The New Testament is full of commands regarding unity among believers. But it is also full of examples where unity is not present. Consider some of the following examples.
1. Disunity among the disciples. “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34).
2. Dispute that almost disrupted the theology and mission of the early church. “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them….” (Acts 15:1-2). 2. Disunity within the first missionary band, breaking up their working arrangement. “Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement so that they separated from each other” (Acts 15:37-39).
3. Dispute that arose between two apostles, Peter and Paul. “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:11-12).
4. Disputes in the early church. “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have laboured side by side with me” (Philippians 4:2-3a). “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers” (1 Corinthians 1:11). “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints” (1 Corinthians 6:1).
Each of the examples I have cited has a differing cause for a quarrel among believers. In the case of the disciples, the quarrel was motivated by pride. In the case of Euodia and Syntyche, the cause of the dispute is unknown, but the apostle thinks it possible to resolve it if others become involved. In the case of the disputes in Corinth, they arose because believers were pitting spiritual leaders against each other by evaluating who was more effective. In the case of the lawsuits, the reason for the disputes is that some Christians had financially swindled other Christians.
But some of the disputes are about theology. Such is the case of the dispute at the council of Jerusalem. Some disputes are about proper Christian practice. Such was the dispute between Paul and Peter. And some disputes are about who is eligible to participate in vital missionary work. Such was the dispute between Paul and Barnabas.
Yes, it is important to maintain the unity of the church. But when disputes happen, it is vital that we don’t wring our hands, saying, “There should be no disunity.” Rather, we should learn to be wise, and in light of Scripture, ask the reasons for the dispute. In some cases, people should reconcile. And in some cases, one party in the dispute needs to repent. But let us do more than simply demanding that we all get along. Let’s learn to be wise. In this way, it is not unity that becomes our highest goal. Rather, it is the glory of God.