Unity in the Church appears to be an outdated idea. It was easier for New Testament Christians; they didn’t have so many arguments. Now we have denominations to separate us and to categorize different kinds of Christians. Disputes over who gets to pick the worship music, if one’s baby may be baptized, or whether one can read fantasy fiction are obviously essential. Unity means that all Christians can pretend to agree on everything, because that is real unity, isn’t it? Some sort of spiritual blancmange?
Well, it would be…. if God were Unitarian. But He isn’t. Because the truth is Trinitarian, the unity of believers is consequently not like tofu, but more like an exotic fruit salad. With nuts. Lots of nuts. The flavors of each character complement and enhance the character of the others. We were not saved to live alone, but in community. (“Unfortunately”, some might say).
Unity does not mean that we all must agree on every single doctrinal issue, nor that we do not, in fact, debate at one time or another. Rather, unity finds its identity in concurrence on the essentials of Biblical faith. Dissension, on the other hand, looks for areas of disagreement by which to define itself: “I am a Presbyterian; you are a Baptist.” “We send our kids to Christian school- you homeschool?” “Tattoos are sinful; why do you have one?” Unity, however, identifies the other as fundamentally as a child of God. Christians “are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:26).
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and others emphasize the importance of unity in the body of Christ, giving three reasons for that necessity. One is to glorify God (Rom. 15:6).
This is the chief end of every Christian, and even more so when it is for the good of their fellow believers. Paul explains how to keep unity: “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom.15:7). Colossians reflects this thought–“Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (3:13). Those whom Christ has forgiven realize their obligation to forgive others freely, seeing that they themselves have sinned and been forgiven more than anyone could ever sin against them. Likewise, those whom Christ accepts realize the stupidity of refusing to accept brothers in Christ (Rom. 14:1), even if their brothers do drink beer or have tattoos. God is glorified when we put aside our differences and opinions to reflect the love that He showered upon us.
Another motive for unity is to have a good testimony: Jesus prays “that all of them may be one…to let the world know you sent Me” (John 17:20-21). It is reasonable to ask, “What does it mean to be one?” A Christian’s testimony is not merely verbal, but is demonstrated in actions, for “all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Love in action, therefore, ought to be the defining characteristic of Christ’s followers.
The third reason for Christians to be unified is “so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding” (Col. 2:2), that is, “that they may know…Christ”(Col. 2:2). This thought echoes in Ephesians, which says that the church must reach “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:12). The Biblical emphasis on unity makes it plain that Christianity is not an ethereal religion to which one ascribes without any practical ramifications. Nor can one say that he loves God if he does not, in fact, love his neighbor (1 John 4:20). Getting along with other believers is, therefore, actually necessary to knowing Christ Himself. Darn, we say…And I was just getting this Christian thing down pat.
Interestingly, the Bible uses three metaphors for the Church when talking about unity- a body (1 Cor. 12:27), a building (Eph. 2:21), and brothers (James 1:2,19). The coincidence of all three starting with “b” (in English, at least) is extremely helpful. The three demonstrate respectively the humility, wisdom, and love that ought to be evident in the Church’s unity, and together form a picture that enables believers to grasp the vision God has for His Church.
Body–First of all, Paul does not say that the Church ought to act like a body. He says that the Church is a body- “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), not a pile of separated limbs. Therefore, Christ’s body will either be functioning well or poorly. The parts do not have the option of functioning autonomously. First Corinthians 12 is the longest passage dealing with the Church as the body of Christ, and the chief emphasis is on humility- not saying in pride to another part, “I don’t need you!” (12:21) Paul elaborates in another passage on the same subject: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Rom. 12:3) Humility will be characteristic of those who discern the body of Christ.
Building— Both Paul and Peter use a building as a figure of speech to describe the Church. Perhaps its meaning has been muddied by the association of a church with a building, not as a building, so it is necessary to clear the waters. In Ephesians, it is a “building with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone…which rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (2:21). In 1 Peter, he writes that we are “living stones…being built into a spiritual house (2:5). The Bible’s culminating vision is of the Church as a “holy city…(shining) with the glory of God,” and with a “brilliance like that of a precious jewel” (Rev. 21:11). The succeeding verses parallel Ephesians in affirming the apostles as foundation stones for the building (cf. Rev. 21:14)
Yet the church today tends to be rather near-sighted, always peering up at the most recent famous pastor and discussing the latest theological controversy. Having isolated themselves from centuries of past wisdom and knowledge, Christians find themselves fighting the same battles their ancestors fought, but without the weapons they forged. Understanding the Church as a building means that one will be familiar with the works of the Church fathers, Reformers, Puritans, and other great thinkers of ages past and will be able to develop upon them.
Christians are called to serve each other with spiritual gifts, which were given “so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). Pastoring, teaching, encouraging, administrating, giving, hospitality, and serving can all help other believers to grow in their faith.
Brothers–Familiarity has cast a dullness on the vivid metaphor of other believers as brothers. The modern church has largely ignored this figure of speech, to its own detriment. The deterioration of families may have led to the devaluing of family language, but if so, it is even more necessary to recover the fullness of its meaning in the church. Each community of Christians ought to look after each other, checking up on the sick, helping the elderly, mentoring the youth, and providing for the single mothers and widows.
There are many directions on how to practically live in unity. Galatians tells us to “carry each other’s burdens” (6:2). If one of the members of the body is hurting, the other parts ought to empathize with it. Perhaps a single mother is having trouble with a threatening ex-husband or an elderly widow is in need of companionship. In both situations, the church should be there as their family. Donations to overseas missions impress very few; even non Christians can do that. Loving one’s neighbor– those close to you–is what counts.
Loving the whole world is easy. Loving your neighbor is hard.
Unity is found in this- the humility, wisdom, and love of a community who knows the worst of each other and believes the best (1 Cor. 13:7). The New Testament is not romantically optimistic that believers will always get along perfectly. Indeed, Ephesians is a composed, yet fervent, treatise on brotherly oneness, the last three chapters building a case for the practical implications of the spiritual reality that chapters 1–3 describe.
By living Biblically, Christians can “keep the unity through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Seeing themselves as brothers, they will grow in wisdom, humility, and love as they fulfill their roles in the Body of Christ. The Biblical understanding of “how good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (Ps. 133:1) will be reflected in their words and actions. This unity will glorify God, being both a testimony to the world and the means of His followers growing in the knowledge of His Son. In love, the Church will be able to branch out into even more ministry and service with unity as its center.
Note: This blog dealt mostly with true believers. The second one on this topic deals with typical debates in the church, church discipline, and heresy.