This was originally published in the OBF Visitor in 2005 while I served as assistant pastor at Bible Community Church.
Our church office is bombarded with invitations to evangelical events. Each advertisement appears to be the greatest event since Pentecost. Many times, evangelism and worship are the unifying principles. Who wouldn't want to be unified with brothers and sisters in Christ? Unfortunately, many of these events are filled with compromise either in doctrine or practice. This has caused me to wonder. Is it possible to have purity and unity within the greater Body of Christ?
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James was dealing with some problems in a local church. He pointed out that fighting within the Body of Christ was not to be blamed on God; it was the result of sin. The answer to their problems was to consider the characteristics of true wisdom.
As an assistant pastor, I have been given some interesting responsibilities. One of them is driving a bus for the church and Christian school. One of the things I learned during training was how to handle conflict on a bus. Should a driver grab the crowbar and start banging heads? That might be effective in ending the argument, but it would end any chance of helping the students reconcile the problem. Another way to stop a fight is to separate the fighting students. If they can't get along, they need to be separated. 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. With time constraints it might not always turn out that way. But that ought to be the desire of a good bus driver. The same is true within a local church. When problems arise, they should be handled biblically. If the sinning brother recognizes his sin and repents of it, there is hope for restoring unity. But until the sin is removed, unity is not possible or desirable.
I recently received a phone call from an intern at a local church. He was excited about getting the area youth together for prayer, worship, and outreach. Not knowing the fellow, I decided to ask a question before we got too far into the conversation. "So, what is your test of fellowship?" The intern did not know how to answer the question that day but called again a few days later. He was basing his fellowship on a list given to him by a certain Bible institute. This gave me somewhat of an idea of where he was coming from. After telling him that our church did not want to be part of Christian rock music and the ecumenical movement, it became apparent that we would not be working together.
How do we determine our "test of fellowship?" Consider three principles from James 3:17.
Some things are more important than others.
In James 3:17, we find that one characteristic of godly wisdom is more important than others. James uses the Greek word which may be defined as "first in time or place, in any succession of things or persons; first in rank, influence, honor, chief, principal." The idea here is that something is more important than the others. It does not mean that there are no other qualities. Instead, it emphasizes that which is most important.
In the army, should a private be considered equal to a general with thirty years of experience? No, the private is separated from the general by not only years and experience but also by quality of character. A general usually earns his position. When you look at godly wisdom, there is one characteristic that ranks far above all other characteristics. It deserves more respect than all others.
James gives a long list of characteristics to define this godly wisdom. He was attempting to show them how to solve their problems in a way that would be pleasing to God. All of the characteristics listed in verses 17-18 are important. But one of them is considered to be the first, primary, and principal characteristic above all others. How do we apply that importance? One way to apply this is to ask questions. When looking to replace a vehicle, you might write down a list of characteristics that are important to you. You might place a certain price range at the top of the list. You would also determine whether horsepower or gas mileage was more important to you. 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, God's way of solving it may be handled in the same way. Starting at the top of the list, you would ask questions about the situation. Because the first characteristic is primary, you would be most concerned about the answer to that question. If the first question be answered with a "no," you would have to fix that before examining the rest of the situation. So, what is this primary quality of God's wisdom?
Purity should be our first concern.
What is purity? James uses a Greek word which may be defined as "exciting reverence, venerable, sacred; pure from carnality, chaste, modest (Titus 2:5), an unsullied virgin (2 Cor. 11:2), pure from every fault, immaculate, clean." The basic idea of purity is a separation from sin. Sin causes problems wherever it is allowed to have any influence. No matter how large or small, sin will devastate those involved with it. With that danger in mind, purity should always be found in a life that desires to be obedient to the commands of the Lord.
But why should we desire purity? The greatest motivation for purity is the holiness of God. As his children, we ought to desire this for ourselves. Consider the following Bible passages:
Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God.
But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
—1 Pet. 1:15-16
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, 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. But why is purity so important? 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 ways.
One of the philosophies that permeates Christianity today is pragmatism. Churches are using whatever it takes to reach people. That philosophy has been used to justify the use of sensual music in worship and evangelism. Despite these characteristics, many Christians have chosen to couple it with religious lyrics to accomplish their goals. The goals may be good in themselves, but when the medium contradicts the holiness of God it is wrong.
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 is active. But when you recognize sin as a part of each problem you will be more likely to handle the problem correctly. 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 a Greek word which may be defined as something "relating to peace; pacific, loving peace; bring peace with it, peaceful." This definition describes the qualities of a good vacation. I would like to visit a cabin in the woods and just sleep for two days straight. Imagine a nice pot belly stove during the winter and the smell of wood burning. That is my idea of a good vacation. Rest, peace, and joy.
Why should we desire peace? We should desire peace because God does. Think of the Lord's prayer for us in the garden. He prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one. 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.
One of the problems people see in the Church today is the lack of unity. Denominations cannot agree about certain doctrines and so they split. Church members who disagree about a certain issue leave the church they have attended since childhood. The world sees this as a lack of unity and becomes disillusioned by it. But what they and many undiscerning Christians do not realize is that there are some good reasons for unity being disrupted. Peace is something every Christian ought to strive for. We ought to be thinking of ways to work together for God's glory. And as each of us is living a pure life and is dying to self, we have the possibility to live peaceably with all men. So, what hinders peace?
The problem comes from our own sinfulness. When we allow sin into our lives, whether large or small, trouble will come. When someone in the congregation allows bitterness to become ingrained, that bitterness will hinder the unity of the Body. When someone in the congregation allows worldliness to overcome his life, it will influence others in the congregation toward evil. So, to answer our question, the one thing that hinders peace is sin. When sin is allowed to continue, unity will quickly fade away. That leads us back to the primary characteristic of purity. Without purity, we will never have godly unity.
The same problems that were in the early church are prevalent today. And with the growth of the Body of Christ come other challenges. Not only are we to be concerned with our local church but we should also be concerned about our brothers and sisters in other areas of the country and world. As the number of churches multiply, so do the chances of problems.
Is it possible to have purity and unity in the Body of Christ? Yes, it is possible and both are important. However, godly unity cannot exist in the Body of Christ without purity. We strive for unity, but when purity is lacking, we cannot have that much desired unity. Our first priority must then be to keep the purity of the Body of Christ.
At times it is easier to seek unity. We want to let certain issues slide so that unity can continue. If we allow purity to be compromised one time, it will be easier to let future issues slip as well. God wants us to be unified in the Body of Christ. However, his first concern is that we be holy. Many opportunities will come up in your life. 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 unified with error and lacking what God says is most important.