The Nature of Church Unity

The Nature of Church Unity

By Rev. Dr. Brian M. Abshire

“If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intention one purpose” Phil 2:1-2

In His great high priestly prayer, just before His death, the Lord Jesus petitioned that we should be one, even as He and the Father are one (Jn 17:22). In the passage quoted above from Philippians, Paul essentially admonishes the church to the same end; it is a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith that God’s people are to be united. The church is a body, the body of Christ. Disease or death soon conquers a body that wars against itself. We need each other. Conflicts within the church are destructive to the gospel, disruptive of the Kingdom, and disastrous to our own sanctification.

However, what IS the nature of the unity we are supposed to have? The Roman Catholic Church believes in ORGANIZATIONAL or ECCLESIASTICAL unity. They maintain that they are the true church and unity means unity with and submission to their ecclesiastical organization. The Liberals believe similarly, except nothing, (i.e., doctrine, polity, heresy, etc) can get in the way of organizational unity. Hence apostasy, paganism, and outright demon worship are all tolerated if they support the “higher” goal of ecumenicalism.

Charismatics (and others) often believe that unity consists in unity of experience. Hence speaking in “tongues” and “prophesying” are more than just some weird practice, but actually a rite of initiation and a mark of participation in the life of the church.

For many fundamentalist Christians, unity often means doing what the pastor says. Any talk of unity outside the local church is immediately suspected of compromise and apostasy.

For Reformed Churches, unity is often defined in terms of theology or doctrine. The idea being is that if we can only get everyone’s theology right, everything else will take care of itself.

However, it can be argued that the kind of unity spoken of in Philippians does not fit neatly into any of the above categories. God made many different kinds of things, and many different kinds of people, not all with the same level of experience, wisdom or understanding. Furthermore, our genetic inheritance and cultural experiences shapes us into unique individuals. These differences, in SOME aspects, reflect the nature of the godhead in that there is both diversity and unity; i.e., there is one God in three distinct, persons. Each person is fully God, yet each person also has a distinct function and purpose; e.g. the Father planned redemption, the Son carried it out and the Holy Spirit makes it effectual). Each person shares equality of honor, power and glory, but distinction of function. God even gifts His church with many different types of gifts to reflect this basic principle (cf. 1 Cor 12:1ff).

When Christ prays for our unity, He cannot mean the same kind of ontological unity He shares with the Father -for that would require the deification of Man; a pagan religious concept. And thus one may well conclude that organizational unity is not what Jesus had in mind for his church. In what other way, did Jesus share unity with the Father? Well, Jesus did only what the Father told Him to do. Jesus wanted what the Father wanted, and was willing to take the form of a bond-servant, humbling himself to the point of death on the cross (cf. Phil 2:7-8). The unity was a unity of purpose. And therefore it can be surmised that what Jesus wants for His church, is that we are to have the SAME purpose, as He had, the same purpose He had with the Father.

Hence, the unity of the Church that Christ prayed for, and desires, and is working to bring about in time according to His providence, is not everyone being IDENTITCAL, but rather a unity of goal, vision and purpose; the glory of God (WCF, Shorter Catechism Q&A #1). The way that unity is maintained is by the ethical application of loving the brethren (Jn 13:34-35).

The New Testament is replete with examples that organizational unity was never in mind in the formation of the early church. As mentioned in other essays (see The Nature of Church Authority) the Jerusalem Council did NOT control Gentile churches. Each local church had a great deal of autonomy. Bureaucratic control was a late, third and fourth century development as the church intentionally mimicked the Roman Imperial system.

Furthermore, the Apostle Paul is clear that there were many gifts. Contrary to modern charismatic claims, speaking in tongues was NOT a universal phenomenon (1 Cor 12:30) and therefore there were varieties of spiritual experiences in the early church. One can even argue that there is even room in the New Testament for legitimate differences arising from some peripheral theological issues (cf. Rms 14ff); some people ate meat, some did not. Some kept holy days; some did not (Col 2:16ff). Differences on minor issues were not only tolerated but required. As Paul says in a different context, “Let each man do just as he has purposed in his heart” (2 Cor 9:7).

Now we are NOT here arguing that theology, polity or ethics are subjective. But we are saying that in SOME areas, there can be legitimate disagreement and that there is room within orthodox Christianity for SOME variety of views, on SOME issues even while there are SOME areas upon which their can be NO disagreement.

The early creeds and councils proclaimed the catholic (i.e., universal) faith to which all Christians had to subscribe. If one did not confess these doctrines to be true, then by definition, one was not a Christian. But notice the very broad doctrinal categories such statements used; the Trinity, the literal death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, His bodily Second Coming, etc. The early creeds were developed to refute specific heresies. There are some things one MUST believe to be a Christian and other things one must NOT. But there are many doctrines that the early creeds did not define in great detail. Obviously, doctrine, while important was NOT the primary focus of unity. Instead, unity was derived from the fact that all Christians served the one true God who had revealed Himself in Christ. And therefore, despite differences in gifts, callings, experiences and even some doctrines, Jesus wants us to have a unity of purpose in glorifying God, and living in love with one another (1 Jn 4:20).

In Philippians chapter two, we are commanded to love each other, and accept each other. We are to pray for one another that the will of God’s would be done. We are to submit to one another in love, not seeking our own best interests, but also being concerned about the interests of others. Our one purpose is to declare the will of God in Christ; i.e., that men should bow the knee to King Jesus and obey Him in all things (Phil 2:10). Romans 14:1ff is clear that each man serves the Master and will be judged by Him and therefore we ought to be careful in judging another’s convictions or his practices.

Now this may at first seem hopelessly pietistic and subjective but it is NOT a matter of what each individual personally thinks is right. There is an objective standard by which all men must live and the means by which they glorify God and love each other; it’s called “The Law of God.” The “Law” is not just Old Testament Law (i.e., the Law given to Israel at Sinai through Moses), but rather consists of the universal moral requirements to which God holds all men accountable. This Moral Law is summarized in the Ten Commandments and teaches all men their duty. The Reformers were definite that this moral law had three main functions; (1) to reveal the ethical requirements of God’s unchanging nature, (2) to reveal the wickedness and sinfulness of the human heart and thus drive men to Christ who alone kept this Law and died for all our transgressions of it and (3) to provide instruction in the practical aspects of a moral Christian life.

Many Christians today reject the Law with a sort of ethical schizophrenia. Declaring that, “we are under grace, not law.” they insist that the Moral Law is no longer valid. Now, think with me for a moment; under the New Testament, can a Christian man worship other gods, bow down to idols, or take the Lord’s name in vain? Can a Christian man murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet? If not, why not? You see, even though people say, “we are not under Law” their instincts are often better than their theology. God’s Law clearly condemns certain behaviors and requires His people to flee such things. And Christians, even ones with deficient theology, KNOW that as Christians they cannot do those horrible things. Furthermore, they instinctively know that there are OTHER things that God REQUIRES them to do.

To be “under grace” means that, the penalty of the Law can no longer send us to hell. Jesus has perfectly and completely satisfied all the righteous demands of God’s justice. Because of HIS death on the cross, the Law can no longer send us to hell. But does that mean that the Christian can violate God’s Law with impunity? Does not God still require us to obey Him? Jesus said it this way, “If you love me, keep My commands.” And He said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me. And he who loves Me, shall be loved by My Father, and I shall love him, and disclose Myself to him.” Does anyone think there are people going to heaven who hate Jesus? Does anyone think you can be saved, without LOVING Jesus? To love Him, requires obeying Him, and to obey Him, you have to know and keep His commands. His “commands” are in effect, His “Law.”

Thus the Law of God is for ALL men and therefore provides an objective content to our obedience. Those who teach against the law shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who teach the Law shall be called “great” in the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Matt 5:19ff). But please notice that both those who teach against and those who teach for the Law are BOTH in the Kingdom!

Therefore our unity is based on our submission to Almighty God and our love for each other as defined by the objective content of His ethical and moral requirements. We keep the Law in regards to our brother, even if, or better yet, even when, we think our brother is wrong. Of course we try to win an erring brother and restore a sinning one. But we do so out of compassion and love and a genuine concern for his well-being. We seek the glory of God by loving each other, by giving up ourselves for one another, by being concerned about what is best for them, and not just what is convenient for us.

Christians in times of prosperity forget these things but those caught in tribulation know well that organizational, experiential and even doctrinal differences pale into insignificance in the light of the true unity we have in Christ. My good friend Peter Hammond, heroic missionary to the persecuted church, often gets flack from American Reformed Christians because he wears a cross on the lapel of his jacket. Our Reformed heritage is that crosses were a source of idolatry in the Roman church and therefore the Reformers largely rejected their use. But in Peter’s ministry, wearing a cross in a Muslim or Marxist nation is tantamount to a death warrant. Christians in these countries therefore proudly put crosses on their homes and wear them around their necks as a symbol of their allegiance to Christ. They do not bow down and worship the cross. For them it is merely a symbol of their loyalty to their Lord. And therefore Peter wears a cross to demonstrate HIS unity with them in their struggles. For him to fail to wear a cross would be almost the same as denying his Lord. Yet every time he comes to the States, someone somewhere jumps on his case about crosses.

Our unity in Christ is that we have one faith, one Lord, one baptism. ALL of God’s elect, despite doctrinal, ecclesiastical or experiential differences, belong to Him. Granted, we must often struggle against wickedness, apostasy, heresy and error. Granted we must never give up the Faith for the sake of some sort of mushy feeling-oriented religion. But on the picket line in front of an abortion clinic, ALL the people there who confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised Him from the dead are our brothers. Granted, we may not offer our pulpits to someone whose theology is immature or error laden. But they are still our brothers. We love them, we accept them, and we encourage them, even as we work to gently, kindly and humbly win them to a richer, fuller understanding of our great God and His salvation.

How to Build Unity

First, we must recognize that diversity is good. In a symphony, not every instrument plays the same note. To fully appreciate the beauty and complexity of the music, there must be harmony. Therefore, let us recognize that in God’s providence, at this time, there is a great fracture in the church. Not all have the same level of understanding, knowledge, wisdom or insight. Yet despite the many GRIEVOUS errors of say modern Charismatic, Pentecostal or broad evangelical (and yes, even Reformed) groups, God IS using them in a powerful way. People ARE coming to faith in Christ through their ministries even though their doctrine is often horrendous. Obviously God is using Baptists and Pentecostals. It is foolish for Reformed churches to simply condemn and ignore them. They ARE our brothers, even though they ARE often in error.

Hence secondly, Reformed Christians ought to be concerned about what they should be LEARNING from such churches; this is simple humility. For example, we can learn something about worship from Pentecostals in that their worship engages the whole man. Granted, much of their worship is man-centered, auto-suggestive and plays to the emotions- but why can we not be moved to tears in our own worship services? Why are we not allowed to FEEL something when we sing and pray? It is not that we have to copy their excesses, but we can be motivated to worship that engages the emotions as well as the mind. The Regulative Principle of Worship does not REQUIRE us to sing dirges, nor does it require our worship to be exclusively cerebral. God’s people OUGHT to feel something when they come into His holy presence. Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Isaiah and others were cast to their knees in fear and trembling when they worshipped the living and true God. It is NOT that we have to make emotions the END of our worship, as Charismatics so often do, but we can at least include them.

In the same way, we can learn something about evangelism from our Baptist brothers. Sure, they confuse the gospel, make it simplistic, often preach something close to Arminianism, etc. But at least they DO evangelism! The highest honor every Baptist seeks is to share Christ and they will share their faith with people anywhere and anyhow they can. Can we not garner some of their fervor for ourselves? Can we not be committed to learning HOW to introduce Christ into conversations? Can we not with our better theology give an even BETTER presentation of the salvation message? As Bill Bright once said when a Calvinist criticized his use of the Four Spiritual Laws, “I prefer my way of sharing the gospel to your way of NOT sharing the gospel.” As Gary North has repeatedly said over the years, “you can’t beat something with nothing.”

In other words, rather than just condemning the errors of others (perhaps caused by envy when our churches are small and theirs so large and “successful?”) can we not in humility learn from what they may be doing right, even as we reject what they are doing wrong? Obviously we are not doing everything right or else God would be filling our churches!

Thirdly, not only can we learn from our brothers, we can seek to serve them. There is no doubt that Reformed theology is Biblical theology and that most evangelicals have little or no understanding today of their Reformed heritage. Therefore, we ought to seek to bring our brothers to a deeper, richer understanding of the Faith. If the Charismatics and Baptists are the foot soldiers of the Church, the Reformed are the brain trust. Neither group would deny that historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches have the best-educated, most theologically adept pastors in all Christendom. We ought to be writing the books that they desperately need. R. J. Rushdoony did this, especially in many of his early works. Even die-hard dispensationalists at Dallas Seminary turned to the Institutes of Biblical Law because it was THE definitive work on the meaning of the Old Testament Law. His other books on American history and politics formed the background for the Religious Right, most of who rejected his theology but who never-the-less were dependant upon Rush’s social theory!

Rushdoony did for them what they could not do for themselves. He served the entire church, despite the fact that they often rejected crucial aspects of his theology. He got hundreds of thousands of Christians ACTING like postmillennialists, even though they were “pessimillennialist” in theology. This is the key. Instead of writing books and scholarly treatises that only we ourselves will read, we need to address the issues and problems facing the ENTIRE church. By giving a solid Reformed answer, we are moving them in the right direction. Doug Wilson’s books on marriage and family are avidly read by more Arminians than Calvinists! And they believe what they read, because the books are Biblical. And they are acting on what they read and therefore slowly but surely, like yeast; we are reforming our brothers, DESPITE their theology.

Hence, rather than publish obscure theological tracts that no one will read (except those already convinced of them), we ought to be seeking to influence thousands of people to a more consistently, Biblical world and life view by showing how the Reformed faith has real answers for real life problems. Will they all become Calvinists as a result? Probably not. Will they rush to form Reformed churches? Unlikely. Will they flood into our church and make us into a mega-congregation with a million-dollar budget? Well, we can always hope!

No, Jesus said “He would be great among you must first become the servant of all.” And it is time for Reformed Christians to take seriously our Lord’s command and serve our brothers across the theological and denominational spectrum. When we focus on taking our comprehensive worldview that Reformed theology gives us and relate it to the real world problems that every Christian faces, we serve our brothers by helping them to restore their families, to live self-governed lives, to learn how to get along with each other, to take dominion in their callings, give their children a comprehensive Christian worldview. Thus we are making an investment in the whole Kingdom of God and not just our little portion of it. Maybe in this life we will see little actual return for our investment; but we could be sowing seed that will reap a rich harvest in generations yet unborn. We are helping move people towards a more consistent, Biblical worldview. Sure, maybe our brothers only have a small portion of the truth; but if you’ve only had a candle, a 40-watt bulb is a vast improvement.

Fourthly, we can foster unity by learning how to live in peace with one another (Rms 12:18). It is a fact that Christians will sin against each other, fail each other and disappoint each other. Good deeds will go unappreciated and un-rewarded and some sins will be continually thrown in our faces. People will NOT live up to our expectations. Therefore, let us learn how to be gentle with each other, forgiving each other, bearing with one another, especially when the “other person” is in the “wrong.” Let us recognize schismatic behavior for what it is (splitting over petty jealousies and animosity) and repent of it. Let us learn how to submit to lawful authority, even when the authority is less than perfect. Let us covenant to speak well of one another, to be committed to one another’s success, despite the lack of our own. Let us give up on power plays and ego trips, or insisting that we have to have our own way and “damn the consequences.” Let us covenant together and refuse to listen to bad reports about one another, stop whispering about one another and say only that which will build one another up (Eph 4:29). Let us refuse to listen to whining, moaning and complaining and reject factious, contentious people. Instead, let us learn how to embrace the truth in love.


Finally, it MUST be understood that unity is not just a future goal; but a present reality. All those who confess Jesus as Lord ARE a part of Christ’s body. If one hurts, we all hurt. And therefore, like it or not, those ARE our brothers on the other side of so many issues. Granted, some men abandon the faith and embrace heresy. Therefore after warning them, exhorting them, and doing everything in our power to win them, we excommunicate them not just for the purity of the Church but for their own salvation as well. But that’s the point; our purpose is restoration, not just out of a sense of proving our own superiority.

Moving from the metaphysical reality to our day-to-day practice is often difficult. But it begins with humility. It begins with a greater vision of our God and His great work. It requires us to seek the best interests of others, even at the expense of our own. Our God is a great and glorious God. We do NOT have to insist that we win every argument. We can rest in speaking the truth and demonstrating it by our self-sacrificial love for others.

Let us not put truth and love at odds with each other. Power WILL flow to us WHEN we demonstrate that we have genuine servant’s hearts and are more concerned about advancing the Kingdom than we are our own private agendas. Let us have one vision, the advancement of the Kingdom and the glory of God. And let us have one ethic, to love our brother, even as Christ has loved us.

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