Weekly Bible Study
Tuesday 22nd September 2020
Topic: New Testament Teaching on the Unity of the Church
Text: John 17:21-23
There is a strong emphasis in the New Testament on the unity of the Church. Jesus’ goal is that “there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16) and he prays for all future believers in John 17:21. This unity will be a witness to unbelievers. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (1 Cor. 1:2)
Then Paul writes to the Corinthian Church, “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10,13) He encourages the Philippians, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). He tells the Ephesians that Christians are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), and that the Lord gives gifts to the church “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 fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13).
Paul commanded the church to live in unity because there already is an actual spiritual unity in Christ which exists among genuine believers. He says, “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4–6) Though the body of Christ consists of many members, those members are all “one body” (1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12–26).
Due to their jealousy to protect this unity of the church, the New Testament writers give strong warnings against those who cause divisions: “I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” (Rom. 16:17–18)
Paul opposed Peter to his face because he separated from Gentile Christians and began eating only with Jewish Christians (Gal. 2:11–14). Those who promote “strife . . . dissension, party spirit . . .shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:20–21). Jude also warns that those who “set up divisions” are “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.” (Jude 19)
Consistent with this New Testament emphasis on the unity of believers is the fact that the direct commands to separate from other people are always commands to separate from unbelievers, not from Christians with whom one disagrees. When Paul says, “therefore come out from them, and be separate from them” (2 Cor. 6:17), it is in support of his opening command of that section, “do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” (2 Cor. 6:14)
Paul tells Timothy that he is to “avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:5), referring not to believers but to unbelievers, those who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” (2 Tim. 3:4–5) He says that these people are “men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith.” (2 Tim. 3:8)
Of course, there is a kind of church discipline that requires separation from an individual who is causing trouble within the church (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:11–13), and there may be other reasons for which Christians conclude that separation is required, but it is important to note here, in discussing the unity of the church, that there are no direct New Testament commands to separate from Christians with whom one has doctrinal differences (unless those differences involve such serious heresy that the Christian faith itself is denied). In addition to working for the purity of the visible church, we are also to work for the unity of the visible church.