Unity and Broken Relationships
As we have seen, even after Pentecost the relationship between believers was at times strained. The New Testament records repeated examples of the way that church leaders and individual members dealt with such challenges. These principles are extremely valuable for the church today. They reveal the positive results that can come when we use biblical principles to deal with conflicts and preserve our oneness in Christ.
In this week’s lesson, we will focus on restored relationships and how our human relationships impact our oneness in Christ. The ministry of the Holy Spirit involves bringing people closer to God and to one another. It includes breaking down the barriers in our relationship with God and breaking down barriers in our relationships with one another. In short, the greatest demonstration of the power of the gospel is not necessarily what the church says but how the church lives.
“ ‘By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’ ” (John 13:35, NKJV). Without this love all our talk about church unity will come to nothing.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, December 8.
Paul and Barnabas worked together in witnessing for Jesus. But they had a disagreement over whether they could trust one as fearful as John Mark (Acts 15:36–39). The potential dangers of preaching the gospel had caused John Mark at one point to desert Paul and Barnabas and return home (Acts 13:13).
“This desertion caused Paul to judge Mark unfavorably, and even severely, for a time. Barnabas, on the other hand, was inclined to excuse him because of his inexperience. He felt anxious that Mark should not abandon the ministry, for he saw in him qualifications that would fit him to be a useful worker for Christ.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 170.
Although God used all these men, the issues between them needed resolution. The apostle who preached grace needed to extend grace to a young preacher who had disappointed him. The apostle of forgiveness needed to forgive. John Mark grew in the affirming mentorship of Barnabas (Acts 15:39), and, eventually, Paul’s heart was apparently touched by the changes.
Although details of Paul’s reconciliation with John Mark may be sketchy, the biblical record is clear. John Mark became one of the apostle’s trusted companions. Paul highly recommended John Mark as a “fellow worker” to the church at Colosse. At the end of Paul’s life, he strongly encouraged Timothy to bring John Mark with him to Rome because he was “useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11, NKJV). Paul’s ministry was enriched by the young preacher, whom he obviously had forgiven. The barrier between them had been broken down, and they were able to work together in the cause of the gospel. Whatever the issues between them, and however justified Paul might have believed himself to be in regard to his earlier attitude toward John Mark, it was all behind him now.
While he was imprisoned in Rome, Paul met a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had fled from Colosse to Rome. Paul realized that he personally knew Onesimus’s master. The Epistle to Philemon is Paul’s personal appeal to his friend regarding a restored relationship with the runaway slave.
Relationships mattered to Paul. The apostle knew that fractured relationships are detrimental to spiritual growth and to church unity. Philemon was a church leader in Colosse. If he harbored bitterness toward Onesimus, it would color his Christian witness and the witness of the church to the nonbelieving community.
At first glance it is somewhat surprising that Paul did not speak more forcefully against the evils of slavery. But Paul’s strategy was far more effective. The gospel, ideally, breaks down all class distinctions (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:10, 11). The apostle sent Onesimus back to Philemon, not as a slave but as his son in Jesus and as Philemon’s “beloved brother” in the Lord (Philemon 16, NKJV).
Paul knew that runaway slaves had a bleak future. They could be apprehended at any time. They were doomed to a life of destitution and poverty. But now, as Philemon’s brother in Christ and willing worker, Onesimus could have a better future. His food, lodging, and job could be made secure under Philemon. The restoration of a broken relationship could make a dramatic difference in his life. He became a “faithful and beloved brother” and colaborer in the gospel with Paul (Col. 4:9). Paul was so fervent, so adamant, in his desire for reconciliation between them that he was willing to pay out of his own pocket any financial issues that might have arisen from what happened between the two believers in Jesus.
In these passages, the apostle outlines critical principles for church unity. He points out that Jesus uses different workers to accomplish different ministries in His church, even though each one is laboring together for the building up of God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 3:9).
God calls us to cooperation, not competition. Each believer is gifted by God to cooperate in ministering to the body of Christ and serving the community (1 Cor. 12:11). There are no greater or lesser gifts. All are necessary in Christ’s church (1 Cor. 12:18–23). Our God-given gifts are not for selfish display, and they are given by the Holy Spirit for service in the spreading of the gospel.
All comparisons with others are unwise, because they will make us feel either discouraged or arrogant. If we think that others are far “superior” to us, we will feel despondent when we compare ourselves to them and easily can get discouraged in whatever ministry we are in. On the other hand, if we think our labors for Christ are more effective than is the work of others, we will feel proud, which is the last sentiment any Christian should be harboring.
Both attitudes cripple our effectiveness for Christ and the fellowship we have with one another. As we labor within the sphere of influence that Christ has given us, we will find joy and contentment in our witness for Christ. Our labors will complement the efforts of other members, and the church of Christ will make giant strides for the kingdom.
What is forgiveness? Does forgiveness justify the behavior of someone who has horribly wronged us? Is my forgiveness dependent on the offender’s repentance? What if the one with whom I am upset does not deserve my forgiveness?
Christ took the initiative in reconciling us to Himself. It is the “goodness of God [that] leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4, NKJV). In Christ we were reconciled to God while we were yet sinners. Our repentance and confession do not create reconciliation. Christ’s death on the cross did; our part is to accept what was done for us.
It is true that we cannot receive the blessings of forgiveness until we confess our sins. This does not mean that our confession creates forgiveness in God’s heart. Forgiveness was in His heart all the time. Confession, instead, enables us to receive it (1 John 1:9). Confession is vitally important, not because it changes God’s attitude toward us, but because it changes our attitude toward Him. When we yield to the Holy Spirit’s convicting power to repent and confess our sin, we are changed. Forgiveness also is crucial for our own spiritual well-being. A failure to forgive someone who has wronged us, even if they do not deserve forgiveness, can hurt us more than it hurts them. If an individual has wronged you and the pain festers inside because you fail to forgive, you are allowing them to hurt you even more. Such feelings and hurt often are the cause of divisions and tensions in the church. Unresolved hurt between church members hurts the unity of the body of Christ.
Forgiveness is releasing another from our condemnation because Christ has released us from His condemnation. It does not justify another’s behavior toward us. We can be reconciled to someone who has wronged us, because Christ reconciled us to Himself when we wronged Him. We can forgive because we are forgiven. We can love because we are loved. Forgiveness is a choice. We can choose to forgive in spite of the other person’s actions or attitudes. This is the true spirit of Jesus.
Jesus’ desire in giving the counsel of Matthew 18 is to keep interpersonal conflict within the church in as small a group as possible. His intent is that the two people involved solve the problem themselves. This is why Jesus declares, “ ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone’ ” (Matt. 18:15, NKJV). As the number of people involved in a conflict between two individuals increases, the more contention can be created, and the more it can affect the fellowship of other believers. People take sides, and battle lines are drawn. But when Christians attempt to settle their differences privately, and in the spirit of Christian love and mutual understanding, a climate of reconciliation is created. The atmosphere is right for the Holy Spirit to work with them as they strive to resolve their differences.
Sometimes personal appeals for conflict resolution are ineffective. In these instances Jesus invites us to take one or two others with us. This second step in the reconciliation process always must follow the first step. The purpose is to bring people together, not drive them further apart. The one or two who join the offended party are not coming to prove his or her point or to join in blaming the other individual. They come in Christian love and compassion as counselors and prayer partners in order to participate in the process of bringing two estranged people together.
There are occasions when all attempts to solve the problem do not work. In this case, Jesus instructs us to bring the issue before the church. He certainly is not talking about interrupting the Sabbath morning worship service with an issue of personal conflict. The appropriate place to bring the issue, if the first two steps have not helped to reconcile the two parties, is the church board. Again, Christ’s purpose is reconciliation. It is not to blame one party and exonerate the other.
“Do not suffer resentment to ripen into malice. Do not allow the wound to fester and break out in poisoned words, which taint the minds of those who hear. Do not allow bitter thoughts to continue to fill your mind and his. Go to your brother, and in humility and sincerity talk with him about the matter.”—Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, p. 499.
Further Thought: Read the article “Forgiveness,” pp. 825, 826, in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia.
“When the laborers have an abiding Christ in their own souls, when all selfishness is dead, when there is no rivalry, no strife for the supremacy, when oneness exists, when they sanctify themselves, so that love for one another is seen and felt, then the showers of the grace of the Holy Spirit will just as surely come upon them as that God’s promise will never fail in one jot or tittle.”—Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 175.
“If we stand in the great day of the Lord with Christ as our refuge, our high tower, we must put away all envy, all strife for the supremacy. We must utterly destroy the roots of these unholy things, that they may not again spring up into life. We must place ourselves wholly on the side of the Lord.”—Ellen G. White, Last Day Events, p. 190.
Summary: The gospel of Jesus Christ is about healing and transformation. And when these come, they cannot help impacting our relationship with others. The Bible gives us powerful principles and examples of how we can have good and close relationships with others, even in a world of sin.