Working for Unity: Prudential Wisdom

In my sermon this morning, I spent some time talking about how unity produces buoyancy for faith in the church community. Unity provides the structural integrity to the vessel of the church that carries people and supports them in their faith in Christ. The Bible absolutely claims that we should seek purity in the faith, both doctrinally and in terms of morality. But it also claims that we should seek unity as passionately as we seek purity.

Key Passages:

Matthew 5:9-10

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(This isn’t just about our relationships with other believers, but about how we are salt and light in the whole world.)

John 13:34-35

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John 17:20-23 

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Ephesians 4:1-6 

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 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. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Hebrews 12:14-15

Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Romans 12:18

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

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One passage that puts both purity and unity together:

James 3:16-18

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Look at how closely the concepts of purity and unity are placed together in this passage. Envy and selfish ambition create disorder and evil practices. Yet, the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. That is, purity is literally of first importance. Still, all the following ideas are examples of ways of seeking peace. We are to be peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. All of these are relational and social mechanisms designed to create a peaceful and unified social fabric — to create a structural integrity of the community. The community absolutely has to be based on the purity of the Gospel’s truth, but it must be pursued with the utmost interest to peace and unity.

This always requires brave sacrifice on the part of leaders. I discussed that at some length in my sermon today.

But, one of the things I didn’t have time for is this.

Working for unity requires prudential wisdom.

We don’t really use the word prudence that much anymore, but is an incredibly important word. Prudence is the virtue of deciding between things rightly, in their proper order, and in their proper proportion. Once you understand its full definition, most of the decisions of our lives are choices of prudence. We are always weighing in, balancing things, ordering our priorities and setting proportions.

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This is true in two ways in Acts 21 and 22.

  1. Everyone should work for unity and peace at all times through civility and manners.

It is terribly unwise to use up our leaders for petty disunity. This is why it’s so important that everyone in every community work for unity. It is the reason why basic civility and manners are profoundly important at all times. If we know that it will cost our leaders dearly to purchase unity through self-sacrifice, then we should do everything possible not to make that sacrifice necessary. If we know a fire can only be put out by endangering people, we should do everything we can to keep fires from starting, and from growing.

  1. Leaders must learn to use diplomacy, whether or not that diplomacy makes any difference.

Here, Paul was in the worst case scenario. No matter what he did, the crowd was going to call for his execution. They were going to hate him. And yet he still spoke to them as diplomatically as possible. Why?

If rage, and envy and selfish ambition are part of “every evil practice” that shows up in disunity, then creating disunity is blameworthy for the people that do it. No leader should take lightly their part in inflaming the actions that lead to the moral guilt of others. We may not be responsible for the sinful act of others, but we should care that they are responsible for them. Any leader, that is at all a spiritual shepherd, should do everything they can not to inflame the sins of others — even of their worst enemies. This is why prudential virtue is necessary even in the worst case scenario.

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Another reason why Paul was as virtuous as possible even among the most irrational attackers is that there are always more people watching, and the greatest virtue can be shown in dealing with those with the least virtue. Paul’s actions were not only witnessed by a raving mob. They were also witnessed by the church. They were witnessed by the Roman magistrates and soldiers. They were witnessed by the Jerusalem elders. And they were witnessed by Paul’s own traveling companions. His actions affected all of these people, too.

We must always remember when people are shouting at us that they are not the only ones listening. It is almost never the one screaming at you that you are speaking to persuade, even if you are directing your comments at them. In fact, you often never know what will happen to your words and actions. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Faithfulness requires the truth to be said in the way best suited to persuade and bring faith. And so all our speech should be diplomatic, or “seasoned with salt,” in order to draw people both to purity and to unity.


2 thoughts on “Working for Unity: Prudential Wisdom”

  1. This is excellent. Thank you for sharing. I intend to listen to the sermon again….couldn’t get it all in one sitting. Could you provide some examples of how to effectively work for unity in today’s society? Or some examples of how others have done it well?

  2. I don’t have non-partisan examples that would work very well here. But in addition to the above to criteria, I’d add “works for clarity, then compromise, rather than making the waters muddy by pushing for a win.”

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