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Putting Unity First

The fourth chapter of Ephesians deals primarily with unity within the body of Christ. Through the first three chapters of the book Paul has been laying the theological framework for the life of good works that he describes in the final three chapters. The first topic he discusses in this regard is unity. He encourages believers to live together in humility and patience, bearing with one another and maintaining the unity of the Spirit. The word one appears seven times in only three verses, which brings emphasis to the oneness the Lord expects of his family. Having discussed the importance of unity, Paul goes on to show how this unity will be formed and maintained.

Unity is a common theme in the New Testament, isn’t it?. Paul spoke of it in 1 Corinthians 1:10 where we read, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Among Jesus’ final words to his apostles is the beautiful and powerful prayer for unity which is recorded for us in John 17. Peter and other biblical writers discuss the subject as well. Unity is clearly an important component to the Christian life.

Perhaps the clearest example of this type of unity is shown to us in the book of Acts. We read in Acts 5, “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…” (Acts 5:12-14). This unity was based on unity of doctrine, and that asserted itself in practice. In the previous chapter Luke writes, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).

Of course there are two types of unity. There is the unity from one Christian to another and there is unity from one group of professing Christians to another. While it seems clear that the biblical writers were speaking primarily of interpersonal relationships, their words are equally valid to larger relationships between groups. Baptist and Presbyterian denominations can learn as much from Paul’s words in their relationships to each other as can two individual members of a local church who are experiencing conflict in their relationship.

Today it seems that unity, and especially unity from one group of professed Christians to another, often comes at the cost of theology. In his masterpiece Evangelicalism Divided Iain Murray says “The ecumenical call [in the mid-20th century] was not for truth and salt; it was supremely for oneness: the greater the unity of ‘the Church’, it was confidently asserted, the stronger would be the impression made upon the world; and to attain that end churches should be inclusive and tolerant. But it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world. At no point in church history has the mere unity of numbers ever made a transforming spiritual impression upon others. On the contrary, it was the very period known as ‘the dark ages’ that the Papacy could claim her greatest unity in western Europe.”

The ecumenical movement of our day continues to downplay theology. Of course none of the major players in the movement would admit this, but if we are to have unity with the Roman Catholic Church we must be willing to let go of those pesky little solas that so often get in the way. If we are to have unity with Mormons we must be willing to allow some leeway on the divinity of Jesus. And so on. But the unity that Christ prays for us to attain and that Paul exhorts us to model is not a unity based on forsaking doctrinal differences so that we can meet at the lowest common denominator. It is not a unity based on mixing “churches” with one another. The unity Christ pleaded for on our behalf is a unity of people who know and trust Christ. It is a unity in the truths of the Scripture, truths despised by the world, but loved and treasured by believers. It is a unity which, as Murray says, “binds his [Christ’s] members together in love.” This truth becomes particularly clear in Ephesians 4. In verses 11-16 Paul describes the means of attaining unity. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

The teaching ministry, carried on today by the pastors of local churches, is a ministry of unity (as if the pastoral ministry was not already difficult enough!). Pastors are to teach their people sound doctrine which in turn will inspire unity among true believers. The solid foundation of sound doctrine will prevent people from being tossed to and fro and being carried about by every wind of doctrine. It is a lack of doctrine that promotes false unity and a strong, biblical theology that promotes true unity. Our pastors are called to help us “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” It is from Christ that the body is joined, knit together in true unity.

So if we would have unity, we must have theology. We are to share, profess and enjoy unity with other believers, even those who do not share certain “lesser” doctrines. This is not to imply that any doctrine is unimportant, yet some are more important than others. J.C. Ryle wisely observed that believers should “keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them as often as you can.” But there are times when we must reject a false kind of unity because of the higher importance of truth and sound doctrine. To repeat Murray’s words, “it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world.” Nor will it ever be.