Books of Bible
The Unity of All Believers
"Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:20, 21). These are certainly most fitting words with which to begin our study on "The Unity of All Believers." The words just quoted are a part of that great prayer of the Lord, uttered in the shadow of the cross. We all know that the Lord's teaching on prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13, has been called by some "the Lord's prayer." We have no authorization from God to so designate a prayer, but if we had such liberty I would suggest that the very circumstances of the words of our text would be a proper basis for this prayer being "the Lord's prayer." It is of extreme importance due to: (1) the content--a prayer for unity; (2) the setting--just prior to his death; (3) the ideal of oneness there pictured; (4) the basis of that unity--the Word; (5) the pattern of that unity--as Jesus and the Father are one; (6) the number involved in that unity--all who believe on him; and (7) the impact of that unity on those in the world-that they might become believers.
With that look at John 17:20,21 before us, and remembering the Lord's plea for unity, we want to see the situation now existing among religious people; we want to see the desirability of unity; and we want to see the means of attaining it. We want to see hindrances to that unity being developed, and then we want to note some practical things we all can do to further that unity, and thus be in compliance with our Lord's wishes. As he labored to please the Father in all things (John 8:29), we must also labor to be acceptable to Him in every facet of our lives and work.
The Situation Today
We know that we live in a divided world, religiously, and that division is manifest in broad divisions throughout the world, represented by Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.--those commonly called "the non-Christian religions." More, there are those religious systems accepted by the world as a part of "Christianity," characterized by many hundreds of denominations around the world and in our own nation. Indeed, there are well over three hundred different denominations, sects, etc. in our land, and the proliferation continues with no end in sight. This aspect of religious division is seen in division right in our own communities, sometimes within our own families, and most certainly within the church of the Lord itself. Satan has been very active in the affairs of the saints throughout the entire history of the church, and sad to say, but much of our history has been that of divisive efforts being made within the body. There have been resulting divisions among the Lord's people involving literature, classes, women teachers, individual communion cups, located preachers, cooperative evangelism, etc. Beyond those things, all informed brethren now know of the efforts being made, through the philosophy of liberalism, to cut the church loose from her "Restoration" moorings, and to make her into another denomination!
We thus know that Satan has been very successful in his divisive endeavors. The Bible warns us of his seeking to devour (I Pet. 5:8), of his wiles (Eph. 6:1 1) and devices (2 Cor. 2:1 1), and most certainly one of his standard tools is that of division, confusion, and contention. It was through his handiwork that nearly 2,000 years ago Paul was able to speak of the blowing of "every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14), and his work continues on today, having been multiplied many times over. As we are thinking of the work of Satan, as it pertains to division and in every other way, it must be remembered that he has no supernatural and miraculous power. He must work through men. In the original apostasy, Genesis chapter 3, he had to do his work through the couple in the garden. In accomplishing the work of division in all its forms and on all its levels, Satan must use men--he must use you and me--and he must labor to develop within men a rebellious spirit and disposition. When our Lord pleads for unity, it is most certainly a spirit of rebellion--a spirit of presumption (2 Pet. 2: 1, 10)--that would work within us to so set ourselves against the Lord's will. Man, urged by Satan, has ever been rebellious, and Paul warned Timothy to expect such: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned into fables" (2 Timothy 4:3,4). With that picture before us, we have simply to look at our world today, and at the church today as it is affected by liberalism and modernism, and we see that rebellion is clearly manifesting itself. Behold the division, and yet we hear the Lord's plea: ". . . that they all be one . . ."
The Desirability Of Unity
It is obvious that the unity thus spoken of by the Lord is to be desired because he thus asked for it, prayed for it, and more, he commands it. One of the most vital texts in this regard is given to us by Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians where he speaks of the seven "pillars" of unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (Eph. 4:4-6). In verse 3, the apostle, in the context of worthy walking (v. 1) and worthy attitudes (v. 2), pointed out our duty to "endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." That is, our lives and labors are to be such as will "observe attentively" the unity as taught by the Spirit of our God! We thus see that the child of God is to expend himself toward Unity, and not Division!
We can see the desirability of unity in the condemnations set forth in the Bible pertaining to division within a congregation, and seen as Paul writes to Corinth: "Now I beseech you, brethren, by 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 perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment"(1 Cor. 1:10). Just a casual reading of the First Corinthian letter will bring to our minds the picture of a divided people, and thus an evidence of carnality (I Cor. 3:1, 3). We are to obey our Lord, and the end of that obedience is spirituality and not carnality!
One of the chief fruits of unity is that spoken by the Lord in John 17:21. When he gave that picture of the unity of the believers such unity as exists between him and the Father--he stated that then "the world may believe that thou hast sent me." What is implied is that if those proposing to believe in Lord are divided, then the world will be "turned off," and will turn to unbelief. Sadly we all have seen that brought to home in our own communities, when men know of the divisions among God's people, and then will say, "If that is Christianity, I want no part of it!" One is certainly not justified in spurning truth, for whatever cause, but it is understandable that lost men cannot see beyond the "biting and devouring" (Gal. 5:15) and thus see themselves vindicated in turning away. Unity of the believers is desirable because our Lord labored for such, prayed for such, commanded such, and he has given us the means of attaining such.
The Means of Attaining Unity
Those who are students of the Bible know that God is always good to us. When he makes known his will for us, he includes in that same will the means, methods, and procedures whereby his desires may be accomplished. We recall that in Ephesians 4 the emphasis was on the unity of the Spirit. The apostle Peter stressed that God's will was made known to us as "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet. 1:21). Giving more information on this, the apostle Paul informed us of the ". . . things we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Spirit teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (I Cor. 2:13). Thus, we are told that God's Spirit has provided us with God's will, and that this will is made known in words selected by the Holy Spirit. Regarding the body of scripture, the apostle Paul stated that "Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). We then learn that God has revealed his will to us, in words selected by the Holy Spirit, and that this message furnishes us completely unto every good work. Surely one need not prove to Bible believers that unity is a good work! The declaration from old has been: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Ps. 133: 1).
Therefore, it is evident that the means of obtaining the unity for which our Lord prayed is through adherence to the word of God. Our being pleasing unto God is conditioned on our being faithful--our being characterized by faith (Heb. 1 1:6), and that faith must rest upon the word of God (Rom. 10: 17). This is the very point made by Paul to the Philippians as he urged, "Let us walk by the same rule" (Phil. 3:16). The same truth exists by way of warning in Second John: "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son" (2 John 9).
The unity for which the Lord prayed, then, can never be attained through any means other than our submission to the will of God revealed in the Bible. It should be obvious that the philosophies and traditions of men are anti-Christ, and of the world, and cannot lead men to unity (Col. 2:8). It is plain that doctrines and commandments of men, however they may be imbedded in the religious practices and devotions men observe, cannot lead men to unity (Matt. 15:9). Most of the sectarianism is based on some work man has produced as an authoritative guide, be it creed, manual, discipline, catechism, article of faith, etc. It is certain that simply relying on family tradition cannot bring men to unity, and an excellent example of that is Saul of Tarsus, who at the same time he followed the family traditions faithfully (Gal. 1: 14), he also was chief of sinners and working against the will of God (I Tim. 1: 13-15). And, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians plainly declares that in following man's wisdom the end will be departure from God rather than closeness to him. The Greeks, by their wisdom, knew not God, and considered the method God chose to save them a foolish thing (I Cor. 1:20,2 1). We here are reminded of Jeremiah's declaration: "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself, it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps" (Jer. 10:23). Once more we come to the point: The unity God expects and demands must be based on the Bible, the Word of God, and on that Volume alone! Without adherence to the Divine Volume, unity cannot be attained. Men, in spurning the Bible, have often tried to establish a "union"--a type of fellowship--but they do not attain Unity. The unity must be based on the Scriptures!
Hindrances to Unity
We have earlier pointed out that Satan has his devices, and he thus has means whereby he can hinder the unity God demands. As Satan is the old deceiver, and tempter, and liar, etc., he is also the old hinderer. Paul expressed his feelings, on plans gong astray, as "Satan hindered us" ( I Thess. 2:18). We need to know of Satan's desire to hinder the work of God, and we need always to be reminded that Satan uses men in his work. What are some things that are used to hinder the unity God demands?
Regarding those in the religious world around us, we suggest the following as hindrances to unity:
(1) Religious prejudice. Many are prejudiced through a hardness developed on their own or planted in their minds by others. Jesus commented on this (Matt. 13:15).
(2) Loyalty to family traditions. Many people choose never to search the Word for themselves, but blindly follow whatever the previous generation practiced, be it right or wrong. Stephen faced this attitude (Acts 7:51,52).
(3) Loyalty to human creeds and organizations. There are those all around us in the religious world so tied to human creeds, and the organizations built upon those creeds, that they are not open to what the Word of God says. Volumes have been written giving explanation of the creeds as they pertain to the Christian life, when the very existence of the creeds is contrary to the will of Christ. Multiplied volumes have been written, and many debates and discussions held, as men vainly attempt to prove that a religious organization founded by men and based upon the will of many, is sanctioned by God.
All of those factors are a part of that spirit that poses a hindrance to the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. But we go further, and we want to see some of the factors hindering the unity of those who have been obedient to the gospel of Christ and who have been added into the kingdom. The history of the church, from apostolic times, has revealed problems contributing to disunity rather than to the unity God demands. Time wiII not allow us to be exhaustive here, but we want to mention some things currently furthering the spirit of disunity among the saints of God. We suggest these factors:
(1) A discontent with the things of God. Men, belonging to God, do not entertain other doctrines unless they are discontent with what God has provided. In such there develops a spirit of rebellion, declared by Peter to be the spirit of presumption and self-will (2 Pet. 2: 10).
(2) A desire to be in favor with all men. Whereas the Lord had pointed out that his followers would be hated by the world because they were not of the world (John 17:14), some brethren decide they will follow a non-offensive course and take a doctrinal stance designed to gain the favor of the world-especially the religious world. Such a course is doomed, as far as blessing from God is concerned.
(3) The seeking of a broader fellowship than that allowed by God. The apostle Paul stressed the one doctrine (I Tim. 1:3), and John warned that any who did not abide by the doctrine of Christ were not to be fellowshipped (2 John 9-11 ). Unity is hindered when men seek to enlarge the bounds of fellowship established by the Lord. Faithful brethren will not allow, such, and thus the conflict appears.
(4) The matter of pride, prohibiting men from confessing their errors. It has been seen, time and time again, that some men will proceed on a tangent, or hobby (and often as they put forth great effort to be "Intellectuals" who now can provide instruction for all their brethren), and will say so much in defense of their new position and will go so far, that "it is impossible to renew them again to repentance" (Heb. 6:4-6). They have said so much, and have been so defensive when concerned brethren have criticized them, and have labored so hard to justify themselves, that they cannot find the humility needed to truly repent. Thus, they proceed further and further away, adding to disharmony all the while.
(5) The spirit of disunity has been furthered by men who will not study the Word to clearly see what is a matter of faith and what is a matter of expediency and judgment. Several pronounced and very hurtful divisions have taken place within the body of Christ due to this very failure of brethren to handle aright the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). A New Testament principle, made so much a part of the Restoration plea, was "in matters of faith, unity, and in matters of opinion, liberty." Many have declared this in their preaching and teaching, but have not applied it in their practice.
(6) Finally, surely the haste to divide has furthered disunity rather than causing men to study and labor to work together. If the Corinthian congregation, guided by inspired instruction from Paul, did not divide and sub-divide, but rather made correction of their problems, then surely our brethren can labor to bring out the unity for which Jesus prayed. But, it will take, again, an allegiance to the Word of the Lord, a removal of self-will, and a granting of authorized liberties before that unity can be realized. In so many places, an eagerness to divide and a non-spiritual attitude has produced two or more congregations in localities where only one faithful and working group is needed. The Cause is weakened, and the eyes of the world see division clearly established in their midst, and permanent harm is done. The division is there, the buildings are paid for, and both weak groups go on throughout life, never taking any action to correct the harm done to the Cause, or to make right the terrible things said and done in creating the break in fellowship. With what the Lord said about those causing discord among brethren (Prov. 6:19), some brethren wiII not fare well when they meet these things in Judgment. It pays, always, to do what the Lord says, and he demands that we work for unity among brethren.
Then, Peace At Any Price?
Are we then advocating some kind of "union" whereby brethren maintain a "peace" that is sham rather than genuine? No. Are we stating that matters of faith, matters of doctrine, are to be laid aside that brethren then might have a kind of "peace"? No. We have just said that one factor contributing to division is the failure to study and see what constitutes matters of faith (on which no ground can be given) and what constitutes matters of opinion (wherein great liberty can be granted). The peace that is pleasing to the Lord can be attained, and maintained, only if brethren will abide by the doctrine of the Christ!
The Lord has provided that brethren may be disfellowshipped (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5; Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:14; and Titus 3: 10) when they will not live and teach in keeping with the Word of God. This action should be taken with such unanimous consent on the part of the faithful in Christ that peace and unity are not only not broken, but the unity the Lord demands is furthered by the action! No, it Is not a "peace" at any price, nor a silence concerning the doctrine of God that will withhold rebuke from a false teacher that God demands. Rather, an obedience to his will as SUPREME, and on that basis, God's will, the unity Jesus prayed for can be attained.
What Can We Do, Right Now?
This final part of our study is simple, for we only emphasize again what has just been said: Abide by the Word, faithfully. In that faithful abiding, grant every liberty God has given in that Word, and hold steadfastly to every matter of faith he has set forth. If we hold loyally to the Book, when division comes, the fault is not chargeable to us. Here is the answer, then. In Paul's words, "Endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). May we give our all to doing just that!