The Recipe for Biblical Unity

“What is the Christian church? That is the question. You cannot discuss church unity unless you are clear in your mind as to what the church is. Now here is the great divide. The ecumenical people put fellowship before doctrine. We are evangelicals; we put doctrine before fellowship.”

– Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones

The issue of unity within the Christian Church has been an issue of debate since it’s inception. From Acts 15 to the Protestant Reformation to “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994, the question of unity (or disunity) has been one of central focus. Many Christians look at the landscape of the Church and, seeing it’s apparent fragmented-ness, yearn for unity. Unfortunately, these pursuits for unity are often entertained at the expense and rejection of Biblical Unity.

The Bible presents a recipe for Biblical Unity and provides both the ingredients and the steps needed for it to exist. As we will see, this recipe differs greatly from the Cookbook of Ecumenism.[1] As Martyn Lloyd Jones rightly said, ecumenists put “fellowship before doctrine,” but evangelicals put “doctrine before fellowship.” This is a most crucial distinction.

Where Does Doctrine Come From?

The English word “doctrine” essentially means the particular teachings of a group. In Christianity, this word comes mainly from the New Testament Greek word διδασκαλία (didaskalia). This word refers to “doctrine, learning, teaching” [2] and is found in verses such as:

  • “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.” (1 Tim 4:6)
  • “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Ti 1:9)
  • “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” (Ti 2:1)

It’s important to note that this word is found in contrast to the Greek word ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω (heterodidaskaleo). This verb means to “teach other doctrine,” [3] and appears in the following verses:

  • As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3)
  • If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. (1 Tim 6:3-4).

Notice that both these words occur in close proximity in Paul’s writings. He made clear that there are truths that must be taught (doctrine/διδασκαλία), and to teach anything different than these set truths is to teach false doctrine/ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω

The reason for this sharp dichotomy is simple and is explained in 1 Timothy 6:3 and Titus 2:10: True doctrine comes from God. Paul described it as agreeing with “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 6:3) and essentially being “the doctrine of God our Savior” (Ti 2:10). To put it simply, doctrine is communicated to us through Scripture, which originates in the mind of God. 

Therefore, through Scripture God has given us only what is true. The Scriptures only have one correct interpretation. To say that numerous interpretations can be true is simply illogical. This means that not all doctrines held by different Christian denominations are true. For example, justification by faith alone and justification by faith and works are incompatible doctrines because they clearly teach two different things. Only one of these can be true in the mind of God.

Biblical Unity: United In Doctrine

Doctrine ultimately originates in the mind of God and communicated through the Scriptures. Obviously, man has a knack for creating doctrines of his own, and none of us began our new life in Christ possessing a comprehensively perfect knowledge of doctrine; we had to be taught. However, a main thrust of the New Testament is that growth in Christ includes growing in one’s understanding of right doctrine and the ability to recognize and avoid false doctrine (Rom 12:2; Eph 5:8-11; Heb 5:14).

A Recipe For Biblical Unity

In Ephesians 4:1-16, the Apostle Paul provided the only true recipe for biblical unity. For the sake of brevity, I will not post extensive scripture references from Ephesians 4; instead, I encourage you to open your Bible and read it for yourself.

Ingredient #1- Love (Eph 4:1-2)

Paul spent the first three chapters of Ephesians informing the Ephesian church of great and glorious doctrine. Ephesians 4:1-2 are the Apostle’s instructions for how those in the Ephesian church (and we today) were to walk in light of that doctrine.

These instructions provide the first ingredient for biblical unity: Love. We see in these verses (4:1-2) the importance of possessing a genuine love for one another. Love manifests itself in “humility, gentleness…patience… bearing with one another in love.” These qualities overlap greatly with the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Without the genuine love of God in our hearts for other believers, it is impossible to have unity due to the selfishness inherent in the human heart. However, the love of God “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit”(Rom 5:5) will lead to the next ingredient for Biblical Unity: Eagerness to maintain the Unity of the Spirit.

Ingredient #2- Eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3)

Paul finished his list of how to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” with this final item: being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” The word “eager” here “expresses fervor, zeal, and eagerness.” [4] Paul  did not call the Ephesians to be content with the unity of the Spirit, but rather to be zealous, eager, and fervent to maintain it! That is crucial and applicable to us today. If Christians lack a fervent desire to maintain the “unity of the Spirit,” it will not happen on its own.

What is “the unity of the Spirit” that Paul refers to here?  It is a unity produced by the Holy Spirit among believers; it is not “brought about by humans,” nor does it refer to a generic human spirit of unity. [5] On the contrary, this is a oneness brought about by the Holy Spirit alone.

Here is where ecumenism falls very short. While people can claim to love one another and treat one another kindly, the Holy Spirit does not lead Christians to unite over false doctrine as ecumenism hopes to accomplish. Why? Because He is the “Spirit of truth” according to Jesus (Jn 14:17, 15:26, 16:13).

The Roman Catholic Church and the cult of Mormonism both teach a false gospel of works. Liberal denominations (such United Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church in the USA) congregations) who deny that Jesus truly rose from the dead make Christ a liar. However, all these groups claim to profess Christ as Lord. Is that mere claim truly enough for orthodoxy and unity, then?

Biblical Christians who hold to the saving Gospel of Christ Jesus should not unite with such groups over any spiritual matters whatsoever, for they deny the truth of the Word of God and pervert His glorious and saving Gospel. Instead, true unity of the Spirit produces a unity that is built upon the Word of God, not a false unity that tears down the Word of God and results in false doctrine.

Ingredient #3- Unity over doctrinal essentials (Eph 4:4-6)

Paul continues by reminding the Ephesians that there is only

one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Let’s examine each of these items briefly to understand what the Apostle is communicating.

  • 1 Body- This “body” refers to the body of believers who will come to salvation in Christ Jesus; Jews and Gentiles brought together in Christ (Eph 2:16).
  • 1 Spirit- There is only one Holy Spirit. He is the third Person of the Trinity, and He fills the “body” of Christ. To twist the Biblical teaching of the identity of the Spirit (such as teaching that He is an impersonal force, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach) is idolatry.
  • 1 Lord- There is only 1 Lord: Jesus Christ. He is the second Person of the Trinity. He is the Head of the “body” named in v.4. Just as with the Spirit, there is only one true Lord, one true Christ. Anyone teaching a different Christ is guilty of teaching a false Gospel (Gal 1:6-9).
  • 1 Faith- John Calvin succinctly stated: “The unity of faith, which is here mentioned, depends on the one, eternal truth of God, on which it is founded.” [6] True doctrine comes from the mind of God. We should strive to know the doctrines of Scripture. and be unified over that rather than creating another “faith.”
  • 1 Baptism- Paul doesn’t distinguish between water baptism and Spiritual baptism (regeneration) here. Either way, the point is the same. There is really only one baptism by which a person is baptized into Christ Jesus and His Body. [7]
  • 1 God and Father- God the Father is the first Person of the Trinity.  This does not mean that God is the universal Father of all people. Instead, it means that there is only one true God. The Bible’s doctrine of God cannot coexist with any other religion. Paul commended the Thessalonians for “turning away from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). By doing this, he condemned all other deities as false gods. As Christians, we worship the one true God.  True Christians should never unite with those who worship a different and false god.  To ignore the words of Paul in 2 Cor 6:16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols” is treasonous.  The Scripture’s doctrine of God is vital to uphold and understand.

Though Paul does not provide any details as to these things in this passage, the rest of Scripture provides ample information about who the one Spirit, Lord, and God are, and what the one faith, baptism, and body are. It’s clear here that Paul puts forward a core doctrinal statement.

Ingredient #4- Gifted Men Teaching Sound Doctrine for Mature Saints (Eph 4:7-16)

Paul revealed that all believers have been given spiritual gifts (v.7). Everyone in the body of Christ has been equipped to serve in specific ways. Some have been called and chosen for the particular work of “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers” in the Church (v.11). In Paul’s day, there were apostles and prophets, but today these roles have ceased to function in the church. Why? Because the Scriptures have been completely revealed, written, and sealed in the 66 books of the Bible and we have everything we need in the written Word of God (2 Tim 3:16-17).

This highlights the importance of the remaining roles in Paul’s list- evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. We certainly have evangelists today. Evangelists  are gifted in proclaiming the Gospel to the lost and bringing them into the church. We also have shepherds, or “pastors” (NASB). These are men who care for  their local  church and are gifted to teach  the Word of God. The call of teachers and pastors is to rightly handle the Word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15). Failure to  follow Scripture’s mandate is a serious error. The end result is disqualification from teaching (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:9).

Paul revealed the divine purpose of these gifted men in Ephesians 4:12-13: They are given

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Pastor-Teachers are to equip Christians for ministry and building up the body. Their  goal is to lead the Church “to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God.”

Without this ingredient, there will be no unity over doctrinal essentials.  Without doctrine, eagerness to maintain the Spirit and the love of God will be lacking in the hearts of His people. Pastor-Teachers are to feed the sheep of Christ the pure Word of God. The Word of God is the foundation upon which the Church is built.

Unfortunately,  called and qualified Pastor-Teachers are lacking in the Church today. Men have turned away from the Word of God as the sole source of authority. The Word of God has been replaced with  the interpretations and opinions of  men. The outcome  has been  a Church that is not growing to “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). Instead, it’s far more common to see Christians settling for a sub-biblical Christianity; a so-called Christianity that derives general principles and phrases from the Bible but ignores the actual words of the Bible.

Sub-biblical Christianity will not promote true unity over true doctrine, but instead will create what Paul described in Ephesians 4:14: a Church of “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Doctrine matters. Pastors and Teachers must be careful to teach only the Scriptures; nothing more and nothing less. Oh brothers and sisters, how important this ingredient is!

Ecumenism: United Despite Doctrine

Ecumenism is a roadblock to the Biblical Unity described in Ephesians 4:1-16 because it completely ignores the New Testament’s  teaching on the matter.

In 2016, a large event was planned at the National Mall in Washington D.C. Called “Reset” (with the slogan that “Jesus is the Reset”), this event’s goal was to be a “generation defining moment” by having speakers, pastors, high profile artists, and popular leaders from around the country stand together for Jesus.

The lineup was pretty diverse, including people like  David Crowder (musician), Ravi Zacharias (apologist), Christine Caine (female preacher from Hillsong), Ronnie Floyd (SBC President), Matt Maher (Charismatic Catholic), Lou Engle (New “Apostle”) and…. the Pope. Yes, the Pope.

Despite their doctrinal differences, these men and women were gathered under the guise of taking a stand for Jesus. Incredibly, however, this panel represented a myriad of different doctrines. For example, Matt Maher and the Pope will teach  a far different Gospel than Hillsong and Lou Engle, who will in turn give you a far different Gospel than Ravi Zacharias or Josh McDowell. What exactly is the point of an event like this if everyone leading it (if they’re being honest) can’t even agree about salvation?

Ecumenism and the “Mere Christianity” movements are major problems. For starters they only rally around certain Christian doctrines affirmed in the Apostle’s Creed- the deity of Christ, the Virgin birth, the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Christ’s return. Notice what is not included: The means by which a person is saved. While it includes the events of the Gospel story, the Apostle’s Creed does not preach the Gospel. The Gospel a person preaches is a crucial test for orthodoxy.

The Apostle’s Creed says nothing about repentance and saving faith, being born again, justification, the role of works for the believer, etc. Instead, the Apostle’s Creed gives broad details about the Triune God and His work through Christ the Son. Simply being aware of or even assenting to this information is not what saves a person from the righteous judgement of God.

For example, Paul writes in Romans 4:4-5 that “to the one who works, his wages are counted… as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” That is a vital aspect of the Gospel preached by Christ and the Apostles (Gal 1:1-10) and yet it isn’t mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed. However,  that doesn’t mean it can be overlooked for the sake of an artificial “unity.” Ignoring essential doctrines to feel “unified” isn’t biblical, it’s anti-biblical.

At this point you may be asking “How do we determine what doctrines are essential for unity? What about secondary doctrines, like eschatology?”

Are There Such Things as ‘Secondary Doctrines’?

“Secondary doctrines” have the connotation that they don’t really matter or they can’t be known decisively. Neither of those statements is true. If something is in the Bible (like the millennium) it’s important and knowable. So, are secondary doctrines unimportant? No. All doctrine matters.

All doctrine comes from the mind of God, even those doctrines commonly classified as “secondary.” For example, eschatology generally falls into this camp, and provides a helpful case study for this discussion. Either Christ is coming back to reign on earth for a literal thousand years (premillenialism) or there is no literal thousand year kingdom (amillenialism). Premillenialism and amillennialism can’t both be correct. This is important, because whether you are amillenial or premillenial, you should ideally have done so much biblical study that you are convinced from scripture that you are right.

Personally, I don’t believe you can reach amillennialism through a careful study of the Scriptures, and so I don’t believe that is a correct doctrine. I reject it. But, should I reject brothers in Christ who believe that doctrine? No! While I wouldn’t go to a church that taught amillenialism (unless it was my only option), I have many dear friends who do. My friends have a right and accurate understanding of the Gospel message and are pursuing holiness in Christ.  I should rightly count them as brothers in Christ. Likewise, I would hope that those who hold to amillenialism wouldn’t condemn me either.

So, while there are no such things as unimportant doctrines, there are such things as doctrines not to divide over. Determining what those doctrines are requires a careful study of the Word. Doctrines that do not immediately affect the nature and character of God, the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the Word of God are likely not doctrines to disavow or condemn a brother over.

The Challenge for the Christian

The importance of biblical doctrine in biblical unity requires every Christian to do 3 things as best as possible.

  • We must know our Bibles as well as we can. If you can quote a preacher better than the Bible, that is a problem.
  • We are to test the words of men against the words of the Bible. If a pastor or teacher  teaches what is not in the Bible, that is a problem. We need to know what the Bible says to avoid being ensnared by false teachers (Col 2:8; 2 Pet 2:18, 3:2,16-18). 
  • We are to reject unbiblical teaching. Paul said, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim 6:3-5). What would any Christian want to do with someone like that?

The Final Result

When the recipe for biblical unity in Ephesians 4:1-16 is followed, this will be the result:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4:15-16)

What a contrast this is against the vapid, convictionless, false unity promoted by ecumenism. Ecumenism is nothing more than a so-called unity produced by evil spirits  promoting false  doctrines  through men who do not know nor care about the Word of God. Millions of people are being mislead by their teachers to embrace a unity that ignores the Biblically revealed Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 4 lays out Biblical Unity clearly for us: It is a unity produced by the Spirit through  the knowledge of true doctrine in believers who love one another humbly and are taught by men who revere and unadulterate the Word of God.

Biblical Unity should be fought for and treasured deeply. It is a unity founded in truth. It is a unity that grows up into Christ. It is a unity that builds itself up in love.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we should be pursuing. We must be, as Paul said in Ephesians 4:3, “eager to maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We have a great and trustworthy treasure in the Scriptures, and we truly can know them for ourselves. When we do, our feet are planted in solid ground, and we need not fear. Instead, we can unite over the true doctrines of Scripture to the glory of Christ.

 

Sources:

  1. “Ecumenism is the attempt to seek a worldwide unity and cooperation among all churches that confess Jesus Christ as Lord”- Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 43.
  2. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 23.
  3. Ibid., 33.
  4. Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 281.
  5. Harold H. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2002), 512.
  6. John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 269.
  7. Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 284.
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