Unity: Then and now

Unity: Then and now--A divine movement united in mission and message

In this article, we are challenged to look deep into our spirituality to maintain church unity in the face of Christ’s commission.

Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as assistant to the president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

One of the things that really matters to God is the unity of His church. This unity is not some peripheral matter. It is at the very heart of the gospel. Without unity, the church becomes powerless to proclaim the gospel in its fullness to the world.

In His final intercessory prayer, Jesus revealed the importance of unity when He prayed, “ ‘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’ ” (John 17:23).1 One of the greatest evidences of the power of the gospel results in the unity of the church, for when people of different backgrounds, cultures, languages, and dispositions are united by the Holy Spirit in Christ, the world notices.

The Acts model: A united church

One of the most striking New Testament examples of a unified church was recorded in the book of Acts. Although there certainly were differences of background and culture, and at times heated debates, at its very core the New Testament church exhibited unity. This unity was not a uniformity of understanding on each issue; neither was it a sweet, superficial sentimentalism. It was not some vague, undefinable pluralistic “oneness” where each tolerated the others’ personal views to accomplish some larger, ethereal goal.

No, New Testament unity was a unity of faith rooted in the person, message, and mission of Christ. The story of the book of Acts includes the reciting of believers brought together by the Holy Spirit in a divinely inspired movement to impact the world. This was the history of Bible-believing, Christ-centered men and women who were passionate about God’s mission through His church.

United in the centrality of Christ’s love

The disciples were united in their love for Christ. Committed to Christ, they were drawn together. Their bond of union was forged in Him. Christ was their all in all. Charmed by His love, redeemed by His grace, and empowered by His Spirit, they were, in spite of their differences, united in one body.

Ellen White uses an interesting expression to describe the unity of the disciples. “Christ’s name was to be their watchword, their badge of distinction, their bond of union, the authority for their course of action, and the source of their success. Nothing was to be recognized in His kingdom that did not bear His name and superscription.”2

Christ’s name was their “bond of union.” In other words, they were “one” in an indissoluble union with Christ.

Revivalist A. W. Tozer puts it this way: “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers [meeting] together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”3

Tuned to Christ, the disciples were tuned to one another. Christ became the Great Unifier. Speaking of Christ bridging the divide between Jews and Gentiles, the apostle Paul emphatically declares, “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation”(Eph. 2:14). The apostle goes on to say that in Christ, “the whole body [is] joined and knit together” (Eph. 4:16), and he pleads with the church at Corinth that there “be no schism in the body”(1 Cor. 12:25). When hearts are one in Christ, they cannot be too far apart.

Could it be that at times our disunity results from having drifted away from the heart of Christ? Is it possible that our own personal opinions and ideas about a given subject cloud Christ’s will on that thing and create dissension between us? Does pride ever obscure our vision? Might it also be that the reason the disciples were of “one accord” on the day of Pentecost was because they unashamedly surrendered their wills to the will of Christ and were willing to surrender anything that separated them from Him and one another?

United in the centrality of Christ’s message

The unity of the New Testament Church was anchored in the disciples commitment to the message of Christ. Often overlooked, we find that when Jesus prayed for the unity of His church, He prayed to His Father, “ ‘Sanctify them by your truth. Your Word is truth’ ” (John 17:17). The unity of the New Testament church was based on a common commitment to Jesus’ revealed truth. New Testament believers accepted the truth about the authoritative revelation of Scripture salvation by faith, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the second coming of Christ, the Sabbath, death, resurrection, and Christ’s priestly ministry—just to mention a few of our Lord’s central teachings. They were brought together through His prophetic Word, bonded in truth, and committed to the divine revelation of His will.

Luke describes the union of New Testament believers in Acts 2:41, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”

Notice two significant expressions: (1) “those who gladly received his word” and (2) “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” Both of these expressions imply an acceptance of, and commitment to, the unchanging, eternal truths of Scripture. The unity of the New Testament believers was based on their common commitment to the teachings of Jesus. They were united in the bedrock, foundational truths of Scripture.

Charles Spurgeon spoke of unity in the truth in these straightforward words: “A chorus of ecumenical voices keep harping the unity tune. What they are saying is, ‘Christians of all doctrinal shades and beliefs must come together in one visible organization, regardless. . . . Unite, unite!’ Such teaching is false, reckless, and dangerous. Truth alone must determine our alignments. Truth comes before unity.

“Unity without truth seems hazardous. Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 must be read in its full context. Look at verse 17: “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth” (KJV). Only those sanctified through the Word can be one in Christ. To teach otherwise is to betray the gospel.”4

Ellen White would agree with Spurgeon. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, she writes, “We cannot surrender the truth in order to accomplish this union; for the very means by which it is to be gained is sanctification through the truth. Human wisdom would change all this, thinking this basis of union too narrow. Men would effect a union through conformity to popular opinions, through a compromise with the world. But truth is God’s basis for the unity of His people.”5

The New Testament Church was united through a prophetic, “present truth” message. Peter’s masterful presentation in Acts 2 was a prophetic message clearly revealing Jesus as the promised Messiah. In Acts 8, Philip’s prophetic Bible study on Jesus as the Messianic fulfillment of Isaiah 53 led the Ethiopian to a decision for Christ. Meanwhile, in Acts 17 Paul’s prophetic preaching in Thessalonica for three consecutive Sabbaths touched Jewish hearts.

The truth, as written in Jesus and prophetically proclaimed, unified the church in a common mission. Truth unites. There remains something larger, something greater, and something grander than our personal opinions or even our individual convictions. The truth of the Word revealed by the Spirit supersedes everything else.

When the people of God are united in Christ to proclaim the prophetic Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, the earth will be lightened with the glory of God. Once again, in this generation, God has entrusted His people with a prophetic, present-truth message.

The message of Christ , our Righteousness, in light of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6– 12 will unite His people in one final end-time proclamation of truth. The Bible-based, Christ-centered, last-day prophetic message of present truth for this hour will move the world. So it will be written of God’s people that those “who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6).

United in the centrality of Christ’s mission

The New Testament Church was united in a single-minded passion for sharing Christ and the message of the gospel with the world. Personal preferences and opinions were secondary to the proclamation of the message of the Cross. Overwhelmed by grace, amazed by the goodness of God, and awestruck by the redemption that is in Christ, the disciples overcame their petty differences in light of Christ’s larger mission.

The one thing that overshadowed everything else was a world in need of Christ’s saving grace and the certainty of the life-changing Word. In Acts 4:20, when the authorities attempted to silence his voice, Peter proclaimed, “ ‘For we cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard.’ ” Acts 5:42 adds, “And daily in the temple and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” When persecution broke upon the disciples, the record reveals that, “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).

The disciples had their differences. At times there were misunderstandings and even conflict, but they were united in Christ to proclaim a present truth, prophetic message that the world so desperately needed to hear. Their unswerving, single-minded purpose was to accomplish God’s mission. They had fellowshiped with the Savior, and His passion to “ ‘seek and save that which was lost’ ” became their passion (Luke 19:10). Their commitment to Christ, His message, and mission kept them focused on their task.

A classic statement in the book Acts of the Apostles powerfully portrays the purpose and the focus of the early church. “The disciples felt their spiritual need and cried to the Lord for the holy unction that was to fit them for the work of soul saving. They did not ask for a blessing for themselves merely. They were weighted with the burden of the salvation of souls. They realized that the gospel was to be carried to the world, and they claimed the power that Christ had promised.”6

The clear focus, the overriding purpose of the first-century church was winning the lost to Christ. This one thing triumphed over personal ambition, the desire for supremacy, and human strivings for position or power. They were willing to sacrifice their cherished ambitions to maintain a unified focus on soul winning. The New Testament church was united in Christ with a passion for His passion—saving lost people. For them, church organization stimulated this unity by providing a structure to grow in the truth of His Word and foster the proclamation of the Word.

 

1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

2 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 28.

3 A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Abbotsford, WI: Aneko Press, 2015), 79, 80.

4 Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Essence of Separation,” quoted in “Quotable,” The Berean Call (July 1992): 4.

5 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (1892) (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1901), 391.

6 White, The Acts of the Apostles, 37.


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Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as assistant to the president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

March 2017

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