The beloved hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent months. After the armed insurrection at the US Capitol in early January, many called for an end to the use of this song in church worship services. The specific objection was that we must be careful of giving the impression that the church advances by military might.
Without wading into those murky waters, we might add that there is another reason that this hymn sometimes raises eyebrows. Consider these lines, which we so gustily sing:
We are not divided; all one body we:
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
Does that sound like your experience? There are more than two hundred Christian denominations. Within denominations, division is frequently more of a hallmark than unity. Local churches are frequently torn apart by division and, even if they don’t divide members from each other, many Christians divide themselves from the body. We sing, “We are not divided,” but the reality all-too-frequently falls short of the profession.
Psalm 133 is about unity. David perhaps wrote this psalm when, after seven years of north-south division, all Israel came together to crown him as king of a united nation (2 Samuel 5:1–5). It was a glorious time of unity. That unity did not last, to be sure, but, in the moment, it was wonderful to see people gathered in unity.
David employs two images in this psalm to highlight just “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (v. 1).
First, unity “is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes” (v. 2). Unity is a sign of divine blessing. The precious oil with which Aaron was anointed was a symbol that he was chosen by God. Ultimately, Aaron was anointed and favoured by God, not men. David’s point here is that unity in the body of Christ is a sign of God’s favour upon the body.
Second, unity “is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion” (v. 3). Here, David highlights the reality that the benefits of unity are for all of God’s people—from greatest to least. Mount Hermon was the highest peak in Israel, well known for the frequent precipitation. Mount Zion, on the other hand, was a relatively low mountain. But the same dew from Hermon fell on Zion. Both mountains experienced the benefits of the dew. Similarly, when the people of God dwell together in unity, everyone benefits. There is no member of the community, whether perceived to be great or small, who does not benefit from the blessings of unity.
If unity is a sign of God’s blessing, which benefits the entire community of God’s people, what does it take to pursue unity in the church? This is a topic that warrants a great deal of discussion but let me briefly highlight three things.
First, unity requires relationship—specifically a caring relationship of support and respect for brothers and sisters in the church. As we foster such relationships—listening to one another, sharing with one another, praying for each other, encouraging one another, etc.—we come to embrace the unity that exists between believers in the gospel.
Second, unity requires grace—specifically extending grace to one another in the church. As we choose to believe the best about each other, doing away with suspicion, we will find unity fostered.
Third, unity requires humility—toward God and others. Rather than exalt ourselves, we will seek to do what is best for others: praying for them, sacrificing for them, celebrating with them, and weeping with them. As we put others first, unity will become evident.
Today, take time to reflect on the truths of Psalm 133. Realise that unity in the community of God’s people is a sign of divine blessing and that it benefits everyone. Then commit to pursuing unity in the body for the sake of Christ and his people.