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Lesson 4: The Unity of the Church (John 17:22-23; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:1-6, 13)

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April 30, 2017

The unity of the church is one of the most important subjects in the New Testament, but it’s also one of the most difficult to apply in a biblically faithful manner. It is frequently misapplied when people say, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal agreement. Let’s focus on where we agree and set aside the areas where we disagree.” So sound doctrine gets jettisoned in favor of everyone joining hands and singing, “We are One in the Spirit.” But the resulting “unity” is not true biblical unity.

On the other side of the spectrum, in an attempt to preserve the purity of the church, some Christians divide from everyone who does not agree with them on even minor issues. For example, some will fellowship only with those who use the 1611 King James Bible. Others require that you agree with their views of prophecy, abstaining from all use of alcohol and tobacco, women not using makeup or wearing pants, or other debatable matters.

While the statistics vary widely, there are thousands of Protestant denominations in the world, plus many groups of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Among the Baptists alone, there are dozens of different groups, including the Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Calvinistic Baptists, Free Will Baptists, General Baptists, Landmark Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Old Time Missionary Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists! Thankfully, in 2002 there were only about five congregations of the latter group left (wickipedia.org). I say “thankfully,” because they teach that everyone is predestined to be either good seed or bad seed and therefore mission activity is both unbiblical and useless! May their tribe decrease!

In the New Testament, the local church was primarily defined by the city: the church in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, or wherever. All who believed in Jesus were a part of the church in the city where they lived. Probably in larger cities, these churches gathered in numerous house churches, since churches did not construct buildings for worship until the fourth century. But today there are often dozens of churches in every city in North America. In Flagstaff where we have about 70,000 people, we have somewhere over 50 Protestant churches, plus Catholic and Orthodox churches. Due to significant differences in doctrine and practice, I cannot see any way that we could ever come together as one church in Flagstaff.

The subject of unity is further complicated by the fact that there are different levels of unity. On an individual level, every true believer is one with every other true believer due to shared life in Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus a believer can enjoy fellowship with any other believer, even if they go to different churches.

Also, churches that hold to the truth of the gospel, but hold to different secondary doctrinal distinctives, may join together for various common causes: evangelism, helping the poor, or prayer for community concerns. On an even wider level, churches may join together even with non-Christian groups to work for laws protecting the unborn, laws supporting the traditional family, anti-drug laws, etc. But we need to be careful that our common association does not imply to the public that we agree on spiritual matters.

While far more could be said (I have at least three messages on the unity of the church on the church website), in this message I will address three questions: (1) Why is Christian unity important? (2) What is biblical Christian unity? (3) How do we apply Christian unity in a way that is a witness to the world? The main idea is:

Because Christian unity is so important, we need to think biblically about what it means and how to apply it.

Why is Christian unity so important?

1. Christian unity is important because Christ died to secure it and it is a major factor in our witness to the world.

A. Christian unity is important because Christ died to secure it.

In Ephesians 2:13-16 Paul writes,

But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.

It took the cross to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles and to reconcile these two formerly alienated groups into one body in the church. To use the familiar phrase from Christian weddings, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Since Christ died for the unity of the church, it is an extremely important subject that we must labor to preserve and display.

B. Christian unity is important because it is a major factor in our witness to the world.

In Paul’s day, the divide between Jews and Gentiles was huge. If the church could display to the world the unity between these groups that Christ secured on the cross, it would be a powerful witness. Jesus said the same thing in His high priestly prayer the night before He was crucified (John 17:20-23):

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

While as I will point out next, the unity that Jesus secured at the cross is primarily spiritual and not visible, at the same time there must be a visible expression of it for the world to take notice. The unbelieving world should look at the church and realize that there is something unnatural happening here. Our visible unity should cause unbelievers to want to be a part of the church.

What is biblical Christian unity?

2. Biblical Christian unity is not primarily outward, but rather is an unseen reality based on shared life in Christ.

A. Biblical Christian unity is not primarily outward.

It is important to understand that there are two types of unity in the Bible. In Ephesians 4:3, Paul says that we are to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The unity of the Spirit is already a fact for believers, but we must be diligent to preserve it. This is the unity Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Christ accomplished this unity on the cross (Eph. 2:13-16). We could call this “positional unity.”

But also, in Ephesians 4:13, after talking about the ministry of pastors and teachers who equip the saints for the work of ministry, Paul adds, “… until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” This unity of the faith is not yet a reality; we attain to as we grow to maturity in Christ. (See, also, Eph. 2:14-22.) We could call this “practical unity.” It’s a work in progress. Under this second point, I’m looking at positional unity. I’ll look at practical unity under point three.

As a spiritual reality, note three things unity is not:

1) Christian unity is not organizational unity.

Organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches promote organizational or external unity among various denominations. The idea is to set aside the areas we differ and come together on common ground. But both councils are notoriously theologically and politically liberal and they include denominations that deny or compromise the gospel. Christ was not praying for a one-world church organized under one governing body.

2) Christian unity is not uniformity.

Being one body in Christ does not mean that we all must look alike, talk alike, and enjoy the same kinds of activities. Back in the early 1970’s, I knew many “hippie” young people who got swept up in the “Local Church” movement under the Chinese leader, Witness Lee. Suddenly, they cut off their long hair and beards and started wearing white shirts with narrow black ties, just as Witness Lee did. They even gestured and sounded like him when they talked. It was kind of eerie, but it had nothing to do with true Christian unity! The very analogy of being members of Christ’s body implies that all the members do not look the same or serve the same function. The beauty of the body is that it functions as one body although it consists of many different members.

3) Christian unity is not unanimity on every doctrine.

We need to think carefully here! There are three broad levels of Bible doctrines:

(a) Essential truths, necessary for salvation. To deny any of these would be heresy and a denial of the faith. These include: The inspiration and authority of the Bible; the trinity; the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ; His substitutionary death on the cross; His bodily resurrection and second coming; and, salvation by grace through faith alone, apart from works.

(b) Important, but non-saving, truth. These truths affect how we live as Christians, the way we understand God, man, salvation, the Christian life, etc. But genuine believers differ on these matters. Some examples: God’s sovereignty versus human free will in our salvation; views of baptism; church government; biblical prophecy; old earth or young earth creation; charismatic gifts; roles of men and women in the church and home; Christians and psychology; and, divorce and remarriage. Some of these issues border on essential doctrines; but we need to recognize that those who differ from us on these matters are still true believers in Jesus Christ.

(c) Interesting, but not essential or important matters. These issues won’t affect how you live your Christian life. They include minor interpretive issues on difficult texts; some methods that are not mandated by Scripture; and other issues. For example: Who were the sons of God in Genesis 6? When does the battle in Ezekiel 38 take place? Did Christ descend into hell (1 Pet. 3:19-20)?

B. Biblical Christian unity is an unseen truth based on shared life through saving faith in Christ.

The Father answered Jesus’ prayer for His people to be one through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who baptizes every believer into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). This is the unity of the Spirit which Paul exhorts us to preserve (Eph. 4:3). He goes on to enumerate seven elements of Christian unity, arranged around each member of the trinity (Eph. 4:4-6): “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”

I cannot comment on these seven elements here (see my sermon, “The Basis for Christian Unity,” 2/3/08, on this text). Ironically, some of these seven items (the Holy Spirit; prophecy [“one hope”]; and baptism) have created significant divisions in the church! But, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (Christian Unity [Baker], p. 49), Paul probably structured this section in this way to show “that the unity of the Church is a manifestation of the perfection of the Godhead.”

Lloyd-Jones also observes (Knowing the Times [Banner of Truth], p. 134) that the unity Paul is describing “is not just a question of friendliness or fellowship.” Rather, “It is something … which lifts us up into the realm of the blessed Holy Trinity…!” So true Christian unity isn’t discussing football scores over a cup of coffee! Rather, it’s bound up with our common relationship with the Triune God. It’s centered on our common salvation. We don’t need to work to establish it, but rather to preserve and perfect it in practice. This leads to the final question:

How do we apply Christian unity in a way that is a witness to the world?

3. For biblical Christian unity to be a witness to the world, we must work at preserving and perfecting it.

As I said, the unity of the Spirit is a fact through His baptizing all believers into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). We are exhorted to preserve this positional unity (Eph. 4:3). But Paul goes on to say (Eph. 4:11-12) that as gifted leaders equip the body for the work of service, the goal is that (Eph. 4:13), “we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” This is practical unity that comes about as we grow to maturity by coming to know Jesus Christ in a deeper way. It is in large part doctrinal unity, shared by those who understand on an experiential level what the Bible reveals about who Jesus is.

So the practical question is, “How do we preserve the unity of the Spirit and perfect the unity of the faith?” I’m suggesting seven (the perfect number!) practical ways we can preserve and perfect true Christian unity:

A. We preserve and perfect unity by working at harmonious relationships with all believers.

As Paul exhorts (Eph. 4:1-2), we are “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” After talking about the unity of the body in Colossians (3:11), Paul adds (Col. 3:12-14),

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Harmonious relationships, whether in our homes or in the church, do not happen automatically or effortlessly. They take continuous hard work!

B. We preserve and perfect unity by growing in understanding biblical truth so that we know Christ more deeply.

We attain to the unity of the faith by coming to (Eph. 4:13) “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” Our unity deepens as we grow to know Christ as revealed in His word.

C. We preserve and perfect unity by displaying racial, cultural, and social unity and diversity.

Paul makes this point in Galatians 3:28 (see, also, Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:10-11): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He sought to demonstrate the unity between Jews and Gentiles in Christ by raising a large financial gift from the Gentile churches and delivering it to the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

I’m going to step on some toes here, but I think that it’s wrong to divide the church along ethnic or cultural lines, unless language is a factor. There should not be Jewish churches, Gentile churches, Black churches or Native American churches. The church should be as racially and culturally diverse as the community. In 2010, Flagstaff was approximately 64 percent white, 2 percent Black, 12 percent Native American, 18 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian. The church should reflect those percentages.

D. We preserve and perfect unity by the acceptance and appreciation of one another’s different gifts.

Writing to the factious Corinthian church, Paul devotes the bulk of 1 Corinthians 12 to the analogy of the church as the one body of Christ, made up of many diverse but essential members. No member can rightly say to another member, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). Though we all have different personalities, backgrounds, preferences, and spiritual gifts, we need to accept and appreciate the differences.

E. We preserve and perfect unity by accepting all whom Christ has accepted, while yet holding to truths that we believe are important for growth in Christ.

We should welcome into church membership all whom Christ has saved as long as those with differing views on secondary matters agree not to cause factions over those differences. While we may hold differing views on baptism, charismatic gifts, prophecy, etc. these should not keep us from being one body in Christ. For this reason, we allow those who do not share our Baptist views on baptism to join this church as long as they don’t promote or teach their different views here. And, we restrict the office of elder to those who hold to our Baptist views. The same is true of those who hold to the validity of the charismatic gifts for today. We are skeptically cautious regarding most modern expressions of the gifts of tongues, interpretation of tongues, healing, miracles, and prophecy. Those who hold a different view are free to join us as long as they do not promote their views and cause division.

F. We preserve and perfect unity by rejoicing when other gospel-preaching, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting churches do well.

We need to get rid of the spirit of competition among Bible-believing churches where the gospel is preached and Christ is exalted. If they have more people attending than we do, praise God! We’re all on the same team. Maybe we need to learn from them how we can be more effective. We may disagree on some secondary matters, but we should not put them down out of a spirit of jealousy or competition.

G. We preserve and perfect unity by holding firmly to essential biblical truth while guarding ourselves against the pride of “being right” on every minor issue.

It is right to strive for deeper doctrinal understanding and purity, but we always need to be on guard against spiritual pride. It’s easy to get puffed up about being right on every point of doctrine. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 1 Cor. 4:6, p. 158), who was not soft on sound doctrine, wisely observed “that pride or haughtiness is the cause and commencement of all contentions.” If God has graciously granted us more light than another church, remember Paul’s warning (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” We should always be humble, gracious and patient with others who may not yet understand everything that we understand. Growth is a slow process. If God uses us to impart a deeper knowledge of the truth to another believer, it will come through our kindness and love, not through spiritual pride.

Conclusion

I’m not under the illusion that these seven practical applications will solve the difficult problem of true Christian unity! I honestly don’t know how to overcome some of the divisions in the church at large. We seek to grow in the unity of the faith and to hold our convictions with humility, but we can’t do that by compromising what the Lord has taught us. Perhaps this word of wisdom from the godly 19th century Anglican bishop, J. C. Ryle, is a fitting way to conclude (Light from Old Times [Evangelical Press], p. 455), “Controversy and religious strife, no doubt, are odious things; but there are times when they are a positive necessity. Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth…. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it.”

Application Questions

  1. Have you struggled on the personal level with where to draw lines of fellowship? How did you sort through the issues?
  2. Should an evangelical church work with a church that denies the gospel to help prevent abortions? Why/why not?
  3. How do we determine where to draw doctrinal lines for church membership without becoming divisive?
  4. How do we determine which doctrines are essential and which are important, but not essential? What criteria apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Fellowship