At our Annual Stated Meeting on 17 March, I spoke on unity from Ephesians 4:1-6 as our opening devotion. It was suggested that what was said at the ASM should be included in the congregational record for the wider membership who couldn’t make the meeting. Below is an edited version of the talk.
In this brief reflection I’m going to take the opportunity to consider what unity is and what unity isn’t. In Ephesians 4:1-6, the apostle Paul speaks about unity in the church. Unity is an issue for Sandyford Henderson Memorial Church because unity is an issue for every church. Unity, or lack of unity, is also a major issue for the Church of Scotland right now. So, what is unity and how should we understand it?
The verses beginning Ephesians chapter 4 are the hinge of Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. In chapters 1-3 he has spoken of God’s eternal purposes in Jesus Christ. Then in chapters 4-6 he speaks of the practical application of this for the church. So the first 3 chapters are about what God has done and the last 3 chapters are about what we must do. Paul is about to show the Ephesian Christians how to live a life worthy of the calling they have received (v1).
What, then, is the first item on Paul’s agenda for the church in Ephesus? It’s unity. He says, ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ (vv2-3). It’s obvious that unity will be a struggle without humility, gentleness, patience and love. We must be humble and avoid pride. We must show gentleness in our dealings with others. We must be patient. We must be loving. Yet, it is interesting to note that Paul doesn’t urge the Ephesians to become united. They already are united as God’s people, so he urges them to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Paul is speaking about a unity that already exists.
The Ephesians didn’t have to force themselves to unite with one another because God’s Spirit had already united them as believers in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul urges them to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit where the virtues mentioned (vv2-3) will enable them to keep this unity. Of course, it’s not always easy to be completely humble and gentle and patient and loving but this is what we must pursue together. Yet, we need to be aware that unity is not something we create ourselves or engineer because Paul is saying that unity already exists and has already been established through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it’s not the virtues Paul mentions that are the basis of unity. We don’t unite because we’re all humble, gentle, patient and loving. Yes, these things might keep us united but they’re not the basis of our unity.
This is contrary to what we might expect and indeed can be what some mistakenly think. Yet, Paul is certainly not saying that we can all be united whatever our differences as long as we’re all just basically nice to one another. Paul is saying that the basis of our unity is what we believe or what we confess together. That’s why Paul goes on to say, ‘There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ (vv4-6).
‘One’ is repeated seven times in these verses. There is one Holy Spirit who dwells within every Christian. There is one hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There is one Lord Jesus Christ. There is one faith and body of truth we confess. There is one baptism, referring to what God does when someone becomes a believer in Christ. There is one God and Father of all. Therefore, Christians are united around all that we believe and share together. This is the basis of true Christian unity. We are not united because we have the same interests, or the same opinions, or the same views, or the same feelings, or the same ideas about church. We are united because of what we believe as we share the one faith together.
That’s why Biblical unity has got nothing to do with denominational unity (even congregational unity) because it goes far deeper than that. Unity goes beyond labels and buildings to belief. This is important since we hear a lot of talk these days about ‘the peace and unity of the church’, where some have a kind of fantasy dream for unity assuming that any kind of disunity is such a terrible thing. Many seek what is really only a false unity or a surface level unity which can ultimately achieve nothing. However, Paul here promotes unity that is based on what we believe as God’s people. That’s why we can’t ever have any meaningful unity if we all believe different things. It is not only impossible; it’s also nonsensical and, more significantly, it’s unbiblical.
For example, when it comes to the fundamentals of the faith such as: the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; the uniqueness of Jesus Christ; the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; the authority of Scripture; the creation design of God for male and female; the reality of hell and so on, these fundamentals are part of the one apostolic faith that Paul speaks of. It is the one faith that has been handed down to us; the faith that is orthodox, historical, confessional Christianity. Therefore, if some choose to reject the faith we should believe and confess together, then it is impossible to be united to them. This is not because we are deliberately being divisive, but rather they are walking away from the worldwide Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Rejecting the truth of the gospel is what causes division.
Liberal Christianity, then, is not simply another perspective on the Christian faith which is valid and can be accepted. It is not a harmless version of Christianity that can sit comfortably under the umbrella of the worldwide Christian Church because it is basically another religion altogether. It is another belief system that teaches a different message. This message cannot save because it is not founded upon the truth of the Bible and so promotes belief and behaviour whereby a person will never inherit the kingdom of God. So if some proclaim a false message that does not save, then it is a dangerous waste of time to seek to be united with them.
Of course we are all for unity, but the unity Paul speaks of already exists amongst God’s people because its foundation is the one gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. So there can be no real unity with those who have wandered away from this eternal unchanging gospel. That’s why Paul commands us to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. So we should strive for this unity that is already ours in Christ and let nothing and no one stop it.
Your minister and friend
Jonathan de GrootView All Letters