What Do You Mean by ‘Unity’?

There’s been lots of talk about the need for unity in our country and our churches, especially after the recent insurrection at the Capitol. There’s also been lots of pushback against some of these calls for unity.

This is no new dilemma. 

The #ChurchToo movement revealed the tendency of some churches to cover up abuse cases, often for the sake of “unity.” Then there was the “quiet exodus” of black church members from white-majority, Trump-supporting churches in 2016—many of whom, when they vocalized their concerns about a lack of engagement with racial justice, were considered “divisive.”

Unity is the “state of being undivided,” or “oneness.” So, aren’t we right to pursue it? We can’t answer that until we first ask, What does the Bible mean when it talks about “unity”? 

Unity Is . . .

Our triune God is the supreme example of unity. God, who is love (1 John 4:8), has forever existed in a perfectly pure unity as Father, Son, and Spirit (Deut. 6:4; Matt. 28:19).

Our triune God is the supreme example of unity.

Adam and Eve enjoyed peaceful fellowship with God, but their sin brought a great division between them and God, and consequently, between us and God (1 Cor. 15:22). Through the cross, Christ brought us into a loving union with God (1 Pet. 3:18). The unifying of everything under Christ has always been God’s plan, and it will be cosmically realized when Christ returns (Eph. 1:7–10; Phil. 2:9–11). 

Christian unity is the result of God bringing together people of differing ethnicities, backgrounds, and social classes into one family (or body) by faith in Christ (1 Cor. 12:27; Gal. 3:26–28). The church’s unity—already a spiritual reality, but not yet fully realized—reflects the glorious unity of the Trinity to the effect that a watching world is compelled to believe the truth of the gospel (John 17:11, 20–23; Eph. 4:4–6). 

While Christians can certainly agree with unbelievers and take action alongside them toward worthy goals, we will never have the same unity with unbelievers that we have with those who belong to Christ.

Our unity in Christ, fleshed out by the earliest Christians (Acts 2:42–47), is powered by the Holy Spirit who unites us through the truth of God’s Word (John 17:17; Eph. 4:13), a shared mission (Matt. 28:19–20), brotherly affection and service (Gal. 6:10; 1 Pet. 1:22), and reconciliation with each other (Eph. 2:11–22; Matt. 18:15–20).

Unity Is Not . . .

1. A Virtue in and of Itself

As pleasant as it is “when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1), unity is not a virtue in and of itself. The unity at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), or between Herod and Pilate (Luke 23:12), shows us that unity is a vehicle used for good or evil purposes. To pursue unity at all costs defies the nature of biblical unity, which is grounded in the affirmation and application of the truth (orthodoxy and orthopraxy). 

Charles Spurgeon exemplified this point when he rejected unity with professing-Christian slaveholders, stating: “Although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slave-holder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind. . . . I would as soon think of receiving a murderer into my church . . . as a man-stealer.” 

Unity in and of itself isn’t the goal. Unity with the truth of Christ is.

2. Uniformity

Further, biblical unity is not uniformity. The family of God is a diversity of people, gifted to serve each other for the sake of unified maturity in the faith (Eph. 4:11–13). Though we are one in Christ, God doesn’t erase our unique gifts, abilities, personal preferences, or other distinctions like gender or age. He also doesn’t erase our ethnic and cultural heritages (Rev. 7:9). 

Any call to unity that requires partisan allegiance, discarding one’s heritage, or conflating cultural and/or social class norms with spiritual obligations is not a call to biblical unity, but to assimilation. It’s a call to mere uniformity. 

Any call to unity that requires partisan allegiance, discarding one’s heritage, or conflating cultural and/or social class norms with spiritual obligations is not a call to biblical unity but to assimilation.

3. Divorced from Justice

Since Old Testament times, God hasn’t merely been interested in offenders proclaiming “I’m sorry,” but in the offended (or victimized) being made whole. Enter: the restitution laws, which required an offender to make reparation to his defrauded neighbor before seeking the Lord’s forgiveness (Lev. 6:1–7; see also Ex. 22:1–15; Matt. 5:23–26).

Zacchaeus, the tax collector who swindled his fellow Jews out of their money, understood this: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). How did Jesus respond? Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Christian unity doesn’t sweep evil under the rug, stiff-arm critique, or dismiss conflict in order to maintain a “kumbaya” circle while the vulnerable suffer in silence (see Amos 5:21–24 and 1 Cor. 11:17–21). King David learned this the hard way when he failed to execute justice for his daughter Tamar after she was raped by her brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13). The results were catastrophically divisive. 

Christian unity doesn’t sweep evil under the rug, stiff-arm critique, or dismiss conflict in order to maintain a ‘kumbaya’ circle while the vulnerable suffer in silence.

Unity divorced from appropriate justice is faux unity, tantamount to bearing false witness concerning the holiness of God, who will not be mocked (1 Cor. 5:1–13; Gal. 6:7).

Do We Really Want Unity?

It’s important for us to keep in mind the biblical vision, especially when we hear hollow unity calls that fail to also call us to repent of damage done to others. If we really want true and virtuous unity among God’s people, that both reflects him and also expresses the unity his Son secured on the cross, then we must examine ourselves. Are we insisting on our own way or dismissing others’ pain (Phil. 2:3–4; Luke 10:25–37)? Then we must repent, resolving anew to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Biblical unity will not often be easy or comfortable. It will demand that we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, actively “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col. 3:14).

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