A Challenging Vision

What is the fundamental basis for unity? In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul urges the believers to be eager “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). This exhortation presupposes that there is an existing unity among believers. The immediate responsibility of believers is to exercise humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance with one another in love to maintain the existing unity of the Spirit (4:2). In this way, believers are walking in a manner worthy of their calling by God (4:1). The fundamental basis of this unity of the Spirit is “one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).

 

The Fundamental

The one body refers to the one body of Christ, which is the universal (Catholic) Church (Eph 2:22-23). The one Spirit refers to the Holy Spirit that is sealed in every believer (Eph 1:13-14; 4:30). The one hope is the redemption of our body, (Eph 1:5, 4:30; cf. Rom 8:15, 23). The one Lord is Jesus Christ (Eph 1:3, 15; cf. Acts 4:10-12).

The one faith could means having the same faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 3:11-12, 17) or through Christ’s faith (Eph 3:12; see KJV; NET). Despite the ambivalence, Jesus Christ is the focus of the one faith. The one baptism also has ambiguity. It could refer to water baptism (cf. Rom 6:3) or Spirit baptism (cf. 1Co 12:13). Again, this ambiguity does not affect the overall focus that we are baptized into the body of Christ, either outwardly through water baptism or inwardly by Spirit baptism.

The last element in the list is one Father. We all have the same Heavenly Father (Eph 1:2-3). God is not just my Heavenly Father. He is the Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and all believers who acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

 

 

Add Nothing to the Fundamental

Every local gathering of believers is to maintain their unity of the Spirit because they are holding to the same seven “Oneness”. This seven oneness are non-negotiable facts for unity. It sets the boundary between believers and unbelievers. It means we cannot reduce this seven any further.

On the other hand, every local church should only ask believers to abide by this seven oneness. They should not add to this list and make the addition a requirement for the unity of the Spirit. The exception is the Scripture itself because it informs believers after the apostolic period of the seven oneness. Thus, the seven oneness and Scripture are the basis for the unity of the Spirit. Nothing is to be added to this Fundamental.

 

Historical Splintering

Unfortunately, the body of Christ has endured many splintering through the centuries over issues ranging from trivial to critical. It is beyond the scope of this article to survey the historical splintering of the body of Christ.[1] It is sufficient to note that divisions and disunities are not modern phenomena because during the time of the Apostles, believers were also divisive over trivial to critical issues (1Co 1:11-13; Phil 4:2; 3Jo 1:9-10).

The root cause of splintering is not the trivial or critical issues confronting the local gatherings of Christ’s disciples. Often the splintering was due to the immaturity of believers. Trivial or critical issues will always confront believers. Some are doctrinal issues due to interpretative differences (cf. 1Co 12-14; Acts 15); some are socio-cultural differences such as food and special days (cf. Rom 14-15) and some are different perspectives in handling difficult situations (cf. Act 15:36-41). All such issues did not cause splintering. Instead, the divisions came because believers were immature in handling such trivial or critical issues.

This immaturity continues through the centuries leading to more fragmentations of the universal body of Christ. During the Reformation period (1517-1648), there is shift from “justification by faith, sacraments, and works” to justification by faith alone, and from “Bible and tradition” to Bible as the source of authority.[2] While all these are undeniably critical issues for reforming the universal body of Christ, these issues did not cause splintering. The cause is the immaturity of believers, especially the church and political leaders from both sides of the Reformation, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in moving or opposing the reform.[3] This major splintering brought more splintering leading to the rise of denominations.[4]

While the rise of denominations does have some good effects because God is sovereign over all, nevertheless the splintering of the universal church into diverse denominations portrays a fragmented church to the world. This fragmentation compromises the witness of the universal Church. It is opposed to the Prayer of Jesus in John 17 for unity, which is the evidence that God has sent Jesus into the world. There is then a need to heal this fragmentation. The answer is to work toward a maturing unity of the universal body of Christ starting from the local community of believers.

 

Pursuing a Maturing Unity

In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul provides God’s blueprint for believers to grow the existing unity of the Spirit (4:3). God has provided some gifted believers to the body of Christ (4:11). The responsibility of these gifted believers is to equip the other believers to build up the body of Christ until the whole body reaches maturity (4:12).

While all the believers are united because they have the same Holy Spirit, their unity is not mature. Their existing unity will become more mature when all believers have demonstrated that the following three qualities are growing: a) “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”, which refers to the same quality of faith and of personal relationship with Christ; b) “mature manhood”, which refers to same maturity of adulthood, not childish; and c) “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, which refers to the complete fullness of Christ among all believers (4:13).

When all believers are growing toward to these three qualities, they will not be easily swayed by false teachings (4:14). They will find it easier to speak the truth in love (4:15). The body of Christ will continue to grow when all believers are growing (4:16).

 

 

 

A Picture of Complete Maturity

Ultimately, the body of Christ will reach complete maturity when Christ comes back again. The picture of complete maturity is given to us in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 7:9-17, the author saw a great multitude that no one could number (7:9). This great multitude is “clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” (7:10). This great multitude “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). Thus, this great multitude refers to those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Although there is no discussion about the maturity of this great multitude, it would safe to assume that this great multitude has reached complete maturity. The assumption is based on the fact that they are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9; cf. 7:15). They no longer have hunger or thirst, and all their tears have been wiped away. All these point to the picture of complete maturity of all who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb.

This great multitude is not a homogenous unit. It consists of believers “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). This is a picture of immense diversity in complete maturity. They are united under the throne of God and the Lamb even though they come the full range of human differences. Thus, complete maturity means that there is a full range of diversity under the throne of God and of the Lamb.

 

Implications for local church

When the local church is pursuing a maturity unity, they are to strive for complete maturity. This means the local church should be as diverse as possible while maintaining unity under the Kingship of God and Christ. What does this look like?

Every local church should encourage diversity to grow within them. The diversity could be in term of languages such as having Mandarin, Cantonese, Tamil, Bahasa or Tagalog worship services. The diversity could be in term of diverse Christians traditions such as having different groups worshipping like the Anglican and Lutheran, Presbyterian, Assembly of God and Pentecostal, Charismatic, Methodist, Baptist and Free Church under the authority of one local church. The diversity could be in term of different style of worship such as it is a must to have a full orchestrate type of worship or a worship without musical instrument. Thus, all these diversities should not be hindered but encourage to co-exist within a local church.

Every local church should create a common space for all diverse groups to co-exist. This common space is first defined by the seven oneness and by using the same Scripture. If the seven oneness and the same Scripture is upheld, the common space is a place of mutual respect for differing opinions, practices and theological principles. This common space is also a pragmatic space because we need pragmatic solutions to provide a common space for differences to co-exist. These pragmatic solutions should not contravene the direct clear commands of Scripture. This common space has God and Christ as the head over all diverse groups.

 

Is it possible? No and Yes!

Is it possible to have such a local church? The answer is No and Yes. It is not possible if believers remain immature in their thinking. The current approach in the larger Christian community is to form different groups independent of one another. If you want a Charismatic worship, you leave and join a charismatic local church, or you leave the current local church to form another charismatic local church. This leads to fragmentation of the local church, which is a symptom of immaturity.

Another symptom of immaturity is putting pressure on those who are different to toe the line in name of uniformity. Such approach is a form of human wisdom because every organization must have uniformity. Having diverse groups in a single organization is chaotic. Thus, most human organizations would seek uniformity in the name of unity. There should be no diversity or very limited diversity in an organization. If a church seeks uniformity in the name of unity, it is exhibiting immaturity.

Such immaturity was highlighted by Paul. In 1st Corinthians 12:14-26, Paul points out that believers should not separate from one another just because they are not the same. It is immaturity for a foot to say I do not belong to the body because I am not a hand and vice versa (12:15-16). Believers are not to separate from one another spiritually just because they are different. They remain part of the body of Christ.

Thus, a local church is growing in maturity when diverse groups are willing to learn to live with one another despite their differences. This would mean no local subgroup should leave the local church and no subgroup should be pressurized to conform in order to remain in the local church. Instead, all believers are to create a common space for all subgroups to coexist by upholding the seven oneness and by using the same Scripture for dialogue to find pragmatic solutions to co-exist.

The second answer to the question “Is it possible?” is Yes. It is possible to form such a local church where a full range of possible diversity coexist. It is possible not because believers are able to depend on themselves to do it. It is possible because God would answer Jesus’ prayer for the church.

In John 17, Jesus prayed for his early disciples and for those who would believe in their testimony (17:20). Jesus prayed for those who come later to become “one” (17:21a, 22-23a). The reason for Jesus to pray for this oneness is “so that the world may believe” that the Father has sent Jesus (17:21b) and “so that the world may know” that the Father has sent Jesus and loved all the believers just as the Father loved Jesus (17:23b). Since Jesus prayed for this oneness, God will certainly answer his prayer.

If God will certainly answer Jesus’ prayer, then the local church should pray for God’s help to encourage diversity and to create a common space for diverse groups to coexist. In this sense, when we ask God for help to love one another despite our irreconcilable diversities, we are guaranteed that God would strengthen us to love one another because we are praying according to his will (cf. John 15:7-8,16-17). When we ask God for wisdom to create a common space large enough to accommodate all diverse groups, God will certainly give us wisdom to come out with pragmatic solutions that are in line with Scripture to create such a space (cf. Jam 1:5-8).

 

A Challenging Vision

Therefore, it is the responsibility of every local church to encourage diverse subgroups to co-exist in a common space. This is a pursue of maturing unity of the Spirit. This is not an optional pursue but a challenging vision because the ability of the local church to live in this way is an apologetic evidence that God has sent Jesus into the world. It is also God’s answer to Jesus’s prayer.

[1] Cairns, E. E. (1981). Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Zondervan. This is a good one volume survey of Church History.

[2] Cairns, 273.

[3] Cairns, 273-285. Cairns discussed the impetus and the causes of the Reformation.

[4] Cairns writes, “The Reformation ushered in startling changes by which the one universal Roman Catholic church was replaced by national churches” (285). These national churches gave birth to more splintering groups such as Methodism and Brethren from Anglicanism (the Church of England).

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