The evangelical church today can hardly be defined by joy; there’s so much fighting, discord and animosity in churches today, that it’s a far cry from what God desired, said pastor John MacArthur.
The influential pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in California was speaking to a large group of church leaders last week at the Shepherds’ Conference, where he called the issue of unity one of the “many concerns” he has.
“Not only are individual churches very often divided, cantankerous, full of factions, animosity and anger but it seems to me that the entire evangelical church is like that — fragmented, split up, hostile, even angry,” he said. “This is a far cry from what our Lord desired when He said the world would know us by our love.”
Division in the church is nothing new, MacArthur acknowledged, as the Apostle Paul addresses it in the New Testament. Paul tried to point believers toward unity for the sake of joy.
“It’s an obvious thing to say the church should be the most joyful assembly of human beings on the planet, right?” MacArthur posed. “Because our eternity is settled.”
But that isn’t the case, he lamented.
“I don’t know if I were an unbeliever looking at the evangelical church today, that I would conclude that it’s marked by joy,” he said.
“Do I need to say the church is divided? Do I need to say churches and the Church is dysfunctional, that it is morbidly and internally hostile to itself in so many cases?” he posed.
“Do we need to say that evangelical Christianity is fractured into all kinds of identity groups that are all demanding their moment in the sun and that everybody pay attention to them and give them what they think they deserve? Do I need to remind you that there are more victim categories than there are victims, and everybody’s been abused and everybody’s been offended? And the price you pay for that is no joy.”
How do churches get to a place of joy as Paul spoke about in Philippians 1? Through unity, MacArthur stressed.
The only way to achieve unity is to be of “one mind,” he pointed out. That means, “it is not inclusive.”
“It is exclusive,” he said.
It excludes those who are “enemies of the cross” — namely, those who propagate and hold to doctrinal error and those in sin, the pastor explained.
And those of “one mind” — the redeemed — must strive together for the faith of the Gospel, he added, citing Paul.
“All the bickering and all the backbiting and all the internal fighting stops when the real enemy shows up,” he said.
“When you look at evangelicalism fighting itself, you know it’s very superficial, they don’t know where the real enemy is. The church is not engaged in fighting for the faith of the Gospel … we’ll just fight each other.”
He called it “ridiculous for so-called Christians to be sinfully battling other Christians with their little petty offenses” when “there is a raging enemy attacking the Bible, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and holiness.”
Only when Christians “wake up and realize they are in a battle for the truth” and against “demonic ideologies,” will the infighting stop, he said.
MacArthur went on to stress that in order to stand in unity and strive together for the truth, Christians must be very clear with their doctrine.
“You cannot unify a church on any other foundation than agreement on sound doctrine,” he emphasized.
“It is the battle against Satan and his foes and all of his corruption that draws the clear lines about what side you’re on,” he said. “Passive, cowardly, kind of feminized church leaders, pastors in churches that don’t fight, don’t know where the line is drawn — they don’t know what team people are on.”
He added, “When people say they hate what we say when we talk from the Word of God, they don’t like what the Bible says about their particular sin or behavior, turn up the volume, turn it up so loud that they can’t get away from it. They need to know whose team they’re on and so do your people.”
MacArthur called on Christians to also suffer together if they want to be in unity.
Summarizing the Apostle Paul’s words, MacArthur said, “Something’s wrong with you if you’re not suffering the same level of conflict that I’m suffering, you’re not going to get off with less; you’re preaching the same message, you’re living the same truth.
“Take the suffering.”
He also called on believers to love and cherish one another and move in one direction to advance the Gospel.
Unity can’t be achieved unless there are gratitude and humility, he further noted. And that all comes down to how one's relationship with Christ is.
"Does it mean anything to you that Christ has taken up residence in your life?" he asked. "The whole Trinity has taken up residence in your life. And they’ve come full of love that pours out all encouragement, all tender care, all communion, … all compassionate mercy. The only response should be grateful love, right?
"You’ve taken the Trinity and all that the Trinity … can pour into your life and you know that the desire of the Trinity is that the church display its unity in joy," he continued. "And you're claiming your square inch of space and you're going to fight?"
Do nothing from selfishness, he quoted Paul. “Do nothing that advances you.”
“If you think you have a right to demand everything you want and expect everybody to give you everything that you want, you’re doing the devil’s work in the church,” he said.
In the end, MacArthur pointed to Jesus Christ as the one who set the standard for humility — where He humbled Himself even to the point of death. And God exalted Him.
Simply, Christians must “act like Christ,” MacArthur exhorted.
“Unity that produces joy in the church is only possible if you are the least important person in your life.”
The Shepherds' Conference is held annually and aims to challenge “men in church leadership … in their commitment to biblical ministry and to find encouragement together as servants of the chief Shepherd.” This year’s theme was “2020 Vision: Doctrinal Clarity for a Confused Generation.”