Some time ago our brother Dylan down in Cape Town (I know, he is a blessed man) commented on the One Bread Many Pieces post. Dylan asked an important question which prompted quite a lengthy response from me.
The issue is close to my heart, and so I post my response here for those who may have missed it. I quote from Dylan’s comment:
“Once moving out of institutional church there is a level of haziness with regards to oneness. Especially because there are so many different groups meeting outside the institutional church, but all in different ways. Before, in the institution, there is oneness in a way of doing church. But now, outside, there are also different ways – they just don’t have a brand name and bank account attached to them. Our desire is not to be fixated on a way but on Christ alone, and to have unity in Him with every believer. But is this realistic? And is it biblical? I do not know. Up until now, it is the one area of theology that we are all struggling with. I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this.”
Here follows a part of my response:
As far as the New Testament view on church unity is concerned: Paul links the unity of the body with the “knowledge of the Son” in Ephesians 4: “…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
There are a few things to notice here. Firstly, the “building up of the body” is a process during which the church has not yet attained to the “unity in the faith”. This work of “building up”, together with the temporary offices necessary for it (as described in the previous verses) will continue “until” this goal has been reached.
By implication, the church being “built up” is marked by two primary characteristics that necessitates the work of “building up”, and without which spiritual maturity according to the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” has not yet been reached: Disunity and an insufficient knowledge of the Son of God.
At the heart of all ministry we find these two ultimate aims, and the link between them makes perfect sense once you begin to think about it. The well known division in the Corinthian church (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Cephas”, etc.) was due to the Corinthians being “infants in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1). Paul says they were “being merely human” (v4) by following men.
It would appear that spiritual immaturity manifests itself in one primary way, namely division.
Why? Because people who are spiritually immature need “milk, not solid food” (v2). The difference between the two is that the one is a predigested form of the other, that is, it necessitates some spiritual mediator who can digest the food on behalf of the immature recipient. And so immature Christians are dependent on following some or other person for their spiritual well being as they cannot feed on Christ himself.
In the words of the Hebrews author, “everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness” (6:13) and in need of “someone to teach you again” rather than being “teachers” themselves (6:12).
The problem is that this inherent need of someone “to teach me” malfunctions when it comes to identifying a teacher, for the Adamic nature (whose mindset pretty much still dominates the infant in Christ) favours one who reflects his/her own sentiments. And so choosing a teacher becomes like choosing a rock star. The musical tastes in my house serve as a metaphor, ranging from Opera to Rap to Kurt Darren to Dan Patlansky to Flogging Molly to Pink Floyd to Teletubbies (amongst our nine kids there is a 3 year old). Furthermore, the younger the kids the harder to predict what they will get into next month (We had a High School Musical wave some time ago but it was replaced with the music from the Twilight Saga which is now also becoming old news).
All of this is strangely reminiscent of the statement Paul makes to the Ephesians to further clarify the “mature manhood” characterised by the “unity of the faith” and “the knowledge of the Son of God”: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ…” (4:14-15).
What this means is that disunity has a purpose. It reveals the degree to which people has not come into a direct, unmediated knowledge of the Son of God, which happens to be the essence of spiritual maturity. This may very well be what Paul had in mind with his later statement to the Corinthians: “… for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine may be recognised” (11:19). Ouch.
The link between spiritual maturity and knowing Chris is confirmed in Philippians 3. Here we read that Paul has counted his Pharisaical past as “dung” for the sake of one pursuit only: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead…” (v10). This knowledge of Christ, culminating in the resurrection, is revealed in the next verses as the goal behind Paul’s “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (v13), and his striking, conditional conclusion: “Let all of us who are mature think this way…” (v15).
The bottom line? Mature people understand that the ultimate goal is to know Christ and to forsake the teachings and traditions of men as ends in and of themselves. They are the ones who “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (v3). They understand that Christ is not divided (1 Cor 1:13) and that he alone is the source of our life in Christ Jesus (2:30). They have learned to feed on Jesus Christ, and they derive their life from him alone.
There are several practical implications to the above:
Firstly, unity amongst the brothers and sisters is a quality of their unity with Christ. Without the latter they cannot have the former. Unity is a flower, never a root. It reveals the true nature of what is within.
Secondly, division is the inevitable manifestation where the ego still dominates. The pursuit of self is always at the expense of relationships. Genesis 11 teaches us that our vision, our name, our building, our ability to build bricks, even our oneness… will result in one thing only: A God ordained division.
Thirdly, the growth of the church in this world is a growth from infancy to maturity, from division in the faith to unity, from following men to knowing Christ, from denominating ourselves from other believers to “receiving one another as Christ also received us” (Rom. 15:7) and from using names of people as a badge to distinguish ourselves from other believers to simply being the church in any given locality.
Fourthly, the “unity of the faith” is not an idealistic dream. It is a very definite destination and we will get there, according to Paul. The question is not “if” but “when”. It is interesting to note that Jesus also refers to this in his prayer that refers to both “knowing Christ” (John 17:3) and the unity of the church: “…I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Lastly, none of this detracts from our responsibility to make every effort to be one in a practical and visible manner in the here and now. This is clear from Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians as well as his statement in 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.” The oneness of the body is the logical and inescapable conclusion of the unity that exists in the Godhead.
And so, while we are awaiting the maturity of the body and the answer to Christ’s prayer, we are obligated to express unity as far as is possible. This means that churches who agree with the basic thesis as set out above are under an obligation to function as one body, even though they may meet in different localities.
One way to do this, I believe, is to adopt the naming convention I referred to in The Glorious Church post a few weeks ago. Another is to meet & eat together if and where possible. Another is to minister at one another’s fellowships. And so I can go on.
There is so much more to be said than this, and I have already been too longwinded. But let me close with a last observation. I am not sure I agree with any prescription as to how a church must be “planted”. No matter how much a group of brothers and sisters love the Lord and wish to express their unity with other churches, the moment that their “church” can only be officially established though the intervention of a certain “church planter” or “apostle” the human element enters into it and the subtlety of the “I follow…” attitude resurfaces. I am seeing this amongst Godly people who will shout “Amen” to everything written above. They heartily agree, but they differ on who is an actual church planter who is qualified to officially “plant” churches. And it is causing the same old division under a different guise.