Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

The Unity Principle (Sep-Oct 1999)

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by Doug Foster
September – October, 1999

The union of Christians is the will of God, the prayer of Jesus, and the means of bringing the world to believe in Jesus, therefore it must be right. That man is then engaged in a righteous work, who labors to promote this union, by removing every obstacle to it; … But the man who acts a contrary part must be wrong, and engaged in a work in opposition to the will of God, the prayer of Jesus, and the salvation of the world. (Barton W. Stone, 1872)

Christianity is filled with paradoxes – things that just don’t fit together. For example, a divine being is not human; a human being is not divine. Divinity and humanity are absolutely different, they are not compatible, one is the negation of the other. Yet at the very heart of Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ is both human and divine (Philippians 2:6-7; 2 John 7). Here’s another. God is sovereign over all things; he is ultimately in charge. Humans do not manipulate God. Yet humans have free will. If we want to, we can choose to defy God and his plans and even quench his Holy Spirit (Acts 17:24-26; Ephesians 4:30). And here’s one more. Justice means people getting what they deserve, and God is a God of justice. Mercy is letting people off the hook – it doesn’t go with justice. Yet God is both absolutely just and absolutely merciful (Acts 17:31; Titus 3:5)! Christianity is filled with paradoxes.

There is another profound paradox in Christianity. This one, I’m afraid, has been especially troublesome because we have failed to realize it is a paradox. It concerns the nature of Christian unity. First, the scriptures are clear that while Christ’s body is diverse, there is only one body and all who are in Christ are members of that body (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:4). David Lipscomb said it plainly when he asserted, “It requires no negotiation or arrangements among men to unite them as one in Christ. If we are in Christ, we cannot help being one with all who are in Christ” (David Lipscomb in J.W. Shepherd, ed., Salvation from Sin by David Lipscomb (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1950), 299]. God himself creates that unity in Christ by adding all the saved to his church. We really have nothing to do with it – Christian unity is a gift from God.

Yet, there is another reality that seems to contradict the first. If the church is by its very nature one, why has it seldom looked that way? Since its very beginning Christ’s church has suffered division – visible disruption of the unity supposedly created by God. Jesus himself knew this would happen. One of the things weighing most heavily on his mind as he faced death was the unity of his followers. He obviously anticipated trouble (John 17). He knew that the disciples then and those who believed later could and would break the visible unity of his church. Pual urged the Ephesians to “maintain” the unity they had been given through the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). There was something they had to do. And face it, much of the New Testament was written in response to situations that either had the potential to cause division or already had.

So here it is: Christian unity is a gift from God that truly exists whether we acknowledge it or not, AND it is a responsibility, a calling, that every Christian either helps maintain or disrupt. What a paradox!

The founding leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement had a deep sense of both the God-given unity of the church and their duty to recognize, proclaim, and keep it. Barton W. Stone and his colleagues in effect killed their new and highly successful Presbyterian denomination for the sake of unity when they issued the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery in 1804.

We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one Body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

And Thomas Campbell, in his explanation of the purpose of the Christian Association, wrote in 1809:

The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

The leaders of this movement realized that Christ’s church is one in its very essence. And they also understood that it was their responsibility to recognize and maintain that unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in a visible way.

But paradoxes are strange things. Since they hold things together that reason says can’t go together, humans generally emphasize one part over the other. When we fail to hold tight to both of the apparently incompatible truths, however, we fall into dangerous, even divisive, misunderstandings. If on the one hand we focus only on the fact that unity is already a reality, the obvious assumption is that there is nothing we can or should do to work for it. We easily slip into the notion that the people with whom we are visibly united are the only true Christians. We experience unity as a visible reality because we presume those not part of “us” are not Christians anyway. What seem to be divisions in the church are not divisions at all, but the exodus of heretics. The true church is still visibly one.

In 1806, editor and preacher Moses Lard gave the classic expression of this idea in an article titled “Can We Divide?”

If one church becomes heretical, or fifty churches become heretical, they are to be repudiated. But this is no division of the body of Christ, but the creation of a faction. This faction is condemned in the New Testament, and is no part of the church. It is not a division in our ranks, but an apostasy from them. The case, therefore, presents no difficulties [Moses E. Lard, “Can We Divide?” Lard’s Quarterly 3 (April 1866):333].

If on the other hand we emphasize the idea that it is up to us to create the essential unity that God alone has already created, human ability becomes our focus. We fall into the assumption that by human effort we can take care of this and all other problems. Historically this has mean inventing organizations into which we can coax (or coerce) all Christians and Christian groups, but that ironically end up being the basis of new divisions. The naive notion that the solution to division among Christians is to design some new institution to deal with the problem has proven to be just that – naive. God frustrates human arrogance that assumes we have the ability to do what God alone can do. The only way to avoid these destructive tendencies is to hold tenaciously to both parts of the paradox, and that is just not very easy.

In any discussion of unity we must deal sooner or later with the matter of just who are the Christians with whom we are supposed to be united. The Scriptures are clear that not all who claim to be followers of Christ really are. We have specific descriptions of beliefs and practices that will cut one off from the communion of the church. But the list of things that separate one from the body is pretty short if we stick to Scripture:

    1. refusal to repent of personal sin against a brother or sister (Matthew 18:17);


  • gross unrepentant immorality and greed (1 Corinthians 5:5, 11-13);



  • a lifestyle of selfishness (2 Timothy 3:2-5);



  • refusal to work (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14);



  • denial that Christ came in the flesh (2 John 10); and



  • causing division (Titus 3:10).

Please notice that all but one are matters of personal morality – attitudes and the actions that result. There are and will be false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20). But Jesus says we will know them by their fruits, fruits that certainly include the items listed above and are reflected in the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21.

It appears that the key to making unity visible has first to do with the mind. Divisiveness is essentially an attitude. So is unity. Issues don’t cause division. Division is caused by people with a divisive attitude. Such people will always find an issue to rpomote their agenda. The foundation for unity is not that people have come to identical conclusions on all issues. The foundation for unity is being in Christ.

But how do we make an attitude of unity visible? How do we act in ways that do not compromise deeply-held convictions yet promote the visible unity that surely Christ had in mind in his dying prayer? I know of no easy answer in the current state of Christianity, but here are a couple of suggestions and an example. Regardless of how you define boundaries, yu know some believers in Christ who are outside our “communion.” They may be to your right and have a hard time recognizing you, or to your left whom you have a hard time accepting. Reach out in small gestures of kindness – an invitation to coffee or lunch, a card when they are sick or when they have done something noteworthy. Talk about your faith. Go slow. Start small. Act unthreateningly. Keep it up. Establish genuine friendship. Not so you can manipulate them, but because you honestly caref for them and are truly concerned about Christian unity.

Many long-standing divisions among those who profess belief in Christ are kept in place largely by ignorance of one another’s beliefs and practices. Arrange times for leaders and members from different groups to be together to explain ourselves to each other, frankly, openly, trustingly. Explore what you have in common as well as what apparently divides you. Pray together. Don whatever you can together that does not violate convictions – community service, disaster relief, counseling, worship. Seek the guidance of the Spirit of Christ, act and see what he will work in such efforts.

In February, 1999, in Pampa, Texas, a small panhandle city 40 miles northeast of Amarillo, three long-estranged bodies came together to worship and explore pieces of their common heritage. The leaders of the largest congregation of the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Church, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) planned a joint meeting of their congregations for a Saturday evening meal and worship service. One congregation supplied the brisket, another the vegetables and bread, another the dessert. Over 400 people from the three churches assembled in the Disciples’ building to eat, sing, and consider their past. Three points were made in the lesson that night:

    1. We share a common heritage of unity and division,


  • We need to know our history to understand ourselves today (1 Corinthians 10:1-12), and



  • We need each other.

No convictions were surrendered by those who participated in that service. The leaders of the three congregations were not sure what would happen next. But they did know that unit is pleasing to God and that causing division or allowing it to continue is not.

It is not always easy to understand our part of the unity paradox. But we don’t need to have everything figured out to know one thing for sure – Christ wants the unity of his followers. Divisive attitudes and actions are contrary to the will of Christ. Actions and attitudes that promote unity are pleasing to Christ. Furthermore, we don’t have to do everything to do something. May God help us to be clear on our convictions, to grasp the reality of our unity in Christ, and with his guidance to do something.Wineskins Magazine

Recommended reading:

Barry Callen and James North. Coming Together in Christ: Pioneering a New Testament Way to Christian Unity. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1997.

See a wide array of Stone-Campbell Movement documents, including the ones quoted in this article, on the Internet at

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