Biblical Principles of the Unity of the Church
I. The Nature of the Church
A. The church is the covenant people of Godthe body of people to whom God has made the promise to be their God and they to be his people and he to dwell with them. The church is the covenant people of God in all ages and among all nations.
B. All those who believe the promise of God and their children and have had the promise sealed to them in baptism are to be recognized and treated as God's people, as members of the organized church.
C. The church belongs to her covenant head Jesus Christ and "there is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ" (Confession of Faith XXV.6).
D. The work of the church, in fellowship with and in obedience to Christ, is divine worship, mutual edification, and gospel witness (Form of Government II.4.), under the teaching and rule of elders.
E. The Lord governs his church also through the application of his Word to the people by the Spirit as the Word is expounded and applied by the officers of the church (Eph. 4:11-16).
II. The Unity of the Church
A. The church finds its unifying principle in the covenant promise "my dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people" (Ezek. 37:27, Lev. 26:12). This finds fulfillment in Jesus as Emmanuel ("God with us," Matt. 1:23, Jn. 1:14), who came as the mediator of the covenant of grace to redeem and purchase this people for his dwelling by his blood. The ultimate consummation of the promise is the new Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:3).
B. The church must recognize, appreciate, and confess this fundamental unity of the covenant people of God, the body of Christ; which is a God-given creation and not a human achievement.
C. The church, the visible organization, is described in the Bible as one church. God has given only one covenant of love (Deut. 7:6-12) and has only one people of the covenant.
D. In the New Testament this teaching of the unity of the people of God is sustained (see Eph. 2:11-22 and 4:1-16). Yet the situation is different. No longer are the people of God circumscribed by ethnic, political, or geographical boundaries. All nations are to be discipled.
E. This unity includes those people of God in past ages and also looks to the future and includes the people of God who will believe on his name (Jn. 17:20-21).
F. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation of the church resulted in establishing churches as covenant communities in various locations, churches which were ruled by elders. These churches and these elders were not independent, but were one body united by Christ their head, by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and by the covenant promise of God. The elders at Antioch and Jerusalem resolve a problem, under God, and their decision is binding on the churches (Acts 15, 16:4).
G. The unity of the church is attained unto by growing in spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:13). Unity and maturity are the result of mutual, loving admonition and joint submission to Scripture. Such maturity is manifested by speaking and acting the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
H. Each member is essential to the body, and the growth of the body depends on the active participation of each part (Eph. 4:13, 16). The work of the officers of the church is to prepare the members for, and assist them in this work (Eph. 4:11-12).
III. Ecclesiastical Union
In ecclesiastical union two denominations join in submitting to one common form of government. Since ecclesiastical jurisdiction includes the maintenance of spiritual discipline, unity in polity requires agreement in the standards of faith and worship which such discipline maintains. Hence unification in polity, when properly sought and achieved, involves also unity in faith, discipline, and worship.
As we take account of the diversity that exists between denominations arising from differences of ethnic identity, cultural background, and historical circumstance the most conclusive evidence derived from Scripture is required to support the position that the obliteration of denominational separateness is an obligation resting upon these Churches of Christ. The differences that exist often manifest the diversity which the church of Christ ought to exemplify and make for the enrichment of the church's total witness. If ecclesiastical union impairs this diversity, then it may be achieved at too great an expense and tends to an impoverishment inconsistent with the witness to Christ which the church must bear.
Though the diversity which manifests itself in differentiating historical development might appear to make ecclesiastical union inadvisable or even perilous in certain cases, yet the biblical evidence in support of union is so plain that any argument to the contrary, however plausible, must be false.
A. The Ethnic Universalism of the Gospel
In Christ there is now no longer Jew or Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free (cf. Gal 3:28; Col. 3:11). The New Testament does not suppose that the differences natural to individuals nor those arising from ethnic identity, cultural background, and historical circumstance are to be obliterated by the gospel. But it does mean that the unity of Christ transcends all diversity arising from language, race, culture, history. What is more, this unity embraces and utilizes all the diversity that is proper and this is created by God's providence. If we should maintain that the diversity is in any way incompatible with the unity of which the church is the expression, then we should be denying THAT unity which the ethnic universalism of the gospel implies. Implicit in the universalism of the gospel is the same kind of universalism in that which the gospel designs, the building up of Christ's church.
B. The Universalism of the Apostolic Church
The church of the apostolic days embraces all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues. There is no evidence in the New Testament for the diversification of distinct denominations and anything tending to such diversification was condemned (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-13). The emphasis falls upon the oneness of faith (cf. Eph. 4:5) and the oneness of the fellowship of the saints (cf. Eph. 4:2-4; 11-16; Phil. 2:2, 3; 4:2).
C. Jesus' Prayer for Unity (Jn. 17:20, 21)
It is a travesty of this text, as of all others bearing upon the unity of the church, to think of the unity for which Christ prayed apart from the unity in the bond of truth. Verse 21 must not be dissociated from verse 20. To divorce the unity for which Christ prayed from all that is involved in believing upon him through the apostolic witness is to sunder what Christ placed together. Furthermore, the pattern Jesus provides in this prayer"as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee"makes mockery of the application of the text when unity is divorced from the characterization which finds its analogy in trinitarian unity and harmony.
But while these and other distortions of this text are to be shunned, the prayer of Jesus does bear upon our question in two respects.
1. The fragmentation and consequent lack of fellowship, harmony, and cooperation which appear on the ecclesiastical scene are a patent contradiction of unity exemplified in that to which Jesus referred when he said, "as thou, father, art in me and I in thee."
2. The purpose stated in Jesus' prayer"that the world may believe that thou hast sent me"implies a manifestation observable by the world. Jesus prays for a visible unity that will bear witness to the world. The mysterious unity of believers with one another must come to visible expression so as to be instrumental in bringing conviction to the world.
D. The Unity of the Body of Christ
The church is the body of Christ and there is no schism in the body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:25). As in the human body, there is diversity in unity and unity in diversity (cf. 1 Cor. 12). The point to be stressed, however, is the unity. If there is unity it follows that this unity must express itself in all the functions which belong to the church. Since government in the church is an institution of Christ (cf. Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 1 Pet 5:1, 2), this unity must be expressed in government. The necessary inference to be drawn is that the government should manifest the unity and be as embracive in respect of its functioning as the unity of which it is an expression. A concrete illustration of this principle is the decree of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:28, 29; 16:4).
E. The Kingdom of Christ, etc.
1. Christ is the head of the church. So ultimately there is the most concentrated unity of government in the church of Christ. He alone is King. Any infringement upon this sovereignty belonging to Christ is a violation of what is basic and central in the government of the church. It follows that all government in the church must adhere to the pattern of a cone which has its apex in Christ.
2. Christ also instituted the apostolate with authority delegated from him (Matt. 16:18, 19; cf. Jn 20:21, 23; Eph. 2:19-22). This apostolic authority is exercised now only through the inscripturated Word. But in the sphere of delegated authority the apostolate is supreme and will continue to be so to the end of time. This is the way the Holy Spirit, as the vicar of Christ, abiding in and with the church, exercises his function in accordance with Christ's promise. He seals the apostolic witness by his own testimony and illumines the people of God in the interpretation and application of the same.
3. Subordinately, however, in terms of Matt. 16:19, the hegemony of the apostolate is undeniable and it exemplifies the descending hierarchy which Christ has established.
4. There is also in the New Testament institution the delegated authority of the presbyterate, always subject to the apostolic institution, to the Holy Spirit who inspired the apostles (Jn. 16:13; 20:22), and ultimately to Christ as King and Head of the church, but nevertheless supreme in this sphere of government.
5. Since all office in the church of Christ can be filled only by the gifts of the Spirit, this structural subordination of the government of the church to the rule of Christ functions in living reality as a fellowship of the one Spirit. Everyone who has the Spirit of Christ is thereby called as a good steward of the manifold grace of God to minister his spiritual gifts to all the saints, so far as he is given opportunity. In particular, those whose gifts are for rule in the church must exercise such gifts in the communion of Christ and his church.
When these principles of gradation and communion are appreciated, and when coordinated with other considerations already established, especially that of the unity of the body of Christ, we appear to be provided with a pattern that points to the necessity of making the presbyterate as inclusive as is consistent with loyalty to Christ and the faith of the gospel. In a word, we are pointed to the necessity of unity in government, a unity that is violated when churches of Christ adhering to the faith in its purity and integrity are not thus united.
IV. Toward Perfecting Biblical Unity
A. The unity of the church is in Christ and it is both a given reality and also a requirement. The unity of the faith is both gift and mandate.
B. The church is compelled to give expression to this reality and requirement, this gift and mandate, by actively seeking the promised goal, namely, that of being one body which serves the Lord in perfect peace, purity, and unity.
C. The ultimate goal of the unity of the church is nothing less than one world-wide presbyterian/reformed church.
D. The unity of the church is unity in Christ, unity in the gospel of Christ, "unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God" (Eph. 4:13). This Christ, this gospel, this faith and knowledge, the church must confess. It is summarized for us in our Confession of Faith.
E. The present division into separate denominations is because of unfaithfulness to God as expressed in beliefs, teaching, and living, on the part of both individuals in the church and the churches that are contrary to the Word of God.
F. We find ourselves in this sinful situation as we undertake to pursue the mandate to unity. There exists between us and all other churches a sinful disunity that demands reconciliation in a biblical way. This sin must be faced and removed so that true and full unity and fellowship of the church may be reached.
G. In seeking actively the unity of the church, we must recognize several levels of separateness (i.e., degrees of purity) among the churches. There are presbyterian and Reformed churches that are more or less faithful. There are non-Reformed churches that are more or less faithful. There are also churches that have apostatized, and no longer have the right to be called church.
H. In seeking unity with faithful presbyterian and Reformed churches:
1. There should be mutual agreement on what the gospel is. The churches must confess in their official documents of faith and life the same gospel.
2. There should be a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship established in which official interchange may take place including the exchange of delegates at the meetings of the ruling bodies of the church.
3. There will be fellowship and cooperation in organizations, both domestic and international, which give expression to oneness of faith and life.
4. There then may take place the actual steps toward uniting.
a. The recognition of each other as true churches of Christ, more or less pure (Confession of Faith XXV.4), in which the marks of the church are found.
b. Reconciliation between the bodies (the sin that is involved in the separate existence must be faced and resolved: this may be only the sin of separate existence; or a sin which has historical roots; or doctrinal error; or error in the life of the church).
c. Self-examination on the part of each church.
Agreement that the confession of the united church must be apparent in the life of the church.
d. The offering of each church to the other for examination; willingness to give, receive and respond to reproof (2 Tim 3:16-17); speaking and acting the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
e. Agreement on the same ecclesiology and government of the church.
f. Maintaining the peace, purity, and unity of the churches.
5. There would then be the actual uniting into one organization.
I. There is also responsibility to call all churches, including our own, to faithfulness in order to seek the unity of the whole church.