Restoring a Biblical Appreciation of Unity
I. Unity Is Beautiful.
As we turn on the biblical spotlight, we notice that yes, she is indeed appreciated, because first of all she is beautiful. In fact unity is so beautiful that no one can be against her. To speak against unity would be like speaking against motherhood and apple pie. You just can’t do it.
A. Old Testament Passages
Genesis 2 —From the opening chapters of Genesis, history records God as saying this about man and woman and the special relationship that they should have: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
Jesus gives this historic occasion added meaning when He adds, "So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:6).
God does not want what He has put together or united to be divided by man. In other words, man does not have the right to divide what God has united.
Psalm 133—The Psalmist further expresses the divine beauty of unity when he says: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore" (Psalm 133:1-3).
As the wearer of a beard, that passage is strange to me. I have never thought of things in my beard as being good and pleasant, so oil flowing from the head and into the beard is a strange thing to me. Yet, when Aaron was ordained a priest, his head was anointed with oil. He was to be consumed by the position as priest and fully dedicated. When anointing, they didn’t use a dab or spray a little PAM on him. No, they poured the oil in great measure. He was saturated with the oil, from the head, to the beard, to his clothes. He was dedicated totally and separated entirely.
People who dwell in unity are dedicated totally to God and separated entirely from all that is not of God.
The second simile of Psalm 133 portrays the dew of Mt. Hermon, way to the north of Israel, as supplying the nourishment that would bring forth bountiful harvest, even far away to the south on Mt. Zion.
The refreshing blessings of God on those who are united will help bring a harvest, even in far away places. What was it that Jesus said?... "that they might be one that the world might believe."
John 17—That, of course, brings us to the high priestly prayer of our Lord in John 17. Time will not permit more than a cursory look at that passage, but allow me to point out just four simple things from this prayer.
- That Jesus wants the disciples to be as united as He is with the Father, "so that they may be one as we are one" (v 11).
- That the purpose of this unity is evangelism, "May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (v 21).
- That evangelism brings glory to God, "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do" (v 4) and "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" (v 18).
- The thing that brought unity to the disciples was an acceptance of the Words of Christ (vv 6 and 8).
"I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word."
"For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me."
C. Paul’s Writings
- Romans 15:5, "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
There it is again. Unity brings glory to the Father.
- Ephesians 4:3-6, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
Unity is of the Spirit and is a cord made with seven strands: one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. If Ecclesiastes 4:12, says that a "cord of three strands is not quickly broken," then why would some want to cut the seven-stranded cord of biblical unity and try to put it together in another way? Any unity not tied together in this way cannot be the unity of scripture.
- Colossians 3:14, "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
There can be no unity without someone foregoing his/her rights. That’s what agape love is all about. So, Unity is not ugly. No, Biblical unity is beautiful because it is tied together with the agape love of God, love that seeks what is best for the other.
II. Unity Is Beautiful Because She Has Depth
When one looks at unity, he/she will see a depth that false unities do not have.
Look stage left and you will catch a glimpse of others, wearing the name of unity that are just "wanna be’s" who would like to take center stage. If you look carefully you will see that they are not three dimensional, but one dimensional. They are like a cardboard cutout. When you first look at it, it may look good, but there is no biblical substance there, and that is what we are interested in. Remember, this is about what the Bible says about unity.
Wise is the person who realizes that something calling itself "unity" does not make it biblical unity.
Do you remember the story of Abraham Lincoln walking with a friend? Lincoln saw a dog go by and said to his friend, "If you call the tail of that dog a leg, how many legs will it have?" The friend said, "Five." Mr. Lincoln replied, "No, he would only have four. Just because you call the tail of a dog a leg, doesn’t make it one."
Just because something is called unity does not make it unity. On and on that can go with — just because something is called Christian does not make it Christian. Just because someone is called a preacher does not make him a preacher. Just because someone is called an elder does not make him an elder. Just because a college is called a Bible college or a Christian college does not make it one. You get the idea!
As I said before, if you look stage left you will see those who seek to take the place of unity, but they are one-dimensional. What are some of these?
A. False Unities (wanna-be’s)
1. Ecumenical unity. This is a unity based on compromise. It is what we see in the Consultation On Churches Uniting (COCU). There are no absolutes here. These are groups that have an urge to merge. They are dying denominations with no message of hope. Rather than cease to exist, they think they can survive if they can have unity or unite with someone else, but a transfusion of bad blood does not, and cannot, give life. The death watch is still on.
2. Evangelical unity. This is a unity that is based upon an acceptance of the idea that anyone who accepts Jesus as Lord is united. Phrases such as "ask the Lord into your heart," become commonplace, even if they have little biblical meaning. Baptism is placed in the category of a "good thing to do," but salvation itself may have little to do with it. They get upset with those who use scripture to point to baptism and forgiveness and show that they are joined, and they accuse those people who do so of judging; yet they hand down their judgements that pronounce forgiveness on the unimmersed.The problem is that this is a unity based on words without the right action. Social action is not the key, nor is building great ministries, nor is political acceptance and clout. The key to unlocking the "Jesus is Lord" lock is the key of obedience.
"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7:21-23).
3. Emotional unity. This is unity that is based on feelings. It comes from gatherings where good people are seen and good things are heard. One leaves with the same idea that Debby Boone sang about when she said, "This can’t be wrong when it feels so right." How quick we are to reject her premise in other areas, but in the area of religion we swallow it hook, line, sinker, rod, reel, and even the boat and fisherman.
We are emotionally moved by their music, their messages, and even the sight of their masses. We have been taught in this age of success that "big is beautiful." It feels good. They look like they are having a good time. Our discernment becomes less and less and we follow the path of mother Eve as we see what it can do for us. So we accept their methodology, and soon taste and swallow their theology. It was Ben Merold who warned in the 1994 NACC, "It has been proven, in my opinion, that liberalism came into the churches of England, not through theology, but through methodology."
Herbert Schlossberg says, "When theology degenerates, we are given instead a modernized version of the old-time religion of emotional exhortation, with a little existential mystification for good measure."1
Roger Chambers made it a little clearer when he said, "I fail to see the attraction of a movement characterized by peroxided TV nitwittery and sustained by astounding interpretations of Scripture that certainly the authors themselves could never have imagined, usually prefaced by, ‘the Lord has been showing me’...."2
These people are difficult to speak with. Dean Walker rightfully said, "You cannot argue with anyone who thinks God has spoken to him."3
Oh, we dare not go by our feelings. Years ago, I had surgery on my backside. During the operation I woke up and looked at the anesthesiologist and asked if the doctor was present. He said, "Not yet." I put my head down for what I thought was a moment and then raised up and asked again. This time the reply was, "Why, he is almost finished." He had been cutting on me and I did not know it. My feelings had been anesthetized. Our feelings can be anesthetized by relationships, circumstances, hormones, and wishful thinking. We need something more reliable to give us direction.
Those false unities are, as I said earlier, one dimensional...peace at any price. Biblical unity must be seen in its depth as well as its width, for biblical unity has a depth to it, in that it also calls for division or separation.
B. Division/Separation Adds the Depth To Unity.
Part of what makes something beautiful is what is absent. I’ve never seen a Miss America with three arms, or three legs, or three eyes. Beauty calls for the absence of some things.
Division/separation from certain things adds to the depth and beauty of unity.
1. Old Testament Passages
a. Genesis 2 talks of man leaving father and mother and clinging to his wife. There is a separation of man from his parents in order for the unity of husband and wife to prosper. Then in the marriage ceremony itself, what is it we say(?) "Forsaking all others." That is division/ separation. In marriages where this separation from all others is not found, there is not that deep and abiding union that a man and a woman crave
b. Psalm 133. "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!"
When Israel was united it prospered, but when Judah and Israel divided, it was never what it had been before. What divided Israel? Self-will! Rehoboam had decided that he would do what he wanted to do no matter what anyone, including his father’s advisers, told him to do. There can be no self-will in matters of unity. Unity divides itself from that which would do it harm.
I also think it is important that we notice that Israel never called another nation "brother." In fact, they were to be careful and keep themselves separated from the nations around them lest they pick up their customs, marry their women, worship their gods, and become like them. The only people they called brothers were those who embraced the same covenant that they had with God. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us. In order for someone to be my brother, he doesn’t have to be my twin, but he does have to be a partaker of the same covenant, and the covenant of God is explicit in how one becomes a partaker.
2. Jesus’ Prayer
John 17. The Father and the Son were united. Jesus prayed that His followers would be united. How were they united? In purpose. They did not work at cross purposes. In fact, Jesus says in verse 19, "For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified." That word "sanctified" means "divided," "set apart," or "free from contamination." The unity that He had with the Father was because He set His face like a flint to do the will of the Father. He turned His back, He separated Himself from all that would keep Him from doing the Father’s will. The perfect will of the Father was the only thing that was important.
3. Paul’s Writings
a. Colossians 3:14. "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
Agape love bind virtues together in perfect unity. Agape love seeks what is best for the other. "What is best." The very meaning of agape has the idea of giving what is best. That automatically takes away and divides from anything that is not best.
I often wonder how some of us can be friends of people and say that we love them, and even embrace them as Christians, knowing that they have not followed the simple plan of salvation in the New Testament. How can agape love hold back what is best? How can agape love hold back salvation? How can agape love dare give false hope? How can agape love pretend that someone is his brother when the facts say that he is not a partaker of the covenant?
But Paul’s writings must be taken in toto. You can’t just take the verses that talk about unity by themselves. In Paul’s writing there is also talk of division.
b. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of unity and that there should be no divisions in the body. We like to quote that, but forget that earlier in the same book Paul said, "expel the wicked man from among you." That is division/separation. Many of our churches don’t, and wouldn’t, do that today. Church discipline in this modern age is politically incorrect. To too many church discipline would show a lack of love. "But whom the Lord loves, He disciplines" (Proverbs 3:12, Hebrews 12:6). The permissiveness of Dr. Spock seems to have entered the church as well as the home.
c. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of reinstating the repentant man they were to withdraw from in 1 Corinthians (unity), but then he goes on and says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14). That speaks of division or separation.
d. In Galatians, Paul calls for the condemnation of any who would preach another Gospel to them. He doesn’t want the Galatians to join those teachers; that’s division/separation. But later he tells of correcting Peter because he wasn’t unified with Gentiles who were his brothers in Christ. In chapter 3, verse 26, he tells us how we become united with Christ when he says, "for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ."
e. Ephesians gives us that beautiful passage about how Christ brought unity to those who were divided. Paul points out that divisions are destroyed through Christ, and for that to happen people must put off the old self (division/separation) and "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24).
Time does not permit us to examine all the passages that deal with unity, and the passages in the same books that deal with division/separation. Those who spend all their time looking at unity would do well to use some of that time to see that not all things are to be united.
Unity is beautiful because it calls for a division or separation from that which is not of God and harmful to itself, and then it seeks what is the best of God for others.
III. Unity Is Beautiful Because She Stands On Truth
Biblical unity is beautiful because it doesn’t stand on the shifting sands of compromise, or the mere shaking and fallible words of men, or even phrenetic emotion. Biblical unity is beautiful because she stands on the solid rock of truth. I am not talking about an existential truth that changes with the times and circumstances. I am not speaking of a subjective truth that has its foundation in the mind of the believer and is controlled by the believer. Those things are no truth at all. Those things are just wishful and fanciful thinking.
Biblical unity stands on the uncompromised, objective, propositional truth of the Word of God. It can only be seen and appreciated in that light.
That may be reason why we are having problems today in the arena of unity. We are being taught that our movement is a mistake, that we must redefine. Well, let me tell you that our movement was redefined by the founders. It is true that the early reformers set out to unite Christianity, but they thought, at that time, that Christianity was already united on matters of faith and was only divided in matters of opinion. It did not take long until they found out that Christianity was divided on matters of faith as well as matters of opinion. That is the point at which they began to seek for the "ancient order of things." Truth became the polar star to unity. Yes, I know that one leader said that unity was his "polar star,"4 (perhaps he understood Biblical unity) but many today are like novice astronomers, sometimes it is easy to get those millions of stars confused. Unity cannot be a "polar star" because there are too many definitions and opinions as to which star is unity. I think it is also time that we realize that the phrase "unity is our polar star" is not scripture and quit treating it as if it were. Unity is important, but we dare not try to deify it. Of course, it may be easier to worship at Dan or Bethel rather than go to Jerusalem, but that worship is wrong and deadly.
I am concerned about those who try to make unity a polar star. I liken them to many of today’s young people who go out and buy expensive Michael Jordan shoes and Michael Jordan shirts and then think that when they put these things on they will be able to play basketball as well as Michael Jordan. You see, they have their cause and effect mixed up.
The early Restorationists sought for more than some sort of a grand uniting. Alexander Campbell said many times, "I have no idea of seeing, nor wish to see, the sects unite in one grand army.
This would be dangerous to our liberties and laws. For this, the Saviour did not pray. It is only the disciples dispersed among them that reason and benevolence would call out of them."
Do you see what he is saying? They were not trying to get the sects to unite, but people to come out of the sects. To say that denominationalism is just many forms of Christianity is to miss the truth of scripture. There may be many roads up Mt. Fuji, but there are not many roads to Christ.
There is a polar star and its name is truth. Thomas Campbell probably did not understand the full import of what he was saying when he said, "Unity in truth is our motto!" That would be a wonderful rallying cry to place above each entrance to a church house, displayed in every classroom, and even embroidered on the shirt cuffs of each preacher, teacher, and elder in the Lord’s church. There can be no unity without truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Pilate may not have known what truth was, but Jesus defined it when he said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
People say that they want unity. Joe Carson Smith said, "Too much we seek unity by schemes and programs rather than by striving to be in Christ in reality. We continue to try by action and association to produce what can only be found by a deepening spiritual oneness with Jesus and by courageous and resolute obedience to the Lord in the world and in the Church."5
The Bible’s answer for unity is Jesus Christ. Not a syrupy, emaciated, emasculated messiah who is simply garbed in man’s idea of love and is separated from His Word. No way!
I am speaking of the Jesus of whom it was said: "The government shall be upon his shoulder." I am speaking of the Jesus who said, "All authority is given unto me in heaven and on earth."
I am speaking of the Jesus who is first the king of righteousness and then the king of peace. I am speaking of the Jesus, the wisdom of God, who is first pure and then peaceable.
I am speaking of the Jesus who said, "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock" (Matthew 7:24-27).
I am speaking of the Jesus who said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).
I am speaking of the Jesus of whom Paul said: "That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords;" (1 Timothy 6:14-15).
I am speaking of the Jesus of whom God the Father spoke from heaven and said: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). Then on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Father added, "Listen to Him!" (Matthew 17:5).
Did you hear that? "Listen to Him!"
We cannot, and we dare not, try to separate the Word made flesh from the written word of God.
Remember that it was the Word made flesh that said, "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). He is the one who also said concerning unity, "Sanctify them by the truth: Thy word is truth" (John 17:17).
Again that term sanctify means to "set apart," "separate," "divide." We must be divided from all that is not Divine Truth, and truth is not what we think or hope or even like. Truth is what God has revealed. "Thy Word is truth!" Sometimes we call it by that nasty word "doctrine." I know that word "doctrine" makes some people feel uncomfortable, but as Roger Chambers said: "Christianity without doctrine does not exist. Word has somehow got out that orthodox doctrine is the enemy of spirituality. Doctrine is an embarrassed intruder in many modern congregations. Barely tolerated, it cowers on the back pew; the territory around the pulpit has long since been claimed by commanding personality, practical mysticism, professional music, and pop psychology.
"A round of applause awaits the convention speaker who will announce that we are saved by Jesus, not doctrine. Brotherhood scholars impressed by German theology are throwing up a wall between Jesus and doctrine...(but)...the Bible does not elevate the Person of Christ over the doctrine of Christ."6
Robert E. Elmore said, "The truth is the master thing: the Father, ‘the God of truth’; the Son, ‘I am the truth’; the Spirit, ‘the Spirit of truth’; the Bible, ‘the Word of truth’; the Church, ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’; the Christian, ‘to walk in the truth’; the fellowship is ‘in truth’."7
It was the Holy Spirit who led the apostles "into all truth." It is the Word of God that is called the word of truth, but the Bible tells us that some reject the truth, suppress the truth, and exchange the truth for a lie (Romans 1:25). What is "the lie" that men want to believe? It is the same one that Eve accepted which says that God doesn’t really mean what He says (Genesis 3:15), but well we know that He does.
There can be no Christian unity without Christian truth and you cannot have Christian truth without Christ and His Word. The way to unity is walking in the way of Christ, the truth of Christ. Accepting His Word, believing His Word, following His Word, obeying His Word, going back before the reformers, Calvin, Luther, et al.. We do not, and we cannot, seek reformation. We seek restoration.
Unity does not produce truth, but truth can produce unity! I like that, so I think I’ll say it again. Unity does not produce truth, but truth can produce unity!
What is the way to bring about this unity? It is restoration; restoration of the truth of scripture in both faith and practice; restoration for the purpose of evangelism.
How then should we look at those groups steeped in denominationalism with whom we do not agree?
Truth is our starting point. First, we must quit looking at them as groups and start looking at people as individuals. We need to look at individuals who are lost without the truth, and we need to make an appeal to them to go back to the ancient ways (Jeremiah 6:16). Does that work? For an example see Chuck Doughty’s article in the March 20, 1997 Christian Standard, that speaks of the conversion of a church consultant they hired.
Let me interject here that some feel that we don’t have the truth. I’m not sure what they mean by that. Do I think that I am right in what I believe? Of course I do or I wouldn’t believe it. You are the same way. You think that what you believe is true. It wouldn’t make any sense to go around saying, "I believe what is wrong." I would change my mind to thinking something else if I thought it was the truth. I don’t know of very many people who go around proclaiming that they don’t believe what they believe. Everyone thinks that what he believes is the truth, but I am open to change, if that change can be substantiated by the Word of God which is Truth.
Many of us have misunderstood one of our slogans. Maybe it is because we don’t teach Restoration history enough, or maybe it is because we don’t know or understand Restoration history when we do teach it. We have said that we are not the only Christians, but Christians only. Some have taken that to speak of groups. The fact is that it was meant to speak of individuals and not groups. That is what Campbell meant when he said, "It is only the disciples dispersed among them (the sects) that reason and benevolence would call out of them."
He was calling people out of denominationalism into the freedom that is found in Christ and simple New Testament Christianity. (Let me interject here that Christian churches and churches of Christ are not a denomination, nor are we non-denominational, which simply means not restricted to any one denomination. We are undenominational which means that we belong to no denomination).8
I like that phrase used by Jack Cottrell in Indianapolis. He said he sees a difference between brotherly fellowship and redemptive friendship. Too many are calling the tail of the dog a leg. We are accepting as brothers those who are friends. Once that happens— evangelism ceases. We need to be seeking the lost. Yes, be friends to those caught in denominationalism’s web, and to them, speak the truth in love. You see, reason (truth) and benevolence (love), Campbell says, would call them out. Did you get that? "Truth and love" would call people out of denominationalism.
We must not accept denominationalism as being simply traditions that are "various forms of the one church."9 When we do that, then we have bought into that lie that the devil wants us to believe which we spoke of earlier.
Folks, let me say this with all the love I can muster that fellowship without covenant relationship goes too far. Friendship without mentioning covenant relationship does not go far enough.
I know that acceptance is easier than evangelism, but evangelism lasts longer than acceptance. Evangelism will go through eternity—acceptance will stop at the grave.
I find it very interesting that the beloved Apostle John, the one that some would call the apostle of love, says toward the close of his life, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth" (3 Jn 1:4).
No greater joy than to hear what? That his children are walking in the truth. Not love or unity, but truth. Why? Very simple: love and unity will not bring truth, but truth can bring both unity and love.
Biblical unity is beautiful because it has depth and it stands on truth.
One of our great hymns is Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by Julia Ward Howe. This hymn has been placed in a setting by Peter Wilhousky. Almost everyone who has sung in a choir remembers it from past performances. Much of the imagery of the hymn comes from the Bible especially Revelation 19:11-16.
"I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron scepter." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
Wilhousky rightfully picks up on the grand theme of truth, especially in the second verse where the men begin singing a refrain that continues through to the chorus. "Truth is marching. Truth is marching. Truth is marching. Truth is marching. Truth is marching." And then, on that final chorus there is a great crescendo of Glories and Hallelujahs. But why the Glories and why the Hallelujahs? It is because of one thing: "His truth is marching on!" Amen, Amen, Amen!
- Herbert Schlossberg., Idols for Destruction (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 257.
- "Doctrinal Trends Of The Restoration Movement." A message by Roger R. Chambers. Florida Christian Convention/National Missionary Convention, 1985. Copies will be available in the August 1997 issue of The Restoration Herald.
- The Restoration Herald, January 1997, p. 20.
- Barton W. Stone expressed the view that unity was his polar star.
- Joe Carson Smith, "Concepts and Conditions of Christian Unity," Essays on the Restoration Plea, (Edmonds: PSCC Litho, 1986), p.60.
- The Restoration Herald, August 1997.
- Robert E. Elmore address printed in The Restoration Herald, April 1950.
- "What Difference Does It Make?" The Restoration Herald, August 1995, article originally written by Lloyd Pelfrey.
- Gene A. Sonnenberg, "The Unity We Seek," The Christian Standard, September 1, 1996, p. 7.
H. Lee Mason
- September 1997
This message was first given at the Theological Forum of the North American Christian Convention, July 4, 1997. It was then printed in the September 1997 issue of The Restoration Herald.