Unity (III): Concepts of Unity through the Centuries (1)

By Ron Halbrook

No one desires unity with all men more than Christians do. But, we are not taught by God to seek unity with others on the basis of the lowest common denominator. Upon what basis shall we seek unity among religious people? Many concepts have been held through the centuries.

God’s way for unity is found in His Word. His Word reveals His thoughts and ways, which are far above man’s; it will accomplish His purpose, which also is far above man’s (Isa. 55:8-11). Man’s unity with God in past ages has depended upon man’s faithful obedience to the Word of God. Likewise, men have had unity with one another when they have obeyed God’s Word. In the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam and Eve, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Disobedience separated man from God; Adam and Eve well understood this; for when they sinned and then “heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden,” they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen. 3:8).

God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, commanding, “Every man child among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:9-14). When Shechem and his people requested unity with God’s people, including the privilege of intermarriage, the sons of Jacob said, “If ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised; then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people” (Gen. 34:15-16). Though the offer of unity was insincere and deceitful, still the principle announced was valid. Being God’s people, being one people, involved the covenant of circumcision. Obedience to God’s Word was imperative under the Law of Moses for the unity of God’s people. The Lord told Moses to tell Israel, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: . . . and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).

The unity of men with God and each other in this age of His grace depends upon faithful obedience to God’s Word. The New Testament provides for unity in Christ upon the basis of the Word of God. In His personal ministry, Jesus taught men to expect this. He said sheep must follow the voice of the shepherd exclusive of all other voices, and that those who would be in his family must “do the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Jn. 10:1-4; Matt. 12:46-49), Just before ending His personal ministry, Jesus prayed for the same unity. He prayed the apostles might be kept from evil through the Father’s name, that they might “be one,” that they might “have my joy,” that they might be sanctified. How was this to be done? “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” “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” (Jn. 17).

When Jesus Christ sat upon the throne at God’s right hand, He inaugurated this unity upon the Word of God. He sent the Spirit to proclaim, “God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized . . . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:36-47). All who obeyed the Word were added to the same thing, the same body, the same church-added together-UNITED. As Jesus Christ continued his reign, He taught Christians to maintain unity upon “the word of truth,” upon “the foundation,” in “the gospel,” and in “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 1:13; 2:20; 3:8; 4:1-7). As various errors arose to challenge His supremacy, Christ continued to unfold the inspired message until it was completed, to supply our every need (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Upon the Word of God, God’s people can still have unity in Christ.

Man’s ways for unity supplant God’s way. But the ways which seem right to men are “the ways of death,” for “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Prov. 14:12; Jer. 10:23). Before the First Century ended, men were beginning to substitute their ways for God’s way. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that men would arise “speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them;” he exalted God’s Word as the only protection (Acts 20:29-32). Paul told the Thessalonians this spirit of lawlessness was already working-“for the mystery of iniquity doth already work”-and he assured the young preacher Timothy, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (2 Thess. 2:7; 1 Tim. 4:1). The young preacher was urged to faithfully “preach the word,” “for the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Similarly, Peter reminded the brethren, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1).

What are some of the concepts of men substituted for the truth of God on the question of unity? Some of them overlap with others, some grow out of others, and all of them have this in common: they are human, not divine. These concepts will be stated in brief summary form only.

Unity through Councils

Bishops from local churches in certain regions met to discuss common problems during the 200’s A.D. Finally, in 325 A.D. the first so-called ecumenical (i.e. general or world-wide) council was held in Nicaea, Asia Minor. A great many church councils have been held since then, trying to maintain or create unity among professed Christians. The last major Roman Catholic council was the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Martin Luther rebelled against several important Roman Catholic doctrines in the 1500’s in Germany. He made a formal appeal for a general council on November 28, 1518, in an effort to vindicate his stand. Protestant Reformers and the denominations which came after them continued to seek unity through the council method.

Unity through Creeds

Councils often announced their conclusions about doctrinal issues in the form of creeds. “Creed” comes from the Latin word credo, “I believe.” Popes, emperors, and civil legislative bodies have gotten involved in the process of publishing creeds. Creeds are meant to be summary statements of truth, around which people can rally in the effort to have unity. The Nicene Creed was given to the world in 325 A.D. by the Council of Nicaea. It has not only been used by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, it has also been retained by many Protestant denominations as a standard of unity. Some religious leaders in search of unity today are proposing the Nicene Creed as a piece of the unity puzzle in plans which are being formulated, since it existed before Romans, Greeks, or Protestants had become separate bodies. An early Reformation creed was the Augsburg Confession of 1530. This was the first Protestant confession of faith and represented the Lutheran branch of Reformation. The Lutherans and Zwinglians could not agree on this formulation. Melancthon revised it in an effort to make a standard acceptable to the Calvinists, but they eventually published their own creed-the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647. Denominational creeds are still used today, though they seem to attract far less loyalty than they once did.

Unity through Some Leader Who Becomes a Symbol of Unity

Emperor Constantine was not even a nominal Christian when he arranged the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., but he was looked up to by many church leaders and he did want to see the Christians settle their disputes. He became something of a symbol of unity as the prime mover behind the Nicene Council, but was nothing like the religious counterpart of the emperors which would come on the scene. Just as the emperors were symbols of civic unity in the Roman Empire, the Pope became the symbol of religious unity in the so-called Western Church (as distinguished from the Eastern or Greek Orthodox). The Bishop of Rome eventually took the title “pope” and claimed both spiritual and temporal authority as the personal representative of God. The popes are still “the center of unity” in Roman Catholicism. Other religious groups have relied on this approach-allowing some dominant figure to be the center of unity no matter what he said, how bad he contradicted himself, or how he lived. Classic examples are the Mormons with Joseph Smith, the Seventh Day Adventists with Ellen G. White, the Christian Scientists with Mary Baker Eddy. A more modern example is the Garner Ted Armstrong cult of the Seventh Day Church of God.

Unity through Force

Roman Catholicism initiated military crusades against certain early centers of religious dissent and reform, as against the Albigenses in France. As the Protestant Reformation picked up steam, Catholicism responded with the Inquisition-a systematic attempt to either convert or exterminate as many Reformers and their followers as possible. People were held incommunicado, tried without opportunity for defense, tortured, strangled, and burned at the stake by the forces of the Inquisition; which were especially strong in Spain. But the Protestant Reformation sometimes resorted to force as well. John Calvin warned Michael Servetus not to return to Geneva; when he did, he was imprisoned, tried, and burned at the stake. During the years that the English Reformation sought to establish itself, both Protestants and Roman Catholics were persecuted depending on who was controlling the civil power at any given time.

Fortunately, this approach to unity has largely fallen out of favor in many parts of the world, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Roger Williams is a manifestation of the disillusionment with unity through force. He came to New England, arriving at Boston on February 5, 1631, to escape persecution in England. His The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644) and The Bloudy Tenent yet More Bloudy (1652) are classic statements against the use of force in religious affairs. This method is excluded in countries which recognize separation of church and state, but many millions of people still live in countries which resort to force even in religious matters.

Unity of the Mystics

There were early Roman or Latin mystics, some of which became the subjects of fabulous traditions. More accurate information is available about more modern mystics. Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), a German, taught that the true church is in the heart and therefore not a visible entity. The church was to him a hidden reality or “a universal Church of the Spirit.” The mystical approach to unity includes supernatural experiences and revelations; the unity, like the experiences, are known only to those who “have” it.

Invisible Unity

This overlaps with the former one, but there are many forms and concepts and ideas that qualify as the approach of invisible unity. The common idea undergirding them all is a denial of doctrinal or “outward” unity. This approach requires the acceptance of much outward diversity in faith and practice. Invisible unity is “unity in diversity.” The thing held in common is not the Bible or a creed or allegiance to some visible leader, but is generally something nebulous to be defined and expressed by each individual on his own. Perhaps this “something” will be called “the Spirit,” “the brotherhood of the inward man,” “a small, still voice,” “the church within,” “faith,” “the untapped resources of the human soul,” “loyalty to Christ, without reference to outward forms,” “the voice of God within,” “the light of conscience,” etc. Unity in (the specified nebulosity) will be affirmed in spite of different views on God or Christ or the church and diverse practices regarding church organization, worship, discipline, mission, etc. Of course, some groups are willing to let this invisible unity reach out further than others are. The denominational plea of “The Man, Not the Plan” is a common example; the whole point of unity on this basis is to create unity around expression of loyalty to Jesus Christ in spite of diversity on how to come to Christ, how to obey Christ, and how to be loyal to Christ. Where there is visible diversity on the “plan,” there can be invisible unity accomplished through inward allegiance to something called “the man.” The Jesus Movement and the Pentecostal Movement are varieties of invisible unity. This whole approach is to affirm there is unity where there is obviously disunity; it is convenient, for all one must do is close his eyes to the obvious disunity. With his eyes thus closed, he is ready to say, “I see no disunity; what I see is unity.” It is much simpler than grappling with the real disunity!

Truth Magazine XXI: 39, pp. 614-615
October 6, 1977