Putting unity first
Unity is a common theme in the New Testament. Paul spoke of it in 1 Corinthians 1:10: ‘I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment’.
Among Jesus’ final words to his apostles is the beautiful and powerful prayer for unity in John 17. Perhaps the clearest examples in practice are in Acts (see 4:32-35; 5:12-14).
Of course there are two types of unity. There is the unity from one Christian to another, and unity from one group of professing Christians to another. While it seems clear that the biblical writers were speaking primarily of interpersonal relationships, their words are equally valid for relationships between larger groups.
Baptist and Presbyterian churches can learn as much from Paul’s words in their relationships to each other as can two individual members of a local church.
Today it seems that unity, and especially unity from one group of professed Christians to another, often comes at the cost of theology. In his masterpiece Evangelicalism divided (Banner of Truth), Iain Murray says, ‘The ecumenical call [in the mid-20th century] was not for truth and salt; it was supremely for oneness: the greater the unity of “the Church”, it was confidently asserted, the stronger would be the impression made upon the world; and to attain that end churches should be inclusive and tolerant.
‘But it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world. At no point in church history has the mere unity of numbers ever made a transforming spiritual impression upon others. On the contrary, it was the very period known as “the dark ages” that the papacy could claim her greatest unity in western Europe’.
The ecumenical movement of our day continues to downplay theology. Of course, none of the major players in the movement would admit this, but if we are to have unity with the Roman Catholic Church we must be willing to let go of those pesky little solas that so often get in the way.
If we are to have unity with Mormons, we must be willing to allow some leeway on the divinity of Jesus. And so on. But the unity that Christ prays for us to attain and that Paul exhorts us to model is not based on forsaking doctrinal differences so that we can meet at the lowest common denominator. It is not based on mixing ‘churches’ with one another.
It is rather a unity of people who know and trust Christ. It is a unity in the truths of Scripture, truths despised by the world, but loved and treasured by believers. It is a unity which, as Murray says, ‘binds [Christ’s] members together in love’.
In Ephesians 4:11-16 Paul describes the means of attaining unity: ‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God’.
The teaching ministry, carried on today by the pastors of local churches, is a ministry of unity. A solid foundation of sound doctrine will prevent people from being tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine.
So if we would have unity, we must have theology. We are to share, profess and enjoy unity with other believers, even those who do not share certain ‘lesser’ doctrines. This is not to imply that any doctrine is unimportant, yet some doctrines are more important than others.
J. C. Ryle wisely observed that believers should ‘keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them as often as you can’. But there are times when we must reject a false kind of unity, because of the higher importance of truth.
Edited, with permission, from the author’s blog (www.challies.com)