What is the Church?
Traditionally, the church has been defined by four key words: one (one faith, one God), holy (separate from the world), common (worldwide effect), and apostolic (based on the apostles’ eyewitness testimony). In this article I will concentrate on the first point of the definition: the unity of the church. As the basis I will use Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
God’s eternal plan for his own people lays the foundation for the church’s existence (Eph. 1:1–14). It is of outmost importance for the saints to understand their place and responsibility as members of Christ’s body (1:15–23). God has not only saved a few individuals here and there (2:1–10) but in his Son, Christ Jesus, he has created a people for himself (2:11–22).
Who belongs to God’s people?
This was a pressing issue in Paul’s day. When the pagans, i.e., the non-Jews, received the gospel, some zealots and Pharisees started teaching them the circumcision and keeping of the law of Moses. Nonetheless, Paul strongly opposed this teaching. In the end, the matter became so controversial that the leaders of the Jerusalem congregation had to be consulted (Acts 15).
The council concluded that both Jews and Pagans are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11). According to the teaching of Paul, Jesus has made those two groups one and he has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14). By his sacrifice Jesus has made them a new man, being partakers of the same Spirit and children of the same Father (Eph. 2:15–15). In other words, Jesus unites people who otherwise would not get along with each other!
Jesus unites people who otherwise would not get along with each other!
The purpose of unity
Paul regarded the unity of the church as a great secret of God which now had been revealed by the Holy Spirit: The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph. 3:6). This is “the manifold wisdom of God” which will be “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). In other words, the unity of the church makes God’s wisdom echo to the whole creation. The mission of the church is to declare God to the world, to make the invisible God visible.
In what ways is this unity seen, and how is God manifested in his people? Let’s first say a word or two what this is not about. Firstly, the unity of the church does not mean emphasizing the global church and thus being against different denominations. Denominational structures may, of course, be a challenge to the unity, but at their best they can strengthen the connections between congregations, leading to a more effective sharing of the gospel.
Secondly, the unity of the church is not the same as structural unity. The purpose of the congregation is not to gather people only of a certain age, or of the same profession, who are in a similar kind of situation in life, or people interested in same hobbies. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with institutions based on similarities, church community is something distinct from an association or club. One needs not to be a Christian to belong to such a community.
What does unity mean?
The unity of the church consists of two things: common love and common mission. Firstly, the church consists of people, different kinds of people, who have been touched by the gospel. They know they have sinned against their Creator and they deserve a just punishment. But a divine forgiveness has been declared unto them, and they have tasted God’s undeserved goodness, mercy, and love. Those who know they have been forgiven much, will therefore love much (Luke 7:47). Since they have been pardoned, they have no reason to regard themselves better than others. They recirculate mercy and, in this way, reveal God to their neighbor.
Secondly, Jesus has given to his diverse people a mission: make disciples of all nations. This is fulfilled when we establish real friendships wherever we are and have a chance to make an impact. People must hear the message, which alone can create faith in them (Rom. 10:17). Furthermore, they must see the gospel manifest in us, so they may follow us as we follow Jesus (1. Cor. 11:1).
Additionally, this mission is fulfilled when local churches meet together. New believers are baptized to be members of local churches as a sign that they belong to God’s people (Matt. 28:19). In this way they submit to biblical teaching, so that they could be equipped to be mature followers of Jesus, who for their own part are able to build up God’s temple, the church body of Jesus (Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:11–16).
The unity of the church consists of two things: common love and common mission.
Why unity matters?
If the unity of the church becomes distorted, it will endanger the whole mission Jesus gave. If Christians don’t reflect the unity of church and “God’s manifold wisdom” to the world, our lives are not in tune with our declaration. Jesus said that we would be known particularly because of our love to one another (John 13:34–35). Remember: This is love that brings together people who otherwise would not get along with each other!
The distortion of the unity of the church will also endanger the making of disciples. God has granted to his church ministries whose purpose is to equip the members of the body “until we all reach unity in the faith” (Eph. 4:11–13). However, reaching this unity is not possible amid selfishness, bitterness, tensions, and divisions. For this reason, we always must focus on the gospel, which puts everything in its place. Only the gospel can bring about faith. Only the gospel can maintain this faith.
For us to enjoy the unity of the church and echo together God’s manifold wisdom to the world we must remain centered on this message of the gospel, from which flows life and unity.
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)