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FIRST-PERSON: ‘United we stand, divided we fall’

EDITORS’ NOTE: James Merritt, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, delivered the following message during the Feb. 18-20 Promise Keepers pastors conference in Phoenix.

PHOENIX (BP)–I read about a man one time that went out on a boat deep sea fishing who couldn’t swim. He caught an enormous fish and in his excitement to pull it into the boat he fell overboard. He cried out, “Save me, I cannot swim!” Well, the captain of the boat very calmly reached out, grabbed him by the arm, gave a big pull, but he didn’t know it was an artificial arm, and the arm came off!

Well, the man continued to kick and splash around crying for help. The captain reached out again and this time he grabbed his leg and gave a tremendous pull, but the leg came off because it was an artificial leg. The man went under the water again and he came up yelling for help.

The captain — still calm — grabbed the man by the hair of his head and gave a gigantic pull, but the man was wearing a toupee and it came off. At that point the captain looked at the man in the water and said, “Mister, if you won’t stick together, I can’t help you.”

Even God cannot help a church that is not going to stick together in heart and spirit. If we’re going to be victorious and do all we ought to do as the body of Christ, we must come together, work together, love together and glorify God together.

What I want to talk about is something that God desires for his people and demands from his people. It is the one thing that Satan fears and works day and night to undo. It is something for which Jesus himself prayed just before he went to the cross. It is the one thing that the Bible says will convince people that the church has something the world does not. What is it I am talking about? Unity.

When I speak about unity, let me make it plain that I am not talking about union. Union is when you are bonded with someone with whom you may not have a common bond. I’m not talking about uniformity. Uniformity is when everyone looks alike, sounds alike and thinks alike.

I’m not even really talking about unanimity. There is no place on earth where everybody agrees with everybody on everything. I heard about a lawyer and a psychologist who were making small talk at a party. The lawyer said, “You and your wife get along very well. Do you ever have differences of opinion?” The psychologist said, “Definitely. As a matter of fact, we have differences of opinion very often, but we get over them very quickly.” The lawyer said, “How do you do that?” The psychologist said, “Simple: I never tell her about them.”

We may not always have unanimity, but we should always have unity. By unity I mean a oneness of heart, a similarity of purpose and an agreement on the basics of Bible doctrine and truth. Romans 14:19 says, “So then let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up” (NLT).

When our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin stood up and said, “Gentlemen, now we must all hang together, or surely we shall all hang separately.” I believe that is true for any church.

Satan cannot defeat a united church because there is no place where he can attack the body. Every flank is covered; every side is protected. Even the gates of hell cannot prevail against a church united in its love for the Lord Jesus Christ and its love for one another. But one by one, divided against each other, any of us and all of us can be picked off by his fiery darts.

God expects us to advertise our unity.

In the Bible version the Message, Psalm 133:1 reads this way: “How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along.” It is a beautiful sight to behold when God’s people are united under the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ, and under the umbrella of his authority. In probably the most beautiful prayer ever prayed by anyone in the history of the world, Jesus prayed for the church in the 17th chapter of John, and this is what he prayed:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word; that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).

The Lord Jesus prayed that we would be one. The literal translation of Psalm 133:1 is this: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together even as one.” We are to be one just as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are one.

The Trinity is not a tri-unity; the Trinity is not three Gods; it is one God in three persons. It is a perfect unity. Unity is in the very nature of God himself.

Jesus goes on to say in the 17th chapter of John, verse 22, “And the glory which you gave me I have given them, that they may be one just as we are one.” In a world of political, national, philosophical and theological division, God is glorified, magnified and satisfied when his children are unified.

I want you to notice that twice in this prayer Jesus repeats the phrase “that the world may know … believe that you sent me.” The greatest advertisement for the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a billboard, a newspaper advertisement or even a television program. The greatest advertisement for the gospel of Jesus Christ is a church that is unified in the Holy Spirit and determined to love the Lord Jesus Christ and to love one another regardless of any disagreements they might have.

You have heard it said there is “strength in numbers.” Well, that really isn’t true. There is only strength in numbers if those numbers are unified and united. One brick by itself is absolutely worthless, but many bricks together can make a wall. One shingle by itself is worthless, but many shingles together can make a roof. One link alone is worthless, but many links together can make a chain.

I read about a professor in an Ivy League school who heard about a dinosaur alive in the rain forest of South America. So he launched a scientific expedition to find out if the story was true or not. After several weeks he stumbled upon a little man wearing a loin cloth, standing near a 300-foot-long dinosaur that was dead.

The scientist couldn’t believe his eyes. He said, “Did you kill this dinosaur?” The rain forest native said, “I sure did.” The scientist said, “But it’s so big and you’re so small, how did you kill it?” He said, “With my club.” The professor said, “How big is your club?” The little man said, “Oh, we have about 400 members.”

We can be a mighty club in God’s hands to defeat the devil at every turn if we will be a fellowship of unity. God expects us to advertise our unity.

God expects us to advocate our unity.

Somebody has said that, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, but working together is success.” Why should we come together and work together? Three words that should give you plenty of motivation:

First of all, think of the word family. Psalm 133 was addressed in verse 1 to “brethren.” Brethren here refers to the people of God. If you are going to be brothers you must have the same father. If you have the same father you must be in the same family. That is exactly what a church is; it is nothing less than the family of God.

A great pastor said this: “Conflict is usually a sign that the focus has shifted to less important issues, things the Bible calls disputable matters.” When we focus on personalities, preferences, interpretations, styles or methods, division always happens. But if we concentrate on loving each other and fulfilling God’s purposes, harmony results. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Let there be real harmony so there won’t be divisions in the church. I plead with you to be of one mind, united in thought and purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Dr. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones was riding in England shortly after World War II, and as he was recalling the terror of all of the bombing attacks of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, he made this observation:

“How often during that last war were we told of the extraordinary scenes in air-raid shelters; how different people belonged to different classes, there, and the common need to shelter from the bombs and death, forgot all the differences between them and became one. This was because in the common interest they forgot the divisions and the distinctions. That is why you always tend to have a coalition government during a war; in periods of crisis and common need all distinctions are forgotten and we suddenly become united.”

God expects us to advance our unity.

David not only compares unity to oil, he compares it to dew.

“It is like the dew of Hermon, descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing — life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3).

Now why did David use dew as an example of unity?

Dew makes the land green, it makes it fertile, it makes it fruitful, it increases productivity. Dew gives the land its greatest potential to do what it was created to do — to be fruitful for its creator. What dew does for the land, unity does for the church.

In a parable she entitles, “A Brawling Bride,” Karen Maines paints a vivid scene describing a suspenseful moment in a wedding ceremony. Down front stands the groom in a spotless tuxedo — he is handsome, his shoes are shined and every hair is in place. He is anxiously awaiting the presence of his bride. All of the attendants are in place. The magical moment finally arrives as the pipe organ reaches its high note and the wedding march begins.

Everyone rises and looks toward the door for their first glimpse of the bride, and there is a horrified gasp. The wedding party is shocked; the groom stares in embarrassed disbelief. Instead of an elegant woman dressed in white, smiling behind a lace veil, the bride is limping down the aisle. Her dress is soiled and torn. Her leg seems twisted, ugly cuts and bruises cover her bare arms. Her nose is bleeding; one eye is purple and swollen and her hair is disheveled. Does not this handsome groom deserve better than this? asks the author.

Then the clincher: “Oh no, his bride, the church, has been fighting again!”

Brothers, it is time for us to lay out our arms against one another; forgive and forget; come together around the cross, the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ; and take the gospel to a world that needs to hear about Jesus. No matter what else we say, if the world does not see brothers who love one another, they will never come to Jesus.
Merritt is pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Snellville and the author of “Friends, Foes & Fools: Fathers Can Teach Their Kids to Know the Difference” and “How To Be a Winner and Influence Anybody: The Fruit of the Spirit as the Essence of Leadership.”

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  • James Merritt