I’ve been thinking about unity in the church for some time, and the more I think about it, the more sure I am of this conclusion: Apart from the gospel, there is no unity for the church or the Christian organization.
There are countless verses that speak of our unity and call for unity. In John 17 Jesus says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just 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 have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:17-23). In Ephesians Paul writes “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). Peter writes “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (1 Peter 3:8).
That’s a lot of oneness, and there’s plenty more that we could look at. But as we look at unity, we need to be careful. All too often, when we talk about unity, we go to these verses and say “Look. Unity! Be one. Have unity. We just need to hold hands and get along. Kumbya. Period. Full stop.”
But here’s the thing, when you look at the source of the oneness and unity that is described all through the Bible, it’s not unity for unity sake, nor is it unity based on shared likes and affinities. It’s always unity rooted in a shared foundation. We are told to have unity, but its unity rooted in the finished work of Christ. Think through the context of all the passages that I just referenced. In John, we see that Jesus prayer for unity comes as He prepares to go to the cross and die in our place and for our sins. It’s not wimpy unity of shared likes and affinities, but a blood bought, cross shaped unity that comes from being reconciled to God. Likewise, Paul can call us to be “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, because “There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6). Notice the construction there. The unity of the spirit and the unity of the body are linked to the fact that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Furthermore, in Peter we see the same basic thing. In chapter 3, Peter can say “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8)”, because he has told us in chapter two that “Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10).
In light of what we see in these passages, we can say with certainty that real unity in the church only flows from resting on a shared foundation, and if we are not all resting on a shared foundation, there is no real unity and no basis for enduring stability, all you have is whitewash over the deep cracks. Remember, the same Jesus who called for unity within His people also said to His disciples “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”(Matt. 10:34-35). He calls His people to unity, but He also calls His people to be His. He intended to sift out those whose live are rooted in the foundation of His finished work from those who are not.
There are two places that we need to apply this truth. First, when it comes to the denomination, and second, when it comes to the local church.
Let’s start with the denomination. The more I think about this, the more sure I am that there is no real way for churches that believe in the historic orthodox faith in the gospel to stand with others who deny that same historic orthodox faith in the gospel and work against it. It’s impossible. Recently, we were reminded that of the boundaries of unity when we saw someone who denied substitutionary atonement and came out as a full universalist (openly saying that salvation is found in multiple faiths, in direct contradiction with Jesus words in John 14 that He is the way, the truth and the light, and no man comes to the Father but by Him) get approved for ordination in our association. The question I have is this. How do churches so clearly heading in opposite directions have anything other than feigned unity with each other? We can all be kind to each other, we can share a coffee and a discussion, but in the end we are really working for radically different ends because our foundation is different. This division in direction is a cancer eating at our denomination, because for churches, there is no real unity apart from the shared foundation of the gospel. When some churches dump the historic gospel, the basis for unity goes with it. All we are after that is two different teams pulling in opposite directions—each straining at the edges of the tent. This is why I believe that we need to be grounded in a confessional core as a denomination, and have begun to advocate along those lines.
Some would say, come on, can’t we all just get along and be united as the church? But it’s a logical impossibility. The only way the two could exist together is if they are the same thing working for the same end, and the liberal, universalist group that claims to be church, and the gospel centered, Bible believing church are not the same thing. Countless scholar have made that clear, but really, we don’t need them, our own eyes can see the difference.
With that said, we also need to think through what this means for us as a local church, because everything that I said about the denomination applies to the local church. In fact, I believe that application of the truths found in these passages has to start at home before it can extend out to the denomination. If we are not united by the gospel, if this is not the foundation from which everything stems in our church, we are in trouble. Affinities and loves, history, like-mindedness in politics, enjoyment of the same trappings of worship, these things won’t give our church the strength and vitality that we truly need, nor will these things give us unity in mission. They can’t, because ultimately these things aren’t strong enough to change our lives. They can’t say, I died for you, and they don’t have the power to re-make your life and send you out with a whole new mission and vision for life. Which is why only the gospel creates real unity in the church; unity that launched from the same foundation, unity doesn’t require whitewash because it has the healing blood of Christ bringing life in the places of brokenness and hurt, and unity that points us all in the same direction as people who are brought together and then sent out for the glory of God and the furthering of His kingdom.
My prayer is that we will have gospel centered unity, in the denomination, but first and fore-most in our church. My prayer is that the unity that we have will not be the false unity of holding our noses while we hold hands before we pull hard in opposite directions. May our unity be rooted in the life altering gospel, and may the gospel send us out for the same ends and goals, in a way that reveals the deep unity that only the gospel gives us.