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Keys to Maintaining Christian Unity
One of the most difficult things to maintain through this COVID pandemic is unity. So many families were divided over the issue of mask-wearing or vaccination, and it felt like there was no middle ground. Extreme polarization has hovered over political and ethical debates for a long time, but the influence of YouTube and social media has led to heated debates over medical facts and strong views against government restrictions that were perceived to violate personal rights and freedom.
The church has not been spared from this divide and the health of the church can be compromised when leadership fail to take the right course in maintaining unity. History has taught us that a nation divided will surely fall and we are reminded of the fall of the nation of Israel which Saul, David, and Solomon established.
We learn from the OT that Israel experienced 120 years of unity before splitting into the Northern and Southern kingdom under the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. King Rehoboam had the opportunity to build and strengthen the community, but he chose to exert his power instead and this ‘family feud’ led to 430 years of ongoing conflict between the people of Israel.
I want to highlight a few of the unity killers that we need to watch out for from the account in 1 Kings 12:1-19 and suggest two keys that we can apply in our own context to maintain unity in our personal and church families.
Be Careful Who You Listen To
Rehoboam went to the elders who had served with his father, Solomon, and they advised Rehoboam to show favour towards the Jeroboam and the Israelites, and in turn they will always be his servants (v7). However, Rehoboam rejected the counsel of the elders and heeded the admonishment of his young friends instead.
“The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he (Rehoboam) followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” I Kings 12:13-14 (NIV)
We can also seek wise counsel from elders (pastors) who are steeped in God’s Word and principles to help us navigate decisions that determine the course of our everyday lives. There will be times when the advice given will require sacrifice or humility. It may be easier to seek opinions of ‘supportive’ friends who will tell us what we want to hear but remember that the right thing to do is often the harder thing to do.
We also need to guard against teachings or influences that are contentious and divisive. It is very easy, and dangerous, to feel strongly over certain issues but our opinions or views must not excuse us from loving those that differ from, or disagree with, us.
Be Careful of Selfish Motives
The other king in the story, Jeroboam, was also guilty of inciting disunity out of his selfish ambition and fear. Being the newly elected king of the Northern Kingdom, he was afraid that his people will leave the Northern kingdom and give their allegiance back to King Rehoboam when they go to the Temple for worship. Therefore, Jeroboam encouraged the people to worship the idols that he built instead.
“After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.” I Kings 12:28-30 (NIV)
Jeroboam resorted to spiritual manipulation to serve his own selfish motives. I have seen several biblically functioning communities go down the wrong path when leaders begin to manipulate others by using spiritual language out of selfish motives. When a selfish person fears the loss of their individual rights or freedom, he or she may falsely proclaim a stance or view as spiritual truth without dutiful weighing of Scripture and spiritual counsel.
Jeroboam’s fear led him to manipulate the people by telling them to worship somewhere else, and even went as far as to create idols to distract people from the worship of God in the Temple in Jerusalem. In other words, Jeroboam not only led the people into disobedience, by telling them that they did not have to go to Jerusalem, he also led them into idolatry. We need to be careful that we are not led into the idolatry of selfish motives (self-preservation) but to always base our opinions, decisions, and actions on sound theology and Biblical teaching.
Unity is not Uniformity
Unity is not uniformity and church leaders, like the Apostle Paul, recognize that it takes effort and grace to maintain peace as he wrote to the church in Ephesus:
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” Ephesians 4:1
The main takeaway in all of this is to remind us that there is a direct parallel between the events surrounding Israel and its kings and the Church. Just like God desired unity for Israel, He desires unity for the Church. The same unity killers that affected the nation of Israel are the same ones the Church faces today. Our task is to learn from the mistakes these kings made and rely instead on the grace apportioned to us by Jesus Christ, the King of kings, to keep the unity within our communities.