During my junior year in college, one of my professors gave an assignment to read the entire New Testament, identifying every reference to the Church. Perhaps the most striking thing about this fruitful exercise was how often the New Testament encourages unity in the church. Unity can be defined both theologically and relationally. This means that the people of God agree in theology and they are bound up in love for one another. Since we worship one God, Christians must be one with each other.
Sadly, unity is often neglected in our churches. Many students have a low view of the Church because they have seen Christians divide over trivial issues. One student recently told me he did not want to become a Christian because there are so many denominations within protestant Christianity. This contradiction may help to explain why so many students leave the faith after they graduate high school. Unity should be sacred among the local church body—it must be protected by leadership and the congregation. But this is not what many students observe in their churches.
Teaching students about the Church’s calling to unity is vital. Gospel doctrine and gospel conduct are two categories that can provide a framework for teaching about unity in the church. Youth pastors should teach their students the gospel and train them to articulate the gospel. They should also teach their students about what it means to conduct themselves in line with the gospel. These two sides of gospel-centered ministry act as safeguards to unity in the church.
The Safeguard of Gospel Doctrine
Any threat to the clear teaching of the gospel is a threat to unity in the church. The center of our faith and fellowship is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul taught this clearly in his letter to the Galatians in which he confronted the believers for abandoning the truth of the gospel. Paul explained that the gospel is the good news of salvation. This was according to the will of God who gave his Son Jesus Christ for our sin and delivered us from the power of Satan. In his grace, God raised Jesus from the dead so that we are justified not by works, but through faith. Ultimately the gospel brings glory to God (Gal. 1:1-5).
This is what we call gospel doctrine and the Galatians had abandoned it. Gospel doctrine is the foundation upon which the unity of the church is built. Without the clear teaching of the gospel there is no good news for sinners. Without the right understanding of the gospel the church is fragile and unstable, like a house built on a foundation of sand. Paul confronted those who had turned away from the true gospel, had distorted it, and ultimately would be accursed if they didn’t repent (Gal. 1:6-9).
As youth pastors, we play a role in protecting the unity of the church as we teach the doctrine of the gospel. We must know the gospel well enough to spot teaching that wanders from the gospel proclaimed in the New Testament. One way that youth pastors can safeguard the gospel and therefore church unity is by confronting a works-based gospel. I am often struck by students who have grown up in the church with clear biblical teaching, yet when asked to explain the gospel, revert to a gospel of works. It is hard for young people to understand the nature of grace, but certainly we must be able to spot such a false gospel and patiently correct it.
The Safeguard of Gospel Conduct
A wrong application of the gospel will also threaten unity in the church. A local church that gets gospel doctrine right but does not walk in gospel conduct is a hypocritical church. The Good News of what Christ has done changes hearts, redefines our identities, and causes us to shine as lights in a dark world. When we fail to walk in step with the gospel, we compromise unity in the Body.
The apostle Peter had made such an error, causing Paul to “oppose him to his face.” We read in Galatians 2:14, “I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” In Galatians 1 Paul confronted those who threatened the doctrine of the gospel, and in Galatians 2 he confronted Peter, who did not have the right conduct flowing from the gospel. In other words Peter acted like a hypocrite—and he jeopardized the unity of the church.
As a youth worker, you play a role in protecting the unity of the church by keeping your conduct in step with the gospel. Seeking to grow in love for one another and in humility are two practical ways to seek unity in the church. Love for one another is a direct response to the love that God has for us in sending his Son. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).
Similarly, when we understand the nature of the gospel we are driven toward humility, which demonstrates a realistic view of ourselves. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Gal. 6:2-4).
As we seek to model these qualities flowing out of what Christ has done for us, we must help our students to keep their conduct in step with the gospel as well.
Painted Ladies and Unity
As I took a stroll around my church campus in Southern California last week, I noticed hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies migrating north toward Alaska. I sat on a bench and watched as a fleet of these orange and black insects flew over the playground and across the parking lot. It occurred to me that we can learn from these butterflies. They were all going in the same direction—and they were going together.
There is no truth so solid as gospel doctrine, no ethic so humane as gospel conduct, and nothing so worthy of our utmost devotion. Our students need help seeing the unity of the Christian faith and of Christ’s Body. The surest way to safeguard the future unity of the church is the training of a generation so that they may move together to the glory of God.