“The Church is one, and by her fertility she has extended by degree into many. In the same way, the sun has many rays, but a single light; a tree has many branches but a single trunk resting on a deep root; and many streams flow out from a single source. However many may spread out from the source, it retains its unity. Cut off a ray from the orb of the sun; the unity of light cannot be divided. Break off a branch from the tree, and the broken branch cannot come into bud. Sever the stream from its source, and the severed section will dry up. So it is also with the Church. She is flooded with the light of the Lord, and extends her rays over all the globe. Yet it is the one light which is diffused everywhere, without breaking up the unity of the body. She stretches forth her branches over the whole earth in rich abundance; she spreads widely her flowing streams. Yet there is but one head, one source, one mother, abounding in the increase of her fruitfulness. We are born of her womb, we are nourished by her milk, and we are given life from her breath…Anyone who rends and divides the Church of Christ cannot possess the clothing of Christ.” (Cyprian, “On the Unity of the Church”)
Few of us have given enough sustained, serious reflection to the stupendous reality that Jesus Christ’s final prayer on the last night of his life centered chiefly on his desire for unity among his rag-tag band of disciples, both present and future (John 17:20-23). Regardless, now contrast this poignant scene with the bizarre contradiction that exists in the attitudes of many Western Christians today. Regarding the widespread New Testament call for unity among followers of Jesus, two wildly different sentiments tend to abound in our half-hearted response to the scriptural injunction. On the one hand, the pervasive biblical teaching on unity is generally understood to be both simple in its clarity and direct in its thrust–rightly so, in fact. Christians are expected as a matter of normal practice to exhibit a tangible, lasting harmony with one another on the basis of their shared faith in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. On the other hand, we often appear quite undisturbed by the massive divisions that exist between various groups of confessing Christians around the world—groups whose authentically Christian status many if not most of us would gladly concede. How these two factors cohere with one another in the modern Christian subconscious is not at all clear, and arguably problematic.
In this essay, I hope to explore the various contours of a fully-fledged Christian unity. In my final reflections, I will get around to wrestling with some of the most perennial obstacles to lasting reconciliation between the churches of Christ, and offer up some nitty-gritty practical application for those so interested in being peace makers. Concrete wisdom of the how-to variety remains of keen import in a world as messy, ambiguous, and filled with hues of gray as we find ourselves in. My intention for this paper, then, is not speculative in the least. Nothing would thrill me more than to see a marked increase in sincere, intentional, and God-glorifying unity among the various Christian groups in the world, as well as much more heart-felt repentance over our long-standing habits of division and isolation from one another.
The New Testament unambiguously reveals that unity between Christians was of central importance to Jesus and his authoritative, Spirit-filled apostles. For about the first thousand years of church history, there is much evidence to indicate that this passionate commitment continued to be widely shared by those who came after them and very little that expressly contradicts the continuing presence of this conviction. For one particularly pertinent example , consider this excerpt from one of the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the New Testament:
“Why is there strife and angry outbursts and dissensions and schisms and conflict among you? Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ? Why do we tear and rip apart the members of Christ, and rebel against our own body, and reach such a level of insanity that we forget that we are members of one another? Remember the words of Jesus our Lord, for he said: ‘Woe to that man! It would have been good for him if he had not been born, than that he should cause one of my elect to sin. It would have been better for him to have been tied to a millstone and cast into the sea, than that he should pervert one of my elect.’ Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow. And yet your rebellion still continues!” (1 Clement 46:5-9, as cited in Michael W. Holmes, Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 1999, p. 81)
Many centuries later, the influential Protestant reformer John Calvin echoed a similar commitment:
“Whoever tears asunder the Church of God, disunites himself from Christ, who is the head, and who would have all his members to be united together.” (Commentary on Zechariah 8:23)
While significant theological diversity has always existed in the world-wide church, there was a core of tradition and scriptural teaching that served as the unifying basis of Christian self-understanding (here we think, of course, of the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the rest of the Seven Ecumenical Councils). Moreover, various individual churches during this primitive era did not as yet identify their primary difference from other collectives of Christians in doctrinal categories, but merely in geographical location. In this they were following a patently New Testament phenomenon, in which the various communities of believers are identified simply by their location in Christ (spiritually) and their geographical location in their respective cities (i.e. in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, etc.). Their unity was found in the first category, their differences in the second—period. Nothing else set them apart from each other, and nothing else provided a common connection with each other.
While the history behind the “great schism” of 1054 between the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) churches is notoriously complex and detailed, it does serve as the first “official” breakdown of Christian unity in history between two groups that both clearly stood within the apostolic consensus of Nicene and Chalcedon. After another half a millennium in which East and West continued on their separate ways—yet for the most part each remained relatively coherent and organized internally—the Western church suffered another catastrophic split.
With his nailing of 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther signaled his theological dissent from the plenteous abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. While this story once more proves to be a radically convoluted one and marvelously resistant to simplistic reductions, it soon came to pass that “Protestants” now joined “Catholics” and “Eastern Orthodox” as the three major groups within “Christendom” in the modern world. Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have continued to splinter among themselves at an alarmingly exponential rate. Most statistical analyses currently put the number of Protestant denominations in the world somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000, with no signs that the rapid rate of disintegration will soon abate. Unity, it would seem, is distinctly a thing of the past. Worse still, many contemporary Christians fail to exhibit any notable signs of alarm or mourning over this tragic state of affairs:
“Living in divided churches, Christians have become accustomed to division. We easily regard disunity as normal. But easy acceptance of Christian division is, we believe, as great a threat to the integrity of our churches as division itself.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 18)
In this essay I will elaborate upon five crucial aspects of Christian unity, listed in very brief summary form below:
1.) The meaning of Christian unity: this is the state of affairs that obtains when followers of Jesus intentionally live together in mutual acceptance—amidst their considerable ongoing diversity—as reconciled, beloved children of God within a stable community that is supremely devoted to the kingdom of God.
2.) The visibility of Christian unity: the corporate oneness of believers is divinely intended to be visible in the world, and not merely “positional” or “spiritual” or “invisible.”
3.) The priority of Christian unity: this experiential reality is integral to both the identity and the mission of the body of Christ, and cannot be conveniently relegated to the sidelines as a second-order doctrine.
4.) The benefits of Christian unity: when followers of Jesus dwell together in unity, this dynamic inevitably produces a host of valuable spiritual benefits among those who are sacrificially committed to fostering it.
5.) The basis of Christian unity: the common ground that Christians occupy is founded exclusively upon Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. Therefore, this unity among believers arises only derivatively out of the more fundamental event of reconciliation that takes place between God and humanity through the gospel.
“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. 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. 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. 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.”
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. 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.
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, or to necessarily all adopt the same biblical convictions, 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.
“Our Lord says [in John 17] that He has given this glory to those who believe in Him ‘that they may be one even as we are one.’ Being children of God must mean being–in some recognizable sense–members of one family. All our rationalizations of schism and all our evasions of the plain meaning of Scripture will not enable us to side-step the logic of that argument. In some sense those who are children of one Father must be recognizable as members of one family…In the middle of this world God has set His Church as His witness. He expects His Church to be recognizable as His family. He expects that the glory which He gave to His Son, and which has been given to us, will be visible to the world in the common life of a redeemed brotherhood. He expects that the world will be able to recognize that the Church is the place where His love is actually at work drawing together into one men of every sort and kind.” (Lesslie Newbigin, “Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age”, pp. 20, 24-25)
The Visibility of Christian Unity
Christian unity cannot be conveniently relegated to the realm of the “spiritual” or “invisible,” excusing our complacency as we all go our own separate ways and never interact in sincere and sustained fellowship with one another. We are called to exhibit our mutual unity in Christ not only in word and talk, but also in deed and truth (I John 3:18). Unity among all believers must be demonstrated visibly and plainly in every geographical area where a Christian presence exists in the world. Such publicly perceptible demonstrations of our bond in Christ provide what Francis Schaeffer (in his memorable little book The Mark of the Christian) called “the final apologetic” to the watching, unbelieving world around us.
That Christian unity is necessarily visible can be deduced from several factors. First, it must be visible because it is divinely designed to be seen by the world, that is, by unbelievers outside of the community of faith (John 17:21, 23). Second, the lack of unity among various Christians can be rebuked when it is violated or disrupted (I Corinthians 1:10-4:21, Philippians 4:2-3). Third, unity between believers can be prayed for (John 17) and sought after in practical ways (Romans 15:5-7, Philippians 1:27-2:2), which assumes that as such it is not automatic or necessarily present in the church at all times and places.
We cannot hope to make either heads or tails of this biblical trajectory if Christian unity is mainly mystical or “spiritual” in an invisible sense. As Schaeffer notes:
“To relate these verses in John 13 and 17 merely to the existence of the invisible Church makes Jesus’ statement a nonsense statement. We make a mockery of what Jesus is saying unless we understand that he is talking about something visible. This is the whole point: The world is going to judge whether Jesus has been sent by the Father on the basis of something that is open to observation.” (The Mark of the Christian, p. 35)
Christian unity which attains to the standard of the Scriptures must be outward, tangible and experientially realized in the life of the church on a perpetual basis. It does not exist irrespective of our structural divisions, personal attitudes or worldly actions toward fellow believers. Therefore, I concur with the challenging yet appropriate words of Newbigin here:
“There is, unfortunately, a loose use of the word ‘spiritual’ which enables people in ordinary speech to put asunder the two things which Scripture unites—the one body and the one Spirit. People talk of a ‘spiritual unity’ as something separate from unity in one body. It is often difficult to know what this means. Sometimes it means a feeling of unity which can express itself in occasional courtesies, or in occasional joint demonstrations, but is not strong enough to stand the strain of living together in one body. When people are content with this, feeling degenerates into sentimentality. When Paul speaks of ‘one Spirit’ he is talking about something far removed from this. He is talking of the one Holy Spirit of God given to believers. And he links this indissolubly with ‘one body,’ because the proper fruit of the presence of the Spirit of God is a love that is not sentimental but strong and enduring and patient as the love of Christ Himself. Such love expresses itself in more than occasional demonstrations. It expresses itself in a deep and enduring commitment to one another to live as brethren in one family. If we think that a ‘spiritual unity’ which is content with mere feeling and does not seek visible expression in that kind of steady and enduring commitment, is an adequate expression of our unity in Christ, we deceive ourselves.”
To acknowledge the irreducible visibility of Christian unity requires our unapologetic dissent from every cheap imitation of the genuine item surrounding us in the Western church today. It is to commit oneself not merely to a floating, pleasantly abstract idea, but to something so this-worldly that it can and must be measured empirically–at least to a significant degree. It requires taking up our cross daily and dying to our old self and the corresponding sinful agendas which can do nothing but divide us from other believers outside the immediate privacy of our inner circles. The visibility of our bond in Christ means we must put our money where our mouth is, or else be exposed as hypocrites and disobedient servants. We must be deadly serious about this pursuit, for everything must come to the light one way or another. And unity between brothers and sisters in Christ was always meant to come to the light, anyway.
“The bond that joins Christians to God and to each other, though grounded in the interior working of the Holy Spirit, is not meant to be invisible; it must have a visible edge. To work against the visible manifestation of the unity God has given us, or to accept its absence with resignation, is therefore resistance to God’s Spirit and exposes us to God’s judgment.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 15).
“Nothing can be clearer, of course, than that the conception of its unity enters fundamentally into the New Testament doctrine of the Church.” (B. B. Warfield, “True Church Unity: What It Is,” p. 299)
The Priority of Christian Unity
The pursuit and maintenance of unity among confessing Christians is a clear, compelling and central biblical imperative which cannot be ignored or refused without quenching the Spirit’s presence and power among us. As R. B. Kuiper rightly notes, “The Word of God teaches the unity of the church unmistakably, repeatedly and emphatically. It is no exaggeration to assert that this is one of the most outstanding teachings of the New Testament.” I make this simple point largely because many Christians (in my view) acknowledge a good deal of the various components that go into the makeup of a truly biblical unity, yet assign the doctrine far too low a status on their scale of competing priorities.
It is not enough to correctly comprehend the doctrinal contours of unity; one must also acknowledge the stunning value the New Testament writers assign to it in the redemptive economy of God. To give an illustration of this distinction, take the doctrine of justification as expounded by Paul in Galatians. One could, hypothetically, agree entirely with Paul regarding the content of justification by faith apart from works, yet at the same time disagree with the profound priority it holds for him—a priority that can be seen, of course, in his “anathema” upon all who deny it (Galatians 1:6-9). A person could conceivably share in common the fact of justification by faith with Paul but not the value he placed upon it. I argue that this is precisely how many Christians today relate to the biblical teaching on unity in the church. While often agreeing on what it demands, they wrongly relegate it to a subordinate, secondary place in the lives of believers. The profound importance of unity in the church is not felt as it should be. This allows us to feel far more comfortable with our woeful disobedience and failure, apart from our ever actually having to repent of it. This is convenient to be sure, yet it can only provide the sort of peace that finds its origins in the covering up of wounds, not in the actual healing of them (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11).
The compelling and pervasive New Testament witness could not be more different in either tone or emphasis. For these apostolic writers, unity among the people of God was of the very essence of their faith and of what God was after in a divisive, shattered world that He was nonetheless pursuing. The one Creator God had redeemed a people to exist as one in Christ and in the Spirit, reflecting His image. As the Father and the Son are one (John 10:30), so also we are to be one (John 17:11, 21-23). This oneness is at the core of both the identity and the mission of the body of Christ. Unity is not to be regarded, by any means, as optional or merely secondary in the economy of the gospel.
It was so central to Jesus’ own ethical vision that a great deal of his final prayer on the night before his death was concerned with it. Unity consistently and repeatedly arises in both the doctrinal and the practical exhortation sections of the various New Testament letters. It saturates every section of the New Testament in one way or another. Unity in the church is simply not understood correctly unless it is perceived to be a first-order priority for all believers. It is a communal practice in which the gospel is perpetually at stake.
The conclusion is unavoidable that we have not properly grasped the biblical doctrine of unity until our passion runs as high for its appearance and maintenance as it did for Jesus and his apostles. Therefore, we must continually mourn for its absence, actively repent of our complicity in the divisions in the church, and eagerly and sacrificially work for the attainment of the goal that both Jesus (John 17) and Paul (Ephesians 4:11-16) labored so severely for. We must adopt this perspective of John Calvin, apparent in his 1552 letter, responding to Thomas Cranmer’s invitation to a conversation on the reunification of the churches of Europe:
“I wish indeed it could be brought about that men of learning and authority from the different churches might meet somewhere and, after thoroughly discussing the different articles of faith, should, by a unanimous decision, hand down to posterity some certain rule of faith . . . . As to myself, if I should be thought of any use, I would not, if need be, object to cross ten seas for such a purpose. If the assisting of England were alone concerned, that would be motive enough for me. Much more, therefore, am I of opinion that I ought to grudge no labor or trouble, seeing that the object in view is an agreement among the learned, to be drawn up by the weight of their authority according to Scripture, in order to unite widely severed churches.”
Calvin speaks of crossing ten seas for the sake of the church’s unity. For many Christians today, an hour or two over coffee each week to fellowship and pray with the members of another congregation feels like an unbearable sacrifice, and thus we avoid such encounters with a clear conscience.
“It is not possible to account for the contentment with the divisions of the Church except upon the basis of a loss of the conviction that the Church exists to bring all men to Christ. There is the closest possible connection between the acceptance of the missionary obligation and the acceptance of the obligation of unity.” (Lesslie Newbigin, “The Reunion of the Church”, p. 11)
The Benefits of Christian Unity
The eager pursuit and solemn maintenance of visible unity among believers produces, by God’s grace, a host of invaluable spiritual benefits within the body of Christ. For instance, our evangelistic witness to the unbelieving world is directly dependent upon our unity with one another. As Jesus himself has taught us, much of the efficacy and evidential staying power of our testimony to the watching world obtains from our being “one” with each other in the Lord (John 17:20-23; cf. Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-33). Our collective urgency for and commitment to unity with one another reflects our dedication to this overarching cause. As Lesslie Newbigin contended:
“The disunity of the Church is a denial of the promise and a contradiction of the purpose for which the Church is sent into the world. How can the Church give to the world the message that Jesus is able to draw all men to Himself, while it continues to say, ‘Nevertheless, Jesus is not able to draw us who bear His name together’? How will the world believe a message which we do not appear to believe ourselves? The divisions of the Church are a public denial of the sufficiency of the atonement.”
Francis Schaeffer once famously quipped that our greatest apologetic is love, and while this is doubtless correct, I would want to further qualify it by insisting that united love is the most powerful witness possible to the dark world of unbelief. Similarly, our evangelistic appeal will be perceived as unimpressive if it comes from the mouth(s) of a divided community.
Furthermore, when Christians dwell together in unity, they experience renewed, deepened maturity in their walks with Christ. We see this clearly in the flow of thought of Ephesians 4:1-16, where the unity of believers allows for the mutual edification and employment of the gifts of the Spirit, which in turn gives rise to enhanced displays of the fullness of Christ in our midst—the very goal of our redemption. Christians perpetually stand in sober need of the richly diversified gifts and insights of other believers, and apart from genuine relationships in the context of unity such opportunities will be forfeited and immaturity will needlessly remain.
Likewise, passages such as Matthew 18:19-20—as well as widespread Christian experience and testimony throughout church history—demonstrate that sustaining unity among believers is often accompanied by prolonged interludes characterized by the dynamic and intensely transforming presence of God in our communities. When followers of Jesus take seriously the call to unity, the gospel seems more real and compelling, God is more powerfully present through His Spirit in our hearts, and Christ is honored mightily in the world. Doubtless a multitude of other unforeseen desirable benefits will likewise result from continually striving in faith to preserve the sacred bond of unity in Christ with which we have been entrusted.
Regardless, the church of Jesus Christ is unfathomably diminished and weakened through her untold divisions in the world. We are a phantom specter, a mere faint glimmer, of what we could be by God’s grace were we to take His vision for the church seriously. Along with John Owen, I invite you to dream in faith of a day when “religion will have another appearance in the world” on account of the presence of a reunified Body of Christ, internally displaying and embodying both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit:
“I confess I would rather, much rather, spend all my time and days in making up and healing the breaches and schisms that are amongst Christians than one hour in justifying our divisions even therein wherein, on the one side, they are capable of a fair defense…When men have labored as much in the principle of forbearance as they have done to subdue other men to their opinions, religion will have another appearance in the world.” (John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. 13, page 95)
“One is a brother to another only through Jesus Christ. I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him. This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance…Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”, pp. 25-26)
The Basis of Christian Unity
Unity among believers has its exclusive, ongoing basis both subjectively and objectively in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Subjectively, Christian unity is achieved only derivatively through our own prior reconciliation with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Being reconciled with Him is the indispensable prerequisite for being reconciled to one another (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10 and 2:11-22). As believers seek the Lord individually and corporately in glad response to His mercy, unity will be an inevitable by-product of our single-minded passion for the Lord Jesus, of our sacrificial devotion to the gospel, and of our humble love for God’s redeemed people. A. W. Tozer captured the dynamic of this crucial order cogently:
“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same [tuning] fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we who are many have become members of one body, stones in one temple, and servants for one kingdom. We must affirm that the only true, legitimate basis of our unity is our Spirit-generated faith in this crucified and risen Jesus who is set forth to us in the Gospel. This statement constitutes a vigorous denial that our unity is founded upon unanimous agreement on secondary theological issues or cherished ministry principles or cultural values that will often diverge between various local churches and ministries. Our unity with one another exists prior to these concerns, and must be staunchly maintained even in the midst of significant diversity of conviction, sense of calling and priorities. Simply because Christ cannot be divided, neither can His people be content with ongoing schisms and divisions among themselves for biblically unacceptable reasons as they engage in their Spirit-driven mission. Indeed, unity is a crucial part of their Spirit-driven mission. This must perpetually be brought to our remembrance.
Objectively, it is of crucial significance that we recognize the basic two-fold ground of unity given to us by the apostolic witness of the New Testament: (1) faithful confession of the gospel in truth, and (2) persevering adherence to a biblical lifestyle marked by repentance and faith, in response to the grace that has been freely lavished upon us in Jesus. Likewise (to state it negatively), the only two legitimate causes of breaking unity are serious deviation from or outright denial of the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9, 4:30, II John 9-11) and flagrant, unrepentant sin in the life of believers (Matthew 18:15-17, I Corinthians 5:1-12, II Thessalonians 3:14-15). I contend that no other secondary issues–period, without exception–ought to be insisted upon as valid conditions for either retaining the bond of unity or for the breaking of fellowship with one another. It is stunningly easy for us to become disproportionately fixated upon our remaining differences—and these are admittedly often substantial and not to be minimized—but we must never allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that what joins us together in Christ is infinitely more significant than what separates us.
Corresponding to the astounding value the biblical writers place on unity among believers, a number of severe warnings sound forth from their pens against those who would promote or give rise to divisions within the body of Christ (Romans 16:17-18, Titus 3:10-11, Jude 19, Galatians 5:15, 19-21, 26). As Wayne Grudem rightly reminds us, it is “because they are jealous to protect this unity of the church [that] the New Testament writers give strong warnings against those who cause divisions.”
Moreover, the persistent diagnosis of the New Testament concerning the failure to maintain unity is that such a state of affairs is due primarily to misunderstanding the radical nature of the gospel and to God’s pride-destroying grace displayed therein. Unity arises from a correct spiritual apprehension of and response to the gospel in our lives; disunity obtains when the gospel does not root itself deeply enough into our hearts. Just as divisions flow out of boasting in anything characteristic of the “flesh” (leaders, abilities, performance, reputation, theological distinctives, etc.), so unity is the sweet fruit of continually placing our confidence only in the Lord. In this sense, unity among believers always remains a second-order good—it is derivative of our faithful recognition that God’s grace is everything, and that we are nothing and have nothing apart from Him. Our unity is, accordingly, found only in our Lord Jesus, not in anything stemming from or accomplished by us. The basis of Christian unity can be properly summarized with the ancient, poignant dictum of Ignatius: “Where Jesus Christ is, there also is the Catholic Church.”
My modest aim here is to ramble off a few scattered, disjointed implications that flow out of my arguments about unity in previous posts . They seem to be logical inferences to me, granting of course the legitimacy of the trajectory of this series. Without further ado, here are some things that strike me as important—even crucial—for Christians to ponder who are interested in pursuing biblical unity.
1.) The Necessity Of Defining The Gospel Rightly
This flows directly out of what I argued about what constitutes the basis of Christian unity—namely, the gospel plus nothing. I do not mean to minimize or detract from the importance of other secondary theological convictions and disputes withinin the church of Jesus Christ. These are legitimate and not to be cheaply dismissed. All truth about God matters practically for the life of the people of God. Yet only the gospel is central. Only the gospel binds together sinners within the household of faith.
Therefore, we must be clear on what the gospel is. What must be held to affirm it, and what must not be rejected in order to possess it? Few questions, if any, matter more in reality than these if Christianity is true. Note: Not what must be held to grasp the ideal gospel, or the gospel in all its glorious fullness, but rather the core thrust of it. What divides Romans 14 and Galatians 1:6-9? Finally, we must be equally zealous to prevent both additions to and subtractions from the gospel. Both will soon suffocate the unity Jesus and his holy apostles call us to.
The gospel is the sole boundary marker of the people of God. Yet the protective spiritual fence it sets up—keeping out impostors and keeping in the faithful who differ from us in serious ways—is contingent on recognizing its true contours. If we do not know and love the gospel in all its simplicity and sufficiency, the unity of the body of Christ is doomed.
2.) There Are No Second-Class Christians
This may seem an underwhelming thought to many—perhaps even ludicrously obvious—but to this maturing conviction has impacted me the most over the past year. How simple the thought is, yet how profound and far-ranging in its consequences if taken even a little bit seriously.
This category simply does not exist. There is no gray area here. There are no “almost” Christians, or 78% Christians, or—most importantly—no “yes, but” Christians. You know what I mean here—that favored category of so many Western Christians today, referring to the type of professing believer who through gritted teeth we reluctantly admit are probably “in” and therefore our brothers and sisters in Christ, but are so different from us theologically and culturally and practically that we create this third category to place them comfortably in and thus keep them far from our actual lives. Here, as petty second-class Christians, they can bother and threaten us no longer. Relegating them to this category, we can rationalize our divisions from them and our lack of fellowship with them.
N. T. Wright has argued lucidly in his writings that justification by faith alone apart from works is the great Christian doctrine of unity. This truth declares that all those who by faith confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him from the dead—whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, Democrat or Republican, black or white—make up one new people in Christ, through Christ, and on the basis of Christ. They belong at the same table—the very mistake Peter condemned himself with at Antioch in Galatians 2. We are justified by believing in this Jesus alone, not by believing the exact right thing about justification by faith alone. All the difference in the world lay between those rival conceptions of fidelity to the gospel. When we construct extra conditions and barriers to sharing in the right hand of fellowship for other believers, we undermine the very gospel which announces that all Christians are saved by grace alone and by nothing else.
I encourage and challenge you to consider how many of your justifications for withholding fellowship and for prolonging our old, worn out schisms between various denominations are implicitly due to this fictional category being foisted illegitimately upon the New Testament. A person is either a Christian, or not. On the basis of the gospel, you are either to embrace them fully as a fellow brother and sister, or not at all. Let us repent of every other attitude in between, and the denial of the gospel such attitudes must always represent.
3.) We Must Be Balanced In Our Commitment To Both Truth And Unity—Not Resort to Playing Them Off Against One Another
One of the reasons pleas for unity can leave a bad taste in the mouths of orthodox Christians is because they so often see theological liberals parading an ecumenical banner that strongly downplays (if not outright distorting) the truth of the gospel. This “unity” is founded on something entirely other than Jesus and the gospel, and conservatives rightly reject it. However, conservative Christians can allow this travesty to send them hurtling in unwarranted reaction towards another false extreme—using love for the “truth” as a get-out-of-jail-free card from ever having to take the demands of our unity in Christ seriously. There is a way of being “gospel-centered” (to use currently popular terminology) that is actually parochial, sectarian and—in the end—undermining to the gospel itself.
Therefore, we must beware of these twin dangers and strive to steer along the faithful middle course. As Ben Witherington insightfully notes:
“There is always a tension in the church between unity among believers and truth as it is understood and held by believers. Protestantism has tended to hold up Truth, with a capital T, while intoning unity with a lowercase u, with the end result that Protestant churches and denominations have proved endlessly divisive and factious. On the other hand, Catholicism and Orthodoxy have held up Unity with a capital U, and at least from a Protestant viewpoint this has been at the expense of Truth. In other words, no part of the church has adequately gotten the balance between truth and unity right, it would seem.”
So for the sake of the truth of the gospel, we must not minimize biblical doctrines on the basis of (merely) pragmatic concerns for superficial unity. The end game is not worth it, for it simply will not be Christian unity we arrive at. Yet for the sake of the unity of the body, we must not allow our theological “hobby horses,” focused as they are on secondary albeit important doctrines, to function as perpetual safeguards against actually obeying Jesus.
Practically, this means that we must not endlessly stall our efforts at reunification until we are all exactly on the same page on a thousand doctrinal points. Not only will this never happen in this age, but it is entirely misguided. Another way of saying this is that we must learn to appreciate the enormous difference between Luke 9:49-50 and Luke 11:23. That some followers of Jesus are not comprehensively aligned with other believers in their every sentiment and agenda is in no way equivalent to their being against Christ himself, nor is it validation for so treating them. Only a corrosive party spirit is capable of equating the two scenarios.
“Authentic commitment to unity is always commitment to unity in the truth of faith and doctrine. When truth and unity are played off against one another, both are misrepresented.”
Pursue the unity of the church because you love the truth of the gospel.
4.) What Ought We To Do About Denominations?
This is the one “implication” I intentionally write out as a question rather than as an indicative statement, simply because I am not confident I have much to offer by way of answers or a proper perspective here. On the one hand, I feel the practical usefulness of denominations, and find it hard to disagree with those who contend that they are functionally necessary in the life of the church for doctrinal and practical reasons. What a grand mess we would be in if they disappeared tomorrow! Yet on the other hand, I don’t want what feels inevitable and necessary and—yes—even “normal” at this late stage of church history to dictate what the Scriptures can or cannot teach, or what God might be saying to the churches today through the Spirit.
Here are the two primary critiques of denominations I perceive to be unanswerable. First, they violate the New Testament framework of dividing Christians up into various communities of faith on the basis of only 1.) faith in Christ and 2.) geographical location. This pattern does not strike me as a mere happenstance of the apostolic era, but rather as reflecting a deep and abiding conviction about the very nature and spiritual makeup of God’s people. Yet today, geography plays at best a minor role in the minds of most Western Christians when deciding what community to belong to. Second, this leads unsurprisingly to the widespread mindset that there are many other matters besides the gospel that ought to divide and separate Christians from one another. Identifying second-class Christians and erecting new denominations are like fire and smoke. Given the one, the other can never be far behind. The willpower needed to keep these two separate eludes most mere mortals.
At the bare minimum, I think we should be able to affirm this conviction: “Whatever value Protestant denominationalism may have conserved, and whatever potency for good it may have had, it is in itself a deformed growth.” If the body of Christ had been faithful all along, this development would never have (tragically) arisen.
The institutional structure of the church is a notoriously complicated thing. I freely confess that I have no expertise here, and even less certainty about what to actually do about it. Yet it seems to me that Christians must be ready to question their most cherished traditions and habits of thought in light of the gospel. Who among us has ever really taken seriously the idea that denominational divisions might be inherently sinful and opposed to the prayer of Jesus in John 17? Who among us would be willing to do what was necessary, no matter how difficult and costly, if that indeed turned out to be the case? Sometimes I muse, in my more idealistic moods, that the most appropriate strategy we could implement would be to insist that individual local churches be divided exclusively along geographical lines, rather than denominational, theological, racial or cultural ones. I wonder what would it look like if we insisted that all Christians were required to participate in the closest community of believers in their given neighborhoods, and then once gathered simply instructed with this exhortation: now deal with it, with the resources available to you in Christ and through the Spirit. It would certainly make the New Testament letters come more alive with their problems and promises.
5.) Strive To Balance Idealism With Realism (and vice versa!)
We grasp this principle—sometimes called “incrementalism”—in other spheres of life, such as in politics or economics. Many of us intuitively feel the tension between the high ideals of the New Testament vision for the people of God, and the counterbalancing reality of the remaining sin and social complexities of life in a fallen world. What we need is the freedom to hold our ideals without compromise, yet “settle” along the way for making tiny differences one slow step at a time.
This balancing act is further necessitated by the recognition that—as inherently tortuous the actual implementation of Christian unity is in itself—it is that much harder for us today given the veritable mess of modern church history that stands behind us. The earliest Christians found unity difficult to carry out, in spite of the fact that they were starting from scratch. How much more so for us who stand on the far side of thousands of denominational rifts and bitter doctrinal controversies. A parallel (at least to my mind) that is perhaps appropriate to mention here is the Pauline contrast between Adam and Christ. This is not a strictly proportional contrast, as N. T. Wright adeptly sees:
“Christ did not begin where Adam began…God’s action in the Messiah did not start where Adam’s started, and, as it were, merely get things right this time. God’s action in the Messiah began at the point where Adam’s ended—with many sins, and many sinners.”
In the same vein, just as Jesus did not get to start with a clean slate but assumed responsibility for the mass sum of human sin in history, we must not only learn the rhythms of unity afresh today, but simultaneously unlearn centuries of nasty, unbiblical habits and ways of thinking that have been ingrained in the collective consciousness of the Western church, and surreptitiously bequeathed to us. None of us are able—let alone in a position to be able to realistically try!—to reunite Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox tomorrow, merely by virtue of our sincere intentions. Let’s acknowledge that readily. Yet we can be satisfied with nothing short of that. Therefore, let’s get to work in our own local spheres of influence, and seek the unity of the body of Christ in our own local congregations and fellowships. That is where most of us can have the most long-term, significant influence.
6.) Above All Else, We Must Seek The Face Of The Lord
It is tempting to think that if we could muster up the cleverest techniques and strategies, and also at the same time possess the soundest, sanest theology in the world, unity would therefore automatically follow with ease. Reality has harshly disproved this sentiment time and time again. These things are necessary, but not sufficient. If they were, genuine unity would be possible without genuine followers of Jesus.
Chiefly, we must love Jesus more than anything else. Just as most of the divisions in the world between Christians arise not from the complexity of the issues (how many lay Christians in any given denomination actually know well, let alone zealously hold to, the doctrinal distinctives of their respective group?), nor legitimate theological differences, but rather from spiritual immaturity, selfishness and misguided priorities, so the opposite holds true. When Spirit-generated holiness and humility are once more the “normal” mark of Christians when they gather together to worship and serve, unity will be the inevitable byproduct. Until then, our divisions are symptoms alerting us to a much graver spiritual diagnosis. Medicate accordingly.
As the sum of the matter, this much is plain: loving God and obeying His commandments will exist together, or not at all. They are related to each other as the root and the fruit of all Christian living. If we are not obeying His clearest commands (such as the call for unity) but manufacturing myriad excuses for flagrantly violating them with a pristinely clear conscience, then the most obvious explanation is that we do not really love Him above all other things. Similarly, if we hope to obey His commands, we must first love Him with all of our hearts. We cannot skip this step. If you are one who desires to see the unity of the body of Christ arise with new power and a fresh appearance in this generation, then love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, and with all your soul. Nothing else will avail, and here there are no shortcuts.
Finally, I conclude by affirming that my vision and understanding of unity set forth in this series is entirely subject to the Word of God, and thus I am open to being corrected in whatever points I currently fall short of or misconstrue the teaching of Scripture. Above all else, my desire is to see firsthand Jesus’ final prayer increasingly realized among the world-wide community of his followers:
“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 17:20-23).
Soli Deo Gloria
APPENDIX: Four Views on Christian Unity
In a chapter entitled “The Unity of the Church” in Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, a helpful outline of four competing conceptions of unity which are held by various Christian groups are briefly described. They are as follows:
1.) Spiritual Unity: This view, as was discussed earlier, holds that biblical unity is primarily an ideal of conviction or an invisible, positional reality which all believers automatically share in, regardless of the quality of their actual relationships with one another or the various structures of organizational denominations. We are one in Christ, simply by virtue of being grafted into His body, the church.
2.) Mutual Recognition and Fellowship: In this perspective, unity is more “practical.” Believers and congregations must recognize the legitimacy of other groups and believers as fellow Christians in the kingdom of God. Fellowship is encouraged between different local churches, though the validity of separate denominations is accepted.
3.) Conciliar Unity: This view accepts the premises of #2, but also further encourages “organizational alliance in order to accomplish their common purposes. They band together into what is called a council or association of churches. This is essentially a cooperative fellowship of denominations, each of which retains its own identity…There is emphasis on both fellowship and action” (Erickson, p. 1142).
4.) Organic Unity: The most radical position, organic unity “means the actual creation of one organization in which separate identities are surrendered…The ultimate goal [is] the combination of all Christian churches, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant, into one common church” (Erickson, pp. 1142-43
 Cf. Psalm 133:1, John 10:16, 11:52, 17:1-26, Acts 1:14, 2:44, 4:32, Romans 15:5-7, I Cor. 1:10, 10:17, 12:12-26, Ephesians 2:14-16, 4:1-16, Philippians 1:27-2:2, 4:2-3, Colossians 3:14-15, etc.
 The standard histories of this period tend to emphasize disagreements over the filioque clause (“and the Son”) and the Pope’s disputed claims to universal validity and authority in Christendom as central to the divide, though all admit that dozens of other factors—not just theological but also historical and social—played important parts in the dissolution of official Christian unity.
 I recognize that I am in danger of giving the impression that events such as the Reformation were only negative and misguided in their divisive effects upon the church of Christ. By no means do I wish to argue this, nor do I believe it. As I will (briefly) elaborate on in future posts, there are times in which believers are called to separate from those who deny the gospel or engage in habitual, unrepentant sin. However, my conviction is that this emphasis has been used, inconsistently so, as an excuse for not taking seriously the strong biblical teaching on unity, and that of late the Western church (in particular) has been lamentably lax in failing to seek restoration in any substantive manner.
 “…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)
 “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)
 “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)
 “True Church Unity: What It Is,” p. 304
 “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)
 Thanks to Chuck Hetzler for this illustration.
 “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)
 “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)
 “In a word, the unity of the body of Christ, is not a tenet that may be relegated to the transcendental realm of invisible, spiritual relationship, but a truth that governs, regulates, and conditions the behavior of the people of God in the communal, covenant relationship which they sustain to Christ in the institute of the church…Hence, to maintain that the unity belonging to the church does not entail ecumenical embodiment, is to deny the catholicity of the church of Christ. If the church is catholic, then unity is catholic.” (John Murray, “The Nature and Unity of the Church,” pp. 332-33)
 “What obligations have Christians…with regard to the Church’s unity? Not to create it, as if it did not already exist, but to acknowledge and express it in every way possible.” (J. I. Packer, “The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity,” in Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer: Serving the People of God, Vol. 2, p. 40)
 “This unity, though primarily spiritual in character, nevertheless exists objectively and really, and it does not remain completely invisible. It manifests itself outwardly—albeit in a very imperfect way—and at least to some degree comes to light…” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Vol. 4, p. 321)
 “Clearly the unity among Christians for which our Lord is praying here is to be a visible unity if, as he prays, the world is to learn from it that the Father has sent him. G. C. Berkouwer rightly declares that ‘the Church may not be viewed as a hidden, mystical, mysterious present reality full of inner richness, which the world cannot perceive…To flee here to the continuing sinfulness of the Church as an ‘explanation’ of her disunity or into the reassurance that a hidden unity can survive in the division does not take Christ’s prayer seriously.’” (Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 840, n. 5). Cf. these similar sentiments: “[T]he unity of which Jesus speaks [in John 17] must be in some way visible, because it is meant to be seen by the world. Invisible unity has no evangelistic power…Unity must be recognizable as unity without an extensive theological gloss. One must be able to see that the church, in its ordinary life and practice, is one community reconciled in Christ.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 32, 43)
 Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age, pp. 16-17
 The Glorious Body of Christ, pp. 41-42
 Cf. Psalm 133:1, John 10:16, 11:52, 17:1-26, Acts 1:14, 2:44, 4:32, Romans 15:5-7, I Cor. 1:10, 10:17, 12:12-26, Ephesians 2:14-16, 4:1-16, Philippians 1:27-2:2, 4:2-3, Colossians 3:14-15, etc.
 I have heard N. T. Wright remark recently that in his forthcoming mammoth book on Paul—the 4th volume in his Christian Origins series—he will argue that unity is the central theme of Paul’s theology.
 Letter to Thomas Cranmer in 1552. A. Basil Mitchell notes that “Calvin was mastered by the vision of a world-wide church one in Christ, and he regarded it as one of the great ends of his earthly mission to promote its realization.” (as cited in John Armstrong, Your Church Is Too Small)
 “The early believers were characterized by a oneness of purpose, and they were highly effective in their testimony…The company of believers tends to grow when their witness is united, whereas there may well be a negative or canceling effect when they compete with or even criticize one another.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1140)
 Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age, p. 9
 “The spiritual failure of Christianity in the modern era stems in many ways from ongoing division. Our complacency about division undermines our mission…division breeds never-ending diversion from authentic mission.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 33, 35)
 “When the church unites under Christ as its head, there is a maturing Christian experience.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1137)
 “The quest for the unity of the Church must in fact be identical with the quest for Jesus Christ as the concrete Head and Lord of the Church. The blessing of unity cannot be separated from Him who blesses, in Him it has its source and reality, through His Word and Spirit it is revealed to us, and only in faith can it become a reality among us.” (Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches, p. 28)
 The Pursuit of God, p. 97
 “In a word, the unity of the apostolic churches was grounded on the only thing they had in common—their common Christianity. Its bond was the common reception of the Holy Spirit, which exhibited itself in one calling, one faith, one baptism.” (B. B. Warfield, “True Church Unity: What It Is,” in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. 1, p. 302)
 “This unfortunate idea—that the basis of spiritual unity must stand in uniformity of doctrine—has been the poisoned spring of all the dissensions that have torn Christ’s body.” (John Watson, Mind of the Master). This statement, of course, must be seriously qualified to mean “uniformity of doctrine in secondary matters.” Taken as it is, the New Testament writers would often fall under its too-sweeping indictment! Agreement on gospel doctrine is indeed a prerequisite to spiritual unity in the church. Yet given this qualification, I think Watson sounds a necessary note for picky Protestants.
 “Consistent with this New Testament emphasis on the unity of believers is the fact that the direct commands to separate from other people are always commands to separate from unbelievers, not from Christians with whom one disagrees [he cites 2 Cor. 6:14, 17, 2 Tim. 3:5].” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 877)
 Thus, ongoing dialogue with respect to our differences must assume and flow out of this prior unity that has been given to us in Christ. Visible unity must not be suspended or withheld until all sides see eye to eye on everything—whether that be secondary (albeit often important) theological issues or differences of practical or cultural emphasis: “We should labor to find out what is truth, search for it as silver, and go according to what light we have; but yet so, though we might differ, to ‘keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,’ and join in all things that we can, and so walk so lovingly that it may appear that, if there are differences, it is merely that which conscience makes.” (Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Conversation, p. 150; originally published in 1648)
 For further explanation and defense of this position consult Craig Blomberg, “The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When Do Jesus and the Apostles Really Get Mad?),” JETS 45/1 (March 2002): 59-72
 “It is important that Christians make sure that divisions and separation are due to genuine convictions and principles, and not to personality conflicts or individual ambition. It is a discredit to the cause of Christ when Christians who hold the same beliefs and goals separate.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1152)
 “Because we tend to be most aware of the differences and schisms in Christianity, we constantly run the danger of disregarding this—nevertheless truly existing—unity. That which unites all true Christians is always more than that which separates them.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Vol. 4, p. 321). Cf. the similar sentiments of C. S. Lewis in his prefatory thoughts in Mere Christianity: “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”
 “He cannot possess the garment of Christ who rends and divides the church of Christ” (Cyprian, “On the Unity of the Church”). Note also the three reoccurring warnings against “schisms” in 1 Corinthians 1:10, 11:18-22 and 12:25. Many commentators, importantly, see 1:10 as the thesis of the entire letter, with all that follows subordinate to its pastoral function.
 Systematic Theology, p. 876. Compare the emphatically strong warning of the influential early church father Irenaeus: “God shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For no reformation of such great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.” (Against Heresies, 4.33.7)
 In 1 Corinthians 1-4—an absolutely crucial passage for Christian unity—Paul supports his central admonition in 1:10 by progressively demonstrating that the counter-intuitive nature of God’s grace—as revealed in the gospel (1:18-25), in conversion (1:26-31), in his own gospel proclamation (2:1-5), and in the subordinate, humble role of ministers in the lives of Christians (3:5-4:5)—undercuts every implicit rationale that lay behind the Corinthians’ corrosive divisiveness and fleshly tendency to identify themselves primarily with certain prominent ministers and camps rather than with Christ. The Corinthians fail to maintain their unity in Christ primarily because they have so drastically misconstrued the nature of God’s grace, which ought to lead to boasting in Christ alone (1:29-31) and never in people or camps (1:12-13, 3:1-4, 3:21).
 “Immaturity is one great cause of division. The church at Corinth was divided into warring groups because, says Paul, they were childish. The gospel had not gotten deep enough into their system to make them appreciate what the practice of unity requires.” (J. I. Packer, “Divisions in the Church,” in Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer: Serving the People of God, Vol. 2 p. 30). Frank Thielman concurs with this assessment: “[T]he Corinthians’ discord—because it is based on personal pride—is symptomatic of a profound misunderstanding of the gospel. The essence of the gospel is that God freely chose his people apart from any worthiness of their own and placed them in fellowship with Christ Jesus…the Corinthians have demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are in God’s sight and of what God has done for them in Christ Jesus.” (Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach, p. 280)
 To the Smyrnaeans
 “…when the teaching or behavior of other Christians is so captive to worldly powers that the gospel is falsified, true unity demands rejection of such behavior, not accommodation.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 30)
 Here the wise words of C. S. Lewis ought to be heeded: “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.” (“The World’s Last Night”)
 “The gospel gift and promise of unity exclude both divisive sectarianism and liberal indifference.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 29)
 John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, p. 274
 “…it is false piety to preserve peace at the expense of truth. It is also false zeal to preserve truth and the expense of charity.” (Blaise Pascal)
 “John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”
 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
 In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 44
 J. I. Packer, “The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity,” p. 38
 Romans, p. 524, 28
 “It is noticeable that the obstacles to which the New Testament constantly points are not institutional, but personal—lack of love, and care, and forbearance; pride and party spirit; unwillingness to maintain liberty for the other man’s conscience in secondary matters, even though you judge him to be in the wrong.” (J. I. Packer, “The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity,” p. 40)