If there are any aspiring doctoral students out there looking for a profitable subject for research and writing, may I suggest to you the subject of church unity. For the past hundred years, church unity has largely been a liberal concern. At times the concern has been an admirable reminder, or a necessary rebuke, that our unity cannot be merely “spiritual.”  At other times, unity has been a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon conservatives who don’t share the same doctrinal latitudinarianism and ecumenical pipe dreams. “Unity” has become a byword among evangelicals, especially those in mixed denominations who can be shamed into silence by the mere whisper of the word.

But no matter the abuse, we must conclude from Scripture that the union and happy communion of the saints are precious to God.

Just as importantly, it’s easy to see how problems of “unity,” even among Bible-believing  Christians, continue to baffle and confuse. Can Baptists partner with Presbyterians? Can we associate with those who associate with those we wouldn’t associate with? What is the role for denominations? What is the role for broad parachurch ministries or organizations? How should we understand confessional identity? If we are to have unity in essentials, what are those essentials? Where should Christians agree to disagree? Where should churches agree to disagree? What are the right doctrinal boundaries for churches, for denominations, for movements, for institutions, for friends?

I have a lot of questions racing through my mind about church unity. I started writing a book on the topic once, but it seemed too difficult and required a level of scholarship I wouldn’t have time for. The issues are complicated and tremendously important. Thinking through church unity is not a luxury, but required theological homework for any pastor, especially those belonging to imperfect denominations (all of them!) and working with various networks and broader coalitions.

So in an effort to get going on some of that homework, let me offer several points that can be drawn from Ephesians 4:1-16. This is the classic text on church unity (along with John 17) and the most practical for day to day church life. Make sure you read the sixteen verses before reading the following points I glean from the text:

1. Unity is a relational good we are called to maintain where true spiritual unity is already present. Having just finished explaining how the mystery of the gospel brings together Jews and Gentiles, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). The assumption is that the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus already share the most important things in common. The goal now is to be patient with each other and bear with one another in love (v. 2). The call to unity is the summons to show in relational practice what is already true in spiritual reality.

2. The spiritual reality on which relational unity is based is described in seven parts: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Paul wants the Jews and Gentile Christians in Ephesus to get along because, despite their historic, ethnic, and cultural differences, they have these deep spiritual realities in common.

3. Presumably, then, Paul is not exhorting everyone willy-nilly to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Indeed, there is no unity of the Spirit to maintain without, for example, a shared allegiance to our one Lord Jesus Christ and a shared commitment to our one faith. That Paul is thinking of an objective standard of faith in verse 5 (ala Jude 3) is confirmed by his use of “faith” in verse 13. This is an absolutely critical point. Church unity is dependent upon a common set of doctrinal beliefs. If we do not share “one faith” with Mormons or liberals or Unitarians, then we have no unity to maintain. Of course, this begs the question: what core doctrines constitute “the faith”? The ecumenical creeds are a start. A shared understanding of Scripture, justification, the resurrection, the atonement, basic Christian morality, the Trinity, and the person of Christ are certainly some of the non-negotiables. But however “the faith” is defined, the important point from Ephesians 4 is that it can be defined and circumscribes our shared unity.

4. Paul celebrates diversity in the midst of this unity, but the diversity is not theological. He expects an ethnic diversity (Jew-Gentile) and a diverse array of gifts and offices all working toward the same end (vv. 7-13)

5. Unity is something we have; something we maintain; and something we grow into (v. 13). While Paul expects there to be a common faith, he also allows that we will have to mature and grow into this unity of faith.

I believe the previous five points suggest a few other points by way of application.

1. There is no command to have unity with those who do not share the same basic elements of our faith.

2. If the command to “maintain the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace” is mainly a call to relational oneness in view of spiritual oneness, there is nothing in Ephesians 4 to suggest that Baptists and Presbyterians (for example) must necessarily be in breach of this command because they do not belong to the same ecclesiastical institution.

3. The “not yet” of verse 13 may, in fact, be our allowance (though not our desire) for some difference of opinion here on earth. Hopefully as we love and listen to those who are truly are brothers and sisters, we can increase in our knowledge of the faith and some of our disagreements can be minimized, even if we don’t completely attain the unity of the faith.

Like I said at the beginning, we need some of our best pastors, theologians, and historians to help the church understand what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be one. I’m only sketching a few bullet points. There are too many important issues at stake, and too many opportunities to bring God glory (or bring him dishonor), to ignore the biblical command to maintain the unity of the Spirit.

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32 thoughts on “Toward a Theology of Church Unity”

  1. Rick says:

    Great post, Pastor, and truly a needed topic for prayer and discussion. Several questions come to mind as I think about my personal situation, but let me throw this more general question out there: The passage you reference in this post, does this more refer to a local church unity as it is written “to the saints who are in Ephesus”? It seems more problematic to apply it more broadly to the church universal, which is clear from your post. You have handled this very well, touching on many pertinent points, but I have no idea how we can settle the more specific issues that come up in various locations. Each church and each pastor will have to pray about where they draw the line (i.e. at what points of doctrine there is enough disagreement that they cannot say they have unity). What I liked most about your thoughts here is the balance you bring to it. There is a place for unity, and conservatives need to pray and think about that, but, also, there is a place for division and denominations where there is not enough agreement on doctrine.

    Clearly, as you say, an issue that requires pastors and theological students to do their homework! Thank you, Pastor, for your assignment in the class of ministry!

  2. Ted Bigelow says:

    Kevin,

    I too embrace your desire for unity.

    But it won’t come by exhortation alone. Men committed to denominations and visible Sunday separation will have to abandon their Sunday separation from each other and embrace the NT doctrine of eldership. Why? Because Ephesians 4:1-16 is written to local churches to obey among their members, and God has already explained in the NT book of Titus how churches come together to accomplish Eph. 4 unity.

    As you say in the first half of your 2nd application point: “the command to “maintain the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace” is mainly a call to relational oneness in view of spiritual oneness.”

    Right! And isn’t it obvious that a person needs a relationship before he/she can pursue relational unity? If I don’t know someone, how can I be in relational unity with them? And since Eph 4:3 is a command, “maintain the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace,” it can only be fulfilled in one’s local church where relationships occur. In other words, Paul’s words can only be obeyed if he is commanding relational unity among people in the same local church, not in different local churches since the people in them don’t have Sunday by Sunday relationships with each other.

    In fact, you see this already. Your 1st point on unity cited the same verse as your 2nd application point: “Unity is a relational good we are called to maintain where true spiritual unity is already present. Having just finished explaining how the mystery of the gospel brings together Jews and Gentiles, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3).”

    I think we could sensibly agree that Paul isn’t exhorting Jews and Gentiles from geographically separated churches to maintain relational unity, for how can members of distant churches be responsible to build up each other in the maturity of Christ? 99% or more of them don’t even know each other.

    This is why the 2nd half of your 2nd application point is a both a non-sequitur and places a yoke on believers that neither they nor our fathers have borne, and which is why maintaining our Sunday separatedness can’t help us attain Eph. 4 unity:

    The non-sequitur: “there is nothing in Ephesians 4 to suggest that Baptists and Presbyterians (for example) must necessarily be in breach of this command because they do not belong to the same ecclesiastical institution.”

    Actually, most of Ephesians 4 shows that those Baptists and Presbyterians who live in the same geographic locale, and who are truly regenerated and thus baptized into Christ’s universal body, to be utterly in breach of that command since they do not do what they are commanded to do: to pursue mutual edification into maturity for each other. And how can they? They are separated every Lord’s Day.

    The yoke: You ask Christians to do something impossible – how can those who don’t fellowship and worship together Sunday after Sunday speak the truth in love to each other (Eph 4:15) and thus pursue Eph 4:16 together: “the proper working of each individual part”?

    So how will the unity we so deeply desire come to pass without compromising Scripture? Quite simply, local churches must come to embrace unity practically as they embrace Christ as Head over the church’s doctrine, beginning with His doctrine of church polity – eldership (Titus 1:5). When the members of the body of Christ submit to what Jesus Christ commands in Titus 1:5, unity happens. Hence The Titus Mandate. Instead of maintaining unity by reducing doctrine, we will come to unity by purifying our doctrine.

    Until this happens Christians will continue to spread schism more and more. Perhaps this will in the end be a good thing. Perhaps they will stretch the ecclesiology of those “called in one body” who live in the same locale to the breaking point – those who have been taught by the Spirit that they are called to visible unity, to love another with an unfeigned love, and to worship the eternally begotten Son of God together on the Lord’s Day, and every Lord’s Day until He returns in the clouds.

    And isn’t that what we both really want?

  3. Trevor Cain says:

    Great article! Unity is a huge issue that the Church has not spent nearly enough time on. He’s coming back for a unified bride! In my opinion, the two biggest enemies to unity are, Passivity and Unbelief. PASSIVITY feeds the problem of not intentionally linking arms with anyone and everyone who has made Jesus Christ Lord. This means the whole spectrom, from conservative to charismatic. Major on the majors minor on the minors! Secondly, UNBELIEF would lead us to hopeless cynicism that Unity just simply will never be possible. But praise God! “with God all things are possible!” Let us raise the level of belief and “be eager to maintain” the fact that unity and agreement are possible!

  4. Russ LaPeer says:

    Absolutely correct, but in many ways quite problematic because of the difficulty in defining “the basic elements of our [Christian] faith.” For example, contrary to a commenter above, Baptist doctrine that is, at bottom, semi-Pelagian, deviates on a “basic element” about the nature of man and the character of God’s salvation. Those are tough divides to “span” in anything more than superficial unity of actions. One reassurance is that the Lord will perfect our unity in eternity when he see clearly, face to face, and know as we are known. For now, it will be tough-going at times.

  5. Bret says:

    One quick thought in response to Ted: I’d agree that the local congregation is the primary place where unity is to be sought, but I believe the bond is to go beyond that.

    You write, “I think we could sensibly agree that Paul isn’t exhorting Jews and Gentiles from geographically separated churches to maintain relational unity, for how can members of distant churches be responsible to build up each other in the maturity of Christ? 99% or more of them don’t even know each other.”

    I think the lack of connection is not a given, but rather is part of the problem. After all, Paul was not part of the church of Ephesus, but is here clearly reaching out to them relationally across the distance with these exhortations. Of course schism is a terrible thing, but geographical separation is not necessarily the same thing.

    Russ: “One reassurance is that the Lord will perfect our unity in eternity when he see clearly, face to face, and know as we are known. For now, it will be tough-going at times.” Amen to that. Come quickly, Lord.

  6. Ted Bigelow says:

    Bret,

    Paul was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote Ephesians. Most Christians in Rome would never know most Christians in Ephesus due to geographic realities. So that’s not a problem, that’s the reality of living in a contained body in a single geographic location.

    Paul writes to the Ephesians, and others who received this letter, as one who lived in their region, planted the church in Ephesus, and most importantly, as an apostle (Eph. 3:1ff). We simply can’t equate his relationship while in Rome with the believers in Asia to the average Christian living in Rome’s relationship to the believers in Asia.

  7. Excellent post. Unity should be uniformity on core doctrinal issues, but unity in relationship absolutely essential on every fringe issue–even when disagreeing.

    We should be united by love for Christ & for each other. We should have grace for variance on tertiary topics.

  8. Dan says:

    Truly a fascinating subject, and one that I continue to ponder in the midst of painful circumstances involving the resignation of my pastor under heavy criticism of laypeople and leaders in my nondenominational evangelical church. That was over a year ago, and we have had a new pastor for a few months, but I’m still in recovery!

    Consequently, my leaning at this time is that unity must begin with some objective basis, which has led me to further exploring confessional Reformed Christianity. While confessions don’t prevent bad things from happening, when rightly applied and understood, much good can come from them, and as Carl Trueman’s new book points out, it protects the congregation by holding leaders accountable to a biblical standard.

    Certainly creeds and confessions can be divisive, but my own experience tells me that the lack thereof, is far worse in its potential to destroy unity. The only things possibly impacting their effectiveness in enhancing church unity is that they require people to read, listen, and think critically–skills that have been in decline for decades.

  9. Anyone else read “Your church is too small” by John Armstrong…(an entire book on unity) ?
    Not sure I can take it as far as he does, but he provides similar points to Kev, but in a much bigger picture of the Church, as opposed to just the local church.

  10. Under this subject, reconsider the primary purpose of the book of Romans. It’s not to teach justification by faith (although it offers the most extensive articulation of the subject) but to protect the unity of the Church. I posted on this some time ago. It could serve as a primary point for discussion (especially when it gets to chapters 14-15). IMHO, it would also make a great conference theme for Church leaders! If interested, see: Unity through the Gospel http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/the-best-way-to-build-unity-in-the-church/

  11. Your reflection is a good contribution to the conversation about church unity. My main question would be what do we consider “basic moral principles”. Above all what is important is the willingness of those who confess Christ to meet (encounter) those from different traditions and engage in conversation. My love for Christ and my respect for all people impells me to sit at the table with those I don’t understand or agree with. One of the few movements in our country that is attempting to do this is Christian Churches Together.

  12. Matt Larimer says:

    I love your post and I wrote one similar in response to a comment made by theologian Bruce Ware in a recent lecture. Ware mentioned that he believed in progressive revelation but often wondered if there was such a thing as progressive illumination. It is my sincere hope and prayer that as time unfolds and technology increases that the world is drawn together relational and theologically. The theology divisions seem pretty clear to me: Arminianism vs. Calvinism, Postmillennial vs. Premillennial, Covenantal vs. Dispensational. Hopefully as a church the Holy Spirit will draw us all closer to the truth which in many cases seems to be somewhere in the middle (i.e. Molinism). I do believe a united church will show the world that God loves them, John 17.

  13. Brett says:

    Kevin, this might be something you’d want to check out:
    http://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/v2ecum.htm

    It’s from 1964 — one of the documents of Vatican II.

  14. David Juniper says:

    The big movers for church unity in our kneck of the words are the prosperity lite Pentecostals. Some of them are working from a post code spiritual warfare model (one location=one angel=one church). It also gives them a platform to promote themselves to young people from other churches.

  15. Ted Bigelow says:

    Paul Cummings,

    I read John Armstrong’s book on Unity recently. Unfortunately, his book assumes God has not answered Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 “that they may all be one; even 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 sent Me.”

    If its true God has not answered Jesus’ prayer and that our ecclesial separations show that, we have a bigger problems than unity. We have a God who doesn’t hear and answer prayer of the other members of the Trinity. But John 11:42: “I know that you always hear me…”

    What’s worse is that John never brings up this point in the book, in effect, trying to slip it by. But assuming something untrue about God won’t produce the unity he rightly wants among those who believe the Father always hears the Son and answers His prayers. Unity at the expense of Christ’s glory in the Father is heresy.

    The unity of John 17 is not relational unity, but spiritual unity (c.f., 1 Cor. 12:13), and it was accomplished on the cross, and is a reality today.

    The real barrier to practical (not spiritual) unity is Christians in the same locale who don’t worship together or serve one another with their gifts. That’s what Eph. 4:10-16 is about.

    What we need is the apostle Paul’s plan for the fractured churches of Crete in the book of Titus. But that won’t come without repentance and faith in Christ, who gave us His counsel there.

  16. Bill says:

    First on my list:

    Get rid of the term Evangelical Christian

    How is it possilbly Biblical to say to the world “We call ourselves Evangelical Christians because those Christians just aren’t real Christians”

    It doesn’t match what we read in John 17 and doesn’t match what Paul writes on unity and doesn’t match what Paul writes on church dicipline.

    Are there those that claim to be Christians that probably are not? Sure. The Bible tells us so. But we have no right to categorically define entire denominations as such.
    I recently saw a “survey” that categorized my denomination as Evangelical, but I take no pride in the term, only pride in the function if it really defines us.

  17. Mike Gantt says:

    The absence of the pursuit of unity among the leaders of today’s churches is one of the most obvious differences between them and those who led the New Testament church. Those who do pursue unity today almost also do so by compromising doctrinal purity – which those who led the New Testament church were never willing to do.

    The church today is way, way off track. It does not seek the kingdom of God and this is precisely why there are tens of thousands of denominations.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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