What I am seeing across the Body of Christ today is something far greater than a superficial ‘unity movement’ inspired by human ideas and carried out through man-made plans. The unity I am seeing (and praying for) is a direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit Who is even now preparing the Church for Jesus’ return. We are coming together in a unity in the faith – not a unity of doctrine. The Lord Himself, through the writings of the Apostle Paul, told us that this was coming. So, before we go any further, let’s look at what the Apostle Paul had to say about this:
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:11-16)
We really need to take notice of a couple of very important things within that passage of Scripture.
- It is God’s intention for His people to walk in unity.
- This unity will not be based on doctrine.
Doctrine does not unify us – more often than not, doctrine divides us – it blows people in every direction. That’s why God’s Word doesn’t say anything about us coming into the unity of doctrine. It says we’ll come into the unity in the faith. Our faith is never in doctrine or theological truths. Our faith should always be in a person: Jesus Christ. Or it could be said our faith is always in God, as revealed in and through Christ. It’s all about relationship – and whilst doctrinal truths impact and can even lead us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, our faith is never in doctrine. Paul said it best in the passage above. So let me repeat his important words, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:14–15).
For too long in the Church we have failed to understand this truth as we try to demand doctrinal unity from each other. The vast majority of Church splits and new denominations have been birthed in doctrinal disagreements. Salvation is by grace through faith, not works and not doctrine. Correct doctrine does not save a person. In fact, a person could have completely correct head knowledge and beliefs about everything in the Bible, and not be saved until they have embraced the love and salvation of Jesus Christ and been transformed by Him. Doctrine and theological teaching are both important in training and maturing a disciple of Jesus Christ – hopefully that’s what we teach and do from the pulpit every week. Salvation is a free gift from God and our relationship with God is secured in Christ, through Christ and for Christ. The evidence of that is when we have been born again as our spirits are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Growing up into Christ is a lifetime journey but our ticket to heaven and our new life in Christ is a supernatural gift from God.
This is the very reason why I can share rich fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I have strong disagreement on a number of doctrines. My unity with them is in their faith in Jesus Christ the person – not their faith in all the doctrines which have been articulated around that person and the Church.
Thousands of detailed doctrinal documents have been prepared by Churches and Church organisations and used as barriers or bridges to membership of that part of the Body of Christ. At times we refer to such a document as our ‘Statement of Faith,’ when it’s no such thing. It is a statement of doctrine and beliefs. Unity in the faith is completely different and far simpler. This insatiable desire we seem to have had for doctrinal purity or agreement before we share fellowship with people as equals is most definitely not God’s way of doing things. If you’ll look in His Word, you’ll see that He doesn’t give us a long list of doctrinal demands for us to meet. His requirements are very simple:
“. . . this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:23-24)
So true Christian Unity is birthed by the Spirit of God. Jesus made this very clear when chatting to Nicodemus in John chapter three about being born again into the Kingdom of God. Nothing there about doctrinal agreement. We are brought out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light by a supernatural work of the Spirit of God:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again . . . Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:3,5-6)
Apart from Jesus Himself, the Apostle Paul was arguably the most articulate apologist of Christian doctrine in his time. However when it came to any so called ‘qualifications’ or ‘requirements’ for being a disciple of Jesus Christ – and a member of His Body, the Church – Paul did not give us a ‘Statement of Faith’ to sign or a list of agreed doctrines to tick off prior to being accepted into the family of God. When the Philippian jailer -asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul’s answer could not be clearer or simpler: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”
Unlike religion, Christianity is not about doctrine, regulations or requirements – it’s about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ and our relationship with each other through Jesus Christ. That wonderful prayer of Jesus we read in John chapter 17 gives us the most powerful and beautiful picture of true unity in Christ when Jesus prays to His Father about us, His brothers and sisters and disciples. He begins by setting the criteria for our salvation and eternal life and it has nothing to do with doctrinal agreement.
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:1-3)
So true Christian unity is the spiritual reality which comes as this prayer of Jesus is answered and God the Holy Spirit draws us into the very relationship God the Son enjoyed with God the Father when He walked among us as a man:
“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)
Our finite minds can’t really begin to understand the nature of that relationship between Jesus and our Heavenly Father, but we can imagine it is pretty special. It was also the true source of Jesus’ power, insight, mission and effectiveness in establishing the Church. So for Jesus to pray that we might share that same relationship with each other and with the Father and the Son – is mind-blowing. Let these words really sink in:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:20-26)
I confess I have read John 17 thousands of times and yet every single time I get a lump in my throat when I hear Jesus describe His desire for our relationship with Him and our Father. As we embrace that relationship which He freely gives us by His grace, we become a brother and sister to every other child of God who has embraced that relationship with Jesus.
THAT is what unites us and it is the Holy Spirit Who manifests that unity in our midst. The New Testament gives me no right to withhold fellowship or love from a brother or sister on the basis of their doctrinal beliefs if they have accepted the finished work of Jesus Christ and embraced His life, His death and His resurrection as their own. What many brethren believe about the virgin birth, Mary, baptism, Church Government, communion, women in leadership etc. may be radically different to what I believe and in the right context I am happy to debate all those issues from Scripture. But my unity with those brothers and sisters is a unity in their faith in Jesus Christ.
So it doesn’t matter which Christian denomination you align yourself with; it doesn’t matter if you’ve never been inside a Church building in your life; it doesn’t matter what your doctrinal position is on all manner of issues. It only matters that you believe in Jesus Christ as Your Lord and Saviour and abide in Him. When we come to a place where we have faith in the Name of Jesus then we are saved, reconciled to God and born again by His Holy Spirit. Having faith in Jesus means we have faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ so that through His sinless life, His atoning death and His resurrection to new life, we are offered forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. At that point we are part of God’s family and on that basis alone we are accepted in the Church by the Head of the Church – Jesus Christ. We can discard all our lists of acceptable doctrines and just come together through our unity in the faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we grow in grace and love and are taught by the Holy Spirit, we will become mature enough to know that doctrines don’t get us into the kingdom of God and more than doctrines keep us out. Believing in Jesus’ name and walking in the love He births in us will be the only thing that makes any difference. When we understand what true Christian unity is then we can rise up together in faith and love as one glorious Body driven by the power of Jesus Christ Himself. We can still worship and serve God in our own congregational setting under whatever man-made banner we choose at this point in time. The mission of Christ can still be fulfilled through a variety of denominational expressions of the Church as long as we never allow our distinctive expressions of our faith in Christ to become exclusive or divisive.
As true unity in the faith is understood and fully embraced by God’s people, our relationship with believers in other parts of the Church can only grow stronger because we know that those things which may define our differences pale in comparison to the one thing which defines and manifests our unity – that is our faith in Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is in Him we live and move and have our being and everything else must come second.