Unity (I): How Unity was Maintained in the First Century

By Ron Halbrook

No one desires unity more than the children of God! God’s people desire unity with Communists and other atheists, with pagans and occultists, with denominational people and irreligious people, with members of the Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ, with people of all nations and races and continents and climes. God’s children seek unity with rich and poor, educated and uneducated, high and low, kings and servants.

But there is a very hard question which must be faced! What is the basis of that unity which God teaches us to seek with all men? Are we simply to find the lowest common denominator which might be shared with all these peoples, and unite upon that? Or, the lowest common denominator with some one or two groups of them? Very simply, Christ prayed that His own disciples might be sanctified and unified “through thy truth: thy word is truth.” Then He added, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:17-21).

No power, premise, or philosophy in heaven or on earth is approved by God as the basis of unity . . . none except His own truth. The gospel of Christ is “the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” Men may lose confidence in that revelation, despise it, call it foolish or weak. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:18-25). God’s truth will unite all men in God’s Son. When God’s children preach God’s truth in all its fulness, they are seeking unity with all men. Everyone who obeys that truth is united with all the family of God in Jesus Christ.

After arising from the dead, Jesus sent the Apostles into all the world. “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16). Shortly, the day of Pentecost came and the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to declare “the wonderful works of God.” Three thousand souls repented of every sin and were baptized in the name of Christ for the remission of those sins. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved . . . . And believers were the more added to the Lord” (Acts 2:47; 5:14). Obedience to divine truth united men in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:1-47).

How can we maintain unity with God and His family once it has been established? When the church was under the guidance of inspired men, how did it maintain unity as various issues and problems arose? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God . . . that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The scriptures answer this question as they do every religious issue. A study of the New Testament reveals that the problem of disunity raised by various issues was met by a solution provided in the inspired message, with the result that unity was maintained by all who accepted that message. Issues . . . Inspired Message . . . Unity. That was the pattern. As we consider the issues that arose to threaten the unity of God’s family, we will notice that the inspired message was a sufficient basis of unity for those who walked by faith.

An issue arose regarding the Christian’s relation to the Law of Moses. Now, if a man wanted to be circumcised, embrace certain distinctives of Jewish nationality, and even devote certain days for special devotion and reverence to God, that was his own personal prerogative. But when men began to preach these things as a part of the Gospel and to therefore bind them as matters of salvation and fellowship, the sword of the Spirit was drawn. The issue was pressed by certain Jews: must Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Old Law to be saved?

The inspired men stood together and spoke in one united voice by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15, Gal. 2). They publicly refuted the Jews who were spreading this doctrinal error which bound Gentiles under Moses’ Law. Peter argued that God necessarily implied that the Gentiles were saved without the Old Law when He gave “them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us.” In that way, God showed there was no difference between Jew and Gentile, thus all men could purify “their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7-11). Barnabas and Paul declared “what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them,” thus showing God approved the apostolic practice of preaching the very same gospel to the Gentiles which was preached to the Jews-which gospel did not include the Old Law (Acts 15:12). James produced a direct statement of divine revelation from “the words of the prophets” which showed that God had always planned to save all men in the New Covenant of Christ (Acts 15:16-18). Finally, an inspired letter was sent out affirming that the Gentiles could be saved without the Law of Moses. The letter allowed no diversity on that subject (no “unity in diversity”) and condemned men for binding where God did not bind. The silence of inspired men in not having spoken what the Jews were teaching was held sacred-“to whom we gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:22-32). Along with the books of Romans and Galatians, inspired men sought to stop the mouths of false teachers on this subject-even to the point of charging them with preaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9). This inspired revelation was the basis for maintaining unity with God and His true family. Those who continued to “dissent” and appeal for “tolerance” and “brotherly diversity” were granted no concessions or compromises, neither in heaven nor on earth. They were fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4). They had broken the unity, they were out of the fellowship of God and the saints (Rom. 16:17-18).

Another issue which arose was this one: can we know exactly when the day of Christ is at hand? Paul dealt with the coming of Christ in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. He cautioned the brethren to “be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” (2 Thess. 2:2). It is very possible that the error being taught on that subject contributed to the attitude and conduct of those who were “working not at all, but are busybodies” (3:11). At any rate, those who were not working and all others were obligated to “line themselves up” with God’s revelation rather than expecting God’s revelation to make room for their false ideas. “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Those who failed to do this did not have the Father or the Son; those who separated themselves from God were to find themselves separated from the family of God on earth: “And if any man obey not our word by this, epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14). Unity was based on conformity to God’s revelation. It was possible to know whether a man held “the traditions” and obeyed “this epistle,” because the revelation was adapted to man’s understanding. Paul left no room for diversity based upon such skeptical expressions as, “Whose interpretation of the ‘traditions’ or ‘epistle’?”

Several factors contributed to a serious threat to the unity of God’s people at Corinth. If all the problems and issues at Corinth could be boiled down to one question, it would be, “What shall a divided, weak church do?” There were problems over preachers, several moral and ethical issues, some doctrinal questions, differences over how to conduct public worship, and questions about such mundane affairs as marriage and feasts. Early in the first letter Paul referred to the unity shared by saints in Christ “the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord”-and then immediately issued a clarion call for brethren to maintain that unity with the Lord and one another. “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:9-10).

Paul’s letters made plain that he did not mean for them to just “get together” they best way they could find. The solution to each of their problems and questions was attention to the inspired letters of Paul. He assured them that what he has taught and was still teaching them was also taught by Timothy, whom he was sending to them and “who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). Paul commanded them to sever from fellowship one man, said they were not following Christ unless they followed Paul’s example, and announced divine “condemnation” could be expected upon those who did not receive his teaching (1 Cor. 5:3-5; 11:1; 11:34). He was not writing mere helpful “suggestions,” but “the commandments of the Lord” (14:37). Nothing was said about part of his writings being “gospel” and part being “doctrine”-with conformity required in one and diversity allowed in the other-but appealed for obedience to all of his writings without distinction: “stand fast in the faith” (16:13). In the second letter, he commanded those who had submitted to the first; they had been sorry, repented, and made correction in keeping with Paul’s instructions. Concerning those who “have sinned” without making correction, he warns that he will arrive shortly and, “I will not spare.” Therefore, all at Corinth were admonished, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” If they were not in obedience to Paul’s instructions, they were not in obedience to Jesus Christ himself and therefore would be rejected (“reprobates”) (2 Cor. 7:8-11; 12:20-13:5). The basis of Approval, Acceptance, and Unity was the inspired message!

The brethren at Colosse, and others, were faced with a number of questions which are dealt with in Colossians. “Shall we make concessions to human philosophy, keep the Old Law, worship angels, be ascetics?” Before dealing with these and other matters, Paul reminded the Colossians of their hope and where they learned it “the hope which is laid up for you in heard before in the word of the They must “continue in the faith and be not moved away from the exalted Christ, then spoke of “Christ in you, the hope of glory; whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom” (1:5, 23, 27-29). Notice that Paul used terms like the word, the truth, the gospel, the faith, warning, teaching without distinction-whenever he was teaching and whatever he was teaching, he was preaching Christ.

In Christ as revealed in Paul’s letter was “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” They must continue in Paul’s teaching, all of it. “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, as ye have been taught …. And ye are complete in him” (2:3-10). This would exclude human philosophy, the Old Law, along with all “the commandments and doctrines of men” (2:8-23). Also, the brethren must live pure and holy lives, setting their mind “on things above, not on things on the earth” (chapts. 3-4). In other words, they were to hold fast the Divine Revelation. They were not to compromise or concede anything to the forces of error. Maintaining unity in God’s family depended upon strict adherence to the Inspired Message. That was the only way they could abide in Christ, maintain their hope, and be “complete in him.”

Truth Magazine XXI: 37, pp. 585-587
September 22, 1977