As I think through the implications of the truth that all who are in Christ Jesus have a divine responsibility to be of one mind and to be patient and longsuffering with each other, I am struck by the difficulty of putting it into practice. I recently browsed the websites of various denominations which shares the restoration movement roots of Churches of Christ. They, as well as we, preach the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, including immersion. But when I read their Constitution, Bylaws, and Policies, they are as foreign and cumbersome to my non-institutional mind as a “cowbell in church,” as Alexander Campbell might say.
This is where the rubber meets the road in the question of unity. It tests the mettle of every true believer in Jesus’ prayer for unity to see a practice that you don’t believe is what the new covenant scriptures intended, yet accept that many of those who practice it are sincere members of Christ’s body as well as I. Brother, this is hard.
But the difficulty of the task doesn’t preclude us from taking it up if we are to take our command seriously to love our brethren and avoid factions. Those of us who have argued the necessity for functional divisions among God’s people are faced with some blunt testimony from Jesus Christ himself and from his apostles:
John 17:9-11 – “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. 10 And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are?”
Jesus’ prayer is for the unity of all believers in Him. He states here that all those who belong to Christ belong to the Father, and we have to recognize the same fact, as hard as it may be. He goes on:
John 17:20-23 – “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
Here he gives his definition of what he meant when he said “that they also may be one in Us,” when he says “that the world may believe that You sent Me.” That is the meaning of “being one in Him;” being true believers in the good news that the Father sent Him. We cannot and will not see eye to eye on practical matters throughout the course of our Christian walk. But we are commanded, once we are brothers, to remain seeing eye to eye on these important facts:
1 Corinthians 15:1-8 – Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
To fail to stand firm in this gospel “by which you are saved” is to remain in our sins:
1 Corinthians 15:14-17 – And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up–if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!
We can’t divide out of practical necessity when the apostle teaches us so clearly to remain unified and of one mind on this highest common denominator of our faith. That is not to suggest that the gospel is all we ever need to worry about, but that it is the only basis of Christian love, fellowship, and association. From there we move forward to edify one another and share experiences and understandings of the inspired Word. But in all these matters of understanding, we must be forbearing of brethren, erring or not, because with the mercy we have shown, we ourselves will be judged:
James 2:12-13 – So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Peace, longsuffering, and kindness are fruits of the Spirit, implying that in their absence, the fruits of the Spirit are lacking:
Galatians 5:22 – But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
Paul knew this would be difficult. In his words to the Ephesian congregation, he emphasizes humility, gentleness, and the need to bear with each other in love. It takes a positive effort on our part to endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1-3 – I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
It is stunning to read the numerous other admonitions in scripture to be longsuffering with our brethren. In his letter to Colosse, Paul writes that being longsuffering is walking worthy of the Lord:
Colossians 1:9-14 – For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; 10 that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, 14 in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.
We are even to “give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” This points out that we are all in this together. We should not be thanking God that we “are not like the institutionalists” but that God has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance.
In the same letter, Paul writes that there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free. He might well have added “one-cup or two cup, paid preacher or mutual edification” if he were among us today. He exhorts us to be merciful, kind, humble, forgiving of each other “even as Christ forgave you.” But above all, he says, put on love, which is the perfect bond to glue us together as Christians:
Colossians 3:9-12 – Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, 11 where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. 12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.
That love is the bond of brotherhood should be evident. That we don’t consider our brothers to be worthy of our prayers, fellowship, and edification is evidence that love is lacking. That is a hard pill to swallow, and it may take some time to get it down. But get it down we must, if we are to look inward to figure out how to put the principles of Christian unity into practice. And brothers, it’s always hardest to look inward.