Question g - Peace, Unity, and Purity

Site: Equip PC(USA) Training
Course: Coming Alive in Christ: Training for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons based on the Constitutional Questions
Book: Question g - Peace, Unity, and Purity
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Date: Sunday, June 23, 2024, 9:40 PM


W-4.0404 g.—Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

Biblical Background

W-4.0404 g.—Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

The New Testament letters attributed to Paul reveal the struggles of the early church to maintain peace, unity, and purity. Paul asks the Philippian church to help repair the relationship between two of its members.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2–3, NRSV)

Paul makes the work of reconciling Euodia and Syntyche the responsibility of the whole church. The broken relationship is not just a personal loss but a loss to the Philippian congregation. In the troubled Corinthian church, the divisions are broader and deeper.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? (1 Corinthians 1:10–13a, NRSV)

Paul is making his appeal to a congregation that is much divided. Through the rest of First Corinthians and Second Corinthians we see Paul’s efforts to bring unity to their divisions on a number of theological and moral issues. The beautiful Chapter 13 in First Corinthians that is often read at weddings is really a rose among the thorns of a conflicted church. You can almost feel Paul’s weariness as he closes out this search for peace that spans two letters of the New Testament.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. (2 Corinthians 13:11-12, NRSV)

These serve as examples that the quest for peace, unity, and purity of the church is as old as the church itself.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Read Ephesians 4:6. What is Paul’s concern for the Ephesians? How does he want the Ephesians to work toward unity?

The Local Congregation

Saying “I do” To working for PEACE-FILLED RELATIONSHIPS that reflect the love of Christ  To working for a CONGREGATION UNITED IN ITS MINISTRY AND MISSION  To working for a CHURCH THAT LIVES OUT ITS UNDERSTANDING OF THE FAITH as described in the PC(USA) ConstitutionWhen a person says “I do” to this ordination question, they are committing themselves to a threefold task:

1.     To work for peace-filled relationships that reflect the love of Christ.

2.     To work for a congregation united in its ministry and mission.

3.     To work for a church that lives out its understanding of the faith as described in the PC(USA) Constitution.

All of this would be very easy except that the church is full of human beings We are all, on our best days, trying to live our lives the way we understand God has called us to live. Yet as we grow in our faith we are always faced with change. A congregation is not a static group of people. It is a collection of siblings growing at different rates in the same space.

The church is similar to a vegetable garden. Some plants grow straight and tall. Some are vines that can take over all the space if you let them. Some plants grow unseen until harvest. We see the same things with individuals within the church. The challenge is to nourish this growth while dealing with the conflict that can be caused by different people changing at the same time in the same space. That conflict can be between just two people over a personal issue, as in the case of Euodia and Syntyche, or it can be about several divisions in the congregation as in Corinthians.

The presence of conflict does not mean that your congregation is a problem church. All congregations have problems at one time or another. When you accept that, you will be better able to face the challenge and find solutions. Ruling elders and deacons who do not admit there are problems cannot lead their congregations well.

There is a very human tendency to want placidness, quiet, and agreement. Sessions will use the appeal for unity to promote peace. Sessions can also use an appeal for unity to enforce purity. Neither approach is healthy. What is healthy is creating an atmosphere where people can challenge the status quo and ask questions about the faith.

This may rattle the unity by making some people feel uncomfortable. Congregations are generally uncomfortable about being uncomfortable. The session’s role is to lead in that tension without panic or a simplistic panacea. Sometimes that will mean making difficult choices. It would be rare for a ruling elder to live out his or her three-year term and never face a hard decision. Ruling elders are elected to make decisions. We all want to say yes to anyone’s good idea but there is a finite amount of time and money that can utilized. However, there is an infinite amount of hope and love that can be used to make those decisions.

For Reflection and Discussion:

One member of the congregation is a professional painter. Another member is a professional decorator. They are both willing to re-paint the fellowship hall but have very different ideas about the colors. How would you work toward a decision and maintain the peace, unity, and purity in such a situation?

Conflict Resolution

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, NRSV). This verse from the gospel of Matthew is often quoted to defend a small crowd at worship. In the context of its use in Matthew, it has nothing to do with a crowd size at all. It is really about conflict in the church. Here is the rest of the passage:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:15–20, NRSV)

These verses include some very basic advice about dealing with a personal conflict in a community of faith. The first step is to deal with the conflict one on one in private. If that doesn’t work, invite others in to help you. And if that doesn’t work, go to the leaders of the church.

The primary point, though, is that whether you are talking one on one or with a group, Jesus is there with you. That alone should affect your attitude in the conversation and hopefully the words themselves. Striving to maintain the peace, unity, and purity of a congregation is not just a human task, it is a spiritual task also. There are four actions that can help achieve conflict resolution. They are:

  • To listen
  • To learn
  • To love
  • To lead

To Listen

Whether a conflict in a congregation is between two persons or two groups, the most important first step is listening. If a person does not feel heard, they are not apt to listen as the conversation continues. Be patient and take note of different perspectives. Avoid looking for the holes in the story. We are all sinners, and, in a conflict, there will rarely be saints without some defects. When people are passionate, they can emphasize minor hurts and miss their own place in the conflict. Listen for the real pain or argument. Listen for the remedy sought. Most of all, listen to what the Holy Spirit may be saying in the conversation. Practice discernment by actively seeking insight from the Holy Spirit. These are God’s children talking and God’s children seeking reconciliation and healing. Jesus has promised to be there with all involved.

To Learn

Enter into a conversation about a conflict as a learner. Some key facts will be missed if, from the very beginning, there are assumptions of fault based on previous encounters. In fact, what God is trying to teach in this conflict may be missed. It is a cliché to say we learn from our mistakes. We can learn from others’ mistakes too. Reflect on Paul’s letters to the various churches. What can be learned from those letters that could help with this conflict? Pay attention to your own responses as you listen to the conversation. What words are “pushing your buttons” and why? How is the congregation responding to this conflict? What could the congregation learn about its tolerance of conflict? As a church leader what are you learning that will be part of your discernment about where God is calling the congregation?

To Love

While people may love their point of view or love the sound of their own voice, the word love is not usually associated with a church conflict. As a ruling elder or deacon seeking a way forward, remind those involved how much God loves all of us. Congregations have a tendency to punish people who upset the balance or create tension. In these situations, the word “unity” can become a weapon to stifle all hard discussions. It will be important to look inwardly and be honest about our feelings toward the people in the conflict. Remember that God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to find all of us prodigal sons and daughters and bring us home. Prayerfully consider how the people in the conversation can be helped to find their way home too.

To Lead

It would be ideal if every church conflict could end with satisfaction on all sides but that will not always the case. Our quest for peace dictates that people who cause harm to others must be stopped. Our quest for purity finds some boundaries in the understanding of faith. There was a session that spent a whole Saturday wrestling with a decision. The decision was announced on Sunday and created a great uproar. The next Sunday after worship the session sat facing the congregation and let everyone in the congregation have their say. The session remained resolute and united in their decision but they had given the congregation an opportunity to vent. That was leadership.

Leadership is not about being a bully. It is recognizing that decisions have to be made. Decisions can only be made on the information the session has at the time. People are too quick to fault sessions for making decisions that are seen differently at a later date. No session has a crystal ball. If you have listened carefully, learned all you can, and acted out of your love for God and your congregation, then you have done all you can to provide leadership. That will help nurture the peace, unity, and purity of your church.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Use the four points of conflict resolution to develop a strategy to resolve this challenge:

The new Friendship Adult Study Class has outgrown the room where they meet each week. The long-standing Fellowship Adult Class has a few remaining members but meets in a room that is much too large for their needs.

Beyond the Church Walls

When affirming this ordination question, the promise is not only to promote peace, unity, and purity in the local congregation but also in the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and through its mission in the world. The Confession of 1967 says this:

The church disperses to serve God wherever its members are, at work or play, in private or in the life of society. Their prayer and Bible study are part of the church’s worship and theological reflection. Their witness is the church’s evangelism. Their daily action in the world is the church in mission to the world. The quality of their relation with other persons is the measure of the church’s fidelity. (BOC, 9.37)

That last sentence says plainly that our relationships with people in and out of the church is the testimony to how faithful we are to the gospel. The reality is this: when a person has an encounter with a Presbyterian congregation or an individual Presbyterian, this interaction is going to affect how they see all Presbyterians. So, we must work as a whole church to raise the standard for our relationships so that we further the peace, unity, and purity in the lives of all people.

Raising that standard for the whole church will mean you must be willing to serve the PC(USA) beyond your own congregation. You can bring your wisdom and experience to the table and learn from others. Working with people from other congregations and from other areas of the country will help you see the wideness of our PC(USA) mission. In 1910, the Presbyterian church adopted the classic statement we know as The Great Ends of the Church (BOO, F-1.0304). These audacious goals call the church to its mission in this world. This mission cannot happen if church leaders don’t work together to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church. The call to ordained ministry as a ruling elder or deacon is a call to service and leadership from the people who have identified the qualities and gifts necessary to lead them toward these goals.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Read the Great Ends of the Church in the Book of Order (BOO, F-10304).

How does this ordination question relate to achieving those goals?

What partners would you need to further the peace, unity and purity of the larger church?

Additional Resources

The 214th General Assembly (2002) appointed a Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. The final report contains resources for dealing with church conflicts. It can be found at

Seeking to Be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement, by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Available at

About the writer

The Reverend Gradye Parsons is a retired Presbyterian minister living on a farm in Kodak, Tennessee, with his wife Kathy. Gradye served two congregations as pastor in Tennessee and served as the executive presbyter and stated clerk in the Presbytery of Holston. He worked in the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly and served as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly from 2008–2016. Parsons served almost two years as interim minister of the Fountain City Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is currently a parish associate at Westminster in Knoxville. Gradye and Kathy have two children and three grandchildren.

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