*To see the previous post in this ongoing series, click here.

Far from presenting a picture of unity to the world, the church seems almost to give a warning example of disunity, the very strength of faith and conviction giving depth and bitterness to the ‘unhappy divisions.’  The church may have a consciousness of its unity.  But it cannot ignore the stubborn fact of its disunity.  And in face of this fact its confession of unity can only seem to be a hollow mockery to itself and especially to the world.” (G. W. Bromiley, “The Unity and Disunity of the Church”, p. 17)

The Meaning of Christian Unity

Defining what the New Testament means by “unity” is perhaps the easiest and least controversial step in our examination of this theme, though we must insist that it is still of paramount importance.  Indeed, an astounding number of scholarly treatments of unity never get around to actually stating what they mean by the term, and thus often wind up talking past each other.  This allows some to give lip service to the biblical exhortation for unity among Christians, yet to also neatly sidestep it, in practice, in a variety of creative ways.  Many conceive themselves to be dwelling in unity with their brothers and sisters in the Lord, who are doing nothing of the sort.

I contend that Christian unity exists wherever professing believers are reconciled—for the sake of Christ and continually motivated by his forgiveness—in their relationships with one another, and within an active, ongoing participation in the same community of faith.[1]  In this harmonious fellowship of redeemed sinners there can (and usually does) exist enormous amounts of diversity in racial, socio-economic, political and even theological identity, yet the common bond holding them together is their ultimate devotion to Jesus Christ and their commitment to the spread of the kingdom of God through faithfully living out and proclaiming the gospel.  Three aspects in particular stand out here: Christian unity is relational, it is diverse, and it is purposeful.

That Christian unity is inherently relational can be seen from a brief scan of some biblical passages.  In I Corinthians 1:10ff, Paul perceives (and then rebukes) the lack of unity among these early Christians through their arrogance towards and exclusion of one another in the community.  In Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32, the “togetherness” of the early church consisted in their loving, self-sacrificial concern for the well-being of others in the community.

In John 17, Jesus presents an analogy between the “oneness” he prays for among his disciples, and the “oneness” he shares with his Father.[2]  Above all else, this unity between the Father and the Son is a relational reality, as they mutually delight in and love one another through the Holy Spirit.  We are not to infer that they are indistinct from one another, or homogenous replicas with no differences of function, but rather simply that their treatment of one another is empty of acrimony, competing agendas and selfish usurping.  In Romans 15:5-7, believers are commanded to “welcome” one another as Christ welcomed them, and this in turn is inferred from the initial call to live in harmony with one another and full accord.  Finally, a number of New Testament passages connected to unity (cf. Philippians 1:27-2:2, 4:2-3, Ephesians 4:1-16, Colossians 3:12-17, etc.) are full of admonitions for humility, peace, love, acceptance, forgiveness and affection for one another–all relational qualities.  Christian unity is a profound matter of the heart, not merely of cool assent to various theological propositions or of the correct institutional structure, as important as those are in their proper place.[3]  It is absolutely possible for the latter to exist, and nonetheless for Christian unity to be tragically absent.

Biblical unity also necessarily exists in the presence of remarkable diversity.  Unity must never be mistaken for uniformity, as if our oneness in Christ was built on the eradication of every potential difference between believers:

“Such multiformity does not obscure the unity of Christ’s church, but rather causes it to stand out the more boldly.  Unity that comes to expression in uniformity may well be, and usually is, superficial.  On the other hand, unity that constitutes the background of multiformity is necessarily deep.  For us to be at one with those who are like us is easy; to be at one with those who are unlike us is possible only if a profound unity underlies surface differences…diversity short of sin, instead of detracting from the glory of the church, enhances it.  How much more beautiful is a building constructed of stones of different shapes and sizes than is a structure of blocks all of which look alike!  As the human body derives its beauty from the variety of its members, so does the body of Christ.  When love rises above uniformity and embraces multiformity, the greatest of Christian virtues comes to glorious expression.” (R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, p. 45)

We must recognize the tension inherent in the New Testament itself, that while there is no longer any difference between Jew and Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Galatians 3:28) with respect to entrance into the people of God, this does not at all level the social distinctions between such people or demand that they abandon their God-given human identities (I Corinthians 9:19-23).  As B. B. Warfield remarked, the New Testament recognizes that the followers of Jesus have “diversity in everything, in fact, except true Christianity.”[4]

Biblical unity does not preclude or discourage radical differences in cultural background, in political conviction, in economic status, in divinely-inspired gifts and callings, or even in theological persuasion on a host of secondary (albeit often important) issues.  Moreover, this is true not only at the beginning of the Christian life, but continues to be the case as the church grows and spreads over time.  Church unity is not bland monotony in the sense that every member of the body is an exact duplicate of the others in conviction, calling, or culture.[5]  Rather, each one has her own function and gift, yet remains equally part of the larger body, finding her identity as a part of the whole and using her gifts for the good of the corporate entity.  To use a musical analogy, the unity of the church is more like a choir that sings in harmony rather than in unison.[6]

In what, then, can such unity actually consist of, given the profound differences and variety between followers of Jesus?  If believers are not expected to reject their own cultural backgrounds,[7] or to necessarily all adopt the same biblical convictions,[8] or to quarantine themselves off into communities that are chiefly distinguished by financial, political or ethnic criteria, then what holds them together in the midst of such differences?

Simply this: Christians, for all their differences, are united in purpose to the dynamic presence and extension of the kingdom of God in this fallen world.  This passionate commitment trumps all other potential rivals and holds ultimate normative value for believers who are led by the Spirit.  They strive not for unity merely for the sake of unity, but unity for the sake of the One who has redeemed them from the pit.  Their thinking, affections, behavior and identity all now revolve primarily around this cherished allegiance to the gospel of grace, in massive contradistinction to the idolatrous tenor of their lives before they believed in Christ.  The gospel of the kingdom is the most treasured priority in the lives of Christians, holding more weight for them than any factor that sets them apart from one another:

“The ultimate allegiance of those whose father is Abraham can be only to the God of ‘all families of the earth,’ not to any particular country, culture, or family with their local deities.  The oneness of God implies God’s universality, and universality entails transcendence with respect to any given culture… Christians can never be first of all Asians or Americans, Croatians, Russians, or Tutsis, and then Christians.  At the very core of Christian identity lies an all encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures.  A response to a call from that God entails rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, pp. 39-40)

Therefore, given this transcendent commitment to the gospel which rises far above every conceivable worldly claim, Christians possess (or at least ought to) the ability to cope both psychologically and emotionally with the often profound differences they have with one another in every other area of human life.  Such matters, simply put, do not possess their intoxicating allure any longer for those who have died and risen with Christ.  They are good, but not God.  Christ is God, and we have him in common.

In Philippians 1:27-2:2, Paul describes the unity he prays for concerning the Philippians as unanimity in striving for the advance of the gospel, in complete accord with his own example.  Believers experience ongoing unity with one another when their internal value system is consistently derived from the beauty of the gospel of Christ that has won their hearts.  Division occurs when other priorities and commitments functionally usurp the gospel in our lives.  One critically important implication of this is that genuinely Christian unity cannot be manufactured by mere human effort or coherent organizational structure.  It must be a product of the Spirit and of deep-rooted Christian maturity.

Next week: The visibility of Christian unity

[1]  “…it is right to pray and work for the greater purity of the church.  But purity cannot be our only concern, or Christians would have a tendency to separate into tiny groups of very ‘pure’ Christians and tend to exclude anyone who showed the slightest deviation in doctrine or conduct of life.  Therefore the New Testament also speaks frequently about the need to strive for the unity of the visible church…The unity of the church is its degree of freedom from divisions among true Christians.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 873-74)

[2] “The unity between the Father and the Son is a model for the unity of believers with one another.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1137)

[3] “The fellowship of the Spirit is more than a sense of camaraderie.  It is a sharing together in the presence of the Spirit, and of his gifts.  Those who share the Spirit are of one accord, united in the love of Christ (Phil. 2:1-2)…The unity of the Spirit must be as tangible as a hand-clasp or a cup of water.” (Edmund Clowney, The Church, p. 81)

[4] “True Church Unity: What It Is,” p. 304

[5] “Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self.  Sameness is to be found most among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ.  How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 226)

[6] Thanks to Chuck Hetzler for this illustration.

[7] “Each culture can retain its own cultural specificity; Christians need not lose their cultural identity as Jew or Gentile and become one new humanity which is neither.  At the same time, no culture can retain its own tribal deities; religion must be de-ethnicized so that ethnicity can be de-sacralized.  Paul deprived each culture of ultimacy in order to give them all legitimacy in the wider family of cultures.  Through faith one must ‘depart’ from one’s culture because the ultimate allegiance is given to God and God’s Messiah who transcend every culture.  And yet precisely because of the ultimate allegiance to God of all cultures and to Christ who offers his ‘body’ as a home for all people, Christian children of Abraham can ‘depart’ from their culture without having to leave it (in contrast to Abraham himself who had to leave his ‘country’ and ‘kindred’).  Departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits…Is the result of this kind of departure some ‘third race,’ as the early Christian apologist, Aristides, suggested when he divided humanity into Gentiles, Jews, and now Christians?…No, the internality of departure excludes a cosmopolitan third race, equally close to and equally distant from every culture.  The proper distance from a culture does not take Christians out of that culture.  Christians are not the insiders who have taken flight to a new ‘Christian culture’ and become outsiders to their own culture; rather when they have responded to the call of the Gospel they have stepped, as it were, with one foot outside their own culture while with the other remaining firmly planted in it.  They are distant, and yet they belong.  Their difference is internal to the culture.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 49)

[8] “To divide the church on what according to the Word of God is an ‘indifferent’ matter; that is to say, a practice which God has neither condemned nor commanded, is the essence of sectarianism.  Once more, failure to keep the various teachings of Scripture in balance with each other and the consequent stressing of one or some of them out of all proportion to others, have frequently destroyed the visible unity of Christ’s church.  Riding a theological hobby is by no means an innocent pastime.  Of such sins it behooves churches everywhere to repent, and from them they must desist.” (R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, pp. 53-54).

See Romans 14 in particular on this issue, though the significant diversity that existed in the early church in matters of biblical understanding and theological conviction on non-central issues can be seen in many other places too.  Indeed, from texts like Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 we learn this lesson (among many others, to be sure):

“Sectarianism is seeking unity in uniformity rather than unity in diversity and expecting other Christians to comply fully with my views before I can have genuine fellowship with them.” (Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith: A Theology for Cross-Denominational Unity)