IntroductionUnity, Gods Goal for the Church
Living As a ChurchClass 1
Welcome to the first of thirteen classes on our life together as a church.
In this introductory class, my hope is to give you some idea of why we as Christians
need a class like this in the first place. To put it simply, we need this class
because two things are true:
First, God calls Christians to gather together in local churches
to worship him and to reflect his glorious character to the world.
Second, we are still sinners.
The million dollar question is, how do these two statements work together?
God calls us to glorify him by living together in local churches?
How can a still sinful people reflect God?
Unity is Hard
One day, all of Gods people will bow before him, perfectly righteous because
of Christ and perfectly unified in humble worship and praise. But God still
calls us todaythe very imperfect people who compose his Churchto
the task of displaying the glory of his perfect character.
The question of how that can happen in the church is the focus of this class.
In particular, our goal is to understand the opportunities and responsibilities
we all have as church members. How can we, as sinful and selfish people,
gather together, not with the forced unity that denies differences, overlooks
difficulty, or compromises the message of the gospel, but with unity that preserves
the message of the gospel and acts as a compelling testimony to its value?
How can we respond to sin in our midst without descending to gossip and slander?
How can we trust our leaders but still recognize that they are sinners, too?
How can we love people who make us feel uncomfortable because they are so different
from us? How can we honestly critique an imperfect church without grumbling?
If youve been part of a church for any amount of time, you know that these
goals are difficult to achieve. Churches far too often become places of division,
complaints, and unhappy people. Therefore they fail to display to the watching
world the power of the gospel that should be at work within them.
Our goal for this class is to explore a practical blueprint of what makes
a church healthy. What makes it a community where sound doctrine expresses
itself in love that glorifies God? My prayer is that you will leave this class
with a better understanding of what the Bible says about being a healthy church,
and also with some clear ideas of what you can do to help build a healthy church.
I. GODS GOAL FOR THE CHURCHUNITY (EPHESIANS 3-4)
Lets begin by considering a foundational question: Why is the church important?
More specifically, why is it important to God?
To answer that question, lets look at Ephesians 3 and 4, where Paul lays
out the importance of the church in Gods plan of redemption. Ill run through
the whole passage, and then summarize some critical takeaway points.
Unlocking the Mystery of the Gospel
To give you some context, Paul has spent chapters 1 and 2 describing the power
of the gospelthat though we as Christians were dead in our transgressions,
we are now alive in Christ and reconciled both to God and to each other. Lets
pick up his train of thought in Ephesians 3:2:
Surely you have heard about the administration of Gods grace that was given
to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I
have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to
understand my insight into the mystery of Christ. (vv. 2-4)
What is this mystery that Paul understands so well? Skip ahead to
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together
with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise
in Christ Jesus.
You see? Paul is excited about the fact that Christianity has united Jews
and Gentiles together into one body. The hatred and enmity which had existed
between them for centuries is overcome in the gospel. As Paul put it a little
earlier in 2:14, Christ has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of
hostility between Jews and Gentiles.
Back to chapter 3. In verse 8, Paul says that the proclamation of this mysterythis
gospel-induced peace between Jew and Gentileis central to his ministry:
Although I am less than the least of all Gods people, this grace was given
me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make
plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past
was kept hidden in God, who created all things.
The Purpose of Gospel Unity
But why is unity in the gospel so important? In verse 10, Paul gives us a
unique glimpse into Gods purpose:
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom
of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly
Who are the rules and authorities that Paul mentions here? We dont really
know. The phrase in the heavenly realms suggests that it refers to the spiritual
dimension that exists beyond the physical.
What is absolutely clear, though, is that it is through the churchand specifically,
through the unity of Jews and Gentiles within the churchthat God is bringing
glory to himself by showing off to everyone (verse 9) his manifold
How does the church display the manifold wisdom of God? Only an all-wise God
could devise a way to reconcile his love and his justice while saving
a rebellious people who are estranged from him and from one another.
Unity AppliedHow Then Should We Live?
Through the rest of chapter 3, Paul prays for the family of God. He asks God
to strengthen them through his Holy Spirit. He also prays that, as Christ dwells
in their hearts through faith, they would come to understand just how all-encompassing
Christs love is for them, and thus be filled with all the fullness of God
(see verses 14-21).
In chapter 4 Paul begins to apply the truths we have just discussed, calling
the Ephesian Christians to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
My guess is that when you hear this exhortation, you probably start to think
immediately of your own personal holiness. But if you keep that exhortation
firmly planted in the context of chapter three, its clear that he doesnt
have our individual holiness in mind here so much as our life together as
Look at verses 2-3, where Paul talks about what should characterize our relationships
in the church:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in
love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond
Paul has more than one person in mind here. Hes talking to a group of
people, not just individuals.
Through the next few verses, Paul describes our calling as one body and explains
that our unity with each other is fostered by the gifts God has given to his
people (verses 4-11). And whats the goal of these gifts? Verses 12-13:
To prepare Gods 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.
Some Things to Remember
Well, thats a lightning run through two marvelous chapters of Scripture.
Lets pause for a moment and notice three truths in this passage that are of
First, the unity of the church is central to the message of the gospel. One
of the great accomplishments of Christs work is that he has broken down the
dividing walls of hostility that existbecause of sinbetween human beings.
Through the blood of Christ we are reconciled with God and we are reconciled
with one another. It cannot be otherwise.
Second, church unity showcases the wisdom of God. The church isnt
a collection of people who merely tolerate one other long enough to sing some
songs and hear a sermon every Sunday; the church is a gathering of people who
demonstrates a unity so powerful that it can only have come to pass by the
hand of God.
Third, cultivating unity is our responsibility as church members. It
is the entire church that has been gifted by the Spirit, and so Paul
calls the entire church to keep the unity of the Spirit through the
bond of peace. And, as we see in 1 Corinthians 1 and James 2, the New Testament
authors will rebuke the entire church when unity is damaged. Not just
church leaders. Church members.
Unity Throughout the Bible
So what is Gods goal for the church? Unity. Why? Because when redeemed sinners
with little in common choose to love each other, that displays Gods wisdom
and glory like nothing else.
This truth is not unique to the book of Ephesians. It is found throughout
the Bible. Consider Jesus words in John 13:34-35:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you
must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another.
Jesus continues this thought in his prayer for believers in John 17:
May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you have
sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (v. 23)
Or think of Lukes description of the early church in Acts 4:
All the believers were one in heart and mind . . . with great power the
apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and
much grace was upon them. (vv. 32-33)
Even in the Old Testament, the mission of Gods people was to revealas a
corporate bodyGods character to the nations around them. When God chose Abraham,
his ultimate goal was not to save just Abraham as an individual. God intended
to make of Abraham a great nation that would bless all the families
of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3).
Similarly in Ezekiel 36, God promises to save and reestablish the nation of
Israel so that all the nations around them would know that he is God. It was
his goodness to the people as a whole that would glorify him in the
Unity is Not Just an Option
We can see from all this that unity among Gods people is not just an optional
addition to our lives as Christians. It is an integral part of our life as
Gods people. Remember how starkly John puts this in 1 John 4:20:
If anyone says, I love God, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone
who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he
has not seen.
The bottom line is that we need to realize that focusing on my individual
life as a Christian is fundamentally wrong-headed. God accomplishes his purposes
in believers primarily corporately, not individually. Thats why the
word-pictures the Bible uses to describe the churchliving stones built into
a spiritual house, members of a body, and so forthemphasize the communal nature
of the church. God will fulfill his purpose for the church as it acts in unity,
as a community of believers.
II. THE RIGHT KIND OF UNITY
Ironically, the concept of unity has become quite divisive over the past hundred
years or so. People have understood the Bibles call for Christian unity in
many different and conflicting ways. So what do we mean, exactly, when we talk
about Christian unity?
One ExtremeUnity at All Cost
Some people say that Christian unity means that all people who call themselves
Christians should organize together institutionally, or at least cooperate
together as a single body of believers. The problem with Christianity, they
say, is that our doctrinal disagreementsbetween Catholics and Protestants,
or Evangelicals and theological Liberalsdamage our ability to influence this
world for the kingdom of God. Therefore, we should set those differences aside
and unite in the greater cause of making the world better.
The problem with this expansive view of unity, as many Christians have noted,
is that it would be a shallow unity, indeed. Many who call themselves Christians
would disagree on some very fundamental questions:
- What does it mean to be a Christian?
- Who is God?
- Who is Jesus Christ?
- What must people do to be saved?
- Do we even need to be saved from sin at all?
When there is disagreement about basic issues like those, its hard to imagine
how any real unity can be fostered. Sure, you could ignore such questions and
declare yourselves unified anyway. But organizational unity for its own sake
is pretty meaningless, isnt it? Even worse, it can confuse the world as to
the nature of Christianity and the gospel.
It is certainly a good thing to cooperate with others for the sake of a common
goalworking with Roman Catholics to protect the rights of the unborn, for
example. But while that is a type of unity, its not Christian, per
se. Ill partner with non-Christians to protect the rights of the unborn.
The Other ExtremeNo Unity At All
At the other extreme are those Christians for whom unity is almost a bad word.
Such separatists may be right to regard the kind of ecumenism that we just
considered as confusing and contrary to gospel purposes. But these separatists
can go too far, declaring that they will share Christian fellowship only with
those who agree with them on every point of doctrine.
Many separatistic churches place undue focus on doctrines that are not clear
in Scripture, such as their own understanding of the end times or particular
rules for Christian living. As a result, they become known more for being divisive,
schismatic, and legalistic than for holding out the life of the gospel.
The idea that a local church would isolate itself from other churches is almost
as preposterous and unbiblical as an individual Christian isolating himself
from other Christians. Even as we struggle against a wrong-headed, utopian
view of globally organized Christian unity, we must also fight to reclaim the
high place that real Christian unity should hold in our livesboth between
individual Christians and churches.
Avoiding the ExtremesTrue Christian Unity
In this fallen world, real Christian unity falls in between those two ends
of the spectrum I just described. Perhaps a helpful way to get our heads around
the kind of unity Paul talks about in Ephesians is to think of it in terms
of an action, a purpose, a source,
and a place.
1. The action that defines Christian unity is love. In
particular, it is love for our brothers and sisters in Christ that crosses
worldly boundaries. In this world, people divide along all kinds of socio-economic,
racial, and ethnic lines. And people certainly divide when one person sins
against another. But as we have seen, the gospel of Jesus Christ tears down
those walls, both the walls of life circumstance and the walls of offence-rendered
and hurt-received. Now we as Christians are called to love those whom we would
not naturally be drawn to love. Think of Jesus words in Matthew 5:46.
If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the
tax collectors do the same?
Or chapter 18:21-22
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive
my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I
tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
2. The purpose of Christian unity is the glory of God
in the vindication of his gospel. Unity that exists for any other purpose
may well be valuable, but it is not the Christian unity that we are exploring
in this class.
This is a crucial point in determining whether we may unite with another group
of people and describe it as Christian unity. Is this other church or organization
laboring for the same God as we are? Are they seeking to proclaim and vindicate
the same gospel? Or are there fundamental differences that will cause people
to believe in a different gospel altogether?
These are not always easy questions to answer, but that does not mean we are
free not to ask them. The decision to unite with another church in gospel work
is one that has enormous implications. The last thing we want to communicate
to the world is that we as a church are somehow okay with beliefs that actually
repudiate the biblical gospel.
3. The source of Christian unity is the love of Christ. As
John puts it, We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Real Christian
unity has at its root a deep understanding that we are forgiven in Christ.
Do you remember Jesus words in Luke 7:47? He who is forgiven little, loves
little. And he who has been forgiven much, loves much. Unity that glorifies
God and vindicates the wisdom of the gospel is unity that is powered by our
understanding that we have been forgiven in Christ. When Christs love for
us is the source of our love for one another, that is a supernatural love,
one that can only be explained by the power of God working in us. But if unity
is driven by an affinity which is familiar to the worldone based merely on
a desire to clean up a neighborhood, for example, or effect some sort of social
changehow will the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly
realms be displayed? No, the unity for which we strive is one based on something
that the world simply cannot fit neatly into its godless categories. Its a
transcendent unity based on Christs love for us.
4. Finally, the place where Christian unity is primarily
worked out is the local church. Of course, Christian unity is not limited
to an individual local church, but it works itself out most practically in
that context. It is in the local church that we learn to rejoice with people
with whom we may not naturally rejoice, and to weep with people with whom
we may not naturally weep. In the local church we learn to share our lives
with people who share one profound love with us: the love of our Lord Jesus
Christ who has forgiven us of our sin.
Understanding all that, we might define Christian unity like this:
True Christian unity is found in God-glorifying, gospel-revealing love
for all brothers and sisters in Christ, fueled by our forgiveness in Christ
that expresses itself most clearly in the assembly of the local church.
That is the kind of Christian unity that will declare Gods wisdom to the
III. THE BENEFITS OF UNITY
The unity we seek in the local church is not just theoretical. It has real
implications for our lives, and real benefits to us as Christians. For the
next few minutes, I want us to turn our attention to exploring some of the
benefits that unity brings to a local congregation.
As we walk through each of these, keep two questions in mind:
- First, do you see this particular benefit in our church generally?
- And second, are your own relationships with the members of this church
structured in such a way that this benefit accrues to you and to others?
Here then are some of the benefits of Christian unity that Scripture holds
out to us:
Assurance of Salvation
In 1 John 3, we read:
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and
in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we
set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. (vv.
John is writing here about the importance of loving our brothers and sisters
in Christ. When we look at our relationships with other Christians and see
unity and love rather than discord and strife, it should encourage us that
we are in fact the children of God. Unity in the body of Christ is an important
part of a believers assurance of salvation.
The author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 10:23-25:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is
faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love
and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit
of doing, but let us encourage one anotherand all the more as you see the
These verses begin with a stirring callto hold unswervingly to the hope we
profess. Thats really hard to do, which is exactly why God has written these
words not to you as an individual, but to us as a church. Our life together
as a church is important because God knows were not self-motivated all the
time. We need each others prayer, correction, and encouragement so that we
may love each other. This type of encouragement cannot happen in an atmosphere
of dissention and strife. It happens when there is unity.
The third benefit of unity Id like us to consider comes again from Ephesians
4. Unity protects our doctrine. Look at where we left off in verse 14. Remember,
Paul was writing about building up the unity of the church.
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 men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love,
we will in all things grow up into 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. (vv. 14-16)
What will have this kind of impact? The unity Paul has been describing for
the previous thirteen verses. Unity protects our doctrine. It protects us from
the tyranny of faddish teaching, from the danger of being pulled into error.
More than creeds and statements of faith, more than bishops and popes, unified
congregations have been the primary means God has used to protect the core
teachings of the Christian faith.
Today, efforts to recapture unity often get a bad reputation precisely because
they come at the expense of orthodoxy. But far from seeing a delicate
balancing act between doctrine and unity, Paul sees unity as our main hope
for preserving our doctrine.
In John 17, Jesus prays,
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 . . . May they be brought to complete unity
to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have
loved me. (vv. 20-21; 23b)
The churchs unity is one way that non-Christians will recognize the divinity
of Christ and his divine mission. Moreover, it is part of how they will come
to understand the love of God.
That ambitious, God-given objective should make us consider the role our church
plays in our own evangelism. Of course evangelism is more than simply bringing
people to church, but that doesnt mean that the church has no role
to play in evangelism. Exposing a non-Christian to the love we have for each
other as Christians is a powerful witness to the work of God in our lives.
There are other benefits of unity we could consider as well:
- A unified church is more likely to pray for itself and others.
- Its members are far better able to hold each other accountable, because
they know each other and love each other.
- Even the disciplinary actions of a unified church are more powerful because
they are more obviously driven by love and not factionalism.
- A unified church has the luxury of focusing the attention of its leadership
outward rather than on solving problems within. The list goes on and on.
Remember the question with which we began the class: how can an imperfect
people display the glorious character of a perfect God? Whats the answer?
A still sinful people can display both the love and holiness of God as they
live in gospel unity: a unity that doesnt come from white washing sin, but
calls it what it issin; but a unity thats born of the forgiveness of sinthe
forgiveness of Christ which we both proclaim and extend to one another.
This entire course is a class about unityunity that proclaims Jesus Christs
greatness to the people around us because it flows from and celebrates Gods
work of redemption.
Over the next twelve weeks, we think practically about how we can build a
church marked by that kind of unity, one that therefore protects and proclaims
the life-changing message of the gospel. I pray that God will use these weeks
to help us better understand the role that each of us is to play in that great
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