“Endeavoring to Guard the Unity of the Spirit”

It is a cherished dictum that as Christians, we are a community of faith and therefore our unity is based on doctrine.  In fact, this very thing came up in a recent comment thread on another post here.  I want to make it clear I’m not taking a shot at any of you who’ve discussed that matter here.  I do, however, want to address the way this concept is often applied in the Christian world.

There’s an element of truth in the dictum, of course.  But as generally applied, it is absolute bushwa, and if you can’t smell the reek of brimstone about it, then your spiritual sniffer needs a tune-up.

In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul writes:

Therefore I, the Lord’s prisoner, beg you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We guard the unity, but it is the Spirit who joins us to Christ, who baptizes us into His body, and therefore it is the Spirit who creates the unity we have.  We just guard what the Spirit has already created.

Or rather, we don’t.

We pretend that the basis of our unity is propositions on paper, and then divide endlessly over every jot and tittle in the paperwork.  And not only do we not regret such divisions, we respect them.  We respect them so highly that when people in ministry have a personality conflict, they often find a doctrinal difference, fight about that, and then divide, ostensibly over the doctrine — and this procedure effectively makes the whole sordid affair immune to criticism.

“We had some doctrinal differences,” they say.

We nod sagely.  “Well, the basis for our unity is doctrine.”  We shrug and pat them on the shoulder.  “What else could you do?”

Brimstone.

*****

What we’re missing here, of course, is God.  Specifically, we have a common family as children of the same Father, we share a common redemption through the same High Priest, His Son, and we are baptized into a common body by the same Holy Spirit.

And we somehow think that with a 20-cent Bic pen and a sheet of notebook paper, someone that we know is a brother can scrawl out a bad proposition and sign his name to it, and that will overrule the sovereign grace of the Triune God.

What could we be thinking?  I’ll tell you.  God tells us that He has created unity, but in our heart of hearts, we don’t believe Him.  We believe in the kind of unity we can document in triplicate.

We walk by sight, and not by faith — isn’t that what that verse said?

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7 Responses to “Endeavoring to Guard the Unity of the Spirit”

  1. Gary says:

    Tim:
    I agree with your your explanation of Eph4:1-3 that God has produced a unity and that we are to guard it. I also agree that we believers have got some obvious problems with this, as with so many other things.

    I mentioned Eph4:13 to you in a previous comment and asked you what you thought of the timing of the “until” in the verse. I don’t think you answered me at the time. As I recall, I also once asked this question of our mutual language professor and likewise did not receive an answer.

    There are 2 unities in Eph4, one of the Spirit, and one of the Faith. One has been made and is having members added to it. One is qualified by “until” so it seems it has not yet taken place. So isn’t it saying that we’re to guard the unity until we reach the unity?

    I recall doing a study some time ago and seeing some fascinating things about the topic of “unity” but had to put it on an evergrowing list of topics to research. Have you researched the topic of “unity” in the Scriptures?

    What do you think “in the bond of peace” means in 4:3? Do you think “the bond” is used in other ways that might help us to fully understand this? And how about “peace”?

    I’m intrigued by what you’re trying to say about unity. I agree that God is telling us He has created a unity. I also agree that He is telling us to guard it as a part of walking worthy of our calling.

    I’m not certain I completely understand what you are saying as to just how we are to accomplish this guarding. I also am not certain how you would explain the realities of guarding a unity while we’re coming to a unity and whether the guarding/protecting of the unity might entail having to separate from some members of the one unity in order to come to the other unity.

    Just what is involved in guarding/protecting the unity God has created while we’re coming to the unity He’s still working with us to accomplish?

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary,

    I have done some research on unity, but not an exhaustive study. I try to model my own conduct on the conduct of Jesus, in His intramural disputes with other Jews, and the apostles, in their intramural disputes with other Christians.

    You’re right, I didn’t answer that earlier question. I’m sorry I let it slip through the cracks. I agree with you that we both have unity and we work toward it. Put as simply as I can, God has told me we are unified, so I believe Him. Because I believe Him, I work to image that unity in His church. Sometimes this entails helping my neighbor to repair a denominational fence that is growing rickety, other times shaking hands across the fence, still others chopping the fence into kindling. Occasionally, it’s even necessary to build a new fence in order to work toward the peace and purity of the church.
    I don’t think there’s a recipe book for any of this; it’s a matter of applying loving wisdom to individual situations. I do think the time will come when denominations merge, and so on. But the groundwork for that kind of thing is largely individual. The Baptists and the Lutherans will one day unite, but in the meantime, the real work is not between denominational committees so much as between the rank and file of individual congregations. When the members of the local Baptist church and the local Lutheran church can and do fellowship together in good conscience, when their leaders know and value each other, then the work of unity is being done, and when the denominations merge, the local congregations will be ready for it.

    In a given instance, the local Lutheran church may be an ELCA assembly led by a lesbian minister. In this case, one must treat this apostate church as an apostate church, and also as an apostate church. They name the name of Christ; they are in covenant with Him and need to stop violating the covenant: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” They are vessels in God’s house, albeit vessels for dishonor — but this doesn’t permit us to pretend that they aren’t in God’s house after all. So we speak as God speaks, and take a lesson from the minor prophets in how to speak to apostate and idolatrous members of God’s house. And because they are really part of us, and we can’t change that, we don’t ever shut up about it.

  3. Gary says:

    Tim:
    Interesting speculations on future unity.

    Interesting personal practices on current unity.

    Very interesting thoughts on treating an apostate church as both an apostate and a church.

    Having been motivated by the Gospel debates to review my own positions on the Gospel, I did come to some conclusions.

    On one note my conclusions caused me to begin a practice of checking foundations (1Cor3:10-12) when entering into discussion with professed believers I don’t know. If the only foundation is not there or seems to have some severe cracks, then that is where the discussion needs to stay.

    Assuming a seemingly mostly solid foundation, with only God knowing the hearts, if the conversation is to go into post salvation issues in any area of Theology, then there is the possibility of having to address apostasy.

    What I’m responding to here, is that I like what you have to say about the apostate church but I would add the caveat of checking the foundation as best we can to determine, also as best we can, who and what we’re dealing with. Not all that looks like wheat, even malnourished wheat, is wheat.

    Then with matters of apsotasy, even extreme apostasy like the one you mention, as long as it is apostasy, it can be dealt with as the Prophets did, as you point out, and as Paul seems to be doing also in Corinth within the local church – 1Cor 6:9-10.

    Good thoughts, especially your last paragraph in your comment. Food for thought.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary,

    That last bit was a major turning point for me. I was raised in a tradition where, if your church leadership turned liberal, you split the church, moved across town, hung out a shingle that said Second Bible Church of Hadleyburg, and presto! you were no longer part of those people.

    The realization that it doesn’t work like that was a rude shock, and it put a whole different perspective on that sort of behavior. That’s not contending for the truth; that’s fleeing from the battlefield. Kind of a problem, when the soldiers who really care about winning the battle think the best way to do it is run to places where they won’t have to encounter the enemy. Be funnier if it was happening to somebody else…

  5. Joe says:

    Tim and Gary,

    The other night I met two pastors from a church down the street from us. We discussed meeting to talk about ministry in the community here. This morning I was on their website and came across a page on the history of their church that gave me goosebumps. In my experience, churches are good at making 2 out of 1, but here is a church that made 1 out of 2:

    “In 1892, Bethel Baptist Church began in a home at 1824 S. Logan Street. Throughout the past century God has used Bethel to bring many people to faith in Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their relationship with him. During the 1940’s and 50’s our beautiful building was built and over 600 people attended services.

    102 years after Bethel’s beginning, in 1994, Park Community Church began, one block away, in a home at 1706 S. Logan Street with the same purpose – to glorify God by establishing a church dedicated to making disciples in South Denver.

    In 1998, Bethel began to rent the lower west wing of their building to Park Community Church. Periodically the two groups had joint services, joint potlucks and both pastors began praying together for the people in both churches as well as for the community.

    Then, in January of 1999, Bethel and Park began discussing the possibility of uniting our resources in order to become more effective in our mission. After several months and hundreds of hours spent in open discussion and prayer, both congregations on Sunday, September 26, decided to unite as Hope Community Church. Our first service was on October 10, 1999 in which we planted 3 trees along Logan Street. One tree was a memorial of thanks to God for all the works He had done through the faithful people of Bethel. A second tree was a memorial for the works He had done through Park. Then the young people planted a third tree in the center as we dedicated Hope Community Church to God.

    Now in the joining of our people and resources, we are asking God to make us better than we would have been if we had stayed apart. It is our dream that God would bring honor to himself by continuing to build us into a healthy church family that loves Him, cares of one another, and shares our HOPE in JESUS CHRIST with many. We are praying that God will help us to lead many into an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.”

    http://www.hopefordenver.com

  6. Gary says:

    Tim:
    Again, good points, especially the battlefield analogy.

    Joe:
    Good history story.

    Do you know why Park began within one block of Bethel and did not simply attend Bethel?

    Were there differences that were worked out in order for both to become Hope Community and for Bethel to drop the century+ denomination identity in their name?

    The overview is refreshing. I’m certain the underlying facts contain a lot of valuable information.

  7. Joe says:

    Gary,

    Good questions, I am curious about the details as well and plan on asking the pastors as I get to know them better.

    I know of some churches that I suspect have changed their name because of a stigma associated with the name of their denomination (especially if they are an outreach-oriented church)… maybe something like that motivated the name change??

    Tim mentioned in a previous comment that “In a denomination, believers all over the world unite in their mutual disagreement with the church down the street from them.” Regardless of the details, a church uniting with another church down the street, even if it means giving up a denominational affiliation, seems like a refreshing contrast to churches uniting with people they don’t know against people they do.

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