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Unity of Believers


See: Ne 4:1-23

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This word is very rare in the Bible, but the thought behind the term, that of the one people of God, is extremely prominent. Already in the OT Israel is descended from the one father, and although the tribes are later divided the psalmist commends unity (Ps. 133:1) and Ezekiel looks to the time when there shall be "one stick" (Ezek. 37:17). Nor is this merely a political or natural unity, for Abraham is divinely elected, and Isaac is the child of special promise and miracle.

In the NT this unity is expanded in accordance with the original promise. The wall of partition between Jew and Gentile, and indeed between Greek and barbarian, bond and slave, male and female, is broken down. There is now the one people of God embracing men of all nations (Eph. 2:12-13; Gal. 3:28).

But this new unity is not one of mere good will, or common interests, or ecclesiastical organization. It is a unity of expansion because of contraction. It is a unity in the one seed (Gal. 3:16) who has come as the true Israelite and indeed the second Adam (Rom. 5:12-13). The old and estranged men are made one in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:15). The one Jesus Christ is the basis of the unity of his people.

But they are one in Jesus Christ as the one who reconciled them by dying and rising again in their stead. As divided men they first meet in his crucified body, in which their old life is put to death and destroyed. They are reconciled in one body by the cross (Eph. 2:16). "We thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead" (II Cor. 5:14). But Jesus Christ rose as well as died, and as the Resurrected he is the one true life of his people (Col. 3:3-4). They thus meet in his risen body, in which they are the one new man.

Yet if this unity is centered in Jesus Christ, it is necessarily a unity of the Holy Spirit. Believers have their new life in Christ as they are all born of the one Spirit (John 3:5; Eph. 4:4). But this means that they are brothers of Jesus Christ and of one another in the one family of God. They have the one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4). They have not only a common birth, but a common mind which is the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). They are led by the one Spirit, being built up as a habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph. 2:22).

How full and real this unity is emerges in the fact that the church is called the bride of Christ, and is therefore one body and one spirit with him (cf. I Cor. 6:17; Eph. 5:30). It can thus be described quite simply as his body, of which Christians are the different members (Rom. 12:4). Since it is by faith that Christians belong to Christ, their unity is a unity of faith (Eph. 4:13). It is expressed in the two sacraments, for as there is only one baptism (Eph. 4:5), so there is only one loaf and cup (I Cor. 10:17).

Since unity belongs so essentially to the people of God, it is right that it should find expression in the creed (one church), and that in all ages there should be a concern for Christian unity according to the prayer of Christ himself (John 17:21). For the attainment of genuine unity, however, it is necessary that the following point should be observed.

Christian unity is a given fact of the new life to be believed and accepted in faith in Christ. It is not first the unity created, safeguarded, or enforced by a human institution or association. Nor can it be simply equated with a particular structure of the church or form of ministry, practice, or dogma. Like the righteousness of the Christian, it is found first and primarily and exclusively in Christ.

Again, Christian unity is not identical with uniformity. It does not allow division. But it does not exclude variety. The one Spirit gives different gifts (I Cor. 12:4-5). In the one body of Christ there are many members. The unity grounded in Christ leaves scope for diversity of action and function, the only conformity being to the mind of Christ and direction of the Spirit.

Finally, the unity received in faith must find expression in historical life and action. There must be no antinomian acquiescence in diveded or competitive Christian bodies. To this extent, it is right and necessary that there should be an active pursuit of practical unity, but only on the basis of the unity already given, and therefore with a fuller looking to Christ and readier subjection to his Spirit.

G W Bromiley
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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