Christian Unity (Part 1)

The idea of Christian unity has been so perverted over the years by liberal Christianity that there is considerable confusion about what it means, both inside and outside the church.

Another sad consequence is that those who are orthodox have overreacted to these abuses by rarely speaking about it, except to criticize it, and we even more rarely work for it. However, we must not let the precious vocabulary and principals of Christian unity fall into neglect or be stolen from us by those who have deliberately twisted and misused them.

A bright light in the midst of this confusion is the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals that runs this “ecumenical” blog, The Christward Collective, and strives to build wider Christian unity on a biblical basis.

I want to encourage more of this biblical ecumenicity; but to do so, we must first of all distinguish six different types of Christian unity.

1. Spiritual unity is the unity that all Christians have in Christ. We may differ in a multitude of ways, yet all those who are truly born again are united to Christ by His Holy Spirit and through Him to one another. This explains the strange but wonderful bonds we can experience when we meet Christians we’ve never known before and yet almost immediately we sense a delicious and delightful closeness and love that exceeds even that of some natural family bonds.

2. Doctrinal unity means being united on what we believe the Bible to teach, usually defined by one of the historic confessions of faith like the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Standards.

Some don’t like this and say, “We believe the Bible not confessions or catechisms.” But as soon as you ask them, “Well what do you believe the Bible to teach?” the answerer begins, unwittingly, framing a confession of faith. The only question is whether the “confession” is our own one or one that thousands of Christians over hundreds of years have agreed upon.

The closest and best unity is obviously when Christians and churches are totally agreed. We can each point to one of the Confessions of faith and say, that’s what we believe the Bible to teach.

3. Practical unity means that we are united in what we understand to be the implications and practical applications of the doctrines we agree on. For example, there may be Christians and churches who hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and yet who differ in their view of how to evangelize, or conduct missions, or educate children. The unity we aspire to is when Christians and churches agree on what the Christian life should look like and what Church life should look like. Another word for this might be ethical or moral unity.

4. Experiential unity is a unity in our experience of salvation and the Lord’s communion with us. We all know Christians we can confide in about spiritual things because they also have experienced the Holy Spirit’s work in convicting of sin, drawing to Christ, regenerating, applying salvation to our consciences, supplying grace for daily life, overcoming temptation, developing spiritual graces and gifts and so on.

But there are other Christians we can talk to about these things and their eyes glaze over; they look at us as if we are totally weird. They seem to have little if any Christian experience in the past or the present – at least none resembling our own.

It is such a blessing on the other hand to meet Christians who are of the same kindred spirit in spiritual things and we enjoy a precious experiential unity, that is so encouraging and edifying.

5. Liturgical unity means that we are united in how we understand worship to be conducted both in spirit and content. We agree on the regulative principle of worship and what that means in practice.

6. Ecclesiastical unity might also be called institutional unity. It’s the unity that different churches formally and officially enjoy formally at a denominational level or more locally and informally on a congregational level.

Why not use these six types of Christian unity to examine yourself and your church locally and denominationally to see if there are any areas where you can pursue Christian unity more zealously and wisely.

In my next post, I’ll offer some further comments on these six different types of unity and their implications for personal and church life.


Related Resources

Audio lectures from the 2003 Desiring God Conference for Pastors on "Good Fences, Bad Fences and the Glory of God."