Unity: The Fifth Mark of the Church

January 29, 2008

by James M. Boice

The divisions that exist today are too obvious to need comment. They lie both on the surface and within. Battles rage. Even highly praised church mergers not only fail to heal these divisions but also usually lead to further breakups involving those who do not like the new union. So far as Christ’s reasons for praying for unity go, it is simply that he foresaw these differences and so asked for that great unity which should exist among his own in spite of them. 

All the marks of the church concern the Christian’s relationship to some thing or some person. Unity is to be the mark of the church in the relationships which exist between its members. Joy is the mark of the Christian in relationship to himself. Holiness is the mark in relationship to God. Truth is the mark in his relationship to the Bible. Mission is the mark in his relationship to the world. In this mark, unity, and the last, love, which in some sense summarizes them all, we deal with the Christian’s relationship to all who are likewise God’s children. 

What kind of unity is this to be?

One thing the church is not to be is a great organizational unity. Whatever advantages or disadvantages may be involved in massive organizational unity, this in itself obviously does not produce the results Christ prayed for, nor does it solve the church’s other great problems. Moreover, it has been tried and found wanting. In the early days of the church there was much vitality and growth but little organizational unity. Later, as the church came to favor under Constantine and his successors, the church increasingly centralized until during the Middle Ages there was literally one united ecclesiastical body covering all Europe. Wherever one went – whether north, east, south or west – there was one united, interlacing church with the Pope at its head. But was this a great age? Was there a deep unity of faith? Was the church strong? Was its morality high? Did men and women find themselves increasingly drawn to this faith and come to confess Jesus Christ to be their Savior and Lord (for that is what Christpromised, namely, that if the church were one, men and women would believe on him)? Not at all! On the contrary, the world believed the very opposite. 

Another type of unity that we do not need is conformity, that is, an approach to the church which would make everyone alike. Here we probably come closest to the error of the evangelical church. For if the liberal church for the most part strives for an organizational unity – the evangelical church for its part seems to strive for an identical pattern of looks and behavior among its members. This is not what Jesus is looking for in this prayer. On the contrary, there should be the greatest diversity among Christians, diversity of personality, interests, life style and even methods of Christian work and evangelism. This should make the church interesting, not dull. Uniformity is dull, like row upon row of cereal boxes. Variety is exciting! It is the variety of nature and of the character and actions of our God. 

But if the unity for which Jesus prayed is not an organizational unity or a unity achieved by conformity, what kind of unity is it? The answer is that it is a unity parallel to the unity that exists within the Godhead; for Jesus speaks of it in these terms – “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be one in us… I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:21, 23). This means that the church is to have a spiritual unity involving the basic orientation, desires and will of those participating. Paul points to this true unity in writing to the Corinthians, saying, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). 

The various images used of the church throughout the New Testament help us understand the nature of this unity. For instance, Christians belong to the family of God, and therefore they are rightly brothers and sisters of one another. We begin with this image because these terms, brothers and sisters, are the most common terms used by Christians of one another in the New Testament. 

The unique characteristic of this image – that of the family, or of brothers and sisters – is that it speaks of relationships and therefore of the commitments that the individuals must have to one another. The relationships are based upon what God has done. Salvation is described as God begetting spiritual children, who are therefore made members of his spiritual family through his choice and not through their own. 

This fact has two important consequences. 

First, if the family to which we belong has been established by God, then we have no choice as to who will be in it or whether or not we will be his or her sister or brother. On the contrary, the relationship simply exists, and we must be brotherly to the other Christian, whether we want to be or not. 

The second consequence is simply that we must be committed to each other in tangible ways. We must be committed to helping each other, for example. For we all need help at times, and this is one clear way in which the special bond among believers can be shown to the watching world. 

The second important image used to portray the unity of the church of Christ is a fellowship, which the New Testament normally indicates by the Greek word koinonia. The word at its base has to do with sharing something or having something in common. In spiritual terms koinonia, or fellowship, is had by those who share a common Christian experience of the gospel. In this respect the New Testament speaks often of our fellowship with the Father (1 John 1 :3), with the Son (1 Corinthians 1:9), which is sometimes described as a fellowship in the blood and body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10: 16), and with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). 

But fellowship is not only defined in terms of what we share in together. It also involves what we share out together. And this means that it must involve a community in which Christians actually share their thoughts and lives with one another. 

How is this to be done practically? It will probably be done in different ways in different congregations depending upon local situations and needs. Some churches are small and therefore will have an easier time establishing times of sharing. Here church suppers, work projects and other such efforts will help. Larger churches will have to break their numbers down into smaller groups in various ways. 

The third important image used to stress the unity of the church is the body. Clearly, this image has many important connotations. It speaks of the nature of the Christian union – one part of the body simply cannot survive if it is separated from the whole. It speaks of interdependence. It even suggests a kind of subordination involving a diversity of function; for the hand is not the foot, nor the foot the eye, and over all is the head which is Christ. 

However, the one function of the body which is unique to this image is service. For just as the family emphasizes relationships, and fellowship emphasizes sharing, so does the body emphasize work. The body exists to do something and, since we are talking about unity, we must stress that it exists to enable us to do this work together. 

What is to be your part in this area? What will you do? Obviously you cannot change the whole church, but, first, you can become aware of that great family, fellowship and body to which you already belong, and you can thank God for it. Second, you can join a small group, where the reality of Christian unity is most readily seen and experienced. Third, you can work with that group to show forth Christian love and give service. If you are willing to do that, you will find God to be with you, and you will be overwhelmed at the power with which he works both in you and in others whom he will be drawing to faith. 

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This is the fifth in a series of six posts by Dr James M. Boice concerning the characteristics of a healthy church.

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