Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Two Senses of Christian Unity

In my preparations for a talk on "The Unity of the Spirit," I've come across some things that have caught my interest and encouraged me. Some of this isn't so new to me. It's just what I happen to be focused on and learning about right now. What follows are some of my working notes. I'd welcome your responses.

Christian Unity as a Good to be Preserved

Although the New Testament has a lot to say and imply about Christian unity (John 17:20-23, for example), the word "unity" (henotes) occurs only two times: in Ephesians 4, verses 3 and 13.

As many have pointed out, in Ephesians 4 Paul is just getting started with an extended section of exhortation. Already in chapters 1-3, he has told his Christian readers what God has done in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Now, in chapters 4-6, Paul goes on to tell them what they should and must do in response to the loving mercy and grace of God.Part of the instruction about "worthy living" (4:1) includes this in 4:3:

"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."

The unity of the church is here called "the unity of the Spirit" because God the Father, in Christ Jesus, has created such unity by his Spirit. Christian unity, therefore, is God's creation. It is not, nor could it ever be, produced through the effort of sinful people. Instead, we experience and know unity with God and with other Christians only because it has been given to us through grace.

However, although Christian unity is not produced by Christians, it must be maintained and preserved by them. In fact, according to verse 3, Christians are to spare no effort in the maintenance of this gift they have received from God. It is both urgent and important.

Paul describes the means by which Christians maintain their unity: they do this "through the bond of peace." Jesus Christ himself is the peace of the church (Eph. 2:14-18). Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is present, you will find among other things, peace (Galatians 5:22). By imitating Christ, by staying in step with God's Spirit, Christians live lives of peace and reconciliation.

Christian unity is a good that must be preserved.

Christian Unity as a Goal to be Pursued

As Paul goes on in Ephesians 4, he reinforces his point about unity with the impressive list sometimes called "the seven ones". It's found in verses 4-6. But then, he immediately turns to the truth about diversity in the church:

"But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it" (verse 7). When he says "as Christ apportioned it" he clearly has in mind the varied gifts of different sorts of people in the church. And it begins with leaders.

Christ has given "some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers" (verse 11). The common task of these different kinds of leaders is "to prepare God's people for works of service" which has the purpose of building up the body of Christ (verse 12).

But such a purpose and effect has its own goal: "until we all attain
  • to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God
  • to the mature person
  • to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ"
(Eph. 4:13, translation by Andrew T. Lincoln)
Here, Christian unity is clearly something that Christians strive to and "attain" or "reach" (NIV). Unity is not merely a good that Christians receive and maintain. It is also a goal that they pursue and achieve through a deeper knowledge and appreciation for what God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ.

Interestingly enough, in that great prayer of Jesus', his petition for future followers includes these words: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:23).

Christian unity is a goal to be pursued.

1 comment:

Matt said...


Great thoughts. Like I mentioned before you just can't leave the Jew/Gentile issues out of this. When we hear unity today we think of the denominational problem. When they heard it they thought racially. In Acts the thing that brings unity is the Spirit. The Spirit is the sign of God's acceptance and prompting that shows the Jewish Christians it is okay to baptize samaritans (Acts 8) and Gentiles (Acts 10). I think that enriches our view on unity as we try to see it from their point of view. As I mentioned in the previous post, Galatians (and Romans) are key on this issue.

You are probably aware of the Edict of Claudius (AD 54?) and its impact on the background of Romans. If you aren't, let me know and I will give a brief overview and what that has to do with unity. Sounds like you are off to a good start!