How do we achieve unity in the church?

Jeremy Sarber

We hear unity promoted a lot these days. You’ve probably seen the Coexist” bumper stickers. People seem to have a fairy-tale notion that every religion on earth can somehow join together in perfect harmony. Christians and Muslims, believers and unbelievers, Protestants and Catholics— We can all set aside our differences, join hands, and live in peaceful unity.

Twenty years ago, Max Lucado called on 40,000 pastors at a conference to stop criticizing one another and ask for forgiveness. He urged them to take Communion together. He said we’re all sailing, both Protestants and Catholics, on the same ship with Jesus as our captain. I suppose if Luther and Calvin had been there, he would have told them to apologize to the pope.

Can a believer be in unity with an unbeliever? Can a Christian be in unity with an antichrist? Can a Protestant be in unity with a Roman Catholic? Can a Baptist be in unity with a Methodist? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. All of them require a bit more information. For instance, what do we mean by unity? Many of us are required to work side by side with unbelievers at our jobs. That may be a form of unity, but it’s not the kind of unity the Bible promotes.

Remember that behavior flows from theology. Before we talk about maintaining the unity of the Spirit, we need to talk about the unity of the Spirit itself (Eph 4:3). What does that mean? It is because we have the unity of the Spirit that we are instructed to maintain it in the bond of peace. We can’t maintain something we don’t already possess. We are not told to create unity but maintain the unity which the Spirit has already given us.

Briefly, let’s go back to Ephesians 2. Paul says:

For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18-22)

In Ephesians 3, he says:

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6)

The unity that Paul mentions in Ephesians 4 has already been described in the previous chapters. He’s not talking about organized unity. He’s not promoting community efforts where we join together with just anyone and everyone for one cause or another. He’s not telling us to slap a Coexist” sticker on our cars. He is speaking of the inner, universal unity of the Spirit by which every Christian believer is bound together. It comes from the inside, manifesting itself through such qualities as humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearing love.

We can’t create spiritual unity. Only the Spirit of God can do that. Elsewhere, Paul says, For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (1Co 12:13). Later in the chapter, he says, As it is, there are many parts, yet one body (1Co 12:20).

Who did Jesus pray for the night of his arrest? I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (Jn 17:9). Then, he prayed, I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you (Jn 17:20, 21). He prayed for the unity of believers. He prayed for the unity of God’s redeemed people saved by his grace.

Here’s the point. We can’t accomplish anything more than the Spirit has already accomplished. We are told to walk worthy of our calling. In other words, we are to balance the scale. On one side, the Spirit has baptized all believers into one body. On the other side, we are to live so that our behavior aligns with what the Spirit has already done. Our responsibility is to maintain or preserve that spiritual unity through our humility, gentleness, patience, and love. We are called to show the world our oneness in him and one another.

In short, the bond which preserves our unity is peace. Consider what Paul says in Colossians 3:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” he says. It is that peace which manifests itself through compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, and so on. It produces a love between us that binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

The church can have no greater testimony than unity which is not something we can plan or create. No activism, program, or conference can initiate the kind of profound unity Paul is describing. We are supernaturally joined together by hearts which have been turned to Christ. It is the Spirit who draws us to him and, consequently, one another.

Isn’t it incredible how two or more people, who seem to have nothing in common, can instantly enjoy deep, meaningful fellowship? What brings them together? It is Christ. They are joined by a spiritual, eternal union which transcends any and all superficial differences between them.

Look around the church. How many of us would be close friends who meet together every week if not for our faith in Christ?