Sometimes the smallest things can make a big impact. Like a Coke bottle. You may remember the 1980 South African comedy classic, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which begins when a pilot, flying over the Kalahari, finishes a glass bottle of Coke and tosses it from the window of his small plane. A rural San sees this strange object fall from the sky and receives it as a useful gift from “the gods.” His people begin to use it as a beneficial tool for their various tasks.
But eventually, conflict enters their Edenic existence, disrupting the harmonious life of the tribe, and they begin to fight over this otherwise innocuous Coke bottle. At one point, the bottle becomes a weapon. Finally, Xi—the main character, and leader of the tribe—decides the gods must be crazy for sending this “gift,” and sets out to return it to them by carrying it to the end of the Earth and tossing it over the edge.
I think of that movie when I read through the Book of Acts and come across passages like this one:
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common … There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32, 34a).
However novel it might be, the film depicts this tribe living in a similar, idyllic way: a group of people living communally—in unity—with no basic sense of private property. When their unity becomes threatened by the intrusion of a foreign object from the “civilized world,” their leader decisively upholds the tribe’s unity as infinitely more valuable than this strange item. Their leader goes to great pains to remove the source of disunity and conflict, so there can once again be peace.
A Picture of Spirit-filled Unity
In the biblical story, this kind of unity is only possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit among the first Christians: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:31). Their profound unity is described as their being “of one heart and soul” (v. 32).
One wonders if this kind of unity reflects a rather simple and idealistic wish-dream, but knowing Jesus himself prayed for this kind of unity (John 17:21-24) speaks volumes of its viability. Paul commands his churches to protect unity as they live out the Gospel (Eph. 4:1-6), and explains the necessity of humility for such an enterprise:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:1-8).
To have “one mind” with one another is to have the “the same mind” as Christ. It’s another way of saying believers should be “of one heart and one soul.”
Unity Expressed Through Generosity
The unity of the church in Acts 4 is distinctly expressed through generosity, which takes shape in a physical way through a detachment from things:
“… And no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (4:32-35).
Unity has economic implications. As God pours grace on them (v. 33), they allow this grace to flow through them to others. This radical generosity was a key factor as both a cause and a result of the church’s unity.
The Opposite of Unity-Building Generosity
The narrative of Acts 4 continues by drawing attention to an example of this kind of unity-forming generosity: “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).
Barnabas was not the only disciple showing this kind of generosity (see v. 34-35), but he became the poster-boy of what generosity-shaped unity looked like.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), which comes immediately on the heels of Barnabas’ story, should be read in concert with it. This unfortunate couple, who attempt to copy the generous actions of others, make a fatal error through greed and deceit, undercutting the church’s unity.
Peter prophetically calls attention to the fundamental cause of this deceit—a collaboration between this couple and Satan: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” (Acts 5:3)
Satan’s Divisive Work
Our adversary, who exists to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10) despises the unity of the church—an object lesson of his own demise (Eph. 3:1-10). Wherever there is division, broken relationships, strife, bitterness, or discord, Satan is at work. If he can’t destroy the church from outside (through persecution), he’ll attempt it from the inside (through division). In this case, Satan knew the way to destroy unity was through greed.
When Ananias and Sapphira chose to sin, it didn’t just have an effect on them. It wasn’t a private affair. As much as they thought otherwise, they couldn’t keep their sin hidden. Their greed, deceit, envy, and pride—if left uncovered—would have acted like cancer in the body of Christ, destroying the unity Jesus died for and the Spirit was producing.
The Grace of Judgment
We have a picture of a community living in selfless, sacrificial, generous, loving unity. In the midst of this, Ananias and Sapphira conspire in a way that opposes and threatens this all-important unity. And Jesus will have none of it.
Judgment will be rendered on those who threaten the unity of Jesus’ church by pursuing their own ends, living the exact opposite of unity and humility. God hates it when his church is threatened. In his eyes, the unity of the church is a matter of life and death. Like a jealous, protective husband who will fight, defend, sacrifice, and even kill to protect his wife, Jesus has died for and will protect his own bride, the church.
Jesus loves his church too much to allow selfish people to ruin it and go unpunished. Let’s take this as a warning: creating and perpetuating disunity in the church has dire consequences. When we don’t believe the unity of the church is a big deal, we end up using it for our own ends: we go to be entertained; we refuse to commit and engage in relationship; we hold grudges; we gossip; we leave when something doesn’t meet our expectations or feed our preferences.
All these kinds of selfishness eat away at Christ’s church, and God will bring judgment on those who threaten its unity (see 1 Cor. 11:27-32).
Three Ways to Fight for Unity
- Seek Christ’s mind of humility. Assess your own relationships in the church and discern whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Are you selfishly vying for your own way and your own preferences? Or are you learning to lay down your own agenda and your own desires, submitting them to Christ for the good of his body? The call for us is a call to unity—to oneness—that requires humility, patience, gentleness, bearing with one another, putting others’ needs above our own, and pursuing peace.
- Move towards others, not away from them. Unity is the hard and difficult road because it necessitates moving into conflict when we don’t really want to. It’s easier to avoid people we disagree with, or who have hurt us. Sometimes it’s easier to leave a church than stay and seek peace. When Jesus foresaw conflict in the church, he offered a road of reconciliation that revolved around relationship, not isolation (Matt. 18:15-20). To fight for unity is to pursue reconciliation when we have wronged someone else, and to be impatient with things that cause disunity.
- Be a peacemaker. Walk with others to make peace where conflict exists within the church. Instead of insulating or avoiding, take on the church’s problems and conflicts as our own. As children of God, we are to imitate our Father in peacemaking: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Jesus was our example of this: who, for the sake of his church, went to the greatest lengths to fight for our unity. As our leader, he went beyond the ends of the Earth to get rid of the source of our conflict. He took our sin on himself and has eliminated it forever. This is the gospel we live by, and as such, is the gospel we are to lead with as “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:14-21) who fight for the unity of the church.
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 20 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikephay) or check out his blog.