True harmony among Christians is as important as it’s ever been.
Long has the church been increasingly marginalized and ignored in modern Western society, but today she is finding herself newly insulted and pressured. And as the numbers grow of those who are actively opposed to many of the truths we hold dear (or at least as the voices get louder), it becomes increasingly important that Christians provide each other the support and true community that we simply will not find anywhere outside the church.
Once upon a time, in a more Christian society, it was easy to distinguish ourselves from other believers by secondary things. Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopalian were among the dividing lines. But in the days ahead, and already now, we will discover that the most important word in our local names is “church.” And even more important than harmony among churches is harmony within churches.
How we orient toward one another in the same congregation and engage in life together is critical in our effort to stand as lights in the world and not succumb to the darkness.
Stand Firm in One Spirit
When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he addressed a community deeply embedded in the pagan world of the first century. As soon as the gospel began to take root in the city, opposition emerged (Acts 16:19). Into this embattled context, the apostle writes about how important the church’s life together is for our witness in society.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27–28)
There’s no dichotomy here between “outreach” and “inreach.” The two are profoundly connected, inseparable even. Our shared mission in the world strengthens our life together in the church, and harmony and depth in the church become powerful forces in our witness to the world.
We’re prone to think of our conduct in the world in largely individualistic terms. Yet here, in charging believers to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,” Paul doesn’t accent individual behaviors, but focuses on the collective harmony of the community. Gospel conduct means the church “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.”
Note both the defensive and offensive aspects to this harmony and community. Conduct worthy of the gospel holds its ground; the church stands firm together in one spirit. The ramparts remain.
But even here — especially here — there is not just defense, but offense. The unified church not only stands firm in the face of opposition, but advances her Christ-given mission — “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” How does this advance happen?
Show Our Opponents Their Wrong
Paul says that such unity, stability, depth, and fearlessness in the face of the onslaught becomes “a clear sign” to the opponents that they are the ones in the wrong. Not a subtle sign, but a clear sign. Through standing unified against insult, slander, and threat — and continuing undaunted in moving forward in the mission — the church shows herself to be true. The strong bonds between saints demonstrate that they are in the sphere of salvation, which means their opponents are in the sphere of destruction.
For some of the opponents, no doubt, such a revelation will only harden and provoke them more. They are already entrenched and will dig in even deeper. But for others, perhaps many others, this revelation will serve as their wake-up call.
Perhaps they had thought they were doing good by opposing the church, but in seeing the resilient joy of this community in its suffering, they recognize the unmistakable ring of authenticity. No longer can they bring themselves to believe that a community of such love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness could be built on a lie. They have seen the life together that they have longed for, but not found elsewhere. Their insults and opposition have had the effect of separating the real from the pretenders, and the church has shown herself to be authentic.
Such harmony and joy in the midst of suffering make the church shine with a kind of peculiar glory that is oddly attractive, even to the world. It is strangely beautiful how this community truly cares for one another, and loves one another, and genuinely sacrifices for one another. The church’s opponents are awakened to their destruction not by being shouted down or finding that a clever Christian got the best of them in a Twitter fight, but by seeing true love on display in the church’s life together.
“See How They Love”
That is, after all, how Jesus himself said it would be. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our final apologetic is not persuasive public rhetoric or shrewdly identifying areas of common concern with society; it is our love for one another. Even in the twenty-first century, some opponents will turn, as early-church detractors did according to Tertullian, and say, “See how they love one another.”
And not only will love and harmony in our congregations help win the lost; they will help keep the found. In a day where we are increasingly marginalized and mocked, it is even more important that we find our greatest place of belonging in the church. Mere attendance and association will no longer cut it. Maybe we could get by, when society was on our side, in thin relationships with fellow believers. But as opposition increases, the richness of our life together in the church will matter more than ever.
“Not only will love and harmony in our congregations help win the lost; they will help keep the found.”
The social pressure against Christian morality may already seem great. And likely it will become greater. But God made the church to rise to meet that pressure together, to be a counter-culture that truly is the community we so desperately long for, better than anything we can find outside.
In the days ahead, we will find that more important than culture-warring is community-creating. Because community conquers culture. It did in the first century, and it will again in the twenty-first.