The Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God. That conviction highlights the great need for community. We are not to live in isolation from our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, doing our own thing and keeping to ourselves. God’s ordained means of working is in community. We are to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. To do that takes unity and harmony.
“Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16) quite literally is “be of the same mind toward each other.” It is a both an attitude and a practice of unity and harmony based on our common confession of Christ. In other words, we are to regard everyone in the church the same way – by not playing favorites, or looking down on others in a condescending way. We are not to stick up our nose at others, but are to be willing to interact and minister to every kind of person. The Apostle Paul’s thought here is that we don’t just hob-nob with the people who help us get where we want to go, or who feed our ambitions; we treat everyone in the church with the same respect and attention.
We cannot have harmony without unity because people are to work together for a common purpose in the church. Being of the same mind and working together are not things that just appear out of thin air – there must be a great deal of effort expended to maintain them. Paul told the Ephesian church: Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace(Ephesians 4:2-3). If there is to be unity and harmony in the church there must be a humble willingness to associate with everyone, not just one’s family and friends; there must be patience and a willingness to lovingly tolerate people’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, opinions and perspectives. Every one of us is unique and distinctive, and, so, we must not think that everyone has to be like me or that my way is the only way.
Paul’s point to both the Ephesian and Roman church, churches that had very different people within them (think President Obama and Rush Limbaugh in the same congregation!), is that unity and harmony is not natural to us in our Fallen state. Left to our own devices, apart from the grace of God, we keep to ourselves and only interact with those who think and act like us. Unity deteriorates unless we make every effort at working together toward a common purpose. Paul’s message to the Philippian church was to be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (Philippians 2:2). Joy, which is such a dominant theme in Philippians, comes only as a by-product to the people in the church pursuing and working hard at unity in the gospel. Conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel is to kick up a sweat for harmonious living. To do this there must be genuine conversation, listening, and dialogue; simply stating opinions past each other won’t do for Paul.
The Scriptures tell us to work at unity and harmony because we have this nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is really true, and of others what is not so good. We often inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people. Numerous research studies have revealed this tendency to overestimate ourselves. For instance, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60 percent of students believed they were in the top 10 percent; 25 percent rated themselves in the top one percent. Learned college professors were just as biased about their abilities. Two percent rated themselves below average; 10 percent were average and 63 were above average; while 25 percent rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.” Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”
As long as there is pride there will not be harmony. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the greatest preachers in the church’s history, St. John Chrysostom (4thcentury Bishop of Constantinople), had this to say: “If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches. In Christ there is no rich or poor. Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress, but receive him because of his inward faith. If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure. If you think you are a great person, then think others are also. If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”
The church cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard. Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied. Instead, harmony comes through a shared mission and purpose. If we wholeheartedly pursue together the values of God-honoring worship, open and real fellowship, and a concern for outreach, then we will experience harmony. A divided church is a church that has lost its sense of mission, and is confused about what values they are to embrace. But a harmonious church knows why they exist, who they are, and what they will do together.
But what if someone offends or hurts me? Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14). The great American preacher of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, handled this from a Reformed perspective: “Love to God disposes people to see his hand in everything; to own him as the governor of the world, and the director of providence; and to acknowledge his disposal in everything that takes place. And the fact that the hand of God is a great deal more concerned in all that happens to us than the treatment of people is, should lead us, in great measure, not to think of things as from others, but to have respect to them chiefly as from God – as ordered by his love and wisdom, even when their immediate source may be the malice or heedlessness of another person. And if we indeed consider and feel that they are from the hand of God, then we will shall be disposed meekly to receive and quietly to submit to them, and to own that the greatest injuries received from other people are justly and even kindly ordered of God, and so be far from any ruffle or tumult of mind on account of them.” Edwards was saying not to get all up in someone’s grill about something they did or didn’t do, but to realize that God is working behind the scenes, providentially accomplishing his purposes. We are to take solace and comfort in that truth, and not create division where there is to be harmony.
The Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God. We are to embrace community. Believers in Jesus are in this church thing together. We are to view everyone in the church as my Christian brother or sister. No adjectives needed to describe us – on-fire Christian, lukewarm Christian, super-Christian, or carnal obnoxious Christian. Let’s just take responsibility for one another, for we are our brother’s keeper. So, let us do community by working together in the common purpose of loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor.