On Which Beliefs Must Christians Be United?
One cannot read the prayer of Jesus in John 17 without being touched by His
profound desire for unity. In no less than seven places of that chapter, Jesus speaks of Him and
the Father being one and of the need for His followers to be one with Them. The context of the prayer was a plea for unity. The passage recognizes that there should be unity within God's people but that the world would not be part of the unity of God's people. In only one other place in
the scripture does the New Testament speak nearly as intensely of unity and one-ness:
Ephesians 4: 1-6. That passage says:
"I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a
manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility
and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain
the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There 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."
To ignore that there is some exclusivity in that passage is to totally shut one's eyes to the plainspoken Gospel of God. When the apostle Paul speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said that there was one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God, it simply was not possible for there to be more than one of any of them and for God's word to still be true. This passage both unites those who are of the "ones" he is speaking of, and separates those who are not of the "ones." Jesus said that His cause would be divisive, not always unifying (Matthew 10: 34-38; John 17: 9, 11, 15, 16). The division between the one body (church) and the world would be so sharp that the world would hate Christians (John 15:19 "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.") Let us return to the divisive aspect of Ephesians later on. For now, let us look at the unifying power of Ephesians 4: 1-6.
In the Lord's church, there will always be some matters of preference that
we differ on. Some congregations prefer that the communion occur near the beginning of the Sunday morning
worship service, while others have it near the end or on Sunday night.
Some congregations sing three songs before the sermon while others have a virtual
song fest before the preacher ever begins. But the essentials--the ones, if you will, to use Paul's terminology--that the Ephesians
4 passage specifies are:
- One body. The body--not multiple bodies, but one body
(Ephesians 1: 22, 23) which is the church. When Jesus said "Upon this
rock I will build my church," He did not say that He would build many
churches. Nor did He say that He would "rubber stamp" all the churches
that other people might someday create. Jesus nowhere gave any human authority
to establish any church. The existence of many denominations all over the world, each claiming to be
the body of Christ (Ephesians 1: 22, 23) cannot be right (1 Corinthians 1: 10-15).
- One Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God. This Holy Spirit is part of the
Trinity. He participated in the Creation (Genesis 1: 2) and is the ultimate
author of the Bible (II Peter 1: 20, 21). There are no directions about
how to approach the Holy Spirit of God directly. Rather, to approach the Godhead,
we are to go through Jesus Christ (John 14: 6).
- One hope, the hope of eternal life with God. We serve a resurrected
Lord. Other religions may lead followers to hope for reincarnation in a higher
form, but only Christianity offers the hope of a blessed eternal life with
a perfect God in a perfect place.
- One Lord, the Jesus Christ of whom Paul had been speaking about
for three chapters in Ephesians before 4: 5. Every time Paul had spoken of
"Lord," he had been talking about Jesus Christ. When he spoke of
God, he spoke of God by name.
- One faith. Scripture nowhere talks about a legitimate multiplicity
of faiths. Jude said to contend for the faith which had once for all
been delivered to the sainst (Jude 1: 3), not for a multiplicity of faiths
that might someday emerge.
- One baptism. While some point out the existence of several baptisms
in the New Testament, there was and still is only one baptism that is a command for us to do. The other baptisms are not commands for us today, but
rather were events that happened to only a few in the first century, or were
commands given before the death of Christ.
- One God and Father of all. As noted above, Jesus is referred to as
"Lord." The God that Christ has led us to is the God that will not
be in second place in anyone's life. He will either be first or He will be
"file not found."
These are the things on which we must agree as Christians if we are to fellowship one another. Above are stated the seven (interestingly, a New Testament "complete number") central
beliefs of the church. When we look at the implications of those seven, we see
the things that make Christians different from the world. And we see what sets
the true Way (Acts 9:1), church of Christ (Romans 16:16), body of Christ (Ephesians
1: 22, 23) and church of God (1 Corinthians 1: 2) apart from the denominational
world. When we get very far afield from these seven central beliefs and make
those excursions a test of fellowship, we are in danger of binding what Christ
did not bind or loosing what He did not loose.
Important realization: Unity is not uniformity. I Corinthians chapters
12 and 14, Romans 12: 3-8, and Ephesians 4: 11-16 describe how members of the
body of Christ will have different talents and abilities, and how Christians
should work together to allow expression of those gifts without creating confusion.
We will not all be just alike.
A happily married couple is united, but they are far from identical. Rather
their abilities and even their physical makeups make them a fantastic duet rather
than two solos.
Unity is powerful. The people of Genesis 11 at the tower of Babel had
unity--Even the Godhead said that there would not be anything that would be
impossible for the people if the matter was not addressed (Genesis 11: 6). But
it is possible to be united and yet not be united in truth. Unity without truth
is not just insufficient; it can be dangerous. The Jim Jones movement which
culminated in mass suicides in Guyana had unity, but not truth. Hitler had unity for a time in Germany, but not truth. The unity of the church today depends upon every
member being a Bible scholar. Every member should study his or her Bible (II
Tim. 2: 15). Only by the power of our Biblical knowledge can we keep the teachings
of the world on the outside of the church and the teachings of the Gospel on the inside. When
we look at Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, we see that He emphasized the importance
of unity in the truth (John 17: 8, 17).
The Ephesians 4: 1-6 passage is a definitive one, and one that some people find uncomfortable because it seems to exclude the possibility of "many roads leading to heaven." It is a unique compilation in scripture of "one this and none of anything else" pronouncements. But each of the seven specifications is found in other places in the Bible. It is the collection of exclusive statements in one place that is unique, not the existence of them anywhere else in scripture.
- More on the One Body. The John 17 passage detailing Jesus' prayer for unity in the church is so impassioned and so repetitive that it is impossible to construe or construct it in such a way as to mean that "any and all churches that men might build" would be approved and "rubber stamped" by Christ, retroactively. To construct the John 17 prayer in such a way is to portray our Christ as praying a psychotic prayer. It would portray Christ as fervently praying in His hour of agony for something that already existed, if all churches and all their doctrines were already united and already approved. It would question Jesus' statement in Matthew 7: 21-23 that "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"
- More on the One Spirit. For a more definitive synopsis on the Holy Spirit, please see http://www.dovercoc.org/Sermons/HS.html on this site. The Holy Spirit is the member of the Godhead or Trinity that we know the least about. He is referred to least of any of the Trinity and the fewest verses of the Bible speak of him in comparison to the other Two. We are admonished to not take Him lightly: Matt. 12:31, 32 "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."
- More on the One Hope. 1Peter 1:3,4 " Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you . . ."
- More on the One Lord. In addition to John 14: 6, numerous other passages declare the deity and supremacy of Christ. 1 John 2:22-24 "Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father." 1 John 3:23--"And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. " 1John 4:1-3 " Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already." 1John 5:5-8 "Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood--Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree."
- More on the One Faith. " And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."--Hebrews 11: 6. Scripture nowhere even speaks of many faiths. Rather it defends the one faith (one doctrine) that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1: 3). Paul near the end of his life did not say that he had kept many faiths, but rather that he had kept the faith and finished the course (II Timothy 4: 7).
- More on the One Baptism. John's baptism of repentance was
superceded (Acts 19: 1-7) by baptism into Christ. The baptism of the Holy
Spirit that overwhelmed the apostles on the day of Pentecost was something
that happened to them--not something that was commanded from them. It was an event, not a commandment. They had been told to go to Jerusalem to wait for that baptism, but otherwise they were not told how to do it, exactly when to do it, or any other specifics. The one baptism that we are responsible for doing today has very explicit commands about how it is to be done, for what reasons, and who should do it (Matthew 28: 18; Mark 16: 16; Acts 2: 38; Acts 8: 26-40; Acts 16: 30-34; Acts 22: 16; Romans 6: 1-12; Galatians 3: 27; I Peter 3: 21).
- More on the One God and Father of All. This God is the one that Paul affirmed to the Athenians in Acts 17:16-31 "Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, "What does this babbler wish to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"--because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean." Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for "'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." Probably no more eloquent sermon about who God is was preached by Paul to those people in Athens on that day.
Other than the Ephesians 4: 1-6 passage, no other passage in the New Testament
speaks in such exclusive terms about the "one" beliefs of the church.
Of the 829 verses and 976 instances in the ESV Bible where the word "one" is used, there is no other place in the New Testament where the central doctrinal beliefs
are addressed as "one" this and "one" that in one setting. However, each of the ones that Paul names are mentioned in numerous other places in the New Testament, but singly rather than as a collection, as in Ephesians 4: 1-6. The unity statements of Ephesians 4 simultaneously spark unity within the church but distance with the world. If even Christ could not bring about unity between the world and the church, why should Christians think that they can or should?
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