Summary: Throughout the scriptures, we repeatedly find the message of unity, or being one with God, or living in harmony with one another. At the same time, we also find many references in the scriptures about agency, or the freedom to choose for ourselves. At first glance these two concepts seem at odds with one another because in order to be united and live together in harmony, people have to all think alike, yet the idea of agency means that people are free to think differently than others. This article examines how these two principles can work together.
The apostle Paul wrote that the reason why God “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13 ).
Throughout the scriptures, we repeatedly find the message of unity, or being one with God, and living in harmony with one another. At the same time, we also find many references in the scriptures about agency, or the freedom to choose for ourselves.
At first glance these two concepts seem at odds with one another because in order to be united and live together in harmony, people have to hold the same values, ideas, and beliefs, which means they all have to think the same. But to do that means they have to give up their agency to think differently than other people.
For example, among those who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are many differences of opinions on specific doctrines, rules, and procedures. To illustrate this, we can cite the Word of Wisdom as found in the 89th chapter of the Doctrine and Covenants as one example out of many. This section says we should not consume “hot drinks” and the church leaders have defined this as meaning coffee and tea. However, there are those who say that “hot drinks” should also include drinking any hot beverages, such as hot chocolate.
Since modern science has determined that coffee and tea have caffeine in it, there are those who say that we shouldn’t drink anything that has caffeine in it, such as many kinds of sodas and energy drinks. There are some who go so far as to say that since chocolate contains caffeine, therefore eating anything with chocolate in it also violates the word of wisdom. Because of these different beliefs, the church leaders have felt the need to put out a statement clarifying more specifically what’s involved in living this law of God, but wouldn’t that infringe on our agency to decide for ourselves what God means?
Of course, it can be said that people could be misinterpreting the words of the Lord and are adding their own private opinions to what God has said. In such cases, they are holding incorrect ideas by adding to, or perhaps subtracting from, the word of God. Yet, since this is how apostasy starts, then it’s necessary to have prophets who can give us the correct understanding of God’s word. This was the message Paul gave to the Ephesians.
But there are other issues that people disagree on that are not so clearly defined. For example, in a ward council meeting when discussing various problems, everyone there may have a different solution. In cases like this, there is no clear right or wrong way to resolve an issue. Therefore, what the council seeks to do is find the best solution to the problem to the subject they’re discussing.
But even though there may be many differing opinions in a council meeting, there is a one solution that is the right one, except the members of the council are not sure what it is. For that reason, as they discuss various ideas of what should be done, they should do so in a prayerful attitude expecting to receive inspiration from the Spirit to guide them in discovering the mind of the Lord, who does know what is best.
This is the same pattern that members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve use when discussing important issues, many of which involve very difficult and serious situations. If, after much discussion, they can’t come to a united decision, they put the issue aside for the time being in order to give the members of the council time to think, pray, and ponder about what they feel is the best solution. In this way, when they come together again to discuss the issue under consideration, they may come back with a different perspective.
The reason why they follow this pattern is because the Lord has commanded that when making a decision, this group of men must all be united in their decision. In other words, EVERYONE in that council must fully agree with the final solution. Therefore, even though they all have their agency to think and decide for themselves, they nonetheless strive to become united in their thinking.
The apostle Paul explained that the reason why God “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” was to help us come “in the unity of the faith,” but what does that mean?
The word “faith” is usually used to mean believing in something we can neither see nor know for sure, but this is not the sense in which Paul uses that word in this verse. There are many different Christians churches in the world today and each one teaches something different than all the others. It’s those differences in belief that separates them from one another.
We refer to these different churches as denomination or sometimes we refer to them as faiths. For example, there is the Catholic faith, the Methodist faith, the Lutheran faith, etc. As used in this sense, the word “faith” refers to what a particular church believes.
For example, one faith may believe that baptism should be done by full immersion in water, while another faith believes that baptism can be properly performed by sprinkling a little water over the crown of a person’s head, while other faiths believe that baptism isn’t necessary in order to be saved. Therefore, what Paul is telling the Ephesians is that the purpose of the church is to help its members all become united in what they believe.
Since all churches believe that what they teach is the truth, what Paul was telling the Ephesians is that the church exists to help bring us to a unity of the truth. When that happens then, instead of everyone having their own opinion they’ve all come to a knowledge of what is true.
This is the purpose of councils in the church. In the beginning, everyone expresses their opinions of what they think should be done, but as they continue talking amongst themselves and listening to what others say in a spirit of trying to determine the truth, they eventually come together in what they believe.
Therefore, it’s important that we correctly understand the word “truth.”
Truth is the way things really are. Truth is not relative, nor does it depend on what others think, nor does it change. For example, it’s a truth that there is a star, we call the sun, that is approximately 93 million miles away from our planet. That truth doesn’t change just because everyone believes that the sun is just a few miles above our head or that it’s a flaming chariot that a god is riding across the sky, nor does that truth change even if every scientist in the world believes that the sun is a small planet that revolves around our earth.
There are a lot of things people believe are true that in fact are false, therefore the purpose of the church is to help us learn truth – the way things really are, and not the way we imagine them to be. For that reason, if people have different opinions about something, at most only one of them can be right, although all of them can be wrong.
For example, either believing in Jesus is the only way to become saved into heaven is either true or it isn’t. However, it can’t be true that believing in him can save us and following the teachings of Muhammad will also get us into heaven. Only one of those statements can be true, although both could be false.
However, not everything we believe is either totally true or totally false. In fact, nearly everything we believe has a mixture of both truth and error in it. Some beliefs have a lot of truth with a little bit of error mixed in, while others contain a little truth imbedded in a lot of false ideas. Even so, what people tend to do is point to whatever truth is contained in their beliefs and use that as evidence to prove that their entire position is correct.
And this principle applies to non-religious issues as well. It’s been said that people feel the most passionate about their religious and/or political views, but differences of opinion can occur over any issue. We see this in arguments between sports fans, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, and in many other everyday interactions people have with one another. The common element in all these confrontations is that each side is convinced that what they believe is the truth, therefore, whenever anyone disagrees with them then it’s automatically assumed that it’s the other person’s opinion which must be false.
This leads to an obvious fact which is that when people agree with one another it makes it almost impossible to have contention, because it’s hard to argue with someone who agrees with you. Therefore, in order for unity to exist among people they must reach a point in their relationship where they can find something they agree upon, even if it’s merely to agree to disagree.
For example, it’s hard to get into an argument with someone about whether the sun exists or whether the sun is extremely bright because everyone agrees with both of those statements. Therefore, there’s nothing for them to argue about. On the other hand, even when people believe in something that is false, unity might exist for a while, but eventually the truth will be discovered and when it does there will be contention between two opposing ideas.
Therefore, having people come to know the truth is the only way to creating real unity among people. And unless that happens then there can be no lasting peace, joy, or happiness because without unity there is always going to be the possibility of conflict. This was the very reason why there was a war in heaven.
In the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, God had instructed his people to move to Jackson County, Missouri. At first, they lived there in peace, but before long, problems arose among them and the Lord revealed that the reason for this was because “there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them (the members of the church); therefore by these they polluted their inheritances.” (D&C 101:6). In addition to this, he told them that “they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hand” (D&C 103: 3).
For this reason, the Lord told them that they were “not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom; And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself” (D&C 105:3-5).
The city of Zion is made up of people who live the laws of the celestial kingdom, and those laws are based upon the principles of truth. Unless the Lord’s people are united with him and with each other in the truth, he cannot accept them. This is why the Lord said, “be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27).
The saints living in Missouri in 1833 not only had differences of opinions with the Lord because they were not obedient to the things he told them, but they were not united with each other as evidenced by their contentions and strifes. And these disputes were not just about the teachings of the church but were about ordinary, everyday issues where they exhibited feelings of envy, lustful desires, and had a spirit of pride.
It’s only natural and normal for people to have their own personal opinions and there is nothing wrong with that except when they feel they must contend with others in order to prove that their opinions are the only correct ones. It doesn’t matter if the subject is about religion, politics, finances, family issues, or anything else. Whenever anyone feels they need to contend about what they believe, they are attempting to create division rather than seeking to build unity. Worse yet, such divisions create feelings of bitterness, resentment, spitefulness, hatred, and/or anger in people.
The apostle Paul wrote that we should be “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 3). Without unity there can’t be any true peace, and if we cannot be united with one another, the Lord said that we are not his. Therefore, whenever people have differences of opinion, the goal should always be to create a sense of unity that brings about a bond of peace, and the only way that can happen is by finding truth.
It was Jesus who said to those who believed on him, “if ye continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31,32). It is agreed among Christians that whatever God says is truth, so if we want to become united in the truth, then we must become united with God who is the source of all truth, and we do that by coming to know God’s word. And as we live according to the truths he teaches, we will find ourselves being set free from “jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes,” along with its accompanying feelings of resentment and anger, none of which come from God.
Joseph Smith was personally persecuted throughout his entire adult life and was eventually murdered for what he believed, and the early saints were violently driven from one place to another by angry mobs who caused them to suffer inhuman treatment at their hands. Yet, despite all of this, the word of the Lord to them was to “make proposals for peace unto those who have smitten you, according to the voice of the Spirit which is in you, and all things shall work together for your good” (D&C 105:40).
Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). It’s when we seek to bring about peace by bringing about a “unity of the faith” through being united with God’s truth, that we can truly say we are disciples of Christ.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Spiritual Growth