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Luder G. Whitlock, Jr.

As Jesus neared the completion of his earthly ministry and redemptive mission, He prayed for the strength to finish the task, knowing that it necessitated His crucifixion. He also prayed that, as a result of His atoning sacrifice, believers might become one as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). This petition, particularly at this time, conspicuously signaled the priority which He wanted to place upon unity within the community of faith, for which He would die on the cross. His people cannot afford to neglect it or treat it lightly. If that Trinitarian unity revealed in the Scriptures is to serve as a model for church unity as Jesus prayed, then any attempt to understand or achieve unity among believers must necessarily begin with the doctrine of God.

The Triune God
The Bible clearly reveals the existence of the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19, II Cor. 13:14, et al). God is one yet God is also three. There is unity and diversity. This triunity enables us to comprehend the significance of human relationships as well as the value of diversity.

Because God exists in three persons¾Father, Son, and Holy Spirit¾He is just as much relational as He is sovereign or holy. The triune God has eternally existed in an intimate, harmonious relationship. The Trinity is in actuality a triunity of intimate understanding and seamless functioning as the persons of the Godhead relate perfectly to one another. There is no evidence to the contrary in Scripture. The perfection of God is revealed in His unity.

In addition, the nature and functions of the Trinity reveal diversity, for the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit exist as distinct and different persons with different functions. Moreover, God is aptly characterized by various distinct attributes such as holiness, goodness, wisdom, and justice.

When God created Adam and Eve in His image, He created them as relational beings. In this respect, they were doubtlessly like Him (Gen. 2:18). Though their subsequent sin marred His creative work, introducing alienation and misery into human existence, nevertheless, according to His redemptive design, He is remaking His own into His image. Therefore, we should expect to encounter unity among believers through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, just as we expect to experience unity within marriage and the family. Separation and divorce do not fit, but rather are signs of spiritual deficiency.

The Apostle Paul explained to the Ephesians that the church is pivotal in God’s plan to glorify Himself in human history. That is why the Lord draws to Himself a people as a community of faith, transforming them into His likeness so that the whole world may be exposed to His handiwork. As His goodness and other attributes are reflected in them, He is glorified.

Unity as an expression of grace and redemption becomes a major motif in Ephesians. God’s grace breaks down the barriers that separate us from Him and one another (Eph. 2:11-3:6). The mystery of the gospel is the blending of Jews and Gentiles into one new body through the work of Christ (Eph. 3:2-6). This new unity in Christ replaces a former enmity, and transcends the unity that is found in the three basic institutions of society: family, church, and state (Eph 2:19-22). So, not only does grace overcome estrangement and alienation, it creates a higher, stronger sense of identity and unity than the usual human experiences of oneness, such as family.

Paul relentlessly hammers home this point through an unmistakable repetition of ones: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called¾one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over our all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, italics added).

Therefore, he urges them to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Paul’s argument is straightforward. God has rescued you from the hostilities and divisions of this sinful world to shape you into one new community¾the church. Now, he insists, as the one church of the one Lord, you are obligated to demonstrate that fundamental oneness of God through a common consistent expression of unity among yourselves.

Nor, in his opinion, should diversity be considered an impediment to achieving unity, as Paul notes when he observes the difference in giftedness (Eph. 4:7-12). Elsewhere, he similarly notes the diversity or variety of gifts among believers (Rom. 12:4-8, I Cor. 12:4). Though it could, Paul insists that diversity should not mitigate against the realization of unity among believers. Rather, “as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16), the result should be a complementary and harmonious blending of gifts and efforts that propels the body of believers toward “unity in the faith” as an expression of spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:13,15). This experience of unity should stimulate euphoria and lead to a higher, richer grasp of the reciprocal fellowship that occurs under the headship of Christ. The synergistic benefits are apparent and add greater motivation to keep the unity of the Spirit.

While divisions such as those at Corinth obviously troubled the church, the diversity of gifts and other differences among believers were not to be construed as a means to justify the lack of unity (I Cor. 1:10-17, 3:1-23). Paul clearly argues the opposite. His letter to the Corinthians criticized their divisions and divisive attitudes, urging that there be “no divisions” or contentiousness, penetratingly asking, “Is Christ divided?” (I Cor. 1:10-17). Dissensions need healing to restore unity.

In addition to this, the New Testament acknowledges only one church, though it recognizes many congregations. There were congregations in many cities and there were multiple house churches, yet it is apparent from Paul’s letters that there is only one church, whether the church at Phillipi, Antioch, Corinth, Thessalonica, or elsewhere. These congregations are part of the one and only one church planned and brought into existence by God.

Edmund Clowney, with his observations regarding the Temple, has summarized the matter succinctly:

The abiding presence of the Spirit joins the church together into one. There is but one holy temple of the Lord, one body of Christ where the Spirit dwells. The Spirit binds the church together in the unity of a common life. In Paul’s letters this unity is applied especially to the joining together of Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11-22). In the power of the Spirit, the church went from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth…. The temple of God was no longer local, on the Judean hillside, but universal, wherever the saints gathered to join in heaven’s praise.[1]

Consider the Jerusalem Council as an example of how this understanding found expression among multiple congregations in various locations. The leaders gathered in Jerusalem to pray and discuss matters of difference (Acts 15:1, 2). Once they reached a conclusion, they immediately set out to communicate their decision to all the churches, expecting their compliance (Acts 15:22-35). Unless all of these congregations considered themselves to belong to one church, why should there have been this concern to resolve their disagreements and seek conformity of belief and practice? So we may properly conclude that, in spite of the problems and tensions that existed in the church from the beginning, there was a sense that the church was one community of faith. There may have been vigorous disagreement regarding who was right or wrong, who belonged and who did not, but there was general agreement in acknowledging only one church of which Jesus was Lord. The strong inner coherence is unmistakable. It was, as Jesus said, “one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16).

Inevitably, we are led to conclude that there are essentially two kinds of people¾Christians and non-Christians¾insofar as a relationship to God is concerned. In addition, all Christians belong to the one true church that has existed through all the centuries and will eventually gather around the throne of God in heaven. Belonging to that church is a matter of faith in Christ, not one’s level of spiritual maturity or doctrinal discernment. All those who genuinely trust in Christ belong to His church.

There will always be varying degrees of spiritual maturity and discernment because people are converted at different times and they develop at different rates. These levels of maturity, combined with a variety of gifts and different contextual influences, will always produce a colorful diversity. That diversity can easily spawn misunderstanding and tensions that may then escalate into anger, hostility, and division if not dealt with. The fragmentation of the church through the centuries is illustrative of this point, for the church has never achieved more than an imperfect experience of its unity. But it may also be argued that its many conflicts were matched by endless efforts to restore unity. Although Protestant churches of the Western World have proliferated into a vast number, augmented by para-church ministries and independent congregations, this does not lessen the reality that there is one and only one church and that it has a responsibility to express in this world the unity of the triune God.

Perceived Impediments to Unity
There are today, as there were for the Reformers, a myriad of impediments to the quest for unity among believers, or so it seems. A few are listed below, but more comprehensive descriptions are readily available.[2]

Physical Factors: In the first place, there are obvious physical limitations, such as geography and buildings, to any organizational expressions of unity. It is impossible for believers in India to worship together with believers from South America on any regular basis for geographical reasons. The same might be said for believers in different cities. Geographic space separates. Buildings can pose similar problems because of their size, as well as for other reasons. But size alone may restrict the number of people who can gather together for worship at any one time. Some large congregations have multiple worship services, and the people who become attached to certain services and groups usually find themselves disconnected from the rest of the membership who worship or meet at other times. Can you imagine trying to accommodate everyone in Atlanta in one local building? It simply will not work, even if everyone is cooperative.

Disagreements: Whether they relate to theology, worship, politics, or something else, disagreements are another major hurdle. Some Christians love traditional worship services with traditional music. They may dislike contemporary worship services and prefer to change churches rather than change the kind of worship service that is such an important part of their faith experience. And, as is well known in evangelical circles, holding the “wrong” doctrine can quickly bring neglect or ostracism from those who consider that doctrine to be unacceptable. The ordination of women and charismatic gifts are two examples of issues that tend to divide.

Pluralism: In the United States, it has been relatively easy for individuals and congregations to resolve their disagreements through division. In most instances, the biggest burden on the separating party is primarily that of generating sufficient resources to make the transition, including the construction of new buildings to accommodate the worship and ministry of the new group. But the fluid nature of the American scene gives people the opportunity to move around as they desire, starting new ministries or joining different ones, so that proliferation and fragmentation are seemingly inevitable. Combine this with the inability of almost every congregation to enforce discipline on an individual, because that person chooses another church that is happy to accept him or her. It is true that the ability of some denominations to claim or seize property and retirement funds has been a deterrent in some instances, but it has not prevented movement. That is apparent. Consider the development of Presbyterian and reformed denominations during the last two centuries in spite of several major mergers.

Competition: Another impediment to fuller expressions of unity is the stark reality of competition. The roots of this competition are entwined in the conscious decision of the founders of this nation to disestablish religion, creating an opportunity for all churches and religious organizations to flourish and function according to their ability and God’s provision. This permitted people to identify, support, and participate in causes important to them. Individuals had freedom to choose whatever appealed most to them, and that is exactly what they have done, creating a huge number and variety of evangelical organizations. The consequence of this freewheeling pluralism, as has been aptly noted by Nathan Hatch, is that American evangelicalism has evolved, “like a supermarket, a consumer-oriented, highly fragmented, religious marketplace.” Evangelicals are, in his estimation, “entrepreneurial, decentralized, and given to splitting, forming and reforming.”[3]

Size and growth are most often viewed as the major indices to success, so the pressure is on churches to grow. If growth becomes a major priority then what must churches do in order to grow? The three usual methods are evangelism, transfer, and birthing children. Few evangelical churches are growing through evangelism or births, rather by attracting people from other churches. If their usual growth pattern is primarily by transfer, even after discounting geographic movement, you have the likelihood of a very competitive environment with adverse effects. When congregations become self-centered, overwhelmingly concerned to build and perpetuate their own operations without regard for others, they may also breed mistrust and estrangement.

Ecumenism: In addition, advocacy of unity and ecumenism are usually identified with liberal theology and mainline denominations, so evangelicals react negatively to these concepts lest they be seen as compromising their commitment to the historic Christian faith for which they have sacrificed so much. The last thing most evangelicals want is to adopt or even be similar to the thinking or agenda of liberal Christianity. Yet such knee-jerk reactions allow others to set the agenda rather than evangelicals doing what they should do, self-consciously responding to the priorities of Scripture. Something similar occurred when evangelicals, reacting to the Social Gospel, abandoned ministries of mercy and compassion early in the Twentieth Century. What will be required in order for reformed evangelicals to shake this negative mindset and move forward positively with the quest for unity? John Murray has quite eloquently stated the need to address this matter.

It is to be admitted that the fragmentation and lack of coordination and solidarity which we find within strictly evangelical and Reformed Churches create a difficult situation, and how this disunity is to be remedied “in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace” is a task not easily accomplished. But what needs to be indicated, and indicated with vehemence, is the complacency so widespread and the failure to be aware that this is an evil, dishonoring to Christ, destructive of the edification defined by the apostles as “the increase of the body into the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16), and prejudicial to the evangelistic outreach to the world. If we are once convinced of this evil, the evil of schism in the body of Christ, the evil of disruption in the communion of saints, then we have made great progress. We shall then be constrained to preach the evil, to bring conviction to the hearts of others also, to implore God’s grace and wisdom in remedying the evil, and to devise ways and means of healing these ruptures, to the promotion of united witness to the faith of Jesus and the whole counsel of God.[4]

Seeking the Unity of the Spirit
How shall Christians implement their responsibility to seek the unity of the Spirit? That is a major concern of this article and it should be of great importance to all believers. Yet to agree that it should be pursued is far easier than achieving it. Anyone who has taken this responsibility seriously quickly realizes that, for as soon as you begin, you encounter obstacles. The reformed tradition is replete with examples, beginning with the Reformation.

It has been asserted that one of the deepest convictions of the Reformers was the certainty that they were perpetuating the Catholic church that Rome had betrayed.[5] The Calvin scholar T.H.L. Parker argues that unity is consistently at the very heart of Calvin’s doctrine of the church.[6] Calvin expressed his desire to experience this unity in such a way that the “the union between all Christ’s churches upon earth were such that the angels in heaven might join in their song of praise.”[7]

Many other leaders of the Reformation, including Bucer, Cramner, and Bullinger, held a similar concern regarding the unity of the church. They were always for unity, but never at the expense of the gospel. And, it should be noted, by centering on faith and the authority of Scripture rather than organizational alignment and compliance to ecclesiastical authority, they captured the true catholicity and unity of the church.

In spite of all the good the Reformers accomplished and the many benefits of the Reformation, one of the tragic failures, with lasting consequences, was that of a divided Protestantism. Though they did not achieve it, they sought to realize a unified Protestantism.

There are attitudes and actions that are appropriate for reformed evangelicals who wish to contribute to a greater realization of the unity of the church. Praying for one another and helping one another as needs arise is certainly a good place to begin. Why restrict our prayers to the few who are close to us or with whom we have the strongest identity? Why shouldn’t we be praying for all Christians and offering to help them when they need it (Gal. 6:10)?

Then there is good reason to support, appreciate, and encourage other Christians. A kind word or thoughtful encouragement when offered in a sensitive and timely manner may do much to build stronger relationships and trust. There is also ample justification for fellow believers to discuss issues of common interest and agreement in order to learn from one another. Such discussions could also be helpful in leading to collaboration or cooperation on projects of mutual interest. Significant achievements can become the product of united efforts, but the deepening of relationships and understanding easily become the more important byproducts of such cooperative efforts. Without experiences of this nature, it is difficult for bonding to occur.

Should reformed evangelicals be willing to enter into serious and sustained discussions of differences with other believers for the purpose of deepening understanding, resolving disagreements, and promoting unity? Certainly, if they are believers. If love and trust mark the relationships then there is good reason to humbly, respectfully, and hopefully engage in such dialogue. Although it seems natural and is appropriate to defend one’s own position and challenge those that are different, honest discussion and disagreement can lead to deeper understanding and commitment¾perhaps even agreement. Most of us have, on occasion, determined at a later date that we were wrong about certain positions we so staunchly maintained at an earlier period. Because that is true of most of us, it is worth asking, what does an unwillingness to enter sincerely, prayerfully, and humbly into such discussions reveal about us? When there is a history to the differences, emotions usually escalate and so do defense mechanisms. Egos and political interests too easily influence our actions on such matters far more than we are prepared to acknowledge. This is to be expected. But it doesn’t preclude discussion and genuine change.

What about organizational unity? Should we aggressively pursue it? As noted above, that does not appeal to many evangelicals who generally have a different set of priorities. But it may be time for reformed evangelicals to confess that they have too often been overly reactive in regard to differences, perhaps cultivating and harboring negative sentiments. Given the experiences of the last 200 years, especially the aftermath of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, this is understandable but not desirable. Maturation of leadership should bring opportunities to move beyond a preoccupation with defending the faith to a constructive, creative approach to developing a reformed evangelical influence, including an emphasis on unity.

Organizational unity, in addition to affirmation and cooperation, is a legitimate concern and justifies a more aggressive pursuit of unity. The process may require a candid acknowledgement of the influence of the American culture on the excessive proliferation and fragmentation of the church, as well as fresh engagement with Biblical expectations. Yet there is an opportunity to rise above the failure of our reformed predecessors, including Reformation leaders, and to achieve a new level of unity, including organizational unity, if there is a willingness to rethink and reprioritize.

Schism and Sectarianism
Although there is general agreement that schism and sectarianism are sins, it is difficult to agree on when they occur. Yet it is apparent that once Protestants deemed separate churches or denominations necessary in order to perpetuate or preserve their faith, they eventually justified further division because of other disagreements, although those may not have been essential to the Christian faith or even the reformed faith. Distinctive doctrinal positions or polity issues were considered a sufficient reason for separation, but were they adequate justification for division? Disagreement is one thing; division is another, far more serious matter. Yet denominational sectarianism seldom takes catholicity and unity seriously.[8] There is always a rationale and the rationale minimizes the importance of unity.

Calvin took a rather severe attitude toward divisions. He did not hesitate to assert that, “Those who disrupt the body of Christ and split its unity into schisms are quite excluded from the hope of salvation, so long as they remain in dissidence of this kind.”[9] As far as he was concerned, and notwithstanding the trauma and conflict of the Reformation, schism was repugnant and believers should do everything possible to avoid it, including its assessment of doctrinal matters, as long as the doctrine on which the church is founded would still be held with integrity. As he wrote in The Institutes (IV.1.12), “Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians? … But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of our petty dissensions.”[10]

In many instances when fragmentation was the result of fundamental disagreements and substantial error or abuse, the consequent bruises and scars engendered a lingering suspicious or critical spirit among evangelicals who were on guard to avoid a repetition of the huge losses they experienced through the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy during the early part of the Twentieth Century. Without vigilance, it was apparent to them that the work of a lifetime could vanish. While it became necessary for them to separate from unbelief, the consequences were more formidable and enduring than they had expected.

In some instances, evangelicals disagreed among themselves regarding how to deal with those who held untenable beliefs. One consequence of this was double separation, or the separation by evangelicals from other evangelicals who would not separate from those with whom there was profound disagreement. A critical, judgmental spirit frequently emerged from these experiences and characterized the parties that were involved.[11] Suspicion, in such circumstances, can quickly flare up into full-blown controversies with charges and countercharges, as was the case with the recent Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements. Lasting estrangement often has been the outcome, further dividing the evangelical community itself.

While there is good reason to be vigilant regarding orthodoxy, especially given the many historical examples of doctrinal declension and apostasy, there is no justification for a mean-spirited, carping criticism of fellow believers. Reformed evangelicals must find a more constructive method of dealing with problems or disagreements among themselves. Paul warned that, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15). In many instances, the energy spent defending criticisms and divisions has bred a sectarian spirit, hardening our attitude toward those who are different, moving us to minimize commonalities and magnify differences. As Clowney notes, “the sectarian spirit that Paul decried at Corinth… has shattered the unity of Christ’s body throughout the history of the church.”[12]

In the aftermath of the Reformation, it has become apparent that it is necessary to protect as well as proclaim the gospel. While believers are justified in separating from those who deny the gospel and refuse to place themselves under the authority of God’s Word, it should be equally apparent that the divided church of the modern period is a tragic expression of human sinfulness and that greater priority should be given to realizing the oneness for which Jesus prayed. Reformed evangelicals need to emphasize the importance of acknowledging and expressing the unity of believers in Christ. The time has come for repentance, healing, and fresh unitive initiatives.

[1]Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 53.
[2] John Frame, Evangelicals and Reunion: Denominations and the One Body of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 28, 124.
[3] Nathan D. Hatch, “Evangelicals in the New Millenium,” unpublished paper, 5.
[4] John Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), Vol. 2, 335.
[5] John T. McNeil, Unitive Protestantism (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), 63.
[6] T.H.L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin (London: SCM Press, nd), 122.
[7] Idem.
[8] Clowney, op. cit., 97.
[9] J.K.S. Reid, ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises (Library of Christian Classics, Vol XXII, London: SCM Press), 256.
[10] John T. McNeil, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XXI, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press), 1026 (IV.1.12).
[11] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1971), 76-79.
[12] Clowney, op. cit., 81.

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