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Keeping and Protecting Unity

“with all humility and gentleness, with patience, enduring with one another in love, doing one’s best to guard the unity of the Spirit in the chain of peace.”

(Ephesians 4:2-3)

Guarding the unity of the Spirit? If we can be honest with one another, I think it is safe to say that we have not done a good job of this task. Every man believes what is right in his own eyes and thus denominations abound, churches pop up on every corner, and it would seem that nobody is in agreement as to what those essential matters are, which define Christian unity. There’s a book in that…actually, there are several books in that. Lord willing we will see a couple of them come to fruition by the end of the year. For the moment, a few points of interest from Paul’s text in these verses. 

First, unity is worth defending (and fighting to restore when broken). This does not mean that unity is to be achieved by the wishy-washy ecumenical movement that rejects doctrine and diminishes Christianity to one’s personal preferences. No, that is not the unity that Paul is addressing here in this passage. In fact, that is no unity at all because it is based on a spiritually immature view of the faith (as Paul will further develop). No, unity that is based in the Spirit of God is a unity that binds like a chain — it is strong, unyielding, and will keep those who are prisoners of Christ, well, prisoners of Christ. Indeed, that chain is here described as a chain of peace. Peace is only found in proper relationship with Christ and we will not remain in a bond of peace with one another if that relationship with Christ is not first addressed. No, that is not the unity of ecumenicalism nor is it the unity that is found in much of evangelicalism today. In fact, much of evangelicalism, in their goal to distance themselves both from Rome and from ecumenicism, has turned a blind eye to the whole notion of unity.

You might be tempted to say, but what about the humility, gentleness (πραΰτης — prautes, which refers to strength that is under control), patience (μακροθυμία — makrothumia, which more literally translates to “long-suffering”), and enduring with one another in love? Indeed, all of these are essential to keeping or preserving the unity that is had. Yet, they are unable to produce unity in and of themselves. They are essential once unity is attained, but if unity is not present, they are little more than benevolent feelings and well-wishes.

And so, Paul gives us the basis for how unity is guarded and in the verses that follow, Paul gives us the basis for what unity is in the church of Jesus Christ. The real question is whether or not we are willing to submit to the Word of God and seek that unity as is prescribed in Scripture rather than the unity that is feigned by men.

Unity, Busyness, Tolerance, and Compromise: Not Synonymous

One of the attributes of the church, toward which we are called to strive, is unity. Indeed, how “good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1) and how important it is that we strive to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” that must exist within the church (Ephesians 4:3). Truly, it is a wonderful and a beautiful thing to see Biblical unity growing amongst the body of Christ.

But Biblical, Christian unity is hard and it takes work. As a result many other things often get put in its place. Sometimes the church becomes busy with activities, something akin to the work of a beehive, with everyone buzzing around consumed by the things that must be accomplished. At times like this, there is so much going on that it feels as if people are united, though no one has the time to notice that the unity is tenuous at best. Activities unite them rather than the worship of Christ. How sad it is that churches often fall into this trap. 

Sometimes those activities take the form of a program — things to research, demographic studies, and drawing conclusions about the community around them. Sadly, of course, most of the conclusions drawn are fairly obvious to those who have lived in the community for any length of time; nevertheless, such studies are often pursued with great energy and vigor. The church that I attended as a child was much like this — there was always a program going on and when a program ran its course, there was a pursuit of a new program to fill the void.

Then something happens and the activities either slow down, come to a close, or are halted for one reason or another. In the absence the activity or program, the problems that these things covered up come to the surface and people begin to face the reality that they have to either avoid one another or begin engaging in more authentic ways. Truly, this does not have to be a bad thing; in fact it is a very healthy thing for the body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is an uncomfortable thing that many people are unwilling to confront and many fall away, seeking other busy places.

Sadly, busyness is not the only thing that the church sometimes substitutes for Biblical unity. Sometimes unity is confused with tolerance. Tolerance is the practice of being willing to accept ideas and practices that one disagrees with for the sake of avoiding strife. This does not need to be an insidious thing, but it becomes so when tolerance is only a public persona and, when in private, the gossip begins. Then tolerance becomes little more than disgruntled resentment. Once again, authentic relationship is avoided lest the anger or frustration come to the surface and the facade of unity be laid bare and shown to be the hollow thing that it really is.

The sister of tolerance is compromise. How often people fail to face or take stands on difficult subjects because of fear of disagreement. Rather than working through differences in submission to a standard (the Bible), those differences are considered to be secondary and non-essential to unity. While indeed, some differences are non-essential to unity, when one begins down the pathway of compromising truth for the sake of unity, eventually essentials will be placed in the category of non-essentials. Further, compromise in this way is often a denial of both the notion of absolute Truth, the belief in the understandability of the Word of God, and also a denial of the rules of logic.

Compromise denies the notion of absolute Truth because it assumes that there is no absolute True answer to a given question. When there is a disagreement, there are only three possible options: Person “A” is right and person “B” is wrong, Person “A” is wrong and person “B” is right, or both Person “A” and “B” are wrong. And since God has given us minds to think and reason as well as His Word to study, shall we not labor to determine the right answer and not compromise?

Compromise denies that the Scriptures can be properly understood when it comes to important matters. In theological terms, we speak of this in terms of “perspicuity” or “clarity.” In other words, we say that the scriptures are crystal clear when it comes to the essentials for salvation while there are other things that are more opaque in nature. Does this principle, then, teach that there are things on which we must compromise? Not really. It simply teaches that there are some things on which we must labor more carefully and dig deeper. Yet, many of these matters have already been fleshed out for us by those who have gone before us and have written the Creeds and Confessions which we have inherited as a church. In this fashion, the church worked through the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, but it also spoke of baptism, worship, and many other things that we still debate about. Isn’t it interesting that our tendency to “pick and choose” what we like from an early council or confession leads us into compromise?

Compromise also denies the rules of logic. Logic no longer seems to be “in vogue” these days, but nevertheless, logic is essential for communication, invention, and life in community. While society might like to play fast and loose with logic, the church must not. The most basic principle of logic is referred to as “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” This can be summarized as the idea that “A” cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same way. For our purposes, we must be clear that two mutually-exclusive ideas cannot both be correct. For instance, either the sprinkling only view or the immersion only view of baptism is correct. Both cannot be so as they are mutually contradictory positions. Churches that choose to accept any view you hold are making a compromise for the sake of unity, but in doing so, deny the basic laws of logic.

More importantly, in all of these areas (compromise, tolerance, and busyness) we end up seeking to create a kind of unity by human means, not by divine means or by Biblical means. Isn’t it interesting that as much as the Bible speaks about Christian unity, Christians rarely look to the Bible to provide the means and definition of said unity. Whether we attribute it to our sin nature or to our downright active rebellion against God, we as the Church, must address what God says about our unity and then pursue God’s means of achieving it.

To begin with, true Christian unity, begins with an attitude of the heart. King David writes: “Instruct me, Yahweh, in your way so that I can walk in your truth; unite my heart to the fear of your name.” (Psalm 86:11). In other words, if we are going to have any sort of unity in the church, our hearts must first be united in the fear of the Lord and we must be a people who are committed to the instruction of the Lord’s ways. Yet, how often this is the last thing that church bodies look toward when it comes to binding together in unity. Nevertheless, it is the first step in moving in that direction.

The Apostle Paul builds upon what it is that David says when he writes: “I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in order that you all agree and that there might not be divisions amongst you. Yet, be united in the same mind and in the same intent.” (1 Corinthians 1:10). One of the great problems that Paul was addressing in the Corinthian church was divisions and factions which were tearing the church apart and creating all sorts of avenues for sin. Yet, you will notice Paul’s solution. It is not compromise or tolerance or activities. Paul’s solution is to be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. In other words, Paul is saying that the church must have a united world-in-life view before these factions and divisions will go away. And how will that united worldview develop? It develops by sitting under the instruction of the Word of God that we might be united in our fear of Him.

Paul develops this idea further in Ephesians 4:11-16. Paul writes:

“And he gave the Apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers to train the saints for the work of service, for the building up of the body in Christ, until we all arrive at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, into mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, in order that we may no longer be infants tossed about and carried about by every wind of doctrine or the cunning of men by craftiness and deceitful schemes. But being truthful in love, we should grow up in every way into Him who is our Head, Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together and brought together — every ligament with which it is supplied, working as each is designed — makes the body increase and be built up in love.”

While there is much that can be said about this passage, for our purposes there are two points that should be made. The first is found in the language of God’s goal for the body — that it grow up into maturity. What does that maturity look like? The church is not thrown about as a ship on rough seas by every wind of doctrine and human cunning. In other words, a mature church is a doctrinally sound church. Further, given that a mature church is also a united church, to unite a church means that we must unite the church around true doctrine or teaching. Until that happens, the church will always be thrown to and fro.

The second point that is worth making is that the united body that speaks truth in love is one that is built up into mature doctrine. You cannot speak truth in love if you are not first committed to instruction in the fear of the Lord — the theme of David once again. The point is that right doctrine has an effect on the way people live out their lives. It is not separate from it. And thus, if you are doctrinally sound, you will speak truth in love. And, until you are doctrinally sound, what truth you know will not be spoken in love. 

In the end, we are left at the same place we were when we started. If we want unity in the church, it cannot be achieved by man’s rules and ways. It can only be achieved by God’s. And God’s design for unity in the church begins with unity around the Word of God — around doctrine — around truth. If the body is committed to truth, there will be Christian unity. If the body is not committed to Christian truth, no matter how much work you do, unity will never be achieved.

The Unity of the Church

“in order that they all may be one just as you, Father, are in me, and I also in you, in order that they might be in us—so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

(John 17:21)

Jesus’ statement is a devastating critique of the Christian church today when you really take it seriously.  In a nutshell, what he is saying here is that his desire is that we (the Church) be one with one another just as he is one with the Father and (and here is where it hits close to home) that our unity is at least one of the ways that the world will know that Jesus is the Son of God.  In other words, if we wonder why the church today has such a weak witness in the world around us, the implication is that at least part of our weakness is that we are so fragmented and have a tendency to fight amongst ourselves rather than working together.

One of the rules of thumb for good business practice is to staff to your weakness.  In other words, find the things that you are poor in and hire or promote someone to do those things.  Some managers find this to be an intimidating practice simply because if applied well, this will cause you to hire a number of people who are more competent than you are in some specific areas.  Yet, if you don’t follow this principle, then you will tend to perpetuate the problems or weaknesses that you have at least within the organization and be more concerned with your own reputation than with the health of the company.

Churches can be like that as well, not only in terms of internal leadership, but also in terms of how they interact with other churches in the community.  Rather than churches focusing on the kinds of things they are good at, so often what happens is that every church tries to do what the other churches are doing—it as if they are worried about losing their “marketshare”…as if we were in competition with one another.  If we, as churches, were really concerned with the great commission, we would not worry that more people were going to the Christian fellowship down the street, so long as disciples are being made for the kingdom of God.  If one congregation is particularly good at mercy ministries, let them pursue that and let the other churches in the area facilitate that work as the congregation in question needs—both with finances and with people.  If another congregation is good with youth ministry, let the other churches facilitate.  If a church has a particularly good teacher at the helm, again, let the churches be united and facilitate that ministry.  We are not able to be everything to everyone if we stand alone, but we can be if we stand united together.

But what of ecumenicity?  Isn’t this what the ecumenical movement tried to accomplish and isn’t it fraught with compromise and error?  Yes.  In its best senses, this kind of thing is what the ecumenical movement sought to accomplish, yet within that fellowship, it was felt that everyone must believe the same thing and ignore differences.  What I am suggesting is the model Paul presents as the church as the body which has many parts.  The liver does not do the same thing as the kidney does, yet they work together to keep the whole of the body healthy without losing their distinctive nature—in other words, the kidney does not represent itself as being the same as the liver—they remain distinct, yet cooperate toward the end of keeping the body healthy.  Ecumenicity tends to lead toward churches ignoring their differences and granting people to believe pretty much whatever they want to believe.

Cooperation between churches does not mean compromising the truth nor does it mean compromising the theological distinctives that shape the difference between Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists (etc…).  There must be certain non-negotiable principles drawn from scripture (the Godhead of Christ, the dual nature of Christ, the authority of scripture, etc…).  At the same time, there are going to be some things that we find we can disagree upon passionately, but since they are non-essentials of the faith, we also find that we can have passionate disagreements yet remain in fellowship with one another.

How do we accomplish that in our churches and communities?  It starts with humility and a willingness to cast off the self-seeking attitude that many congregations have.  One must learn to gauge success not on the basis of numbers in church on Sunday or of a bank account balance that a church might have in savings, but in terms of whether or not they are doing what God has called them to do—and whether or not they are being, what Christ wishes them to be—united as one.

Beloved, let us look seriously at our lives and at our churches and ask the question—based on this statement that Jesus makes, is our witness in the community one that reflects that Jesus is the Son of God or is our witness one that suggests that the church is an organization in competition with other churches for tithing dollars.