by-grace types. Philip Yancey rightly challenged our shortcomings with questions like: “If grace is so amazing, why don’t Christians show more of it? How is it that Christians called to dispense the aroma of grace instead emit the noxious fumes of ungrace?”

If we want to make more than a passing grade as peacemakers, we must confront this dilemma head-on. Preserving unity isn’t just about seeing ourselves in the right light—saved by the Prince of Peace and sent to be peacemakers—as important as that is. Unity also has a great deal to do with the specific way we navigate relationships in the church, redolent with love and grace.

In Ephesians 4:2–3, Paul lists five virtues that are absolutely vital if we’re to qualify as excelling in preserving Christian unity:

  • humility
  • gentleness
  • patience
  • forbearance
  • eagerness

Embraced and applied in our lives through the Spirit’s help, these virtues combine to shape an approach to relating to other Christians that is laced with grace. It’s the kind of thing Paul commends when he writes, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5). Similarly he exhorts, “Let your speech always be gracious” (Col. 4:6).

As we work through these five virtues, ask God to help you evaluate your own life realistically in light of their requirements.

Constellation of Virtues

First, be humble. Set your sights first and foremost on pursuing meekness in all your behavior toward God and your fellow image-bearers. Meditate often on Philippians 2:5–11 in striving for the humble spirit that is ours in Christ Jesus. Take extraordinary care in the way you talk to yourself—no human voice makes a greater difference than the one in your own head.

Second, be gentle. If you must address an offense with someone, carefully plan your approach in peacemaking. Think about the best time to engage. Never react from a place of high emotion, frustration, or defensiveness. Choose your words with care, knowing the tongue’s lethal power (Prov. 18:21). Write out your appeal if necessary. Whenever you can, relate in person with someone as opposed to the phone, email, or social media. Too much is lost in communication through these means.

Third, be patient. Don’t prematurely give up on pursuing reconciliation. Give your brothers and sisters time to process. Just because you don’t see a breakthrough on the first or second time doesn’t mean the Lord won’t honor your efforts farther down the road.

Fourth, be forbearing. When you think you’ve taken all you can take of the mess others have caused in your life, more often than not you can endure more. By God’s grace and his Spirit’s help, you can put up with more from the saints with whom you share community in your church. If you give up too soon, you might end up bailing on the very means God has ordained for helping you grow in love and holiness. Church elders, incorporate some version of the question “What will you do when we disappoint you, because we will?” in your vetting of candidates for membership in your church. Help folks see the absolute importance of 1 Corinthians 13:7 forbearance in your community.

Finally, be eager—eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Soak in Colossians 3:13 regularly: “As the Lord has forgiven you”—been humble toward you, been gentle with you, been patient with you, endured with you—“so you also must forgive.” It was said of Thomas Cranmer, the 16th-century archbishop of the Church of England: “To do him any wrong was to beget a kindness from him.”

It sounds like Cranmer was a peacemaker whose approach to difficult people was laced with radical grace. How about you and me?

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