Elements Of Religious Unity
Daniel H. King
Recently there was a mixup by the technician at the local radio station and our broadcast was replaced by that from a Presbyterian church in town. The program consisted of an appeal for cooperative participation in a "campaign for Christ" which was to culminate in a week of evangelistic messages delivered by Leighton Ford. Although we thought this simple switching of tapes was inadvertent, still we felt compelled to discuss the subject on our next broadcast, since our listeners had been exposed to this appeal. Since it addresses itself to several things which we need to be constantly reminded of, we offer below a summary of our remarks.
Some will question why we bothered to reply to the gentleman's thoughts, and may impugn our motives for so doing. These days it is not considered polite to be controversial. Let it be understood that it is not that we enjoy controversy. In fact, we consider it something to be avoided whenever and wherever possible. Personally, we feel a strong aversion to it. But sometimes it is not best to avoid it. No doubt Paul loved peace and hated a fight as much as anyone, but when forced to do so, he stood his ground, explaining that he did so, "that the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (Gal. 2:5). For truth to persist and thrive among the men of this generation, we must at times fight for it. It cannot fight for itself. And truth is of all things the most precious: "Buy the truth and sell it not" (Prov. 23:23). Jesus said, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8:32). The Bible declares the basis of judgment itself to be our spiritual heritage of revealed truth: "The judgment of God is according to truth" (Rom. 2:2).
We should therefore speak the truth in love, without regard for what people may think or how people may react (Eph. 4:15), and in spite of the fact that it may at times be controversial to speak it. It may even set us in the seemingly awkward predicament of reproving error held and preached by those who enjoy positions of prestige in the religious community. It is just such a predicament that we find ourselves today! But we consider that we are in the best of company. Jesus was just such a controversialist. His confrontations with the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees and other "establishment" religionists of His time are well known from the gospel accounts. While He did not go about "spoiling for a fight," as do some, still He was not a spiritual coward, as are others.
Importance of Unity
"How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." So wrote the Psalmist (122:1); and in so doing, he expressed the divine commitment to spiritual harmony. God despises the quarrelsome and factious attitude, as well as that man who makes it his characteristic trait of personality (Prov. 6:19; Tit. 3: 10). Nothing is more clearly taught in the Word of God.
I am impressed with the fact that our Savior included among His final supplications, just prior to His trial and death, a profoundly touching request for the unity of His followers. They had earlier struggled over who should be the greatest in His new kingdom, they had argued about who should sit at His right hand and His left in His throne of power. Therefore Jesus tenderly prayed, "That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me" (Jn. 17:21-22).
The New Testament doctrine of unity does not merely extend to this prayer of our Lord, it also takes the form of apostolic decree. Paul commanded it in 1 Corinthians 1:10: "Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; and that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment." It was God's intention that Christian people should dwell together in spiritual harmony and unity. It was also His purpose that they should work together toward common goals and purposes; "two are better than one," and "a threefold cord is not quickly broken" (Eccl. 4:9, 12).
But the unity in which God's people are to live and work is one based upon the truth, its possession and its pursuit. As Christ said in John 17:17, "Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth." We are not to fellowship or work with error, as Paul counseled in Ephesians 5:11 "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them. " Now this warning cannot apply to the social, academic, philosophical, economic, or to any other of the various types of mistaken notions men have fallen victim to. If it did, we would have to extricate ourselves from the world (Jn. 17:15; 1 Cor. 5: 10). It rather applies to religious error, to spiritual darkness. Simply put, it has in mind false doctrine. It is highly unlikely that we will be able to avoid coming into contact with many of the evils of this life, but in our endeavors in the spiritual realm we may choose our comrades-at-arms - and so must select them wisely!
The Problem With Crusades
The idea of people of all religious persuasions getting together is a marvelous one. We in the churches of Christ have been encouraging it and preaching it for some two hundred years now. But we have insisted that it be on the basis of truth and not of compromise. In other words, we cannot ignore our differences and put forward some champion as our spokesman unless he truly represents what we all stand for. And the problem is that we simply do not stand for the same things. We may have things in common, as we indeed do, but we also have many things about which we disagree. If these were things which we could view as simply matters of opinion and judgment, then we would be anxious to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into such a union of hearts and labors as a general "crusade" represents.
This is not what we have in the current instance, however. It is a "unity" that ignores major differences in faith, doctrine, and practice. Such disagreements are merely tucked away for a time. We consider this to be unity in compromise. The Lord could have had this with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Paul could have had it with the Judaizers. But neither did. The strength of their convictions precluded such a "fence mending" effort. We would feel ourselves traitors to their cause were we to do otherwise than take our stand with them.
Instead of unity in compromise, we in the churches of Christ have rather promoted unity in the one body of Christ, working together as Christians only, without the hindrance of denominational creeds, power structures and unscriptural practices and promotions. We have felt that this is the only true recipe for answering the prayer of our Lord: "that they all may be one as thou Father . . ."
We do not despair at the idea of unity, for we feel that the same Bible which demands it of God's children also provides the essential planks of its platform. Paul has revealed to us the key for being able to work and preach together in the form of seven "ones"; these he gives at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Ephesians (vv. 1-6): "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all."
The Apostle begins by stressing that the maintenance of unity is an element of walking worthily of the calling wherewith we are called. Too, he emphasizes that its attainment is the product of several virtues of the Christian spirit: lowliness and meekness, longsuffering, forbearance and love. Indeed, the seashores of history are strewn with the twisted wreckage of these grand elements of unity. They have been lost to personal and ecclesiastical pride or shipwrecked on the shoals of religious ambition. They are the hapless victims of the party spirit.
This list of seven "ones" describes heaven's ideal for the church. To think it unattainable or to satisfy ourselves with anything short of its attainment, would be to declare it a heavenly pipedream. We take it seriously. Paul says that there is:
1. One Body. the church is essentially one, not a hodgepodge of denominations, not a mysterious unity in diversity -but a real unity which is willing to sacrifice denominational titles and names in order to achieve oneness. Paul demanded that the Christians at Corinth put away their petty titles and party spirits, so as to make way for true unity: "Each one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized into the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:10). Here we have denominationalism in embryo. When confronted with it Paul decried it. How would he view it today? Why would he see it any differently?
2. One Spirit. the one Holy Spirit of God, the third person of the Godhead. He is not to be so lightly identified as He is when connected with the mere human emotionalism of today. Neither is He an inner voice leading different individuals and groups off in every direction, but the Spirit of Truth who revealed the Word of God (Jn. 16:13) and remains at work through the word of Truth; "Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (Jas. 1:21). This is the heart and soul of His continuing work among the sons of men!
3. One hope of your calling. that is the blessed hope of heaven - not the premillennial hope or dispensational hope, not the hope of a paradise earth, but the hope of 1 Thessalonians 4:16: "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord." This is the one hope that we are to cherish in our breasts. In sum, it is the hope of heaven.
4. One Lord. Jesus Christ. The Bible says He has all authority in Matthew 18:18. He must not be seen as an emasculated being, devoid of authority, but as the crowned King and Head over the church (1 Tim. 6:15). This is the Christ of Scripture! Many religious groups have boards, presidents, popes, councils, synods, or presbyteries that sit in His seat. They contend that the King reigns vicariously through them. Bible-believing people cannot be satisfied with that. How can we have unity and work together until and unless Jesus Christ is again seated on His throne in the church and all who would own Him as Savior prostrate themselves at His feet? As the Scripture has said: "he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:22).
5. One faith: this faith is the creed of the church. It is the one thing we must all believe and adhere to and even contend earnestly for (Jude 3). It was once for all delivered to the saints - once and for all time and once for all people. You will please note that it is described in this place in the singular number. It is one. It is not many. God is not the author of the religious confusion that currently exists over faith; it is man. With his human doctrines and creeds he befuddles both himself and those who attempt to know the truth: "In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9).
6. One baptism: here is a matter over which many religious people differ. But it is not one that can be neatly tucked away somewhere while we work as brethren and fellow laborers in the gospel of the Son of God. What does baptism accomplish? The Bible says it puts us "into Christ" (Gal. 3:27), that it assures us of "remission of sins" (Acts 2:38), and "washes away" our sins (Acts 22:16). We cannot agree that faith alone will save. The Word of God declares plainly that it does not (Jas. 2:24). In Bible times only adults were baptized. There is no evidence of sprinkling or pouring as a mode. People were always immersed or "buried" in baptism (Rom. 6:4). These issues must be dealt with and we must agree upon them or else we cannot work together. It is impossible for us even to consider each other as "brethren" unless we can be sure that this is what we are!
7. One God and Father of all. The final "one" of Paul's list is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He it is who authored the plan of human redemption. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift, the One whom we praise and adore as the Father of our spirits. It is He that we ever hope to please. And it is He whose will we hope to do. This is why we cannot, even in the name of unity and love, lay aside the sword of His Spirit, which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17), in order to embrace what we consider to be error. Jesus said we must love Him first and most of all; this is the greatest of all the commandments (Matt. 22:37). So, we dare not ignore what He commands, even if it costs us something which we prize as highly as we do fellowship and unity.
So, we say to all who are involved in the current effort: We love you and appreciate your desire to preach the gospel. We hope God will bless you in everything you do that is right and proper. But we cannot have fellowship with you in this effort, for, if the past is an accurate teacher, the whole counsel of God will not be preached in such a setting as this crusade.
Yet we could wish that the spirit of cooperativeness and love which attends to a time like this, would lead us all to lay aside our human doctrines and creeds and go by the Bible and the Bible alone. In this way, we might all be called Christians and Christians only, and so share the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" that Paul commended in Ephesians four.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 6, pp. 174-175, 182