The Christian and Unity
What is Christianity all about? Many people consider Christianity to be mostly about Jesus dying for the sins of mankind. Indeed (John 3:16); but why did Jesus have to die for the sins of mankind? To this many would answer in terms of allowing us to go to heaven; perhaps so (John 14:1-3), but why would God want us to be in heaven or any such thing? God wants us to be reconciled in relationship with mankind and among mankind (Romans 5:5-11, Ephesians 2:1-18). Why would God want to reconcile Himself to people, or among people themselves? He Himself is One in relational unity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, perfectly one (Deuteronomy 6:4, John 17:20-23). Since God is one, God desires to be one with humans whom He made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27).
The Lord Jesus Himself made all these powerful truths known in John 17:20-23, and yet there Jesus’ whole purpose is praying before His Father for all who would believe in Him to be one as He is one with the Father. Jesus’ prayer would have Christians maintain unity among themselves as God is one in Himself.
Paul wrote extensively regarding the great things which God has accomplished for us in Christ: every spiritual blessing, election, predestination for adoption as sons, the down payment of the Spirit, His love, grace, and mercy displayed in salvation, reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles through the killing of hostility between them on the cross, the manifestation of God’s purposes in the church, and to what end (Ephesians 1:1-3:21)? That Christians might give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
Therefore in Ephesians 4:3 Paul well establishes the importance and imperative of the pursuit of unity among Christians. And yet Christians must remember that their unity is not something they have or even could accomplish through their own efforts: Paul does not tell Christians to work to become unified, but to strive diligently to maintain the unity of the Spirit. If we have been baptized into Christ, we have been baptized into the one Spirit of God into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13); Paul envisioned Christians as built up into one temple filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18-22). Paul would go on to emphasize the “oneness” of all things: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6). We might take this message and use it polemically to decry the fractured state of “Christendom,” insisting on the importance of the unity of the faith; there are times in which it is appropriate to do so, but we must always keep Paul’s original reason for saying as much in mind. As God is one, so God has made believers in Christ one with Him and with each other through Jesus’ death on the cross (Ephesians 2:1-22).
Christians must be “eager” or “work diligently” to keep that unity in the Spirit. Yes, Christians are also called to be eager or to work diligently to present themselves as approved before God, workmen who have no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Christians must recognize the imperative of each. We cannot imagine we will be able to stand before God as approved if we proved so eager to argue regarding the word of truth that we neglected to maintain the unity of the Spirit; there can be little unity in the Spirit if many heed false teachings and teachers and fall away from the living God (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Peter 2:1-22). Unity in the faith does not happen automatically or on its own; it must be cultivated and developed. To accept the same teachings as true doctrine is not unity; to be one, Christians must not only believe the truth of God in Christ, but to work together to build up the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit.
Christians are to eagerly work to keep the unity of the Spirit “in the bond of peace.” Paul wrote as a “prisoner” in the Lord (Ephesians 4:1); as he is imprisoned by the Roman authorities, Christians are to consider themselves as “imprisoned” by peace. It is a startling yet compelling image: normally we do not associate binding, chaining, or imprisonment with peace but with far less pleasant circumstances. God has made peace between Himself and mankind and among humans thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross (Romans 5:1-11, Ephesians 2:1-18); Christians, therefore, must reckon themselves as constrained by peace. They ought to seek to maintain and pursue peace with each other, not looking for fights, contentiousness, or to exacerbate divisions, all of which are works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21).
How can Christians keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Paul had previously established a set of dispositions and behaviors which allow for unity to flourish in any relationship: humility, gentleness/meekness, patience, tolerance/forbearance, and love (Ephesians 4:2). Christians recognize their sinful past and unworthiness to stand before God on their own merits; they see Jesus, the only Man who ever had reason to be arrogant, yet served humbly; therefore, Christians must remain humble and not think too highly of themselves and their opinions (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 12:3, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:5-11). Sharp words and aggression exacerbate problems; gentle words and behaviors ameliorate difficulties (Proverbs 15:1). Other people easily get on nerves and do not seem to learn or change quickly enough; yet would not God have as much right to say the same about us? In any relationship we must learn to accept the thornier parts of people as well as the more pleasant aspects of their disposition, and so it must be among the Lord’s people as well.
If Christians strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, manifesting love, humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance for one another, they are doing well in walking worthily of the calling with which they have been called, for as God is one in relational unity, so God would have us be one in Him in unity (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 4:1). Far too often, unfortunately, Christians prove more like the world than like Jesus, easily instigated to arrogance, contentiousness, intolerance, impetuousness, and all leading to divisiveness and factionalism. We must repent of all such attitudes and behaviors; we must grow in humility, love, patience, gentleness, and tolerance, maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; we must reflect the relational unity of God among ourselves. May we be one as God is one and establish God’s full purpose for humanity in the church!
Ethan R. Longhenry