Autor: John Hooper
John Hooper lives near the city of Plymouth on the south coast of England. He was brought up in Arminianism, but over the years the Lord led him to embrace the doctrines of the Reformed faith. This involved a rethinking of ecclesiology, particularly a change in view from Independentism to an understanding of Scripture’s teaching on the unity of the church.
The article was not written with the intention of it being published in the Journal, but the editor thought it an important contribution from one who knows both sides of the question and has firsthand experience of Independentism.
One must, as he reads the article, remember that it is not written as an abstract essay on the church. It is written within the context of the ecclesiastical situation in England, where Independentism is, for the church, a way of life. It is written out of the conviction that Independentism is wrong and that the hope for the church in England lies in part in abandoning this dead-end street in order to seek earnestly the unity of Christ’s church. While it will have particular meaning to our readers in the United Kingdom, it will be of value also in this country, where more and more people, disillusioned with the apostasy in their own denominations, are opting for the dangerous position of Independentism.
While the author is a microbiology technician in a hospital in Plymouth, he has made Reformed and Presbyterian theology an object of intense study. He is also the editor and publisher of a magazine with the name, “The Tamar Reformed Witness.” The paper is his contribution to a witness of the Reformed faith in the southwest of England.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
for brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious ointment upon the head,
that ran down the beard, even Aaron’s beard:
that went down to the skirts of his garments;
As the dew of Hermon,
and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion:
for there the LORD commanded the blessing,
even life for evermore.
The expression “church unity” is viewed by many evangelical and Reformed people today with understandable suspicion. Being a term which is almost exclusively associated with the ecumenical movement, it conjures up pictures of main-line denominations striving to bury their theological differences and merging to form ever larger ‘church’ organizations. One can see as the ultimate end of this movement reunion of the nominal Protestant churches with Rome and the formation of a one-world church having the pope at its head. Certainly all talk of church unity in this sense is off the agenda for Christians and churches who seek to be governed by the Word of God.
There is a danger, however, that in our eagerness to condemn the false we also overlook the true. It may be that we even condemn the true with the false. As a reaction against ecumenism the tendency very often is for evangelical churches to adopt a position of independence, eschewing formal ties with other churches of like mind.
In addition to those churches which have been historically independent, the last thirty or so years have seen many ministers and churches in the UK withdrawing from the main denominations over doctrinal issues and maintaining an independent existence. For some this has involved paying a high material price. One can sympathize with their reluctance to become embroiled again in denominational issues. Their fears of theological compromise, which is so much a part of main-line denominational life, are perfectly understandable. But the question arises, do the results of this surge in independency really commend it as a God-honoring alternative? And more to the point, is it biblical?
It is sad, yet true to say, that as the thinking Christian takes a step back to survey the evangelical/Reformed church scene in Britain today, all he sees is confusion. He sees a hotchpotch of churches, each loudly claiming loyalty to the Scriptures, yet each going its own way and doing its own thing. Surely the time has come to ask whether this situation brings glory to God. Is this what Paul really means by decency and order? Is this the situation that prevailed in the days of the early church as, led by the Holy Spirit, the apostles established churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe?
It seems to me that while we have been quick to condemn the false unity of the ecumenical movement, and rightly so, we have been strangely silent in promoting the true unity revealed in the Scriptures. This study is an attempt to break that silence and to present what I am increasingly convinced is the biblical teaching on the unity of the church, particularly as it is expressed in her life and government. May it encourage the thoughtful reader to search the Scriptures for himself and prayerfully consider the issues with a view to applying them to our own needy times.
1. The Principle of Biblical Church Unity
In essence the church is a perfect unity. The Bible teaches us that this is true despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary. Whatever we may see around us and experience in our own lives of divisions and strife amongst Christians and churches, it remains ever true that the church of Jesus Christ is one. She is made up of the elect children of God, each foreknown and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, from every nation, tribe, and tongue, of every generation, gathered together into one. In His electing work God did not choose for Himself a disordered rag-bag of individuals, He chose a church, a single, structured, living organism to be understood spiritually as one united whole, in Christ.
Scripture uses many vivid figures of speech to illustrate this truth and bring it home to us clearly. The church is described as one flock of many sheep, a house, a temple of many stones fitly framed together (see John 10:16; I Pet. 2; Eph. 2:11-22; Eph. 4:15,16). Above all, she is the glorious body of Christ, one entire, perfect body comprised of many members, each having his proper place and rule in the body, together constituting one organic whole: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ…” (I Cor. 12:12ff.; see also Rom. 12:4,5; I Cor. 10:17; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 4:4; Eph. 5:30).
The subject of our study, then, is nothing short of the unity of Christ, and His is a perfect, unblemished unity that cannot be divided (I Cor. 1:13).
Be of one mind
This being the case, we must emphasize, as does Scripture itself, that the unity of Christ’s body is a unity that must be visibly expressed on earth. Again and again the Holy Spirit, through the apostolic writers, exhorts the people of God to unity.
News had evidently reached Paul that there were divisions at Corinth: “…it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren,… that there are contentions among you.” He condemns this open warfare as carnality. They were still babes in Christ, or at least behaving as babes. He continues, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Cor. 1:11,10). Again, as he takes leave of them in his second letter, Paul reminds them of their calling: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you” (II Cor. 13:11).
In writing to the Philippians, Paul tells them of the joy they bring to his soul, but it is a joy that is as yet incomplete. He admonishes them, in order that his joy might attain its full measure, “that ye be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2).
Thus Paul was at pains to promote unity and to encourage the saints to be of one mind and to live at peace with one another. The local church was not to be a place of discord and dissent but of peace, brotherly love, and unity. Believers were to be “kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love” (Rom. 12:10). “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (I Cor. 14:33). Peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) and ought to pervade all His gathered churches. “Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body” (Col. 3:15).
But our subject is not primarily the unity of the local church. We will take that as understood. What we need to grasp is that the calls for unity which the apostle made, while certainly addressed to specific historic local churches, were also intended for a far wider hearing. The unity the Lord requires is a unity that reaches far beyond the walls of the church local.
It is this aspect of truth, so commonly abused, neglected, ignored, or denied, that we want to examine here.
The Scope of the Command
The epistles, and hence their exhortations to unity, were not always addressed to individual local congregations. When Peter wrote, “be ye all of one mind” (I Pet. 3:8), it was not to one local church in one town but to all the scattered saints of Asia Minor, an area covering many thousands of square miles (I Pet. 1:1). When Paul wrote “be of one mind,” it was to “the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia” (II Cor. 13:11; 1:1), Achaia being a province of Greece covering the whole of the southern half of the country. One other church which most certainly would have been included in this salutation, as well as that at Corinth, was the one at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). The churches in that part of the world were not just to be united internally but also with each other.
Similarly the Galatian letter had a regional application. Galatia covered a large central area of what is now Turkey and was blessed with a number of local churches. This explains why Paul addressed his letter to “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:1; note the plural). Again, when he writes to the Corinthian believers about collecting alms he says, “as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye” (I Cor 16:1).
The Colossian letter too was written for more than one congregation. We know that in the neighbourhood of Colossae both Philemon and Nymphas had churches meeting in their homes (cf. Phile. 2 and Col. 4:9; 4:15). This letter was to be taken to the nearby city of Laodicea and there “read also in the church of the Laodiceans.” In return, the Colossians were to “likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col. 5:16).
We may broaden the scope still further because, in writing his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was addressing “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:2). His Ephesian letter too is addressed generally to “the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1).
We can draw from these Scriptures the conclusion that unity was to be present not only within the churches of the New Testament, but also amongst them. All that everywhere called upon the name of Jesus Christ at that time were to speak the same thing and be of one mind, without strife or division. It was a responsibility placed upon the people of God generally, wherever they were to be found.
But there is a still broader application. Those exhortations to unity were not given to churches of just one age and generation but to the entire body of Christ of all time. They are for every generation. The letters of Paul and the other apostles have been bound together by the Holy Spirit into one inspired sacred volume. Together with the writings of the prophets (cf. Eph. 2:20), they have been sent to all the churches of every succeeding generation, to the four corners of the earth. They are not bound by time or space. The appeals for unity, therefore, are directed at us too!
Yes, we in our day have a responsibility to the Head of the church to ensure that there are no divisions and schisms within His body but that all are of the same mind, united with a unity that extends beyond the walls of our own local church to embrace all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. That is a heavy responsibility, but to ignore it is most certainly to live in disobedience to our common Lord.
Perhaps at this point someone raises the objection that it is not being realistic to expect all believers to dwell together in unity. It is impossible to fulfill. It is difficult enough to achieve unity in one local church, and a small one at that, let alone among a number of churches. And as for all churches being united together, that is pure fantasy.
To a certain extent, that is quite true. We all see things differently. We are brought up in different family traditions. We come from varying cultural backgrounds, and we all differ as individuals. These things are bound to be reflected in the churches. But the apostles’ exhortations are not meant to be realistic: they are idealistic. They establish a principle. They are what God says and are made from His perspective. They do not make allowances for the fact that churches are made up of people who are still sinners and still prone to pride, disputing, strife, jealousy, and so on. They set out the ultimate standard, even though it can never be met on earth. They show us the perfect way in which we should strive to walk. They show us the goal which we are to desire with all our heart and work for with all our strength.
That is how it is with all of God’s commands. They present us with our moral obligations. The fact that we are not able to live out a principle does not invalidate that principle or release us from its obligation. We cannot live a single hour without sinning, but still God says, “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” Likewise He still says, “Be ye all of one mind.” It is a command based upon the incontrovertible principle that the church of Jesus Christ is one. The only reason that it is not one and cannot be one in this world is the sinful, proud independence of us, her members.
Only in the sinless perfection of heaven will our desires be fulfilled and the ideal become glorious reality. Only when we are free from sin shall we be perfectly united and love one another as we should. Only then will the body of Christ know perfect unity within herself and with her Head, and what is true now in principle will be true also in experience.
But even so, we may, we should, experience something of that heavenly unity here upon earth. We have been born again. God has not only given us His commands but He has also given us His Spirit. This means that, despite our fallen nature, with the command comes also the ability to obey. By the Spirit of God we are able to know in some small measure, as a foretaste of heaven, the unity of His church. Hence it is called “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). It is a unity that is produced and imparted by the Holy Spirit of Christ. He brings forth from our hearts and lives the fruits of love, joy, peace, etc., so that even Jews and Gentiles are brought together in the bond of peace. It is for this unity that we are to strive.
Unity in Operation
The unity of the Spirit is not merely an abstract idea that cannot be experienced. It is a principle that manifests itself in practical, tangible ways. The reader of the book of Acts and the letters of the apostles ought not fail to notice this. The very fact that the epistles were not always addressed to individual congregations but in some cases to regional groups of churches is itself evidence of unity at work.
When the inevitable divisions arose amongst churches, such as those in Achaia, they were dealt with promptly. Churches were separated geographically by many miles of land and sea, but they did not sit in splendid isolation. Even though they had their own cultural distinctives, and certainly their distinctive problems, they were together. Spiritually they were one.
The New Testament provides us with three compelling examples of this unity at work.
1. Relief of the poor
An unmistakable feature of early church life was a commendable liberality in distributing material help to the poor. This was a duty enjoined on them, and on us, by the apostles. Paul drew on the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to enforce the point: “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35; see also I Cor. 16:1-4).
The early church took up their responsibility with spontaneous enthusiasm and sacrifice. The needy believers in Jerusalem and the pilgrims who had journeyed from afar at Pentecost found that their every need was met. “All that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44, 45).
This passage is often misrepresented as teaching that the believers sold and pooled all their possessions in order to live in some kind of commune arrangement, but there is nothing to indicate that that was the case. The selling and sharing was a continual activity. At no time did the believers reach the point at which they had sold everything they owned. Acts 2 simply tells us that they were selling their possessions and sharing the proceeds with those whom they knew to be in need, as those needs arose. They most certainly kept their houses, because we read that they were “breaking bread from house to house” (v. 46).
This generosity of spirit was not confined to immediate neighborhoods. Almsgiving extended to meeting the needs of those at a distance. In Acts 11 we find the disciples at Antioch sending relief, every man according to his ability, “unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea” (vv. 29, 30).
Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth, and by implication throughout Achaia, to give generously in supplying the needs of the saints in Macedonia so that “your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality” (II Cor. 8:14).
The Macedonian believers themselves were noted for their own liberality, despite afflictions and “deep poverty” (II Cor. 8:2,4). Macedonia covered an area roughly equivalent to the northern half of modern Greece, and we know of at least three churches within its borders: at Thessalonica, Philippi, and Berea. The Thessalonian church is especially commended by Paul for their love of the brethren “in all Macedonia.” He urges them, “but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more” (I Thess. 4:9-10).
The churches of Macedonia apparently collected their alms, pooled them, and entrusted them to the apostle Paul, asking him to distribute them on his travels. Paul described this happy task as taking upon himself “the fellowship of the ministering of the saints” (II Cor. 8:4).
On another occasion Paul went to Jerusalem solely with that intention: “But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:25,26). All the Greek churches were involved together in helping the saints at Jerusalem.
In order that he remain above reproach, Paul entrusted the gifts collected in Macedonia to three men, and it is instructive to note, in no fewer than three verses, how these men are described: “And we have sent with [Titus] the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches; And not that only, but who was chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace” (II Cor.8:18-19). These men were “the messengers of the churches, and the glory of Christ” (v. 23). The Corinthians were to receive them with affection, proving to them “and before the churches,” i.e., those churches who had sent them, that the apostle’s testimony concerning their love had been true (v. 24).
The point is that these three men were not sent by just one independent church, nor yet by three churches acting independently of each other, but by “the churches” working together. There was evidently a procedure in place whereby the churches could cooperate in choosing and commissioning the right men. It has to be said that in these days of fierce independency such an operation could never be undertaken.
Clearly the early church took “the daily ministration” (Acts 6:1) very seriously. It involved much time and labor, so much so that the apostles found it was distracting them from their primary task of prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2, 4). For this reason they commanded the church to choose seven men “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” of caring for the widows (Acts 6:3). Seven such men were duly chosen and appointed to the work, and therein we have the origin of the office of deacon in the churches of Christ.
The office of deacon, like the office of elder, is a continuing office. His work is a continuing work. The poor are always with us, and their needs today are to be met by the dispensing of alms just as they were in the churches’ earliest times. That is the deacons’ work, together with the visitation of the sick and widows, bringing relief in the form of material help and words of consolation and cheer from the Scriptures. Today the office of deacon has degenerated into little more than that of a caretaker who maintains the material fabric of church buildings. Does it ever occur to the modern deacon that his earliest counterparts did not have any church buildings to maintain? What did they do? They cared for the material needs of the church. That is a crucial distinction but one that is lost today.
The current neglect of the deacons’ true work is a serious matter, and that for three reasons. In the first place, the ingathering and distribution of alms is the very purpose for which the office of deacon was created. It is the deacons’ raison d’etre. Not to carry it out is to disobey the church’s Head. In the second place, the consequences for both the material and spiritual well-being of the poor in our churches are dire. The priestly mercies of Christ are being denied them. In the third place, and this is the salient point, the churches are deprived of one of the most important and certainly the most expressive and tangible signs of their unity. Within the body of Christ there are materially prosperous churches and there are materially deprived churches. When we have the example of the early churches to follow and the means, in the office of deacon, to fulfill it, what grounds do we have to neglect the poor just because they are not in our own local church? It is the calling of prosperous churches to collect alms and, through the deacons, to dispense them to those in need wherever that need may arise.
But there are further examples in the New Testament of unity at work.
2. Labouring together in the gospel
Our second example can be found sprinkled liberally throughout the epistles. They are the expressions of endearment used by the writers towards their fellow believers. There was a deep bond of love and affection between them, no matter how far apart they happened to be geographically. Paul begins his letter to Philemon in this way, writing from Rome to Colossae: “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier”. The same short letter ends: “There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers” ( Phile. 1, 2, 23, 24).
The salutations with which Paul closes his Roman, Colossian, and first Corinthian letters give the same clear demonstration of the spiritual unity which bound the saints and churches together. It was a unity which expressed itself in love and mutual support among fellow laborers in the work of the gospel. They were all in it together.
Paul often used the term “fellow” to describe his partners in the gospel. Titus was his “fellowhelper” (II Cor. 8:23); Timothy, as well as those others quoted above from Philemon’s letter, was Paul’s “fellowlabourer” (I Thess. 3:2); Epaphroditus and Archippus were his “fellowsoldiers” (Phil. 2:25; Phile.2); Epaphras and Tychicus were “fellowservants” (Col. 1:7; 4:7) and in Colossians 4 Paul lists several “fellowworkers unto the kingdom of God.” The work of the gospel was one work, and they were all fellows together in that work. They were not working independently of each other.
This is wholly appropriate for an organism. Churches and their members are to live, think, and work together as one, one body, the body of Christ, with one heart and one soul. They are to encourage one another, love one another, care for one another, and strive together in the work of the gospel as fellow laborers.
The reality and intensity of unity amongst the New Testament churches is clearly evident as through Paul’s letters they sent their united salutations around the world. Hence we read in the letter to Corinth, “The churches of Asia salute you” (I Cor. 16:19), and in Paul’s letter to Rome a general greeting from all the churches together: “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16). Can one seriously imagine such greetings being sent today even from the churches of one English county to those of another? In independency the lines of such communications are broken.
Sometimes, however, questions arose in the churches. Invariably these questions concerned not just one church, nor even a number of churches, but all of them. Our third example of unity in operation is concerned with how the churches dealt with that kind of problem.
3. The Jerusalem council
When difficulties arose at Antioch over the place of circumcision in the new dispensation, it was clear that the issue at stake was not just a local one. It affected all the churches and therefore needed to be dealt with at a broader level than the local congregation. Thus we read in Acts 15 that the Antioch brethren “determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about the question” (see Acts 15:1ff.). True, these were apostolic days and therefore very different from our own, but the point is that in seeking apostolic authority the church at Antioch did not act alone. The brethren met with the elders at Jerusalem, and a church council was convened. They “assembled with one accord” and all the problems were openly discussed.
At the close of their deliberations emissaries and letters were sent to Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia to convey to the churches in those places the authoritative conclusion of the council. As Paul and Silas traveled “they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).
We will return to these events later, but suffice to say now that here was established a pattern for the churches to continue throughout the post-apostolic era. There would be no apostles then because the canon of Scripture would be complete. When matters of common concern arose, the elders of the churches were to meet together before the Word of God, which would be their sole authority in all matters of faith and practice. Led by the Spirit of God into the truth, the churches would then continue in one mind, speaking with one voice.
2. The Basis of Biblical Church Unity
What was it, then, that held those early churches together? What was the basis of their unity? What was the glue? Well, of course, it almost goes without saying that theirs was not the artificial unity of our modern-day ecumenists who are held together by compromise. Neither was it that perfect unity for which the Lord prayed in John 17, “that they may be one as we are one.” For that we must wait until we reach glory. No, what united the churches of those days was the truth: “Therefore love the truth and peace” says the Scripture (Zech. 8:19), and therein lies the heart of the matter.
It is not a case of either/or but both/and-truth and peace. True peace and biblical unity cannot be bought at the expense of truth.
We have already established that the unity of the church is no less than the unity of Christ, in whom there is no division. What the ecumenists forget, though, is that Christ also declared Himself to be “the truth” (John. 14:6). In Him there is no falsehood or deviation, for He is the pure and absolute Truth. Therefore, just as the church is in Christ united, so she is also in Christ pure and undefiled. This means in practice that as the church militant, the church in the world, seeks to express the unity of the body, she can do so only by keeping herself in the truth.
Common Belief in the Truth
The teaching which the Lord Jesus Christ imparted to His disciples throughout His ministry was truth in all its pristine glory, untainted by even the suspicion of error. His words to Pilate are the Scriptures’ own confirmation of that, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (John. 18:37).
That truth Christ had received from His Father in heaven: “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me,” He says (John 7:16). “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things” (see John 8:28-32; 12:49, 50; 14:10, 24; 15:15).
This divine truth, this pure doctrine from heaven, the disciples learned at the feet of their Master. He imparted it to them as only He could, without error, and in it they were all united. On the day of Pentecost they were “together,” they were “with one accord” (Acts 1:14; 2:1, 44, 46). Such was the visible unity of the Lord’s disciples.
This same truth the apostles then took with them and preached wherever the Spirit of God sent them. Paul, the apostle born out of due time, assured the Corinthian believers that what he had preached to them he had been taught by no less a teacher than the Lord Himself: “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you” (I Cor. 11:23).
Similarly, to the Galatians he wrote, “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12).
Each apostle received from the Lord the same body of doctrine and preached the same gospel wherever he was sent. Whether in Athens, Rome, or Jerusalem the same Christ was presented, the same message of salvation declared, and the same doctrines expounded, without contradiction, just as the apostles themselves had been taught by the Savior.
What did Timothy hear from the lips of Paul? He heard “the form of sound words,” to which he was to hold fast (II Tim. 1:13) and in turn preach to others. He too preached exactly the same message. Paul sent Timothy to Corinth so that his “son in the faith” could remind the believers there “of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (I Cor. 4:17).
Notice what Paul says: “as I teach everywhere in every church.” He did not attempt to adapt the content of his message to his various hearers: “And so ordain I in all churches” (I Cor. 7:17). “As I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye” (I Cor. 16:1). “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (I Cor. 14:33; see also I Thess. 2:14).
From all of this it follows that the entire early church, that first generation of new dispensation believers, was grounded in the truth, even as though they had heard it from the lips of the incarnate Truth Himself. In fact Paul explicitly tells the Ephesians that they had heard Christ. Of course, they had not seen Him in the flesh nor heard Him speak; but, nevertheless, through the voice of the apostle they had heard Him. They had been taught by Him “as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20-21). This was because Paul had preached to them the word of truth (Eph. 2:13), which is the word of Christ (Col. 3:16).
The apostles were able to do this because in the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost came He who would “bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26). Even though the Lord was no longer with them in body, His Spirit was present, guiding them into all truth: “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me” (John 16:13, 14).
Here then is the bond, the glue, that held those early believers together. They were united in the same system of truth, the faith once delivered unto them by the Lord’s apostles, that apostles’ doctrine in which they were steadfastly to continue (Acts 2:42; Jude 3). That was the bond. The basis of their unity was truth. It is the truth, both then and now, which binds the Lord’s people together such that they are all of one mind. That is the essence of biblical church unity: it is to share a common belief in the eternal, unchangeable truth.
What we must realize is that that same body of truth which united the churches of Galatia and Achaia with those of Jerusalem and Ephesus, every succeeding generation of the Lord’s people have had in their possession. It was not unique to the days of the apostles. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write it down for us, so that we have it now in our own hands without alteration, no more and no less. Therefore the unity which they experienced in their day is no less accessible to us.
The church today has no excuse for disunity merely because she has come such a long way in time from the golden age of the apostles. We have the same faith, the same apostles’ doctrine, the same word of truth as the early church possessed. This is the true apostolic succession-not a succession of office or authority but a succession of doctrine, of truth down the ages. Never has the church been without it: “I have given them thy word,” said Christ, “thy word is truth” (John 17:14, 17).
The church in our day has received the truth as a glorious heritage. From generation to generation that heritage, like the athlete’s baton, has been handed down until we are entrusted with it for safe keeping in these closing years of the twentieth century.
The consequence of this succession is that we enjoy a blessed organic unity with the saints of former days. It must be said that this is not sufficiently appreciated by us, if at all. If we are united with the saints of past generations in a common belief in the truth, being guided by the same Spirit of truth, that is a great blessing, and we can live, or should live, in the consciousness of it. We should live in conscious fellowship with the church of the past. No individual believer, no local church or denomination of churches can sit in historical isolation, any
more than it can in geographical isolation, because all are members together of the same body.
Maybe one of the reasons why this consciousness has been lost is the church’s ignorance of her history, but I believe there is another even more important reason. We live today in an age of unashamed individualism. The ‘rights’ and desires of the individual are considered paramount. He is independent. He is responsible only to and for himself. He sets his own goals and ethical standards in isolation from all that has gone before, and even to the disregard of others around him. He goes his own way and seeks his own ends for his own personal fulfillment.
Independence is the spirit of the age. Wives seek independence from their husbands. Husbands want independence from their wives. Parents want to be independent from their interfering children, and when the children grow up they want to be independent from their aged, burdensome parents. The results of this in society are clear to see as abortion, child abuse, neglect of the elderly, and other social evils abound.
Needless to say, such individualism has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. Each member of the body, each living stone in the building occupies a position in relation to all the others irrespective of time and place. We hold the truth in relation both to those who have gone before and to those who will come after us.
This is a principle brought out clearly in Paul’s letters to Timothy. Paul writes that he had received the gospel, the “glorious gospel” he calls it, as a sacred trust (I Tim. 1:11). It was committed to him for safe keeping. He in turn passed it on to Timothy with the command that he was to hold on to it: “hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us” (II Tim. 1:13, 14).
Likewise Timothy was to pass on the baton of truth to the generation after him: “And the thing that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men.” And what were those faithful men to do in their turn but “to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2).
In a similar vein, Paul writes to the brethren at Thessalonica, this time using the term “tradition” to emphasize the continuity of truth: “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (II Thess. 2:15).
That which our fathers have taught us we in turn are to pass on to our children, for they are the church of their generation. We have a responsibility to them, “shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done…. That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:4-7). In this way each child of God, from Adam to the last elect soul, is related to and united with every other.
We are to “hold the traditions.” We are to hold fast to the apostles’ doctrine which has been passed down to us, the Word of God, for that is the bond which unites us, just as it united the churches of two thousand years ago. It unites the churches both among themselves and with the church of past and future generations.
There is a continuity of doctrine, originating in heaven, woven into the very fabric of church history as an unbroken thread. Ever present, it unites the whole church until the gathering of the elect is complete, for the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself a church agreeing in true faith.
The objection is often made, however, that rather than uniting, truth divides, doctrine divides. There is certainly a sense in which that is true. Truth does divide-it divides from the lie. The churches of the New Testament were not only to unite in the truth but also to shun those who were in error: “mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). He who preaches “another gospel,” “let him be accursed” (see Gal. 1:6-9).
To the Thessalonians Paul issues a strong and what may appear to us a most unloving command, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which ye received of us” (II Thess. 3:6). This is what marks out true unity from the false unity of the ecumenical movement. When the truth is rejected, the lie must be withstood and shunned.
The cause of disunity is always error, never truth. In Philippians 3:2 Paul writes, “beware of the concision.” He is warning the church of certain Judaizers, “evil workers” he calls them, who were insisting that the rite of circumcision should still be performed, even on Christian converts. They were putting value on the outward rite, while denying the inner reality of heart circumcision (see Rom. 2:28,29). By a clever play on words the Holy Spirit underlines the very point we are making here. By their erroneous insistence on the cutting of the flesh (circumcision), they were guilty of the mutilation (concision) of the body of Christ. They were making a cut in the church, causing a tear and division, rending the church apart (cf. Rom. 16:17,18).
The approach of the liberal and the ecumenist is to say that the church is in search of the truth and that different parts of the body find it in different expressions. They then go on to argue that each such ‘expression of truth’ is equally legitimate and therefore must be respected by all. That road leads only to the blind alley of relativism, where there is no truth and no error, where everyone has the right to believe what he wants to believe.
No, the church is not in search of the truth, she has the truth. She is the custodian of the truth. She has the Word of God and she has the Spirit of truth as her Interpreter.
The church has indeed come a long way in time from the age of the apostles. Two thousand years is plenty of time to account for the multitude of heresies, lies, and half-truths which plague the churches today. A tendency to depart from the truth was evident very early in church history, so much so that it surprised even the apostle Paul (see Gal. 1:6). It was present even within the apostolic band (see Gal. 2:11), and subsequent history is littered with departures from the faith, prompting what is the only biblical response from those who remain faithful: separation for the re-forming of the church anew. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (II Cor. 6:17). That is the biblical pattern, of which the sixteenth century Reformation is such a shining example.
Yes, truth divides from those who oppose it, but it unites in a most beautiful way, crossing geographical and historical barriers, all who love it and who walk in its ways. In the church of Jesus Christ no one holds the truth in isolation.
3. The Expression of Biblical Church Unity
To summarize thus far, we have sought to establish that the basis for church unity is belief in the truth. We have noticed that this was the bond holding together the churches of the New Testament. They were united in a common belief in the truth of God as it had been delivered to them by the apostles.
We have noticed also that the truth is no less than Christ Himself, for He said, “I am … the truth” (John 14:6). To believe in the truth is no less than to believe in Christ. That is faith. We can say, therefore, that the bond uniting believers and churches is “the faith.” “There is one body,… one faith” (Eph. 4:4-6). Objectively, “the faith” is that body of truth contained in the Scriptures, it is that “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” ( Jude 3); subjectively it is that which unites us to Christ. Understood in both senses, faith is God’s precious gift to us by His grace. We believe “according to the working of his mighty power” (Eph. 1:19; see also Col. 1:29 and Eph. 2:8-9).
The question we consider now is how this gift of God expresses itself. Does faith stay silent? Does faith not speak? Scripture provides us with the emphatic answer that, yes, faith does speak. It must and it will speak.
Confession of Faith
Faith cannot remain silent: “I believed, therefore have I spoken” confessed the psalmist (Ps. 116:10). Faith has a voice which even all the enmity and persecutions of the world cannot put to silence: “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak” (II Cor. 4:13).
It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34). The mouth provides the evidence by which we know the spiritual state of the heart, whether it is good or corrupt. If a man has evil treasure in his heart he will bring forth evil things from his mouth, but “a good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things” (Matt. 12:35).
Where there is faith, a heart indwelt by the Spirit of truth, there will be a mouth speaking wisdom, making known the faithfulness of God to all generations (Ps. 49:3; 89:1). Where the Lord God is sanctified in the heart there will be a tongue ever ready to give an answer to every man that asks a reason of the hope that is in him (I Pet. 3:15).
This speech of faith Scripture calls the confession of faith. The believer confesses his faith before men. That truth which we believe we also confess. The Bible constantly maintains a vital link between the heart and the mouth, between faith and the confession of faith. It goes even so far as to identify that confession with salvation itself, for where there is confession of Christ, there must of necessity be faith in the heart. The two cannot be divorced: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10).