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Is Christian Unity

Is Christian Unity Possible?

by Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
June, 1999

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Last updated:
May 31, 1999.

THE SUBJECT which we address is of vast importance.  Christian unity is a matter of great concern, both in heaven and on earth.  Christians who have sought to please God and win the souls of men have been concerned with this issue ever since Christ prayed for it long ago.  Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17:20,21, "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."

There was a period not long ago when the religious world seemed to be concerned about unity. There were ecumenical councils, proclamations, mergers of various religious bodies, studies and meetings taking place all over the world to discuss this great subject. In some quarters today, in contrast to the stand of religious leaders of just a few years ago, the division of the religious world is now rightfully being called sin.  Yet, most of us can remember hearing, before, men's prayers in which they thanked God for the many different churches in the land. About forty years ago one leading U.S. magazine published a series of articles in which noted church leaders unanimously proclaimed that Christian unity was not only "impossible to achieve," but it "wasn't even desirable."  Then, about ten years later the thinking was reversed, and a great deal of activity began around the world attempting to bring all religions under one name and under one authority.

It is the desire of every sincere child of God, and, as we have seen, it was the prayer of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that all who believe in Him would be one, and that all believers would become subject to Christ who has "all authority in heaven and on earth." Jesus sent out His apostles with the mission of bringing all who would believe in Him into one great body.


Jesus commanded the apostles, in the Great Commission, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."  "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Mark 16:15,16; Matthew 28:19,20).

It very well could be that motive of those involved in the late ecumenical movement was a sincere desire to fulfill the prayer of the Lord.  Yet, we cannot observe the course of this movement without great concern for the opportunity of the Devil to use this effort to serve his own wicked purposes.

Our hearts desire for Christianity is that all Christians shall be united in Christ, and under His authority, moving as a vast, yet close-knit body against the forces of evil which hold sway in this wicked old world.  Yet, may we point out that union and unity are two different subjects, and even though the ecumenical movement may have started from a desire for unity, Satan would surely gain great victory over the minds of men if it simply resulted in some sort of union.


Now we ask the vital question, "Is true Christian unity possible today?"  If it is, how can it be accomplished?  To answer the question in the negative is to charge Jesus Christ with asking for an impossibility.  For us to answer that Christian unity is not possible in our time, is to send forth a cry of despair and defeat which is completely contrary to the wonderful positive faith of the early Christians.

We believe that true Christian unity is not only possible today, it is expected by God, and it is present already in this world.  Unity can only come when we all recognize one source of authority.  The source of authority to accomplish the goal of Christian unity is the word of God. We believe that all men can see the Bible alike because God demands it. God does not demand for us to do something which is impossible for us to do.  The believers in the New Testament were told, "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 Corinthians 1:10).  Again these believers were commanded, "Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11).

We know that we can obtain Christian unity because the early church was united--they were "one". The Christians at Rome were told, "So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Romans 12:5).  The churches of Galatia were taught, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). This harmony, this unity is clearly seen when we read: "The churches of Christ salute you" (Romans 16:16).  There were no social, no economic, nor racial barriers in the early church.  Their uniform belief in the gospel and obedience to God's commands made them all one, in one body.

Jesus said, "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17).  The Bible tells us, "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed" (John 8:31).  Furthermore, we find, "And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch" (Acts 11:26).  As they believed and followed the word of God they were set apart as God's sanctified people--the disciples of Christ, and they were called "Christians".  If the early church could be and was one body, believers in Christ today can be and should... no, no... must be one body.  We learn from these passages that believers of the gospel become sanctified to God by His truth.  We also learn that the Lord accepts only those believers who continue in His word as His "disciples indeed," and, further, that only these disciples are called "Christians."


Hebrews 4:12 tells us, "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."  If a Christian loves the Truth he will grow in "grace and knowledge of the truth", and he will see the wondrous story of God's love for man in a deeper and fuller light with each passing day.  The Truth will not change, but his understanding will be greater, and his faith will grow (Luke 17:5).  And although we may study all our lives and never know everything, we can rest assured that those things in the Scriptures necessary to the saving of our souls we can all see alike.  Jesus said, "Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you."

As we have already seen, the apostle Paul begs for the unity of the disciples in The First Corinthian letter.  A good many years had passed since the prayer of Jesus on the night before his betrayal, nevertheless, the "unity of believers" remained of utmost importance. Paul continued his concern for unity in chapter one, "For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.  Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.  Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?  I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius;  Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name" (1 Corinthians 1:11-15).  Even if there were no other passages on this subject except the prayer of Jesus and Paul's admonition to Corinth it would be impossible to misunderstand the fact that God wants all Christians to be ONE.


If men will ever be at peace with men, it will be because their hearts are united in the faith which leads them to peace and their loyalty to God's word which teaches them to "do unto others even as they would that others should do unto them."  It was the prophet Isaiah who wrote in the long ago, "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:2-4).

Certainly, one reason that Christianity has not succeeded in bringing "peace on earth, and good will among men" is because of the divisions among those who claim to be believers.  Of course, TRUE Christianity unites mankind in mutual love and respect one for another, but "counterfeit Christianity" has subjected the world to some of the most bloody wars of history.  The "Christian" conflicts going on in the world today are not, and do not involve genuine Christian principles. No doubt, people claiming to be Christians who engage in fighting and slaughter has been the cause of a great deal of infidelity around the world.


"There is strength in unity and weakness in division."  Jesus taught this principle in Matthew 12:25 and Luke 12:52, however, it is a basic principle known to mankind through the centuries.  Nowhere is this principle better illustrated than in the history of the United States of America.  Almost two hundred years ago, the founding fathers selected as the motto for the country, E Pluribus Unum. Translated into English it means, "Out of many into one," or "One out of many".  This motto is inscribed on U.S. coins reminding each succeeding generation of its truth.  Patrick Henry preached, "United we stand; divided we fall!"  The urgency of the need for unity brought thirteen colonies, each with a different national, social, racial, and economic background, to form the United States of America.  Through this amazing achievement, weakness became strength and a foundation was laid for the building of the strongest nation the world has ever known.

We do not recall this example of the principle of strength through unity because we are here interested in political history.  We do this to illustrate the necessity, as well as the desirability, of uniting the more than three hundred different bodies claiming to all believe in Jesus Christ--uniting all into one solid force of love and good upon the earth.  If evil is to be defeated, it must be by presenting to the world something better than division and confusion. A united people will only come from their having a united faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and a complete obedience to His will. His teaching on social conduct has never been improved upon.  Although preached two thousand years ago, Jesus concepts of liberty, individual dignity, and interaction of men are still the ideals. But, far and above all, in living by His example, by following His commands, mankind becomes free from the penalty of sin and death.


We are living in a wicked world which could end at any time.  Nation fights against nation over economic advantages.  Un-Christian motives drive men to unbelievable levels of selfishness as they trample under foot the lives of others.  If only the good people of the world had been united through the centuries we would not now be in the condition which we all face with all this fear and uncertainty.  But the people who have been undertook to follow Christ have been divided.  They have been flying different flags, and working at crossed purposes, religious groups compete against each other, (just anything for a crowd), and because so many "christs" are presented, the world turns in disbelief and disgust.

Friends, it's evident to all who are honestly concerned about the salvation of souls that that which is called "Christianity" is failing in its great mission of converting the world for Christ.  Despite increased missionary activity, the percentage of the earth's population calling itself "Christian" is less and less.  As the theologians of the world ponder this problem, let's ask ourselves, "What does the New Testament say about the solution?"  The one great principle comes back again and again--"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul" (Acts 4:32).


There have been many efforts down through the centuries to achieve true Christian unity.  Certain names from the history's Reformation Period sound like thunder when uttered.  Martin Luther was among the first of these--And listen to what he said about division: "I pray you leave my name alone, and call not yourselves Lutherans, but Christians!  Our doctrine is not ours.  Not one of us has been crucified for the other. Paul would not let any call themselves after Paul, nor of Peter, but of Christ.  How then, does it befit me, a miserable bag of dust and ashes, to give my name to the children of God!  Cease, my dear friends, to cling to these party names and distinctions; away with them all; and let us call ourselves only Christians after him from whom our doctrine comes."

Methodism's founder, John Wesley, was of the same conviction.  He wrote: "Would to God that all party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian's world were forgot...  I wish the name `Methodist' might never be mentioned more, but lost in eternal oblivion."

Baptist scholar and widely known preacher, Charles Spurgeon, said: "I look forward with pleasure to the day when there will not be a Baptist living.  I hope they will soon be gone.  I hope the Baptist name will soon perish; but let Christ's name endure forever."  Henry Ward Beecher, the noted Congregationalist preacher said: "Let me speak to you in the language of heaven and call you simply Christians!"  Albert Barnes is the author of a complete set of Bible commentaries which is widely used among preachers.  He, a Presbyterian, wrote: "Should not and will not all these divisions be merged into the high and holy name Christian!"


In the midst of the conflicts and divisions of the religious world there was, in the late 1700's and on into the 1800's, a movement holding out great hope for real Christian Unity.  It was known as the Restoration movement.  One of its beginnings was in a person by the name of James O'Kelley, who lived and preached in North Carolina and Virginia.  He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In 1793, concerned with the divided state of "Christendom," he went to the Baltimore conference of his church and called on men to go back to the Bible as their only creed.  His proposal was rejected at that time, but a little later some 7,000 members of that church united with him in a movement to stand on the Bible as their only creed and doctrine.  At first they were known as "Republican Methodists", and then just "Methodists"; finally they themselves "Christians," and wore that name alone.

In the year 1802 there was a similar movement in New England. There, a man by the name of Abner Jones and another named Elias Smith, both Baptists, spoke out against denominationalism, and took a stand for New Testament Christianity.  "Disturbed in regard to sectarian names and creeds," these circuit-riding preachers decided that the name Christian was the only name to which all could agree and which should be worn by the followers of Christ.  The churches they served dropped all other names and new congregations were established after the pattern of the New Testament church in Linden and Bradford, Vermont, and in Hanover, Piermont, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  These men were unacquainted with the work of James O'Kelley in Virginia and North Carolina.

That same year, in Kentucky just ten years after its statehood, there was a Presbyterian preacher named Barton Stone who stood on the same ground, unaware that others were moving in the same direction.  Stone was joined by several other preachers of the Presbyterian church, such men as Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, Richard McNamar, John Thompson, David Purviance, and others who were disturbed by human creeds and disciplines.  In the year 1804, they were determined to take "The Bible as the only sure guide to heaven."  They too, wore only the name "Christian".

In 1809, Thomas and Alexander Campbell came into the picture. Alexander Campbell is one of the few preachers ever invited to address a joint session of the United States Congress.  Although not at first, he eventually became very influential in the movement to "restore New Testament Christianity."  Probably, the most remarkable thing about this era is that, in the beginning, none of these men knew about the efforts of the others.  All these efforts were grounded upon the desire for Christian unity.


We must admit that there is even greater division among those who claim to believe in Christ today than in the days of Luther, Wesley, Stone, O'Kelley and the Campbells. But still, all these men made contributions toward the goal for believers to be "one in Christ."

Perhaps the reason these movements toward Christian unity have not succeeded as well as was hoped, is that we, today, are not as interested as were they!  May we point out candidly that loyalty to a man-made name, or loyalty to a man-made doctrine is misplaced loyalty! For example, when we explain the teaching of the New Testament some will conclude that the church of Christ is a denomination with a group of narrow-minded people who think they are the only ones going to heaven, and everybody else is going to hell.  It's not our purpose to make of the church for which Jesus gave His life, in the minds of non-members, nothing more than just another denomination, a part of the division.  It's our goal to bring religious division to an end.

Dear reader, if we will ever know Christian unity, it will be because we are united in Christ first, and then in His blessed commands.  We cannot accept Christ without accepting His word, and it is the word of God (John  12:48-50), and remember His word will judge us. Until we truly believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, His commandments and His church are meaningless to us.


Today, we are blessed by having the inspired Scriptures to guide us in every act of obedience to the gospel of Christ, in every good work, and worship.  Christ has not left us without instructions and a guide for every situation in life, and he has given us hope for eternal joy in eternity.  But, we need to believe in Christ before we can accept His word.  We need to go back to Christ Himself and listen to Him.  He said, "upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). When we all become completely converted and devoted to Jesus, we will not think "your church or my church", but we will understand and preach Christ and His church, and we will preach faith which is obedient.  "And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" (Hebrews 5:9). When we all understand these principles we will be Christians only, and we will be added to His Church, just as they were in Acts 2:47.

We must believe in the Savior, before we can believe in His "salvation".  Only by surrendering our wills to the will of Christ can we ever come to a proper attitude toward the Bible in which His Church is described.  We need the spirit of Christ as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, "Not my will, but thine, be done."  We must have the Spirit of Christ if we are to be united in Him.


Such a movement for Christian unity must begin with you as an individual.  As you are united with Christ, you are united with the Father, and we all are united together. As we study the Word of God, we need to think, "speak Lord, thy servant heareth."  Let us believe in Jesus the Savior and let us hear the words, "If any have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His."

There can be only one--"There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Ephesians 4:4-6).  Furthermore, Jesus said, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). He also said, "I am the way, the truth and the life, no man cometh unto the Father but by me."

Let's put Christ first in our lives, Christ first in our worship, Christ first in the church, and we can begin to accomplish the great goal of Christian unity.  Such a devotion and a spirit will help rid us of those things which divide us.  Party names, party pride, and even our own selfishness will be gone, and we all shall "go everywhere preaching the Word."  Believing on Him, we will joyously wear His name, humbly follow His teachings, and His prayer for unity will be fulfilled by us, even today.