What I Said to the Pastoral Staff About Unity Amid Differences

The week after Easter the pastoral staff got away for our annual pastors and wives retreat for two-and-a-half days in southern Minnesota. The aim is to deepen and strengthen our marriages and our unified vision for ministry at Bethlehem.

My happy job is to serve that goal in ministering the word on our first afternoon together. What I chose to talk about was being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

The reason for this focus was, negatively, that if this pastoral staff disintegrates in disunity, the damage to the church will be great; and, positively, if God would keep us unified around our mission, the Christ-exalting scope of the impact would be worth dying for.

Our focus was on . . .

Six Biblical Guidelines for Loving Each Other Amid Differences

1. Let’s avoid gossiping.

The New Testament warns against gossiping. The Greek word translated “gossip” means whisper or whisperer. In other words, the focus is not on the falsehood of the word but on the fact that it needs to be surreptitious. It is not open and candid and forthright. It has darkness about it. It does not operate in the light of love. It is not aiming at healing. It strokes the ego’s desire to be seen as right without playing by the rules of love.

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find...that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:20)

2. Let’s identify evidences of grace in each other and speak them to each other and about each other.

The church in Corinth was deeply flawed. But Paul found reason to thank God for them because of “the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:4). The most flawed pastor on this staff—and we are all flawed—is a work of grace. It honors Christ, and keeps criticism in perspective, to see it and say it often.

3. Let’s speak criticism directly to each other if we feel the need to speak to others about it.

The point is not that we will always agree on everything, especially the practical application of shared principles. Paul’s word in Romans 12:18 is, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It may not be possible, but we should try.

4. Let’s look for, and assume, the best motive in the other’s viewpoint, especially when we disagree.

When Paul deals with disagreement in Romans 14, one of the things he appeals to is that those with opposite practical convictions have identical heart-motives. “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6). Christ-honoring passions, Paul says, can unite us in spite of differences of application.

5. Think often of the magnificent things we hold in common.

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!” (Psalm 40:16)

To mention a few things we hold in common: the Elder Affirmation of Faith, the sovereignty of God, the supremacy of his glory in all things, the majesty and meekness of Christ, the all-sufficiency of his saving work, the precious and very great promises summed up in Romans 8:28 and 8:32, the value and sweetness of the Bible, the power and patience of the Holy Spirit in transforming us, the hope of glory, a profound biblical vision of manhood and womanhood, a common global mission to see the nations know Christ...

6. Let’s be more amazed that we are forgiven than that we are right. And in that way, let’s shape our relationships by the gospel.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.... And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. (Ephesians 4:32–5:2)

“The one who is forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). In other words, think more of your own sins and how amazing it is that God saved you than you do about the other person’s flaws.

Managing Our Differences, Moving Forward Together

Then I pondered with the staff some implications for managing our differences as leaders of Bethlehem. A team of leaders does not have the luxury of all going their own way. We must lead the people with a common vision, not different visions. “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8).

Therefore, our job as a team of leaders is together to talk and write and argue and debate and refine our positions until we reach as large a consensus as we can on the major issues.

Then over time we revisit the implementation of these positions and continue the process of refining. And we recognize that the position that we reach may not perfectly satisfy anyone’s preferences. And so we resolve to support the consensus for the greater good without ongoing criticism, but with public support.

I closed by saying that God has given us a great work to do at Bethlehem. The impact that we all have through this church for the glory of Christ is beyond our estimation. It is worth all our efforts and all our lives to preserve the great things we stand for and move forward together.

Please pray for us.

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