A song of ascents. Of David. How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life for evermore (Psalm 133:1-3).
Three thousand years ago David composed an ode to unity among God's people. Two images illustrate this desirable quality. The first refers to the anointing of the high priest (Leviticus 21:10). The anointing oil flows down from the top of his head over his beard and onto his sacred garments. The second is a geographical image. The dew of Hermon, a mountain in the far north, is falling on Mount Zion (Jerusalem), in the far south of the country. In reality, it is difficult even to imagine the dew of Hermon settling on Jerusalem.
Unity between north and south was always an elusive goal in Israelite history, and this second metaphor captures the beauty, and the difficulty, of its being realized. Even so it is today. Unity is never easy. But when it happens, it is pleasant. Flowing through all we do as the people of God, it enhances communication and makes closeness a reality. It also binds together people geographically separated, reducing the emotional "distance" to zero. How can we achieve unity in the faith (Ephesians 4:13) and preserve the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3)?
Unity begins in our own personal relationship with God, then spreads throughout the local congregation, and from there binds all believers worldwide together in Christian love.
I. Unity with the Lord
To be unified with the Lord, in relationship with him, is the starting point for unity. God has revealed his truth in the scriptures, and this means the Bible is the only authoritative text for the people of God. There can be no real unity if relationships aren't based on truth, and the litmus test of truth is biblical doctrine.
No creed is required. When I was baptized back in the 1970s, we claimed "no creed but the Bible." What an attractive idea! The Bible, the word of God, is sufficient. We do not need the word of man to tell us what it "really" means. As Edward Stillingfleet, Dean of St Paul's London, eloquently put it in 1659, 'It would be strange indeed the Church should require more than Christ himself did, or make other conditions of her communion than our Savior did of discipleship... Without all controversy, the main inlet of all the distractions, confusion, and divisions of the Christian world hath been the adding of other conditions of Church-communion than Christ hath done."
We are bound to have differences, not only in thinking but also in how we frame biblical doctrines. One person likes the word "trinity," while another rejects it -- even though both agree in principle that Father, Son, and Spirit are divine. "Bible names for Bible things" is a common slogan within the Restoration Movement, despite the fact that even the word "Bible" doesn't appear in the Bible! It is so easy to become issues-focused, instead of keeping our focus on Jesus Christ.
To be unified with the Lord, each of us must take responsibility for studying the word of God and obeying it. Our Christian bond begins with loyalty to Christ. We should be on our guard against adding to the requirements God has revealed as we are against taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Proverbs 30:6, Revelation 22:18-19). The word of man is not the same as the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), nor will it ever be.
II. Unity in the congregation
Having established the true basis for unity, which is obedience to the Lord and his word, unity within the congregation is now a realistic possibility. Three aspects of unity deserve mention:
Physical presence: "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another" (Hebrews 10:24-25 NKJV). Every congregation will work out the schedule of meetings that, in the opinion of the leadership group, best meets the needs of the members. Every church, every location is different, and those who "live there" generally have the best understanding of the needs and how best to meet them. When it comes to church meetings, we as members should be supportive, not only with our words but also with our presence.
Emotional presence: "Speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15 NIV see also 4:25). This is so vital that we find dozens of 'one-another' passages in the New Testament. These crucial passages include Romans 12:5, 12:10, 12:16, 13:8, 14:13, 15:7, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 7:5, 11:21, 12:25, 16:33, 2 Corinthians 13:12, Galatians 6:2, Ephesians 4:2, 4:32, 5:19, 5:21, Colossians 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 4:9, 4:18, 5:11, 5:13, 5:15, 2 Thessalonians 1:3, Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25, 13:1, James 4:11, 5:9, 5:16, 1 Peter 1:22, 3:8, 4:8-9, 5:5, 5:14). Why the long list? If you've never sat down and studied all these passages, please do. One-another relationships are much more comprehensive than "discipling partners," though receiving input is important. They are even more engaging than "prayer partners." After all, we are called to be in close and honest relationship not with just one person, but with many! We need and value every fellow Christian, and Christian relationships take time. Showing up on Sunday is most emphatically not enough.
Spiritual presence: "Pray for one another" (James 5:16). Genuine concern is most manifest at the level of prayer in the private life. Are we praying for one another? And are we praying with each other (Acts 4:24)? Without prayer, program easily becomes our chief concern. In the New Testament, however, program follows prayer. In Acts 13, the First Missionary Journey flowed from the prayer meeting already underway. We tend to plan first, and then pray for God to bless the plans. First Century Christians prayed first and out of the fellowship of prayer the Lord's will was discerned. Unity at the congregational level takes place when we are physically, emotionally, and spiritually present for one another.
III. Unity with other congregations
As we have seen, the only stable platform for true unity is the foundation of God's word. When every member of the church has committed to live by God's standard, biblical one-another relationships become possible. These are God's explicit standard for Christian relationships, and we should take special care to obey the one-another scriptures, not substituting man-made traditions or rules for the dynamic, every-member body life described in the New Testament. Many well-intentioned human suggestions have an appearance of wisdom. ('They worked in the past, didn't they?') But they are not "from God," and no man should judge us by them (Colossians 2:20-23). Finally, when churches comprise committed Christians in sincere relationship with one another, there can be true unity between congregations. This brings us to the third level of unity.
Some brothers and sisters confuse relational unity with organizational unity. But structural or organizational unity is not the same thing as relational unity. All the Christians in one town may meet together, but not be unified or they may meet in two or three locations, yet display the strongest unity. In the same way, though I live in Georgia and attend church in Atlanta, I can still be unified with my brothers and sisters in London, Lagos, and Los Angeles, even though we are not organizationally one.
In the first century, most Christians met in house churches, which are an ideal setting for one-another relationships. Actually, meeting all together (all the Christians in a city) seems to have been a rare occurrence in the early years of Christianity.
Another thing to take into account as we search the New Testament for God's guidance is that there was no organizational structure above the local level. Yes, there were spheres of influence (Romans 15:20-23). There were churches established by Paul, and there were churches planted by the other apostles and their representatives. There was clearly a degree of cooperation, but there was no evidence of single world-wide organization, beyond the relationships between the Apostles themselves. A movement, yes! A single corporate structure, no. Once again, relational unity is not the same thing as institutional unity!
Congregations should, in my understanding of the scriptures, be connected with one another. But how? Should they forfeit self-governance (autonomy) and be overly dependent on outsiders? Or should they separate themselves from other believers worldwide and operate selfishly and independently? Let us not quibble about words. Dependence, independence, autonomy can all be good things, after all. The question is how these terms are being used by their proponents. Every emotionally healthy adult stands on his own feet, and yet also depends on others to meet his physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. So it is with congregations. The term I prefer to use is "interdependence." We are a free-will movement of like-minded believers.
In our desire to have things "nailed down" and defined, we meet, discuss, and draft documents. Discussion, "negotiating," and thinking theologically are good things. And yet additional councils, creeds, and covenants, no matter how well intended, have become instruments of division, as the 2000 year record of church history plainly shows.
We also tend to confuse principle with practice. For example, small group evangelistic discussions are one method of reaching the lost. But they are not the only method. Someone may reason, (a) Bible talks facilitate evangelism, (b) evangelism is a command of God, therefore (c) if you aren't involved in a Bible Talk, you are in sin. The fallacy is in assuming that small groups are the exclusive, God-ordained means of outreach. But, we must also be careful not to use our freedom in Christ to resist or ignore the clear, biblical teaching for Christians to 'go into all the world' (Matthew 28.18-20). Can we not accept those who envision a different way to putting the principle into practice? We want to be connected to and often influenced by, but not necessarily directed by, leaders outside the local church.
To protect ourselves from sectarianism, divisiveness, and meanness of spirit, we must shy away from shibboleths. These are tests of faith to make sure someone is really "one of us." Shibboleths are common weaponry in the arsenal of judgmentalism. The English word comes from the unusual story in the book of Judges: The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No," they said, "All right, say `Shibboleth'." If he said, "Sibboleth", because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time (Judges 12:5-6). Death was the penalty for not pronouncing a word correctly. A shibboleth is an indicator of orthodoxy, or right belief. The person who does not use the same word as you is the enemy. What are some modern shibboleths?
Terminology. They may come in the form of terminology. We may be suspicious of people who don't say "discipling partner," "quiet time," etc. (Others are suspicious of those who do!)
Practices. Another kind of shibboleths are not phrases so much as practices. It could be instrumental music (or a cappella), use of small group discussions, or even a adhering to the KJV or NIV. Some people want to know whether you had your "morning quiet time" seven days out of seven. While I think this is a healthy practice in principle, it should not become a way of judging fellow believers. Others judge us on whether we permit or oppose the consumption of alcohol, or whether we observe the Sabbath, despite passages like Colossians 2:16.
Opinions. A third class of shibboleths are human ideas or opinions. Many have strong opinions about the length of the Sunday sermon, or how communion is to be celebrated. It is fine to have an opinion or preference, but to try to force that on others is not right. Another opinion is the notion that there is only one "biblical" form of church government, despite the rather dynamic picture that emerges from the pages of the New Testament.
Judging other groups or individuals on their acceptance to matters of opinion is not only ungracious, it is inherently divisive. After all, none of us is perfect or has arrived, and that means no church is perfect or has arrived. We should remember the old Restoration Movement slogan: "In essentials, unity in non-essentials, liberty in all things, charity" (Meldenius).[Added in 2007] One more shibboleth deserves mentioning. Subscribing to creeds. Some churches feel fine about signing documents; others do not. Yet unless the scriptures require a thing, we have no right to bind it on others. As with terminology, practices, and opinions, the word of God alone is our authority. No other document ought to hold any divine sway over our hearts or minds.
Unity binds all the Christian virtues together (Colossians 3:14). If we are to be "brought to complete unity" (John 17:23), what will it take?
First, every one of us must strive to be unified with the Lord, to have a daily walk with him and an intention to obey what he has revealed in his word. This is our most important priority as followers of Christ, and naturally it lies at the very heart of unity at any other level.
Next, we must expect the same of other members in our local congregation. This is to be accomplished within the framework of one-another relationships. Without significant amounts of involvement, interaction, and communication, the church will never be what it was mean to be.
Finally, congregations should strive for "interdependence," for connection with other congregations. The North River Church of Christ, of which I am a part, wants to be connected with every other congregation of God's people—regardless of where they meet, what they call themselves, and even if they don't think the same way "we" think about things.
This article closes with an anonymous -- yet highly biblical -- prayer for the right attitude before God and our fellow man. May we pray, and live it:
"From cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
from laziness that is content with half truth,
From arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Dear God of truth, deliver me!"
17 July 2005