THE UNITY OF GOD'S PEOPLE

Dusty Owens

Unity among God's people is one of the most important topics we could address. It should rank high on our study list because (1) it has been sadly neglected by a large number of people and (2) it has been shrouded in misunderstandings, which are caused mainly by preachers. For instance, there are numerous preachers and Bible teachers who would belittle anyone who believes and practices what is sometimes called, "Unity In Diversity.'' This is a teaching that states we should make every attempt to stay together as brethren in spite of our disagreements over the interpretation of scriptures. In other words, we may not see "eye to eye" on many things in the Bible, but we still are "one in Christ Jesus" and should be willing to "extend the right hand of fellowship" and be willing to accept one another as Christians. I believe there are many passages that teach this principle, and it bothers me to see preachers trying to cast this teaching in a bad light as if it came from Satan, when in reality the teaching came from the Holy Spirit. If you will maintain an open mind through this study, I believe you will see that point very clearly.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that God wants His people to live in peace and harmony. A careful study of the entire Bible reveals that this principle has always existed. In ancient times God expected man to "be his brother's keeper," looking out for his welfare. Abraham knew this and realized that it was sinful to strive with another human being. Therefore, he labored to put down the strife that began to grow between Lot and himself, and their herdsmen. The prophets continually warned the backsliding Israelites that God was more interested in their daily dealings with one another than He was with their solemn assemblies. Amos wrote,

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your burnt-offering and meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream" (Amos 5:21-24).

Isaiah, the prophet recorded the same warning:

"...I have had enough of the burnt-offerings of rams, and fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats...Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a cumbrance to me; I am weary of bearing them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.

Then, Jehovah said,

"Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:10-17).

The first King David said it simply: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Psa. 133:1). The second "King David" prayed while in the garden that God's people "may all be one...that the world may believe that thou didst send me" (John 17:21).

"And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me" (vv. 22-23).

Yes, with His earthly life coming to a close Jesus prayed fervently for the unity of God's people. It is a sinful shame and a diabolic disgrace that today many people professing to be followers of Jesus are divided into denominations and sects instead of working toward the realization of the Master's prayer to be one. No wonder the world does not believe!

We must be aware of the sinfulness of this situation. It goes without saying that the fightings, strife and divisions are not from God, but are the workings of Satan. More pointedly, they are sinful works of the flesh. The apostle Paul classified them as such in Galatians 5:19-20, and went on .to say, "Of which I forewarn you...that they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." God hates strife, and especially strife between brethren. Those that practice it "shall not inherit the kingdom of God." I would say, that is a serious matter, wouldn't you?

The Role Of The Institutional Church

Most professing Christians today pay lip service to the prayer and teaching of Jesus concerning unity. While agreeing that God wants His people to be "one," they continue to take part in the fracturing and splintering that takes place. They claim to abhor the divisive spirit, yet if a "good ole fashion church-fight" occurs, they are right in the middle of it. Experience tells me that most church splits are caused by preachers and/or elders. Those who do not take part in the wranglings, at least support their favorite faction or sect. This divisiveness occurs within all denominations. Each denomination is identified by its peculiar creed that sets it off from the rest, even from those who wear the same name. Wearing an exclusive name, such as Church of Christ, Christian Church, Baptist Church, Church of God, etc., emphasizes the division. It tells the world that the principle of love is not in practice. I have known people who would rather be identified by their Church name, than by the name of Christ. Alas, they are victims of the Institutional Church mentality.

Historically, the Institutional Church came about ostensibly by "good-intentioned" men who wanted to keep the doctrine of Christ pure. They were self-appointed guardians of the "truth," the keepers of orthodoxy. These men assumed that God placed in their hands the responsibility and the authority to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). Today's preachers and elders make the same assumption. Their idea of keeping the people of God unified follows this course of thinking: (1) God has assigned them the task of determining what the truth is on all important matters; (2) All of God's people must embrace this same "body of Truth," which is labeled "the doctrine of Christ" to give it authenticity; (3) Everyone must report for all indoctrination sessions under threat of being excommunicated from the group; and (4) Only those who wear the exclusive group name, and who believe the way they do about all "important matters of faith," can be fellowshipped. In fact, many would go so far as to say, "Only those of our church will be saved." In other words, unity is understood and made possible, only within the parameters of the Institutional Church.

To the institutional mentality, "unity" only exists in the "Unit," identified by the clergy as "the local church." The basic purpose of the "local church" is to control the people so that they believe and practice what is set forth by the leadership as truth. "Disfellowshipping" those that do not believe the traditional "articles of faith" is absolutely necessary to the preservation of the "unit," the "local church." In their estimation, this is "keeping the unity of the Spirit." If the congregation divides, each group sees the other as wearing "black hats" and bound to perdition, while they, themselves, feel confident that they have done what God wills, i.e., keeping God's people unified! Isaiah has spoken well: "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Isa. 5:29).

The apostle did not commend the people of God at Corinth for dividing themselves into parties. Instead, he chastised them:

"Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10).

In the third chapter, he attributed their divisions to carnality and said they were walking "after the manner of men" (3:1-3). In spite of their divisions, Paul did not separate himself from those "unsound and unfaithful" Christians. He still accepted them as brethren in the Lord.

Many preachers and elders labor under the delusion that unity can exist only among those who believe the way they do on all "important matters." Of course, the "important matters" include such things as how often must you take the Lord's Supper?; should you use individual cups for the juice?; must it be wine or grape juice?; may one use an instrument with which to praise God and instruct others?; do you have to contribute financially to the church every Sunday; may money be used from the common fund for anything worthwhile, including the support of non-saints or orphans in an orphan home, or sending flowers to the sick?; and on and on ad nauseum. In their estimation, the unity of God's people depends on everyone believing exactly alike on all these matters, plus a hundred more that could be listed here. Brethren have fussed and fought, devoured and divided over all these issues-all in the name of "keeping the unity of the Spirit." This is a travesty of God's wisdom.

Paul's Teaching To The Corinthians

We have examined already some of the statements Paul made to the saints in Corinth. Understand that these brethren had many issues over which they disagreed, yet not once did Paul advocate that the group who had everything correct (?) should deny fellowship to the less informed brethren (the brother in chapter five was to be denied fellowship on a morals charge, not a doctrinal issue). The Corinthians disagreed over the role of teachers, litigation against a brother, marriage and divorce, celibacy, eating meats sacrificed to idols, liberties in Christ, Paul's financial support, head covers and veils, the Lord's Supper, spiritual gifts, the resurrection of the dead, and possibly, the support of the impoverished Jews in Jerusalem. There may have been even other issues between these brethren, but not once did Paul hint at division being the answer to "keeping the doctrine or the church pure" for the sake of unity! In fact, we have already noticed, Paul condemned them for their divisions. I believe that to be very significant.

Study carefully what Paul said in regard to each of these issues and you will see that his comments were couched in terms of doing what was right and just between brethren, even as the prophets instructed Israel and Jesus taught His followers. Paul was not concerned about keeping the unity of some Institutional Church. He was not attempting to get all of them in Corinth to believe the same thing on every subject. He was concerned with their attitude toward one another. But someone asks, "Did not Paul tell them to 'speak the same thing' in 1:107" Yes, but he was not talking about everyone believing everything alike, he was talking about an attitude. They were to have a disposition of love toward each other, and a sense of treating each other fairly and justly. When this happens, problems are easier resolved and people feel much closer together. This is what true unity is all about. In other words, the unity of God's people is not based on a prescribed body of doctrine that everyone must be whipped up to believe and to obey, but it is predicated upon having a proper attitude, a disposition of love, toward each other. If there is love, then everything else falls into place and you have unity. If there is no love, Paul said in chapter thirteen, "I am nothing...I have nothing," and there cannot be unity among the brethren. It was this attitude that prompted Paul to say, "Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble" (8:13) and "we bear all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ" (9:12), "Let no man seek his own, but each his neighbor's good" (10:24), and "Give no occasion of stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to their church of God: even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved" (10:33).

Look around you, my brethren, and ask yourself, "Is this the attitude that has been displayed over the last few decades?" I remind you of all the fightings and divisions that have lead to the splintering of God's people. Today, there are over a dozen different "Church of Christ" churches alone, each one purporting to be "the one and only true church of our Lord." What arrogance! What pride! What a display of self-righteousness! And, all of this happening while the preachers in the pulpit of each one of these denominations are giving their staid sermons on "Unity"-based on recognizing the identifiable marks of the one and only true church in which salvation is obtained, and obeying the established legal system of the Law of Christ. What foolishness!

Paul's Teaching To The Philippians

We have noticed when Paul said to the Corinthians "be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment," he was talking about an attitude they were to express toward each other. The apostle taught brethren in Philippi the same principle:

"... make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others" (Phil. 2:2-4).

Again, their actions toward each other were to be couched in love and humility. They were to count the other brother "better than himself," and always consider the other's "things" before his own. This attitude was to prevail even in the face of disagreements they might have over any issues. Above all, they were not to do anything that would lead to divisions.

What has happened in our brief lifetime? Our brethren have made an issue out of everything imaginable, forcing them into life/death situations that inevitably lead to factions and parties. Think of the heartaches, the pain and sorrow, not to speak of the anger, wrath and pent-up resentments, that have occurred over the last thirty years, as brethren have considered their own "things" (opinions) as better than their brother's.

In many "local churches" today, leaders determine what the body of "truth" is for that congregation. Woe unto anyone who questions any part of their dogma. All love and humility are cast to the winds as ultimatums are handed out. "Accept it or leave," or "stay and keep quiet!" Is this the spirit of Christ?

Paul told the Philippians, "Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus" (2:5). The apostle portrayed Jesus as one who "emptied himself," then "humbled himself." This is an excellent example of the kind of attitude Paul said must characterize the Phillippians. But, remember, he said the same thing to the Corinthians. This "same mind," this loving, caring attitude, void of wrangling and fightings over our "things," must exemplify Christians everywhere. The disciples of Christ must be "one" as Jesus prayed for, "that the world may believe on me."

Paul's Teaching To The Ephesians


Ironically, this precious unity among God's people will exist with or without us. God is the only one that knows who all His people are. Did you understand what I just said? IN GOD's MIND THEY ARE AlREADY UNITED! Not the people who are in complete agreement concerning every article of some creed, written or unwritten, but rather, all who are practicing these principles of love in spite of their disagreements with their brethren. In Ephesians the fourth chapter, I read:

"I therefore, the prisioner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4:3).

Notice, the "unity of the Spirit" is something already in existence. The responsibility of Christians is to "keep" (guard) it, not to create it! The apostle tells us how to do that. It takes a certain attitude or disposition of love toward others to accomplish that. It takes "lowliness," "meekness," "longsuffering," and "forbearance," all motivated by a genuine love for others.

Our Institutional Church brethren think this passage refers to keeping the doctrine pure, thus preserving unity. They interpret the "one faith" of verse 5 and "the unity of the faith" of verse 13 as meaning a "body of truth," a doctrine. Of course, it is the truth or doctrine as they see it. This position sets up the conflicts that have led to most of the divisions. They seem bound to preserve the unity by protecting their version of "the truth." Anyone who disagrees with them on any "major" point must be dealt with. That one must toe the party line or be ostracized. When this happens involving large groups of people, a major division takes place. Such has been the case over Missionary Societies, Instrumental Music, Institutional Care of Orphans and the Aged, etc. Many more times, however, the divisions involve small groups of people. Although not as visible, these divisions are just as sinful in the sight of God.

IT IS NOT THE FUNCTION OF A CHRISTIAN, OR A GROUP OF CHRISTIANS, TO DETERMINE WHO IS PART OF GOD'S PRECIOUS, UNIFIED FAMILY! It is impossible for anyone of us to know. It is our responsibility to edify, encourage and enlighten whenever and wherever we have contact with another brother. WHEREVER GOD HAS A CHILD, I HAVE A BROTHER! Many of my brethren are so paranoid over these matters. They are afraid to "extend fellowship" to someone who just might be off on some issue they have deemed a life/death matter, and that God is going to cast them out of His select circle because of it. Consequently, (1) they live in fear that they are not pleasing to God, and (2) they end up creating their own select circle, audaciously referring to it as "God's only true church." God does have His "one true group of people," and they are unified, but only He knows who they all are. You can be certain that the criteria God uses to determine who comprises it is not the one that men have devised in their finite wisdom! You can also be certain that anyone who is caught up in "the works of the flesh:" "...strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties...and such like," will not be among them for God said through His faithful servant, Paul, "They that practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19-21).

It grieves the Holy Spirit when brethren do not treat each other as they should. Some of the most vicious, treacherous, and spiteful people I have ever known are among those who call themselves members of the church." What is astounding is they act that way while claiming to "keep the doctrine and church pure." The truth of the matter is that they will go to any extent to force their opinions and judgments upon others, even at the expense of driving a wedge between believers. There is no justification for acting in a vile way, yet some seem to think that they have a license to do so if, in their estimation, they are dealing with an apostate. Pascal said it well, "men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." This evil behavior is remedied and unity preserved by following Paul's inspired instruction:

"Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and railing, be put away from you, with all malice: and he ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you. Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell" (Eph. 4:31-5:2).

Paul's Teaching To The Romans

Finally, we turn to the book of Romans for a lesson on unity among God's people. Every Bible student knows that the theme of Paul's letter to the Romans is "Salvation by Grace Through Faith," and he sets this forth very eloquently in the first eleven chapters of the book. But then, he moves to the purpose for his writing, beginning with chapter twelve. Some think that there is an abrupt change here and that Paul merely tacked on some exhortations to the main part of the letterˇ.Such is not the case. Once we know the purpose of Paul's writing, we will see the connection between the two main divisions of the book.

The purpose for the book of Romans is summed up in 15:5-6:

"Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus: that with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The purpose for the book of Romans is the unity of God's people in Rome. Stating it another way, Paul wanted these brethren to remain unified in spite of their diverse beliefs and practices.

In the first few chapters, Paul took the Romans back to the old scriptures to teach them about the "God of patience and of comfort," and how He was willing to pronounce righteousness on the ungodly if they had faith in Him. "The righteous shall live by faith." He used Abraham and David as examples of this strong faith. Paul's point was that God was very slow to "write off' anyone, even though they sinned time and again. In the second division of Romans, Paul is applying that principle in the lives of Christians. They must employ patience in their dealings with each other, even though there may be differences in beliefs and practices. Brethren, we must be of the same mind with each other as God has dealt with us through Jesus Christ our Savior. If we were full of mercy and grace in our dealings with one another, as we would want God to do for us, we would not be quick to condemn and to castigate over the slightest provocation.

The idea of forbearance really comes alive in chapter fourteen where the one who considers himself to be strong in the faith is told to "receive" the weaker; not to "set at nought" this one. In turn, the weaker is told not to "judge" the other brother. "Who are thou that judgest the servant of another?"

I find verse 5 interesting: "One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind." Evidently, there were brethren who did not feel that one day should be held "holier" than another, while some were persuaded that you should. We have that controversy prevalent today. Read again what Paul said about that. We are not to judge (or condemn) one another in matters such as these, for we all have the same Judge who shall judge us eventually. It is not our prerogative to make such judgments. Yet, this is completely ignored by the Institutional Church brethren as they judge a person to be unsound and unfit if they "miss the services of the church." We should all heed Paul's teaching: "Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge ye this rather, that no man put a stumbling block in his brother's way, or an occasion of falling."

So the purpose of the book of Romans was to insure unity among God's people. He instructed them at great length on how to get along with others. Paul called this good attitude having the "same mind one with another." The bottom line to this behavior is that God is glorified. "...That with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (15:6). "Wherefore, receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of God" (v. 7).

Remember, Jesus had prayed in the garden that they may all be one, that the world may believe and glorify the Father and the Son. This really brings home the importance of "keeping the unity of the Spirit" as we relate to others. This is the basis upon which you and I are going to be judged-not on bow well we defended what we think is the truth on all matters, but on how we treated each other and those about us. In the words &Paul: "So then

let us follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another" (Rom. 14:19).

Carlyle said, "Men's hearts ought not to be set against one another, but set with one another, and all against evil only."

In the words of a beautiful song:

"We are one in the Spirit; We are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they will know we are Christians by our love,
Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand
And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land.
We will work with each other; we will work side by side,
And we will guard each man's dignity; and save each man's pride.

All praise to the Father, From whom all things come,
All praise to Christ Jesus, His only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, Who makes us all one."