Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
We all like the idea of unity. Think of marriages. It isn’t so nice when you meet a husband and wife who aren’t on the same team. When spouses live and speak in ways that contradict each other, the situation gets disastrous and ugly pretty quick. Tempers tend to flare up, arguments never end, and when the division becomes public (or in even in the home) it can affect other relationships. This is the case, though, in any human relationship. Political parties can ruminate on hatred for the other so that they forget people in the opposite party are actually human and not mortal enemies. And divisions don’t simply happen in the world and in basic human relationships. Divisions also happen between and within churches. Once I had a taxi ride with a pastor friend, and we got talking to the driver. Once he found out we were pastors, he began to ask how there can be thousands of different Christian faiths. One of the common tropes against Christianity is that we are divided and no one agrees on what to believe.
This is both true and false. It is true in the sense that there are many denominations which expect churches to hold to certain doctrinal points, and some of those doctrinal points contradict other denominations. For instance, some denominations are associated because of a firm belief on baptism, others on how salvation works, and then other denominations are actually anti-doctrinal and would not associate with a church that confesses traditional doctrine.
But this doesn’t mean there isn’t any point of unity. Throughout the history of the church, there has always been a basic and distinct spiritual unity among Christians and faithful churches. Although Presbyterians and Baptists may disagree on the timing of baptism, conservative ones at least confess and believe in a gospel that has been preached for 2000 years. When considering general Christian unity, we might call the opposite of it schism. Ian Murray suggests in A Scottish Christian Heritage that a schism is a breech from the fundamentals of the faith and that faith being held in Christian love. He is describing the situation in Scotland in the 1500’s and on, where the Scottish reformers were so intent on an external unity (i.e. a state church into which every citizen was baptized), that they marred true unity (based on true conversion). Christian unity is based on God’s conversion of sinners. We are unified and will ultimately be unified with those whom God has chosen to save and has given new hearts. When we look back in the history of the church, we see brothers and sisters with whom we share a common confession and anticipate joining them in the unity of the heavenly throng- like Augustine of the 5th century or Martin Luther of the 16th century. What is perhaps more difficult to discern is those in our day who are not a part of our individual congregation. Individual congregations want to be ‘perfectly one’, and we gather on a common confession often called a doctrinal statement. We gather together in Christian unity and love. We know each other personally, and so increasingly we are able to love one another. But this unity is exponentially more difficult for us with others whom we do not know or only know through Facebook. We can only know others like this partially, based on our knowledge of our common faith in the gospel as defined by scripture, and distilled into something like the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. The creeds aren’t infallible, but they define in part our confessional unity. Those creeds specifically explain the doctrine of God, and his Trinitarian nature. They also define the two natures of Christ. They are excellent beginnings in defining Christian unity, and for 1500 years or more, they have defined the unity of the Christian church. But we must add certain caveats because of the deception of Satan. Our modern world has undermined the authority and inerrancy of God’s word. German theology of the 1700’s and 1800’s, which Charles Spurgeon didn’t think would last, ruined the modern churches by subverting inerrancy and other important doctrines. Instead the theology of the church moved more and more to be based on our own individual perceptions and emotions. It is so hard to discern right and wrong theology because we have been trained to trust our hearts in every and any matter, including theology.
J. Gresham Machen distilled the fundamentals of the faith into a handful of things, which might be useful in determining doctrinal unity with other churches and Christians. But the second thing that unites us is our Christian love for one another. We have a distinct love for one another as Christians. We have died to ourselves and live to Christ. We are a part of the body of Christ along with other Christians. Although this is expressed initially within a local body that meets together weekly, there is a sense in which we ought to affirm the same of those outside our local churches. Although our primary responsibility as members of the body is to those in my local gathering, I am also interconnected with those outside of our gathering through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, we can support a different church in Bangkok in love, and I can also help the needy and broken in my own fellowship. This means we aren’t the only church in the world that is fully faithful. Instead, we are one of many churches slowly making it our aim to make Christ our own. And we can come alongside others and they can come alongside us to make disciples of all nations. This is how we can have good friendship and affection for Pinklau Baptist Church in Bangkok even though we are at a distance. When we visit, we have fellowship with them because we are in Christ, we confess the same gospel, and are both a part of the body of Christ.
May we take care not to deny the cardinal doctrines of the faith nor neglect to love our brothers and sisters both locally and wherever we meet them across the world.