Purity and Unity

Our church office is bombarded with invitations to new evangelical events. Each advertisement claims to be the most important event since the Great Awakening. Many times, evangelism, discipleship, revival, and worship are the inviting subjects. Who would not want to be united with brothers and sisters in Christ in such endeavors?

Unfortunately, many of these events are filled with compromise in both doctrine and practice. At times I wonder, “Is it really possible to have unity within the Body of Christ?” The answer to that question is simple. Yes, it is possible, but it is often hindered by sin. Unless the sin is addressed, there is no hope for biblical unity.

While undergoing school bus driver training, I was taught how to handle conflict on a bus. Grabbing the crow bar might be effective in ending the argument, but it would end any chance of helping the students reconcile the problem. A plausible method for stopping a fight is to separate the fighting students. That might help end the fighting, but it would not get to the root problem. What would be best? The best solution would be to find what caused the argument and seek a recognition and repentance of the wrong done.

The same is true within a local church. When problems arise, they should be handled biblically. If a sinning brother recognizes his sin and repents of it, there is hope for restoring unity. But until the sin is removed, unity will be lacking. This seems elementary for the local church, but how is it applied to fellowship with other churches, missions, organizations, and colleges? What is the test of fellowship? With whom should we be united? Are Christians duty bound to unity at any cost? Or are there times when there should not be unity? While these questions are not easy to answer, the epistle of James offers several helpful guidelines.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace (James 3:13-18).

James was dealing with problems in local churches. He pointed out that the fighting within the congregation should not to be blamed on God. Instead, it was the result of their own sinful lusts. The answer to their problem was to consider the characteristics of true wisdom: purity, peace, gentle ness, approachableness, mercy, good works, impartiality, and a lack of hypocrisy. With all the fighting and differences of opinion in modern Christianity, is unity really possible? Consider the following three principles gleaned from these verses.

Some things are more important than others.
When James wrote to these warring church members, he told them that one quality of godly wisdom was more important than the rest. In verse 17, he used the Greek word proton (“first”) which emphasizes the rank, influence, honor, or position given to something. When applied to the first item in a list of qualities, it is apparent that James considered it first in importance. He was not negating the other qualities — just emphasizing the first above the rest. He was showing them how to solve their problems in a way that would be pleasing to God. Look again at the list in verses 17-18. You would agree that the characteristics are important. But one of them is considered to be the first, primary, and principal characteristic above all others. How should that importance be applied? One way to apply this is to ask questions. For example, if you were looking to replace your vehicle, you might write down a list of characteristics that are important to you. With the rising price of fuel, you might be most concerned with finding an economical car. But you would also consider reliability, condition, price, power, and many other qualities. Starting with the first characteristic, you would move down the list until you were assured that the vehicle met your needs.

When you are confronted with a conflict in the unity of the Body of Christ, the problem can be addressed in a similar fashion. As God has given a list of qualities within godly wisdom, they should all be considered. But because one of them is considered most important, it should be considered before the rest. And if the first question is answered with a negative, something would have to change before the rest of the list was consulted.

Purity should be our first concern.
What is purity? James uses the Greek word agne which has been defined as something “exciting reverence, venerable, sacred; pure from carnality, chaste, modest, an unsullied virgin, pure from every fault, immaculate, clean.” The basic idea of purity is freedom from sin. Sin causes problems wherever it is allowed to have any influence. No matter how large or small, sin will influence anything involved with it. Because of that, purity will be found in a life that resists the urge to be disobedient to the commands of the Lord. The greatest motivation for purity is the holiness of God. As his children, Christians ought to desire this for themselves. Consider the following passages:

Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God (Lev. 20:7). But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16).

James tells us that the primary quality of godly wisdom is not peace, mercy, good works, impartiality, and several other great qualities. It is purity. It is important because it is what permeates everything about God. Because he is holy, anything less than perfection will not please him. And as God is the one who controls everything, we must conform ourselves to his ways, not expecting him to be conformed to our own.

One of the philosophies that permeates new evangelical Christianity today is pragmatism. Churches are using whatever it takes to reach the lost. That philosophy has been used to justify the use of sensual music in worship and evangelism. Despite the lust provoking characteristics of rock music, many have chosen to couple it with religious lyrics accomplish their goals. The goals may be good in themselves, but when the medium contradicts the holiness of God, is it appropriate?

Purity ought to be the first concern for all Christians. But will purity cause all problems to disappear? No, problems will continue as long as sin exists. But when sin is recognized as a part of each problem, they will be handled better. Removing sin from your own life will help to solve at least one part of the problem.

We should also be concerned about unity.
In verse 17, James uses the Greek word eirenike which may be defined as something “relating to peace; pacific, loving peace; bring peace with it, peaceful.” This describes what is lacking in many congregations. And yet, it is exactly what the Lord Jesus prayed for in the garden. The world needs to see a group of believers who love each other and work together for God’s glory and the benefit of mankind. But that is not always the case.

Peace is something every Christian ought to strive for. In a local church, unity is possible as each church member is living a life of purity and death to self. The problem arises when sin is allowed to get a foot hold. When sin is allowed in our lives, whether large or small, trouble will come. When someone in the congregation allows bitterness to become ingrained, the rest of the Body will be affected. When a church member allows worldliness to overcome his life, that will become an influence on others in the congregation. If allowed to continue, sin will destroy any hope for unity.

Is it possible to have purity and unity in the Body of Christ? Yes, it is possible and both are important. However, true unity cannot exist in the Body of Christ without purity. Christians must strive for unity, but when purity is lacking, true unity cannot exist. So, the first priority must be to keep the purity of the Body of Christ.

Our church received an invitation for a special conference. These usually find their way to the trash can because of the lack of purity. But this time, the conference was sponsored by men whom I had grown to respect. I was happy to recommend it to several of our members. Several weeks later, a closer look revealed that one of the speakers was aligned with serious compromise. Contact with the sponsors and several of the speakers revealed a lack of concern about the associations of the speaker. As long as the questionable speaker did not reference his compromise, they would allow him to speak about the areas with which they were in agreement. It would be easier to let certain issues slide so that unity can continue. However, situations like this need to be addressed for the sake of purity in the Body of Christ. If purity is compromised once, it will be much easier to let future issues slip.

God wants us to be united in the Body of Christ. However, his first concern is that we be holy. Many opportunities will be presented to your church. There will be good causes that you will want to join. But when you are asked to be a part of one of these religious causes, make sure that the effort is first pure. Otherwise, you may find yourself in unity but lacking that purity which God declares to be most important.

September 2005


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