Volume 15, Issue 1: Presbyterion
Unity and the Covenant
The vexed question of church unity is like the woman in the gospelsthe more
the physicians treat her, the worse she gets.
In large measure, this is because church leaders (naturally enough) tend to place
the locus of unity in government. But we need
to reexamine this. Of course, governmental unity among all Christians is
certainly to be desired, but is it the foundation of all
unity or an instrument toward it? Fortunately, the Bible tells us where to look.
The same Paul who tells us to labor to maintain the unity of the Spirit
in the bond of peace also tells us the basis of
that unity. He tells us that we as Christians are to walk in a manner worthy of
our calling as Christians (Eph. 4:1). Our demeanor
in this is to be one of humility and patience (v. 2). With this attitude, we are
equipped to obey his next command, which is
the command to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (v.
3). This unity is kept by us, not
created by us. Armed with the right attitude, assigned the right task,
what we now need is the right foundation. What foundation does Paul declare
as the basis of this unity?
There is one body because there is one Spirit. There is one hope of our
calling. One Lord. There is only one faith. There
is only one baptism. And above, through and in us, there is one God and Father
(vv. 4-6). In heaven is the triune God, and on
earth we find a common confessed faith and a common baptismWord and
sacrament. It is striking that there are no
governmental bonds referred to here; the bonds are of another nature entirely. He
does not list one holy Father in Rome. Nor does he say
one ecumenical headquarters in New York. He does not refer to summit leadership
conferences in Colorado Springs.
Of course, this does not mean that government is irrelevant to this
question of unity. In the next breath, Paul says that
the one Lord ascended into heaven, and from there He gave the gift of godly
government to men.
"And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and
some, pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). The reason He did this was so that
these officers would labor in the perfecting of the saints, building up the body
of Christ until we all come to the
unity of the faith (vv. 12_13). The task before these officers is the
presentation of a perfect man, a Church that has grown up into the measure of
the fullness of Christ (v. 13).
This means the saints are exhorted to have an attitude of humility and
patience as they endeavor to preserve that measure
of unity they already have, a unity created by the Spirit of God. At the same
time, they clearly do not yet have the
full measure of the unity that God intends for His Church. So Paul teaches
first that we have a unity that must be preserved. He also teaches that
we do not yet have full unity. That is the pastoral and eschatological goal of
those faithful officers who labor in the Church.
The unity we already have is based upon the unity of God, the unity declared in
Faithful pastors, therefore, advance the work of true unity. Unfaithful
teachers disrupt that unity and so their lying
ministries must themselves be disrupted. As unity grows under a faithful
ministry, we are no longer children, tossed to and fro
by televangelists, or carried about by every wind of doctrine to blow out of the
magisterium. We are no longer vulnerable to
the cunning craftiness that makes us buy IVP books (v. 14). The work of true
unity is not advanced by an irenicism that tolerates
the "sleight of men." A shepherd who tolerates wolves is a shepherd who
hates his own sheep. A shepherd who loves his sheep is
one who fights the wolves. And the wolves in sheeps' clothing don't like this,
not at all, and so they raise a great
In dealing with this threat, faithful pastors do not declaim from the
pulpit about "wolves abstractly considered." They
name names, like Hymenaeus and Alexander. And that is why it is treachery to the
cause of true unity to refuse to point out
obvious departures from the faith. I mentioned InterVarsity Press a moment ago
only because wolves are running up and down
the corridors there.
Pastors labor to this end of unity by speaking the truth
in love, in order that the already unified body might become
unified. We are growing up into our head, the Lord Jesus Christ. From Him, the
whole body is being joined togetherand the
picture here of being joined and compacted, as every joint supplies, is an image
of being knit together
in the womb (vv. 15_16). There is an essential unity in an embryo, but
there is also a unity toward which the embryo is growing. Many complaints about
disunity of the Church are actually complaints about how God knits in the
darkness of the womb. We look over His shoulder and
have the temerity to criticize what He is doing there. But we must go by what the
Word says, and not by what we see.
So as we grow up toward this unity, to extend the metaphor, we
necessarily fight false teachers who want to introduce
their birth defects into the process. As we love one another in all humility and
stand for the truth in love, we advance the cause of
unity in truth. God directs how this process will finally culminate. Our task is
not to oversee the whole process, but rather to be
faithful and obedient in our small portion of it.
We therefore affirm a doctrine of apostolic succession, but this is not a
succession of ordinations. That is not the basis
of unity. Rather, it is a succession of baptisms, and all that those baptisms