What does it mean for Christians to be united? Does we never confront sin because of the tension that comes with that kind of conversation? Do we just ignore false teaching? Do we avoid any type of conflict at any cost? I would like to offer four points to clarify what biblical Christian unity looks like.
1) Christian Unity Is Between Christians
“As a prisoner of the Lord, I urge you: Live a life that is worthy of the calling He has graciously extended to you. Be humble. Be gentle. Be patient. Tolerate one another in an atmosphere thick with love. Make every effort to preserve the unity the Spirit has already created, with peace binding you together.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
We should show Christian love to everyone, but we simply can’t have the kind of unity that should happen between disciples of Christ with those who are not also disciples. I have great friends who do not share my allegiance to Christ. We unite around other things - a love of philosophy, sports, books, social issues - but we don't unite around Christ.Unity must be with regard to something. Saying "we are unified" as Christians doesn't mean anything unless we have a common cause, allegiance, motivation – in this case, the unity the Holy Spirit brings through Christ.
2) Christian Unity Has Boundaries.
There are plenty of “secondary issues” within the faith that Christians legitimately disagree about and should not break our unity.
- Is the earth old or young?
- How will End Times unfold?
- How is the Holy Spirit active today?
- What is the purpose of church services and how should they be done?
- Does God predestine who will be saved, or do our choices make a difference?
- Is Song of Solomon about marriage and sex or is it an allegory for Christ and the church?
Yes. Sure. Different perspectives are found within the boundaries of united allegiance to Christ (Check out Romans 14:1-12 for a practical example). However, there are things that will either make Christian unity impossible or will destroy unity within the church if left unchecked.
Theological Boundaries (the person and work of Christ)
The Bible clearly shows that Jesus was God in the flesh (a member of the Trinity), who lived, died and rose again. Sin destroys peace within us and between God and others, and punishment is our just reward. God (through Christ) provided a way out of that penalty of eternal death, and Christ alone has brought salvation and made peace between us and God. Once we give our allegiance to Christ, we can be “conformed” to increasingly reflect His image but we will never be Him.[i] One day we will stand before God to give an answer for our lives. Those who enter into reward instead of punishment will do so only because they have accepted Jesus' offer to pay their debt.
Christian unity is not possible if we don’t agree on these things, because these points are all integral to the person and work of Jesus. I can think of at least five different phrases I have heard about Jesus from others who claim allegiance to Christ that give me a lot of concern.
- “I am a Christian because I follow Jesus’ teachings. I don’t think he was God, but He showed us how to live.”[ii]
- “Jesus is one of many ways to God.”[iii]
- “Jesus is only about love, not anger. We have to lighten up on all this talk about sin and wrath and hell.”[iv]
- “You can be just like Jesus! You can be a little god too!”[v]
- “Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just names or titles for different ways God has shown himself.”[vi]
We can’t be in Christian unity if we are fixing our eyes on a different kind of Christ. If he was just a good man, Jesus is not divine and should not be worshipped. If there are many ways to make peace with God, then Jesus is not the only way and is certainly not the necessary way, and his death and resurrection were unnecessary. If sin and its eternal consequences aren’t important, then Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection aren’t important, and the day of judgment should not concern us. If we can become just like Jesus, then the bar for what it means to be God is incredibly low, and there is no way Jesus should be worshipped. If there is no Trinity, then Judaism and Islam have been right about the nature of God all along, and Christ was not who we thought he was. If thats true, then his life, death and resurrection did not accomplish what we claim they did.
When Paul is writing about the importance of unity, he’s not saying that anything goes as Christians when we look at Jesus. He clearly calls out false teachers numerous times in his letters (Galatians 5:7-12; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-19). Even if we attend church together, if we are not united about the most important thing, we may be respectful friends who genuinely like each other, but we are not united around the same Christ.
Moral Boundaries (Committed Discipleship)
Christian unity does not require perfection. Sinfulness will always be present within our Christian unity on this side of heaven. When that happens, we don't just step over our brothers and sisters when they fall down, and we certainly don’t kick them while they are down. We don’t enable sin, and we don’t berate and humiliate sinners. We help them back up like we have constantly been helped up, and we revisit the foot of the cross not to regain our salvation, but to ask for the forgiveness only Christ can give.
However, unity doesn’t mean we act like sin is no big deal. Paul writes numerous times about how to confront sin in the context of church (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); (1 Corinthians 5:6-7; (2 Corinthians 2:5-8). Why? Because sin can begin to permeate the church, and that will destroy our unity. There’s a reason God says not to do these things that goes beyond our individual holiness. True unity cannot be sustained if these things are allowed to flourish in a church.
Unity does not require that we overlook sin. If we are going to be unified around Christ, we have to have a healthy respect for the reality and devastation of sin. The more our personal sin hurts others or draws others in, the more crucial it becomes to confront for the purpose of the individual and the unity of the group. If we overlook or enable these things, they will take our eyes off of Christ, our walk as a disciple will erode, our unity with others will crumble, and our witness for Christ will be compromised. So the fact that we are sinners is not the thing that divides us; it should actually unite us at the foot of the cross. It’s what we do with or how we respond to the sin that cannot help but bring disunity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together:
“Reproof is unavoidable.. Where defection from God’s Word in doctrine or life imperils the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the world of admonition and rebuke must be ventured. Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin. It is a ministry of mercy, an ultimate offer of genuine fellowship…”
As a church community, we are in this together. Unity requires a community of grace, forgiveness and hope that always points us toward a Christ who offers all these things to us. But sin corrodes, and it must be addressed.
3) Christian Unity Confronts Tension
Ephesians 4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
Galatians 6:1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
Unity is not the absence of tension. If it were, we would never be unified. We would always hide our true self from others, or avoid people or situations that make us uncomfortable, or never have the hard conversations about protecting doctrine or living holy lives.We must confront it instead of retreat from it. The Bible does not say blessed are the peacekeepers, it says blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Keeping peace is easy, passive, and ultimately destructive. Making peace is uncomfortable, but necessary and always fruitful. The unified do not hide.
We must learn how to say, “I love you and I am for you, so we must have this conversation.” Then we pray for wisdom, we may seek godly counsel, and we turn to the Bible for our foundational truths because it is” profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”(2 Timothy 3:16)
4) Christian Unity displays Christ-like love
“ Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let your hearts fall under the rule of Jesus’ peace (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-16)
Love is the ultimate gift of the Spirit as seen in 1 Corinthians 13.[vii] It’s the glue that is meant to hold the church community together. The Bible is really specific about what Christ-like love looks like (and I am pulling this list from 1 Corinthians 13).
- Patient (good things take time)
- Kind (it’s a basic human quality)
- Content (not jealous)
- Humble (not boastful or proud)
- Decent (never rude or crude)
- Other-centered (not self-absorbed)
- Composed (not easily provoked or resentful)
- Forgiving (doesn’t keep tally of wrongs)
- Rejoices in Truth (doesn’t avoid it)
- Rejoices in Justice (is not content to let injustice unfold)
- Bears all things (endures and protects insults, burdens, and hardships)
- Never loses faith (does not become cynical or jaded)
- Hopeful (never forgets that Jesus saves)
- Persevering (keeps going even when it's tough
This kind of love is the greatest gift given us to preserve the unity that Christ brings, Is far more than emotional connection. It comes from fixing our eyes on Christ and walking with others in loving, faithful discipleship. Paul gives an example of how this looks in Romans 12:14-18.
“If people mistreat or malign you, bless them. Always speak blessings, not curses. If some have cause to celebrate, join in the celebration. And if others are weeping, join in that as well. Work toward unity, and live in harmony with one another. Avoid thinking you are better than others or wiser than the rest; instead, embrace common people and ordinary tasks. Do not retaliate with evil, regardless of the evil brought against you. Try to do what is good and right and honorable as agreed upon by all people. If it is within your power, make peace with all people.” (Romans 12:14-18)
This kind of loving unity will never compromise truth or holiness, but it will always guide the attitude and presence we bring to any situation.
[i] Paul’s Creed (from 1 Corinthians 15:3-11) often considered the earliest creedal statement: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” Note the three key subjects: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; the fact the Jesus died for our sins; and the reality of grace as the means of salvation.
The Apostles Creed(150 AD) reads: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; [‘he descended to hell’ was added much later in response to doctrinal challenges]. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, [‘the holy catholic (universal) church' was added in the 4th century], the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” As a response to different doctrinal challenges, this creed is more broad (and more specific) than Paul’s.
The Nicene Creed (325 AD) reads: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets; And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.” This was written in response to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. In 381, it was revised to address the Macedonian heresy, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
[ii] Google the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to see this in action. Michael Horton provides a good overview of this position at http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var2=917
[iii] " I don't believe making disciples must equal making adherence to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.” (Brian McClaren) For a good response, check out a book by Ravi Zacharias called Jesus Among Other Gods.
[iv] The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: "God is love". If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, pp. 182-183).”John Piper has a good response at http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/defending-my-fathers-wrath
[v] “Man…was created on terms of equality with God, and he could stand in God’s presence without any consciousness of inferiority…. He made us the same class of being that He is Himself…. He lived on terms equal with God…. The believer is called Christ, that’s who we are; we’re Christ.” (Kenneth Hagin, Zoe: The God Kind of Life, pp. 35-36, 41).
“Why didn't Jesus openly proclaim Himself as God during His 33 years on earth? For one single reason. He hadn't come to earth as God, He'd come as man.” Kenneth Copeland, Believer's Voice of Victory magazine, Aug. 8, 1988. p.8.
"The most remarkable "messiah" at (the time of the writing of this book) ... is to be found at camp Manujothi Ashram in the desert in South India. It is the extreme American evangelist, William Branham, whom Christians have to thank for this false messiah. His name is Paluser Lawrie Mathukrishna. When Branham was on (a) tour of India, Brother Lawrie became a disciple of his, and Branham described him as the "Son of God" and "Christ returned." (Kurt Koch, Occult ABC, 1978, p. 66) Read more at http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/thirdwaveteachings.html
This is also a key teaching of Mormonism. Here is a short but good response from Hank Hannegraaff: http://www.equip.org/perspectives/little-gods-are-we-little-gods/
[vi] This is a position called Modalism, which has been considered heretical (so far from orthodox Christianity that it cannot be authentic Christian belief) since almost the beginning of the church. Two popular names associated with this movement are Tommy Tenney (because of his Oneness Pentecostal roots) and T.D. Jakes (who is a Oneness Pentecostal). Here’s a link to a great article that gives a very thorough discussion of this issue: http://thecripplegate.com/modalism_oneness_and_td_jakes/
In an unusual (and false) twist, Benny Hinn has been promoting Tri-theism, the idea that each member of the Trinity is its own Trinity. ”God the Father, ladies and gentlemen, is a person; separate from the Son and the Holy Ghost. Say, what did you say? Hear it, hear it, hear it. See, God the Father is a person, God the Son is a person, God the Holy Ghost is a person. But each one of them is a triune being by Himself. If I can shock you - and maybe I should - there's nine of them. Huh, what did you say? Let me explain: God the Father, ladies and gentlemen, is a person with his own personal spirit, with his own personal soul, and his own personal spirit-body.” (Benny Hinn” program on TBN, 10/30/90)
[vii] “The apostle bookends his famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13) with these two (perhaps surprising) charges: “earnestly desire the higher gifts” and “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 12:31; 1 Corinthians 14:1). God means that we desire all of his gifts, not to glut our selfishness, but to selflessly strengthen others — “so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:5)… Desire all the spiritual gifts, knowing that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:3). Compared to other “higher gifts” (such as tongues, healing, and prophecy† among others), love is “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).”
Read the entire article at http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/10-reasons-to-desire-all-the-spiritual-gifts.