My dad was a great storyteller, and some of his best stories were about growing up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Dad always seemed to have a sparkle in his eye that shined brighter whenever he told stories of his youth. We especially loved the ones that involved the great outdoors—hunting squirrels in the woods, shooting his first deer, and ice-fishing on a frozen lake.
For more than five decades I have wanted to see where my dad grew up, especially where his father originally farmed. My dream came true in the summer of 2016 when I joined some of my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles for a Gallagher family reunion. My time there included a visit to Erin Prairie, Wisconsin, the site of the family farm, and other places that my dad had talked about. Although I had never met many of my relatives before, there was a genuine bond between us, a connection that comes from knowing you are part of the same clan—a feeling that this is your family community.
A desire for unity
Somewhere deep in every heart there’s a desire to be connected to others, to be known and accepted; a desire to be united to family and friends. This is the glue that drives people to form communities, to stick together in a tribe, clan, or even as an outlaw gang.
Some of the most meaningful times in life usually involve close friends and family. For some, these may include high school friendships, a sports team, a church group, or a military unit. Although it’s good to desire connection with others, many times it causes people to fasten to others for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way, such as the wayward youth who has become bound to a criminal endeavor in his or her quest to be part of a group.
Unity is part of the divine plan
Unity is the state of oneness, a way in which diverse parts combine so that they belong and work together harmoniously. Looking at the physical world, we see a model of unity displayed in creation. Consider how the simplest of biological organisms are composed of many complex parts that must work seamlessly together in order for life to exist. The human body is also a great example of multiple systems all seamlessly interacting, belonging, and depending upon each other. This sense of unity can be found on both the micro-level of molecules and atoms, as well as the macro-level of galaxies and the entire universe. Unity, meaning a harmony even among diversity, is part of God’s grand plan.
The creation was originally made to operate in a unified fashion, but at some point God’s archrival, Satan, rebelled and set about causing disruption, chaos, and division. Still, God’s desire for unity remains, and the day is coming when His divine plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10) will be fulfilled. Jesus also demonstrated this desire of God’s heart when he prayed that his followers would be “one,” just as he and the Father were one (John 17:11; 22).
Discord and division abound
Sadly, instead of harmony and the oneness that God desires, what we often see in the world, including in Christianity, is fighting, discord, and strife. The “god of this world” is masterful in the ways he manipulates people, spreading anger and sowing division. In spite of knowing that conflict and division are bad, our aversion to these things often isn’t powerful enough to overcome them. Even in the spiritual community of the One Body, deep rifts abound. There are far too many Christians today who can tell tales of church splits they have endured.
I truly believe there’s a primal cry in the human heart to be united with others, especially other members of the Body of Christ, but given all the contention and division that exist, I have often wondered, “Is unity in the One Body even possible?” It seems that most Christians desire unity, but they really don’t understand it.
Unity throughout the Creation
It’s helpful to see the fundamental concept of unity from the perspective of God’s desire for it throughout His entire creation. At some point in the future the creation will once again be properly aligned with the hierarchy and order that God first ordained. When this happens, harmony will be restored in creation—unity with great diversity. There will be angelic spiritual beings praising and serving God alongside mankind. But until Jesus Christ brings all things into obedience to God, this universal unity won’t exist.
Unity in the Body of Christ
As Christians, we often feel the deep tug on our hearts for unity; but lacking a genuine understanding of it can cause lots of problems. Sometimes people are so desirous of being one with others that they connect with those that they shouldn’t, or they connect in the wrong way. Likewise, some who lack a healthy understanding of unity fail to connect when they can and should. To properly pursue godly unity, we must see it from the three perspectives presented in Scripture: Unity of the Spirit, Unity of the Faith, and Unity of Fellowship.
Unity of the Spirit
Unity of the Spirit is given to every member of the Body of Christ by virtue of their spiritual birth into God’s family. Just as there are many parts in the physical body that collectively form one body, there’s also great diversity in the family of God with a common spirit that binds us to one another. We have done nothing to create this union; it’s forged through our spiritual birth. God tells us that we are obligated to do everything we can to “keep” or “maintain” this unity.
Ephesians 4:3-6 (NIV)
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
When we accept Christ as our Lord and we are at peace with God, the bond of peace that spiritually exists between us and Him also exists between us and every member in the One Body. The English word “keep” is translated from the Greek word “tēreo,” and it means “to tend or guard carefully.” This isn’t a unity that we just passively accept and then do nothing about. Every farmer knows that he must tend to his crops if he’s to reap a bountiful harvest, which is why he expends great effort watering, weeding, fertilizing, and pruning.
The phrase “make every effort” is translated from the Greek “spoudazō,” meaning that we are to “work diligently” to see that this unity is maintained. We must tend to the unity of the spirit that God has given us, and we must also guard it like a dog guarding a bone. Protecting the unity of the spirit requires diligence and great effort, because the Slanderer is constantly seeking ways to distract and divide us.
In every family there is a wide diversity of personalities and temperaments, which is certainly also true of the family of God. Our individual differences can cause tensions and conflicts, but when they arise we are commanded to work hard to stay unified. God demands of us that we act with peace, being gentle, forgiving, and always showing loving service. We aren’t responsible for how others act toward us, but it’s always our responsibility to, “if it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18).
Unity in the Faith
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul spoke of a “unity of the faith.” He indicated that individuals operate various personal gifts and callings for the purpose of helping God’s people to increase in their knowledge of Christ and grow with spiritual maturity as the goal. Although there’s only One Faith, our individual differences and understandings prevent us from achieving complete “unity of the faith” until the whole Body of Christ reaches its fullness:
Ephesians 4:11-13 (NIV)
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Our individual faith positions are the greatest source of division and discord in the Body of Christ, in spite of the fact that we are commanded to “guard the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Most denominations place a huge emphasis on doctrinal positions, so much so that unity with them can only happen if you abandon your beliefs and adopt their perspectives on the Scriptures.
Every Christian has an obligation to search the Scriptures and develop to the best of their ability an understanding of the truths God has revealed. We are also told to “hold fast” to the truth (2 Tim. 1:13; cp. 1 Thess. 5:21), but we must have enough humility to be open to the possibility that, although we think we are correct, we may in fact be wrong no matter how much we read, study, and research the Scriptures. We must hold our doctrine with a proper attitude toward others, never being antagonistic or contemptuous of those who see things differently.
I like to think of doctrine like a bird held in the palm of my hand. I must hold it firmly enough that it doesn’t fly away, but loosely enough that I don’t squeeze the life out of it. As a genuine truth-seeker, I accept that I may be incorrect in some areas, and I am willing to change when I am presented with solid evidence. But no matter what I believe, I must always be open, gentle, kind, humble, and willing to serve all others in the Body of Christ. I accept that unity of the faith isn’t something that will happen until Christ returns, while at the same time I am endeavoring to guard the unity of the spirit—a unity that does exist.
Is it ever right to separate from others in the Body of Christ?
Living with generosity toward others doesn’t mean that we must agree with them. It simply means that we recognize that they have the liberty to see things differently, the freedom to believe as they choose. We don’t have to endorse or promote their positions, but we also don’t engage in slander or malice toward them.
We should also never tolerate teaching that promotes sinful and ungodly behavior or any matters that are a stumbling block to salvation through Christ. People may differ in their understandings on the nature of Christ, the state of the dead, the timing of the rapture, or end-time events, but these aren’t salvation issues, and we have to accept the lack of unity in the faith here.
In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg and began to challenge the Roman Catholic teachings of salvation by works and their selling of indulgences—the belief that people could pay money to reduce their punishment for sin. His actions ignited the Protestant Reformation, one of the greatest divisions in the Body of Christ, and he was right to do so because the Church had been promoting hindrances to salvation and inciting sinful behaviors. There are also records in scripture where Paul instructed the Corinthians to separate from a man who refused to repent of sexual sin, and from Jews who taught that circumcision was required for salvation. We are aware that the Enemy will slip his wolves into the flock and we must separate from them before they can divide or devour us.
Unity of Fellowship
When most people speak of unity, they aren’t thinking in terms of the unity of the spirit or the faith. They are usually talking about their desire for harmony and connection with others, something that could be called unity of fellowship. We seek others with whom we feel a sense of belonging, a flock where we can participate, fully sharing our gifts and callings, serving others, and having our needs met, too.
This craving for union with others is a godly desire, something that God wants us to pursue. He desires that we meet with other Christians, even telling us that “we must not forsake meeting with others as some are in the habit of doing” (Heb. 10:25). It’s only by being intimately involved with others that we can fulfill God’s “One Anothering” commands to:
- Love one another (John 13:34.35)
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13)
- Be devoted to and honor one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Be kind and compassionate toward one another (Eph. 4:32)
- Bear with one another (Col 3:13)
- Forgive one another (Col 3:13)
These are community commands that can’t be fulfilled if we aren’t in Christian relationship with others. But problems arise when we connect to the wrong people or for the wrong reasons. The problem for many, especially those who have doctrinal beliefs that differ from fundamental mainstream positions, is that there are few opportunities for relationships in which there’s a mutual full sharing; and, after all, there really isn’t unity in fellowship if one must hide their beliefs or abandon them altogether in order to fit in.
Instead of compromising on what you believe to be true, or not meeting with anyone at all, the alternative is to find others who, in spite of doctrinal differences, will agree that we are members of the same spiritual Body, that we are commanded to keep the unity of the spirit, and that we can have unity of fellowship when we allow everyone to exercise their God-given freedom and the liberty to make their own choices about what they believe Scripture says. This way, we can have unity in fellowship as we all pursue unity of the faith, teaching what we believe to be true and dialoging on the points of difference while we vigorously guard the unity of the spirit that the Father has given us through birth into His family. By doing so, we can achieve godly union with others, honor our personal integrity concerning our beliefs, and enjoy the greatness of the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. This is how we live worthy of the calling we have received, in the true unity that’s available to us today.
Ephesian 4:1-3 (NIV)
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.