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

By Ron Halbrook

In the First Century, brethren came face to face with this question, “What of Christians who were Jewish returning to the Old Law? How should such be viewed? Are such brethren safe-perhaps ‘safe in prospect’ or hope-since the Old Law recognized the same God as the New?” In the first part of the Hebrew letter, the writer taught that to have God, one must have Christ, and to have Christ one must obey all the words of His law. “God . . . hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son . . . . Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” The writer said “every transgression and disobedience” was punished under the Old Law, and assures us the likelihood of escaping punishment for violating the New is even less! “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him” (Heb. 1:1-2:4).

The writer warned that even God’s people can be guilty of unbelief by continuing in sin; those who do not hear God’s voice and obey “.the word of God” cannot enter into the heavenly rest (chs. 3-4). The writer exalted the New Covenant in all its glory, warning again and again that those who “have tasted the good word of God” but who violate it without repentance shall come to a horrible end; “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the diving God” (chs. 5-10). The brethren were reminded that “without faith it is impossible to please” God, and by reference to great men and women of faith in the Old Testament were reminded also that the faith which pleases God is that which obeys Him. “By faith Abraham . . . obeyed” (Heb. 11). The conclusion contains a prayer that God will ‘,’make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ” (13:20-21). Only those Jewish Christians who continued to obey God’s Word maintained unity with the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and all the saints!

Among other things, James addressee) himself to this question, “Can the church show respect of persons?” James said brethren must not only look into, hear, and understand God’s word, they must obey it; those who think otherwise are “deceiving your own selves” (1:2127). “The royal law” requires love of fellow man without “respect of persons”-and “whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Those who will be’ “judged by the law of liberty” must show love and mercy to all men without partiality. James demolished the self-deception of one who argued that he had faith and was justified without all this attention to strict statutes, rules, and laws. “. . . can faith save him? . . . faith without works is dead …. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (ch. 2). No, brethren who violate the apostolic teaching have no hope of justification. Those who “err from the truth” are not covered by grace; each one must be brought back into grace and unity by being converted “from the error of his way” (5:19-20).

Other issues were met, by 1, 2, 3 John and Jude. A major one was, “Can we know God or have His grace and not keep His commandments?” Some claimed to be “in the know”-seeing great truths missed by others, looking into deep mysteries perceived by the initiate. Therefore, they were on a high plane of knowledge and fellowship with God and were not bound to observe strictly every detail of the Inspired Message.

Oh, how John and Jude exploded the proud. fancies of these “knowing” ones! These lordly princes of knowledge who claimed to be ,above the law and sin were sinning every time they said they had no sin! Further, there was no forgiveness for them because their cock-eyed theories prevented them from confessing, repenting of, and repudiating their sins-they would not meet the conditions of forgiveness. Their “light” was darkness; by thinking they could continue in sin without breaking the unity,, they made themselves “of the devil.” All their “knowing” was a farce: “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Both doctrinally and in actual practice, these “knowing” ones turned the’ truth in-side-out and up-sidedown. They perverted both the place of Christ personally and the place of his Inspired Message in the scheme of redemption. They did not know how to love either God or their brethren, and were walking in “the spirit of error” while claiming “higher truth.” The apostolic teaching was the true test of Light, knowing God, Love, and Faith; maintaining unity with the Father and the Son depended upon continuing in the apostolic teaching, “The Doctrine of Christ” (1 Jn. 1:1-3; 2:3-6; 4:1-6; 5:1-3; 2 Jn. 9; Jude 3, 17-21).

“How shall churches be organized?” This question was answered for First Century saints by the letters to Titus and Timothy. By the inspired instructions in the letter to Titus, Paul revealed how Titus was to “set in order the things that are wanting” among the churches of Crete. Men were not left to build their own ecclesiastical pyramids and to set the bounds of their own authority. Elders and deacons were to be ordained in- each church, which in itself .indicated the sphere of their activity (not to mention other references which state the limit of that sphere; cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Strict qualifications for the office and work of elder were given both to Titus and Timothy. Immediately after discussing some of these matters on church organization, Paul said, “These things write I unto thee . . . that thou may know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15-16). The things written were to be strictly observed: that was the basis of .unity on the question of church organization.

When the book of revelation was written, brethren were being forced to face this very practical issue, “Can we accommodate ourselves to the world in time of persecution?” The “record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ” which John gave was the very word of God-not mere theological theorizing. “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein. . .” (1:1-3). He admonished the saints to be unswervingly faithful, not to accommodate, not to compromise; warned of false doctrine, smug indifference, and refusal to repent of sin; gave a panoramic view of the eventual victory of Christ and His servants, and of the sure defeat coming to the devil and his angels. John concluded with an appeal for men to “do his commandments” and a fearful warning not to “add unto these things” nor “take away from the words of the book of this prophecy” (22:14-19). Unity and victory was for those who continued to obey, defeat and death for those who disobeyed. There was no middle ground, no room for compromise or accommodation-no matter how fiercely the battle raged.

What About Today?

We have demonstrated at some length that obedience in faith to the inspired message was necessary to maintain unity in the first century. What about today? Will it still work? Faith can give only one answer: “Yes!” As has been often said but too little observed in practice: God’s plan will still work if we will still work God’s plan.

In matters of faith and practice necessary to salvation, we can “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. 1:10). We can still maintain unity with “both the Father and the Son” by abiding “in the doctrine of Christ.” But “whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ hath not God” (2 Jn. 9). We can and must “fulfill the law of Christ” by bearing “one another’s burdens,” while at the same’ time earnestly contending “for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Gal. 6:2; Jude 3).

On the other hand, we dare not try to create or maintain an unholy unity in the bonds of iniquity-either by faith or practice-with those who “pervert the gospel of Christ.” Paul warned, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9). In view of the admonitions contained in these and similar passages, Moses E. Lard asked, “Is it true . . . that all Christians cannot see alike? It is a humiliating fact, I grant, that they will not see alike, but a grand lie that they cannot” (Lard’s Quarterly, Vol. I (1865), p. 253).

“But,” someone objects, “when the Bible is made the standard of unity, it divides people.” Yes, indeed, any standard of unity is also a standard of division! C. C. Morrison, liberal Disciple of Christ, in The Unfinished Reformation complained about the Bible dividing people; Lanny Hunter, liberal member of a Church of Christ, in the June 1974 issue of Mission picked up the same cry. Whatever standard they propose will be a standard of division to all who do not accept it, so the only question is whether we shall have a divine standard of unity (which separates those who do not think it is a good standard) or a human standard (which will also separate).

Yet another brother thinks that our language is not pure, but is crude and misleading, when we claim the Bible is the basis of unity. He says it is not “strictly true that the Bible is the basis upon which we are to unite” and that ‘not “even the plainest New Testament teachings are the basis of unity” (Edward Fudge, June 20, 1968 and May 1, 1969 Gospel Guardian). He proposes Christ as the basis of unity. Whatever such nebulous talk means, it is obvious our brother is uncomfortable with the plea which makes the apostolic teaching the basis of unity. He is making “Christ as the basis of unity” mean something less than the apostolic teaching; such a road leads to making less and less of the apostolic teaching necessary for unity. The truth is that we have unity with Christ the same way sheep have unity with their shepherd. “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:4-5). When one strays from the apostolic teaching, he strays from the voice of Christ. Unity in Christ means unity upon His Word. It was so in the New Testament days, and the restoration plea simply calls men to return to that premise.

Another pleads that Romans 14 allows doctrinal diversity in faith and practice. The truth is that the chapter deals with matters in which God has neither required nor prohibited: The same book, in chapter 16:17-18, warns that we cannot teach anything as a condition of salvation and fellowship which God has not bound in the Inspired Message.

In short, brethren, the inspired book teaches this: The unity of Ephesians 4 is maintained by the sound preaching of 2 Timothy 4. That was God’s plan in .the First Century. He has given no notification of its change in the Twentieth Century. We dare not risk our souls (and the souls of others!) on any other platform. In God’s blessed Son, in His Holy,Word, let us maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In the Twentieth as in the ‘First Century, there is one Lord, there is one faith.

(To be Continued)

Truth Magazine XXI:38, pp. 598-600
September 29, 1977