Servants' News

July 1998

What Is the Basis of Biblical Unity?

by John Meakin (with commentary by Norman S. Edwards)

 

A true and genuine unity is the hallmark of the people of God.
Where does it come from and what is its basis?

John Meakin is an elder in the Church of God (headed by David Hulme) and lives in England.

Norman Edwards does not necessarily agree with everything in Meakin’s article and Meakin does not necessarily agree with Edwards’ commentary.

I am quite sure that everyone reading these words has at least one thing in common. We all want to be together in unity. We don’t like it when circumstances seem to conspire to drive us apart from each other. Long-held friendships can be placed under strain as friends become affiliated to different, seemingly competing, organisations. Relatives and family members can end up with differing loyalties and convictions which hardly facilitates family unity. We are not built to keep moving from one fellowship to another.

When the brethren of God dwell in unity, this is supremely precious to God. David wrote: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for the brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Is there any basis for this unity? If so, where does it come from? When we don’t have it, what are the causes? How can we become more unified? Is there ever hope of reconciling and dwelling in unity once more?

 

Modern Threats to Unity

The scriptures highlight many threats to unity at the time immediately before the return of Christ. These threats are societal trends, which are all around us, and with which we have to cope. Most of us are familiar with the following references: Because iniquity abounds the love of many waxes cold (Matt. 24:12); there will be perilous times of great selfishness (2Tim 3:1-5; 4:2-4); there will be false teachers (Acts 20:28-30; 2Pet 2:1-3); many false teachings and attitudes will be prevalent (1Jn 2:18-22; 2:26; 4:1-3, 20; 2Jn 7-11; 3Jn 9-11). All these factors and more are potent sources of disunity prophesied for our times. Sin and lawlessness lead to division at whatever level—interpersonal, family, neighbours, church or nation.

The question of how the Church is best governed for our modern circumstances has always been an ongoing controversy. Individual and collective shortcomings in leadership have only fuelled such controversies.

 

The Disunity at Corinth

The Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians provides a fascinating view of a divided Church congregation and how the Apostle Paul went about encouraging greater unity. We can learn much from the principles involved.

There were numerous problems to deal with—party spirits; competitive attitudes to spiritual gifts; the sin of fornication and resultant pride; sexual and marriage related problems; worldly wisdom versus Godly wisdom; envy; strife; divisions and carnality; going to law against brothers; temple prostitution; meats offered to idols; ministers living off the gospel; mixing pagan and Christian worship; women’s head covering (hair length); Passover celebration abuse; abuse of speaking in tongues; disbelief in the resurrection. Quite a list!

How did Paul go about dealing with all these issues? “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1Cor 1:10). The Greek word for ‘judgment’ is gnome from ginosko meaning ‘to know’. We are to be of the same ‘knowing’ or ‘opinion’.

 

How to Be of One Mind

This represents a considerable challenge. How can a disparate group of people called by God from very different backgrounds be welded together in such a way that they are all “of the same opinion”? The answer to this question provides the key to understanding how we today can have unity—it reveals the true source of our unity. We need to ask what this ‘same mind’ and ‘same opinion’ refers to? It is not your mind or my mind which is in view. It is the mind of Jesus Christ Himself.

We should not follow human individuals or factions. We are to follow Jesus Christ. Indeed we are to “put on (be clothed with) Christ” (Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27). We are to embody His attitude, outlook and thinking. We are to take on the ‘mind of Christ’ in every way.

The Corinthian church was severely deficient in this mind and thinking. They were full of envying, strife and divisions (1Cor. 3:3). As a result Paul called them ‘carnal’. They were ‘babes in Christ’ and he could only feed them ‘milk’. Every single one of us is subject to these wrong attitudes—they are attributes of the human nature we all possess. When any of us thinks this way—whether at the level of a local congregation or at a higher level of Church leadership—a breakdown in relationships will result and division will be unleashed.

NSE commentary: Paul did say that the brethren in the church at Corinth were “babes” and “carnal”. However, the “Church of God” groups are divided far worse than they ever were. The Corinthians allowed each of their members to participate in services (1Cor 14:26), but COG groups will not usually allow a minister from another group to speak in a service. Also, the Corinthian brethren had many miraculous spiritual gifts (1Cor 1:6-7; 12:1-31), but today we have very few.

 

Unity Flows From God’s Spirit

How can we receive this mind of Christ? It is God’s gift to each of us at the time of our conversion when God, through His Holy Spirit, imparts to us His nature. That nature grows as God’s spirit is renewed in us (Rom 12:2; 2Cor 4:16). The chief characteristic of God’s mind is love (Gal 5:22; 1 John 4:4, 16). That love “has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us” (Rom 5:5, NEB).

It is God’s Spirit, and the way of life it inspires, which should bind us together in unity. Paul pleads: “But above all things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:14). True unity results from abiding in Christ and producing the righteous fruit of God’s character.

The wonderful news is that we can be unified—be of the same opinion—when we all share the mind of God and Christ. We are called to be members of one body—to be in organic union with each other as members of the Body of Christ. We are called to be part of one spiritual organism dwelling together in perfect unity.

NSE commentary: This is true! However, we must realize that we do not all have the complete mind of Christ now. Our learning is biased by a variety of Bible translations, Bible teachers, and our own experience. We all should be working toward the mind of God and Christ, and can have unity as long as we allow for other brethren whose learning is not yet at the same place as our own.

 

Unity Is a By-product

What this means is that the unity we all so earnestly desire, actually flows as a side-benefit or by-product from our individual calling and relationship with God. In Col 2:2, Paul talks about us “being knit together in love”. The tense in Greek tells us this is a “done deed”—it is already accomplished. However, the present tense is used in v. 19—being “knit together” is an ongoing process, because we are in continuing contact with the same head.

Through conversion we are “joined” to Christ (1Cor 6:17). The Greek word here has the sense of ‘glued’—the bond is strong and enduring. The direct comparison in context is with a sexual relationship, which serves to emotionally bind or glue two people together (v. 16).

We are planted (NKJ “united”) together in the likeness of Christ’s death and shall be in the likeness of His resurrection (Rom 6:5). Notice that this unity stems from our relationship with Christ—through our symbolic death at baptism; our ongoing Christ-like way of life; and the common hope we share of the coming resurrection to eternal life. In John 17, in Christ’s final prayer of His human life, He prayed for the unity of those God had called. “…keep through your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (v. 11). Jesus Christ especially focused on the unity of future disciples (see vs. 20–23). That includes us today!

 

We Already Have Unity

Did God hear and answer His Son’s prayer? Of course! He made possible this unity with one another, yet this is only possible because we have oneness of nature with God and with Jesus Christ. We might call this ‘vertical unity’, though I appreciate this is not a biblical description. But what about organisational unity? Is this also in view? Can we not work in unity with those around us—something we might characterize as ‘horizontal unity’? A husband/wife relationship is an ideal example of where such ‘horizontal unity’ should exist.

To the extent that we share the same mind of Christ in all areas of our thinking, we will want to work together with others, sharing Christ’s own goals and purposes. It is a sad commentary on the human condition that none of us perfectly embodies the mind and thinking of Christ. Breaches and offences are caused, and we do not remain in the unity Christ made possible.

NSE commentary: The statement “we already have unity” is correct. We are not waiting for some human leader to arise and unify us, nor are we waiting for someone to publish the “perfect doctrinal statement” or “perfect organization plan”. We have as much unity as we and other believers will allow. All we need to do is ask for the love of Christ to love the brethren, and then trust Him to correct those who reject us—in His way, in His time. Most disunity among brethren is caused by various kinds of offences, and that is indeed sad. However, we must also recognize that some disunity is also brought about from honest disagreement on the meaning of the Scriptures and the will of God. This is where love and patience of Christ to correct come in.

Unity is also one of the major themes of the book of Ephesians. The mystery of the Church—the forerunner of the kingdom—is that in Christ “all things might be gathered together in one” (see Eph. 1:10). Through Christ’s sacrifice, Jew and Gentile are made one. They are both reconciled to God, and thereby they are “made both one” in order to create “one new man from the two, thus making peace” (see Eph 2:13–18). This remarkable passage beautifully describes the ground and source of our unity, and the peace we should enjoy with each other.

 

We are Fellow Citizens Together

Through Christ, all of us—regardless of differences in race, colour, sex, education and background—“have access by one Spirit to the Father” (v. 18). As a result, we become bonded together as “fellow citizens” (v. 19), sharing the same calling, the same spiritual goals, the same spiritual priorities and the same glorious future.

Brothers and sisters in the church can be, and often are, closer than blood relatives—just as Christ promised (Mark 10:28-30). There is a mutual love and friendliness (see John 13:35) amongst the people of God which is remarkable and compelling. It is something which is noticeable and really stands out, as we often observe at the time of the Feast.

 

The Unity Chapter

Ephesians 4 could well be called the unity chapter of the New Testament. It says so much about this subject. Verses 25–32 give examples of contrasting behaviour. The right behaviour will lead to unity, whereas the opposite leads to division and disunity.

The role of the ministry (v. 11) is shown to be central in accomplishing the goal of unity. “Till we all come in the unity of the faith… to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 12). This shows that the “perfection” (completeness, see Matt 5:48) of Christ’s character is the goal of the church, and every member of it. As each of us becomes dedicated to “works of service”, the Church will be edified, and unity will result as a by-product of this process. The Church is fundamentally about oneness: one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father (Eph 4:4–7). Because of this we should all endeavour “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Notice that we keep the unity rather than generate it. Notice also this unity is spiritual rather than organisational. We are called to unity, so we should “have a walk worthy of the calling with which you were called…” (verse 1).

NSE commentary: Again, please note that we are all still in progress to reaching the fullness of Christ. We may do some things differently enough from other brethren that it is sometimes hard to feel unified—just as a married couple sometimes must go on working together even though they do not feel unified on some issues.

The fact that we are members of the same body makes us “members of one another” (Eph 4:25). All of this should enable us to submit ourselves to each other in the fear of God (Eph 5:21). The intimate and loving relationship between a married couple parallels the relationship which binds us together with Christ (Eph. 5:28–33, especially verse 32).

 

Some Final Thoughts

Look to what we have in common. We have seen that unity results from the things we have in common. Let us dwell on a positive appreciation of all we share in common with each other. We believe in Christ as our Saviour. We share a conviction of upholding God’s way of life.

We share an appreciation for our leaders. We respect them for their fruits of conversion, their vision and their expertise—from the original Apostles down to the present day. We share a common ideal of the work God has called us to fulfil.

NSE commentary: The above paragraph takes us away from unity in Christ and begins to base unity on human leaders. There is a very big difference in the original apostles and the leaders of the present day. According to the records we have, the Apostles did their work with great miracles, preached with great power, sometimes lacked basic physical comforts, and never once said that they could do more work if they just had more money. Many of our modern day leaders did not stand up for the doctrines in which they believe until they had a promise of a paycheck and benefits from another church organization. We could list many specific instances where brethren were treated unjustly by today’s church leaders. We believe that unity through Christ is much better than attempting to rally brethren around a human leader.

Pray for more of God’s Spirit. Unity is a by-product of the organic unity with God which flows from our new nature. So whenever we pray for unity we should remember to pray for more of God’s Spirit. Unity should be part and parcel of what we already are and we need more of God’s Spirit to stir that up. We can “ask”, “seek” and “knock”, and God will grant that request (Luke 11:9–13). We should pray for a greater manifestation of God’s Spirit in each of us, and more of the gifts which flow from it (1Cor 12:4–11). God is the one who builds His Body, tempering (blending together) different gifts and talents to create a unified body without schism (vs. 19–27). We should all pray that God grants more of His Spirit to His Body whereby greater unity can prevail.

We can get back together! Is there ever a hope of getting back together and regaining lost unity? The answer is—yes. It is something we should all work and pray for. As each of us individually embodies Christ’s mind and priorities more fully, we should be able to heal the breaches and hurts which cause division, and work better together.

NSE commentary: This appears to be an appeal to create unity on the basis of human organizations and leaders. To most people, “getting back together” means regaining the “glory days” of the Worldwide Church of God. We must realize that the WCG was built around a man-made unity, not a Christ-like unity. People in the organization felt very unified. But what about the tens of thousands of members who were “put out” of that organization—many unjustly? What about the members of the Church of God Seventh Day, and other Sabbatarian groups who were treated like “pagans” by WCG members? Unity in the WCG was based completely on members complying with their ministers and ministers complying with headquarters. Men could (and some did) spend their lives in the organization vying for power and control—as long as they were clever enough not to offend anyone important, they remained in the organization. Members who found a scripture that disagreed with the organization’s doctrine, who decided they would follow the scripture instead, were often put out.

Live up to our high calling. I find it fascinating that despite all Paul did to encourage the church at Corinth to greater unity, thirty years later it was still apparently as bad as ever. In the non-canonical Book of Clement, the Bishop of Rome addresses the divisions of Corinth in an impassioned plea for unity. Apparently just a few hotheads were behaving in such a way as to compromise the unity of a whole Church congregation.

Disunity amongst the people of God is not new. There is no real justification for it. Converted people should be able to work together in unity and resolve differences. We who aspire to greater unity and fruitfulness have a high calling to live up to. Perhaps the most important question we can all ask ourselves is—what can we do individually to build more unity in the body of Christ?

If we all have that attitude, the end result will be a unity to marvel at.

NSE commentary: We must all learn to accept our brothers’ different understanding of the Scriptures--even when those difference are very big! We will give one example of how big these differences can be:

Earlier Mr. Meakin quoted from the NEB (New English Bible). This translation does not contain the words “ordain” or “ordination” at all. It would be impossible to establish a doctrine of “ordination” from this Bible. This writer believes that the NEB (and some other translations) are correct in this—there are no words in the original language of the Bible that have the modern day meaning of “ordain” or “ordination”. Our concept of these terms were inherited from the Catholic Church and her successors.

This writer does not believe that Church leadership should be established by “succession of ordination” but by brethren recognizing those people to whom the Eternal has granted a spiritual gift of leadership (see article in this issue: How Does the Eternal Govern Through Humans?). This is a radical belief to many. But if the church organizations dismiss the idea as evil without studying it—or if they threaten to punish their members for attending a service without ordained ministers, we cannot have unity.

But if the church organizations can accept all of those who are seeking the Eternal outside the traditional ordained ministry, then we can still have unity! These issues cannot be studied instantly. We need to accept each other while we both continue to study the subject. I still can and do fellowship with brethren in church organizations. When I attend their services, I cooperate with their ministry and policies. The church organizations can learn to cooperate in like fashion. It is all part of unity!


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