The unity of the church refers to the union of the people of God, in all their various distinctives and expressions, bound to God and to one another by the gospel.
The unity of the church is to be a reflection of the unity of the one God upon which the church is built. The ideal (unity) and the real (division) do not always match up in the life of the church. A biblical theology of unity reveals a richer and deeper understanding of unity than mere uniformity, but it also holds out the goal of visible unity towards which Christians should aspire. The model of church unity presented in Scripture is a unity-in-diversity which protects it on one side from an over-reliance on human hierarchies but also from too great of an emphasis upon human autonomy.
The Unity of the Church and the Unity of God
The unity of the church must begin in the first instance with reference to the God who has narrated and enacted the gospel across the pages of Scripture. The unity of the church is a function of the unity of the God which the church is called to worship. There is only one God and one gospel and the church’s inner dynamic is to reflect this reality. That which binds the church together is the God to whom the church is called to worship. One God and therefore one people of God.
Yahweh reminded Israel consistently they were to have no other gods (Exod 20). The underlying premise was that Israel’s identity would inevitably be formed by the gods they worshipped. Worship the Living God and Israel would be “alive” to justice and compassion. Worship the dead idols, and they, like the golden calf (Exod 32), would have eyes but would not see, they would have ears by would not hear, and their hearts would grow stone cold to justice and compassion.
It is the covenantal relationship between the one God and his people that gives rise to the claim that the church is to be one. Its unity is not a function of its cultural location, the native language it speaks, the kinds of food it enjoys or the music to which it listens. But its unity consists in the monogamous relationship it bears universally to the one true and living God.
Unity in Diversity
The fact that the church speaks different languages, sings different kinds of music, and engages in different cultural habits tells us that the unity of the church is never intended to be uniformity – full stop. While in no way discounting that fundamental Biblical truth of the “one God – one church” formula, the gospel also calls the church to celebrate diversity at important points. Two of the more significant Biblical passages in this regard are Eph 4 and 1Cor 12. Ephesians 4 makes the case that God has called individuals to different offices in the church, and understanding the diverse roles of those who occupy those offices is crucial to understanding the means by which the church will flourish and retain its unity. First Corinthians 12 calls attention to the diverse gifts represented by people in the church and that no one may to say to another, “I do not need you.” Both of these passages give us the beginning of a richer and more robust “unity-in-diversity” understanding of the church identity.
We might remember that the most frequent metaphor of Christ’s relationship to the church (and of God’s relationship to the people of God) is that of marriage. The “two and one” dynamic at the heart of marriage is in some sense a conceptual analogy to the way in which the church is united to Christ. The two become one, but the two do not become identical. They remain different even as they are united. So the church is to be “one and many” at the same time. United by the gospel, and living out this gospel across many cultures, many languages, many kinds of music, and many differently gifted individuals.
The Nature of the Church
In the New Testament, there are three enduring claims relative to the identity of the church:
- It is founded on Jesus Christ.
- It comes into being by the Holy Spirit.
- The church is to cross the fundamental divides of culture, language, nation, tribe and race.
It is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension that are the necessary precursors and foundations of the church. Jesus is the rock upon which the church is founded (Matt 16). From Pentecost forward, the power of the Holy Spirit by which the gospel is proclaimed is the glue which holds the church together and continues to push it outward (Acts 2). From the very beginning of the church the crossing of language and national boundaries was key to its evangelism and scandalous to a watching world (Acts 15). The church founded upon Jesus Christ is the same as the church brought into being by the Holy Spirit which is the same as the church which crosses from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to Rome within the very narrative of the book of Acts.
Diversity and Denominations
By virtue of the fact that the church exists across many cultures and language groups, and consists of diverse offices and diverse gifts, the question may fruitfully be asked: What does the unity of the church practically look like? The question is ever more pressing in this increasingly post-denominational world, where previously the unity of the church was often theologically conceived against the backdrop of denominations. Presbyterians were united by a common theological tradition. Anglicans were united by a common liturgical tradition. Methodists were united by a common practice of piety. The obvious question of denominations is the divisions and deep differences between denominations. The vast array of denominations represented in any Western context makes it difficult to discern the unity of the church that should grow out of the unity of the gospel. The pluralization of the denominations has brought with it the perception that the gospel itself is pluralized. “Denominationalism” is the term we often put on this besetting sin. If only we could get “beyond denominationalism,” is the lament of many evangelicals today. This has led some to agitate for a post-denominational church, seeing denominations themselves as the cause of the problems of the deep divisions present in the church.
However, this places too much of the blame on the original construct of Protestant denominations. Historically denominations functioned not as the means of greater independence or division, but as concrete ways to protect peculiar emphases and traditions of the church in diverse places and times against government (the monarchies of Europe) related homogenizing influences. Denominations in this sense have been the central bearers of religious traditions and appropriate dissent from state controlled ecclesiastical hierarchies. The demise of denominations has been in part a function of the modern revolt against tradition as well as the increasing influence of democracy and autonomy in the late modern world.
Denominations have served as a dissenting voice against religious hegemony – a religious uniformity contrary to the gospel. Historically denominations were the means to protect dissent while also remaining loyal to the larger social project of liberal democracies. Denominations with rare exceptions in the West never viewed themselves as the “one true church.” They saw themselves as branches of the one true church removed from essential control by governing authorities. This permitted and at times encouraged a wider confessional conversation among the various branches of the Protestant churches. Unlike Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy or the state churches of Europe, Protestants had a built-in structural context for unity-in-difference. However, it is fair to say that under the increasing pluralization of late modernity, denominations became all too fiercely independent of each other, and under the conditions of a consumer culture, they became fiercely protective of their “market share.” The result was the inability of people in the pews to see any remnant of the visible unity of the gospel beyond local congregational life.
The Unity of a Biblical Theological Vision
We must then think not in terms of the cultural location nor of the cultural shapes of the church as key to its unity, but rather to an animating theological vision which “sees” unity in and through the categories of Scripture. What might those categories be? As we noted at the outset, the unity of the church is rooted in the deep conviction that God’s people in spite of all their differences are united to him by faith in Jesus Christ. The story of the church is the great story of God’s redeeming work culminating in Jesus. This “common history” means that diverse branches of the church’s diverse family tree all are bound to an identical spiritual genealogy. The story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is the common story for every genuine church. The story of Abraham, of Moses, of David is the common story of the church no matter which language it speaks or which age it lives in.
The church across the ages and across the globe is bound together by the same gospel as interpreted and proclaimed by the apostles. This apostolic foundation entails that Scripture is the fundamental constitution of the church. As the United States is divided by fifty states yet united by a common constitution, so the church exists in many diverse times and places while being united by a common constitution.
Unity, Identity and Autonomy
There are two significant errors as it relates to the unity of the church. The first error is to draw too close an identity between Christ and the church, as if there is not merely an organic unity between the two but an actual identity of the two. This would entail that the authority of church is identical with the authority of Christ. On this rendering, when the church speaks (through its officers) Christ is speaking. The danger of this way of thinking is precisely the danger of equating the redeemed with the Redeemer. This is to view the church as a monarchy wherein the human head of the church is too closely equated with the Christ as the head of the church.
The second error at the other end of the religious spectrum assumes that there is no unity across many cultures and congregations other than individuals individually deciding to follow Jesus. In political analogies, this is radical ecclesial democracy, wherein the unity of the church consists in nothing other than the consensus of the governed. Believers are not united by the church, but they are united by means of common concerns and interests to follow Jesus. This kind of error suggests that the only kind of unity would be invisible and external to the church.
Conclusion: Unanswered Questions
There is a vast middle ground between these two extremes, and the diversity of church traditions on these matters animates the ongoing theological conversation about the appropriate ways that churches are to visibly express the “unity-in-diversity” which reflects the gospel.
It may be said of all those in this middler territory that the unity of the church arises from its origin, and since the canon created and still creates the church, this unity cannot be lodged either in a historical office or merely in personal experience. Wherever the Word is truly preached (gospel proclaimed) and practiced (gospel signified), therein, and therein only, is the church unified regardless of its cultural location, or its native tongue or its musical forms.
- Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012)
- Edumund Clowney, The Church (InterVarsity Press, 1995)
- Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (B&H Academic, 2012)
- Justin Holcomb, “Jesus’ Church is Here to Stay”
- Mike Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Westminster/John Knox 2008)
- Tim Keller, Center Church (Zondervan, 2012)
- Leslie Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church (Wipf & Stock, 2011)
- Joe Rigney, “How to Weigh Doctrines for Christian Unity”
- Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1997)
- Luder Whitlock, Divided We Fall: Overcoming A History of Christian Disunity (P&R Publishing, 2017)