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On Truth and Unity, Part One

Mar 16, 2009

There are a whole range of issues in the Christian faith which require care and thoughtfulness. All sorts of extremes are to be avoided, and finding the elusive balance is always an arduous task. But getting the biblical balance right on all sorts of aspects of Christianity must be attempted nonetheless.

Consider the issue of Christian unity, and the importance of truth and right belief. Simply put, both are important, and both need to co-exist. But the balance is easy to miss, and there is always the danger of veering off into dangerous extremes. Some Christians so emphasise unity at all costs that they are quite happy to abandon or compromise key biblical doctrines and beliefs in order to just get along.

And of course some Christians are such sticklers for sound teaching and doctrinal purity, that they are happy to break fellowship at the drop of a hat. They are forever finding fault with other believers and their theology, and often can end up as a club of one.

Both extremes are unbiblical and both extremes must be avoided. But getting the balance right is not an easy task, and plenty of questions arise. Just how much should we strive for unity? Just which doctrines are core beliefs that cannot be tampered with? How far should we extend the right hand of fellowship to those of differing doctrinal positions? How many beliefs can we hold tentatively, and even be willing to downplay, in the interests of Christian unity?

These and many related questions have of course been debated ever since the church began. And no complete unanimity has arisen as to the right answers to these questions. Thus it may be a bit presumptuous for me to enter into the debate. But let me try nonetheless. Indeed, all believers should be wrestling with these issues.

The importance of unity

The Bible of course has a lot to say about the pressing need for unity. Both testaments speak to this theme. A classic Old Testament passage is Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”

The words of Jesus in John 17:20-23 of course come to mind here: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Some pretty amazing concepts are expressed here, including the fact that unbelievers almost seem to have a right to reject God’s message if they do not see Christian love and unity. This puts an incredibly important responsibility on us to ensure that we provide to the watching world the sort of love and unity that is central to our triune God. No small task!

This text also brings up twin truths: unity is ultimately a gift of God, yet we are to strive to demonstrate that unity before a watching world. God in his grace bestows on his people his unity, but we are to live that out in our day to day relationships.

Another critical passage is Romans 15:5-6: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Two things can be noted about this text. One, just as we discovered in the passage from John, unity is in fact a gift of God. Sure, we are called to strive for unity (as we shall see more fully in a moment), but it is a product of God’s grace rather than human achievement.

Second, this unity is not a call to doctrinal conformity in every respect. The context (Roman 15:1-13) is concerned with weak and strong members in the church who differ on secondary matters. Paul prays that they will have unity despite their differences. So a smothering uniformity is not being called for here, but love amidst diversity.

Ephesians 4:1-6 also speaks to this theme. Verse 3 says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Here we see another example of the indicative/imperative at work in the New Testament. That is, we are commanded to work out what is already given to us as a gift.

Biblical unity is not a man-made concoction, but a charis, or gift, of God. But we are called to strive to maintain that unity. Once again we see the intimate interplay between divine and human action. God gives graciously and richly, and we are to respond in gratitude.

Of interest – especially in the light of so much interfaith dialogue going on nowadays – is what Paul does and does not say about unity here. Harold Hoehner comments, “Nothing in the epistle suggests that unity is brought about by humans, only by the Holy Spirit (2:22; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).”

He continues, “there is no exhortation to establish peace because it has been done in Christ. Nor is there an exhortation to organize unity because this has been accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Instead, Paul’s concern is to preserve, maintain, or protect that unity.”

In Ephesians 4:7-13 Paul continues his train of thought on Christian unity, but this time he does so by emphasising our diversity. We have different gifts and callings, but we are to use them for the good of the one body. Thus biblical unity is expressed in diversity.

As John Stott comments, this unity “is not to be misconstrued as a lifeless or colourless uniformity. We are not to imagine that every Christian is an exact replica of every other, as if we had all been mass-produced in some celestial factory. On the contrary, the unity of the church, far from being boringly monotonous, is exciting in its diversity. This is not just because of our different cultures, temperaments and personalities … but because of the different gifts which Christ distributes for the enrichment of our common life.”

Christian unity then is an important biblical theme which all of us must take with utmost seriousness. One of the key marks of the Christian is the love we have for one another. It is to be nothing less than the love which God in Christ sheds on us. But of equal importance is biblical truth, which is the subject of Part Two of this article:

billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-two/

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4 Responses to On Truth and Unity, Part One

  • Bill,

    We can be uncompromising in our Christian beliefs and equally charitable to fellow Christians simultaneously. It is not difficult; respect is the key. Within a family there may well be diverse views on matters, even politics, but familial love overcomes the potential for conflict.

    As a youngster I read a book on the customs of an African village. I am unable to recall if it was factual. But it had a point to make. As you know it is our custom to say “Good morning” or “G’day” or suchlike in greeting one another. This village had a custom that in the morning when coming across another for the first time that day to say to the other “I see you”. It was an acknowledgement that the other was a person deserving of respect simply because they are a person. This “I see you” underlines our Christian respect for each other whilst acknowledging that there are diverse beliefs. Our particular Christian beliefs are not enhanced or strengthened by being disrespectful, belligerent, bellicose and disparaging of and towards another Christian.

    In a nutshell we are obliged to remain true to our own Christian beliefs but at the same time be loving and respectful of other Christians.

    John FG McMahon

  • Thanks John

    Generally speaking you are right: we are to show love and respect to others. But there are in fact numerous times when both our Lord and his disciples seemed to be anything but respectful or polite. There are times when they were downright impolite and quite harsh to others. Many examples are found in the New Testament: Matt 3:7; Matt 16:4; Matt 16:23; Luke 12:20; Luke 13:32; John 8:4; Acts 20:29; Acts 23:3; Phil 3:2; 2 Tim 3:6-8; Titus 1:15-16; 2 Pet 2:22. These are some pretty belligerent and confrontational passages. More could be mentioned.

    The point is, biblical love is never sloppy and sentimental. It takes seriously error and falsehood, and challenges these things in no uncertain terms. Sometimes core beliefs are so important, that to deny them places one in real jeopardy, and can earn the holder of such false beliefs stern rebuke and judgment. It does not get much stronger than what we read in Gal. 1:6-9.

    So sometimes a very strong word is required. But your point is taken.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The unity that Jesus refers to in John 17v20,21 has to be thought through more carefully. Jesus says, ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one …’

    The best reading of the text is that Jesus is praying for the unity of the apostles and those who will believe in Him through their message. In other words it’s a prayer that believers in the 21st Century like us will be one with the apostles, that we will take un the apostolic message and not deviate from it. There can be no unity where people reject the truth as handed down to us by the apostles. And that handed down truth is God’s Word.

    Andrew Campbell

  • Thanks Andrew
    Quite right.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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