It was an exciting proposal. The leaders were all in favor, and the home teachers were thrilled. The idea was to renovate the home of a ward family. The bishopric, the priesthood executive committee, and the ward council were all united in their enthusiasm. This was a service that was desperately needed. To be sure, it would require enormous effort, many hours of labor, and the support of the entire ward. Without total unity, it could not be accomplished.
When the idea was presented in priesthood meeting, there was heartfelt approval, and the brethren began lining up for assignments in work and contributions. The Relief Society sisters quickly prepared lists of volunteers for each phase of the project.
This family whose house we planned to repair had joined the Church just a few years before. Their difficult situation was the product of years of hard but ill-rewarded labor. Nonetheless, each year they shared the abundance of their vegetable garden with many families in the ward. Unfortunately, advancing age, ill health, and scarce resources limited their ability to maintain their home.
As is often the case with such projects, the initial work revealed that the renovation would need to be more extensive than had been initially planned. However, the ward leaders never doubted the inspiration that prompted the effort, and as they asked for even more from the ward, the members increased their efforts, contributions, and sacrifices. It seemed that everyone—young and old, active and less active—came forward to give of their time, labor, money, materials, equipment, skill, food, and moral support. Finally, the work was completed, and everyone involved felt greatly blessed for the experience.
The effort began with inspired vision and the unity of the ward leaders, but the result was a ward that showed signs of fulfilling the objectives of Zion: “They were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).
Achieving true ward or branch unity may be as difficult as it is rare. But great progress can be made in each ward and branch of the Church as leaders and members apply the following principles: (1) learn the doctrine, (2) eliminate contention, (3) forgive others, (4) watch over and strengthen each other, and (5) sacrifice for the kingdom of God.
In the Book of Mormon, Alma instructed the members of his new congregation “that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another” (Mosiah 18:21). Those new Saints in the wilderness of Nephi truly did unite themselves, accepting Alma’s challenge: “And thus they became the children of God. … And they did walk uprightly before God, imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants” (Mosiah 18:22, 29).
Unity in a ward is not just a desirable state; it is a commandment of God and is one of the observable fruits of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord said, “If ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1915–1985) stated: “Unity within the Church and among the saints is the goal of the gospel. There is no place in the Church for division, for disagreement on doctrine, for cults and cliques. … Among the faithful saints there is only one mind and one judgment and these are the Lord’s.”1
As we move toward this goal, we also progress in establishing a ward that is truly unified, displaying increasingly the characteristics of Zion. If our wards and branches are to be spared the divisive influence that has been the downfall of many people, we must avoid the foolishness and precepts of men when teachers and speakers do not focus on “the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves” (2 Ne. 9:28). On many such occasions, “they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (JS—H 1:19).
The unifying doctrines we teach in our meetings (or in our home teaching and visiting teaching visits) must be grounded firmly in the gospel of Christ. President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) put it this way: “We are not set apart to teach philosophies or sciences of the world. We are set apart to teach the principles of the gospel as found in the four standard works. … We are convinced that our members are hungry for the gospel, undiluted, with its abundant truths and insights.”2
The resurrected Savior, knowing the “carnal, sensual, and devilish” nature of most people (see Moses 5:13), taught His doctrine to the Nephites at Bountiful, also warning them: “Neither shall there be disputations among you. … He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil” (3 Ne. 11:28–29). Establishing unity in a ward requires that leaders be alert to every facet of discord that arises, being careful not to ignore the potential for contention to destroy testimony and faith. We must teach what Christ taught, that His doctrine is not “to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Ne. 11:30).
To build unity we must avoid contention by controlling our own words as well as rumor, gossip, accusation, and criticism. The seven evils the Lord “hates” all seem to be associated with the failure to control our thoughts and words. These are “a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren” (Prov. 6:17–19). We must be constantly alert to and eliminate such behavior among us.
In spite of our best efforts, sometimes people in the ward will have hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and hardness toward others. We must not ignore those who have taken offense, whether or not we believe their feelings are justified, for when hardness enters into a person’s heart, his spirit begins to shrivel. The Lord counseled, “My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened. Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin” (D&C 64:8–9).
Unfortunately, this concept has escaped many of us, but as Elder McConkie explained: “It is not the sinner, the transgressor, the offender, the liar who is commanded to take the initiative in restoring peace and unity among brethren. If perchance he should do so, well and good, but the Lord commands the innocent person, the one who is without fault, the one who has been offended, to search out his brother and seek to repair the breech.”3 This principle applies equally to ward leaders, especially bishops, who are sometimes the object of criticism and backbiting. Their example in such situations can determine whether unity governs in a ward or if pride is to rule.
The degree of unity in a ward or branch is closely associated with the efforts of the priesthood quorums and Relief Society in seeing that the homes of all members are visited faithfully and that sound doctrine is taught in these visits. “The scriptural foundation of home teaching is the commandment for priesthood holders to ‘watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them’ (D&C 20:53).” Similarly, visiting teachers are to “offer support, comfort, and friendship.”4
The result of personal contact in the homes of the members is a powerful force for good: “For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one” (Heb. 2:11). Although it can be a slow process to knit hearts together (see Mosiah 18:21), those who put forth the effort will grow in love and charity toward their fellow members. They will become part of each other’s lives and become truly willing to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn together, and to comfort one another (see Mosiah 18:8–9).
Church callings fill a critical role in ward unity, opening the door to greater service as we share our time, talents, and means. The Apostle Paul taught: “And he 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” (Eph. 4:11–12). Everyone needs to feel that he or she is an integral part of the ward; unity and perfection come through involvement in the ministry. President Gordon B. Hinckley teaches that every new convert needs a Church responsibility. This may suggest that without the opportunity to be part of the Lord’s work, the perfecting and edifying process is incomplete and a precious soul may be lost.
“Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.”5 It is also true that sacrifice is the basis of love, and without love we cannot achieve the unity that must exist in Christ’s true kingdom on earth. A people as diverse as the membership of the Church cannot be prepared for Zion, or be truly “pure in heart” (see D&C 97:21) unless “their hearts are honest, and are broken, and their spirits contrite, and [they] are willing to observe their covenants by sacrifice—yea, every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command” (D&C 97:8).
Our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have shown us what true love entails: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). And as Amulek taught, “It is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, … an infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:10). Christ’s sacrifice for us was infinite and eternal, and His love for us is no less. “Power dwells in unity, not in discord; in humility, not pride; in sacrifice, not selfishness; obedience, not rebellion.”6
To exemplify, we might consider the basis of the boundless love a mother feels for her children. Is it not because of her years of sacrifice for their welfare and happiness? The more she willingly gives up the things of the world for them, the greater her love. So it is with all of us; we develop a love for that for which we sacrifice. As we honor our covenants and sacrifice our own interests for the well-being of other Church members, we build a greater unity through love.
Bishops and other leaders must teach, encourage, and give members opportunities to sacrifice for the Lord’s kingdom and for each other. Even as “the first fruits of repentance is baptism” (Moro. 8:25), so payment of tithing and generous fast offerings are the first signs of the sacrifice that leads to salvation.
Unity can and must be developed in each ward and branch of this, the Church of Jesus Christ. My family and I have been blessed to live in such wards. We have witnessed the good that ward unity brings about in the lives of members and in the communities where these wards are located. Our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are one, even as we must become one. Let us, therefore, be fully committed as disciples of the Lord to become united as a church and as a people.
Read together the home renovation story. Invite family members to share similar experiences.
Review the five principles that can enable a ward or branch to become unified. When and how have you been blessed by a sense of true ward or branch unity?
According to Elder Gillespie, what are some ways we can eliminate contention from a ward or branch? How can we encourage the spirit of forgiveness? Invite family members to do something this week to promote unity in your ward or branch.