While there are many themes that one can focus on when reading Paul’s epistles, one that has often not received comparable attention (compared to justification by faith or eschatology) is Christian unity.
This might be due to the fact that unity is hard and we’ll rather dwell on topics that to us seem more abstract and less demanding. The number of Christian denominations and the bickering that happens within and among them may add to the discouragement. In an era of social media where trolling, cheap popularity, and easy-believism are pervasive, such unity might even become more idealistic.
Nevertheless, Jesus tells us that our unity is part of our witness: “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” (John 17:23). For the world to believe our message – God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) – they must see evidence of unity amongst those who claim to have experienced that reconciliation. If A, B, and C are all reconciled to God through Christ, why won’t they be reconciled to one another?
In essence, Christian unity is not only a good-to-have virtue, it’s part of our witness. Its presence or absence will either adorn the doctrine of Christ or cast doubt on its reconciling power.
When the Father raised the Son from the dead, he exalted him to his right hand in the heavenly realms. There, he now reigns “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). Said differently, “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything” (verse 22).
God’s ultimate purpose for putting all things under Christ’s feet is to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (verse 10). Or, as he put it in his letter to the Colossians, God’s plan is to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
To summarise, there is a great cosmic reconciliation of all things to God that has been secured by Christ’s death, is already underway through his rule over all things, and will be consummated “when the times reach their fulfilment” (Ephesians 1:10).
For Albert Barnes, Paul’s use of “all things” is not a poetic exaggeration, it really means all things. Christ’s reconciliation will undo all the effects of sin and unite the whole universe in one: “Sin has produced disorder not not only in “mind,” but in “matter.” The world is disarranged. The effects of transgression are seen everywhere; and the object of the plan of redemption is to put things on their pristine footing, and restore them as they were at first. Everything is, therefore, put under the Lord Jesus, and all things are to be brought under his control, so as to constitute one vast harmonious empire.”
But, what is the guarantee that God will do this? How do we know that the whole created universe will one day be reconciled to its maker, with all effects of sin done away with? Of course, the promise of God is a sufficient guarantee; however, God has chosen to give a prelude to this coming cosmic reconciliation. How so?
First, this plan to reconcile everything under Christ was made known to the Church, those who have partaken of the riches of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:7-8).
Second, Christ’s current reign over all things as the head is “for the church, which is his body” (1:22-23). That is, Christ rules over all things for the Church’s “special advantage,” according to the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary. Or, as the Pulpit Commentary put it, “The exaltation of Christ is not merely an honor conferred on himself, but has also a definite practical purpose; it is for the benefit of the Church.”
Third, the church is the fullness of Christ (verse 23). We are the means and instruments by which Christ manifests himself in this world. “Jesus is changing the world for the good of the church by the means of the church,” said Bryan Chapell, a pastor and theologian. “As such the church, the body of Christ, is the present instrument of his filling the universe with his purpose”
However, the key point for us lies somewhere else. In chapter 2, Paul focuses on the unity of Jews and Gentiles that results from the Gentiles being brought near by the blood of Christ. In his death, Christ destroyed the wall of hostility separating Jews and Gentiles by setting aside the law with its commands and regulations. Now, out of two humanity, Christ has created one humanity, one household, one building, one temple – the church.
This union of Jews and Gentiles in one household is a mystery, one that was hidden in ages past and was revealed to the NT apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:6). But why did God decide to reveal this mystery of the new humanity in Christ? One reason, for Paul, is that through this united church, “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10).
These rulers and authorities will see the manifestation of God’s mysterious will in the united church of Jews and gentiles and be made more sure of the final fulfilment of another mysterious will – the unity of all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (1:7-10). Richard Hays, a NT theologian, commenting on Ephesians 3:10-21 says that “the church is the manifestation in the world of God’s reconciling power.” Therefore, a crucial part of the church fulfilling its mission as the fullness of Christ here on earth is its witness to God’s reconciling power through its own unity.
Bryan Chapell, reflecting on verse 10 in his Ephesians commentary, says: “The heavenly hosts are to look at those of us in the church with all of our sin, differing personalities, cultural prejudices, and color differences and say, “How did God do that?! How did he get such difficult and disagreeable creatures together in one body to praise him? The manifold wisdom of the Creator God really is great!”
The end result of this witness, as with everything else (see 1:6, 12), is to glorify God.
If the unity of the church is a witness to God’s reconciling power (and the ultimate reconciliation that awaits), to the praise of his glory, then Christian unity is so important.
No wonder that when Paul moves from theology/doxology to ethics, one of his first commands is that we should “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Paul does this by reminding us that “there is one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (verse 4-6).
Christ wants to fill the whole universe but he will do so through the mature, united, and Spirit-gifted church (verses 9-13). The church must, therefore, remember that it is the body (single body) of Christ and it must reflect its head. As Paul asked the Corinthians, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). If the head is not divided, why should the body be?
The unity that Paul demands sprinkle down from the church to the households of believers. The relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, must be marked by the same Christian grace of unity (Ephesians 5:21-6:9).
This call to Christian unity pervades Paul’s epistles. We see it as a major theme in Romans 12, 14, 14, 1 Corinthians 1, 3, 11, 12, 13, 14, Galatians 2, Philippians 2, 4, among others. As I said in the introduction, this is a major theme in Paul.
As the practical theologian that he was, Paul did not leave us with just a command for unity and an emphasis on why it’s crucial. Rather, he leaves us with many instructions on how to build that unity.
To be united, love must underlie all of our interactions with one another (Ephesians 5:1-2), including the way we deal with the difficult issue of speaking the truth (4:15). This love will also manifest itself in kindness, compassion, mutual forgiveness, and mutual submission (Ephesians 4:32, 5:21), as we reflect the love of Christ for us (5:2).
Also, we must all strive to become who we already are in Christ – victorious over the old self and living under the reign of the new self. Though these twin facts are already true about us in regeneration, we must keep putting off the old self and putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:17-5:20). In other words, the holier each of us is becoming, the more united the church will become.
Furthermore, related to living out the victory over the old self is taking a stand against the devil’s schemes. Self, the world, and Satan are our enemies, and where those three reign, disunity will become normative (Ephesians 2:1-3). Consequently, we must put on the full armour of God and stand our ground against Satan and his hosts (6:10-20).
To summarise, when each one of us is becoming holy, cultivating love, and reflecting the love and humility of Christ, the church will be united and the rulers and authorities of the heavenly realms will see God’s manifold wisdom and reconciling power.
And, to come full circle to John 17, the world will know that God has really sent Jesus and that Jesus has truly loved us. Christians reconciled to one another in Spirit-worked unity will be the proof that God is indeed in Christ, reconciling the whole world to himself.
This is the place to clear some confusion around the topic of Christian unity.
First, “unity is both hidden and manifest,” according to Brad Littlejohn, author of The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed, “it is both a given reality and a goal to be striven for.” We are already the one body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-6) and our task is to make that unity much more manifest rather than create it in the first place. The ultimate cause of our unity is our common union with Christ (John 17:20-23); therefore, we must not obscure the unity of every believer in the invisible church in our attempt to make that unity much more evident to the world in the visible church.
Second, the primary unity that the scriptures call us to is the unity of Spirit rather than institutional unity, liturgical unity, or unity of faith (having the same confession).
According to Brad, institutional unity is “suspect as a goal of our ecumenical strivings” since “local variation and regional administration are the norm, and we should be no quicker to embrace one-world church government than one-world civil government.” (emphasis mine) In other words, the existence of different denominations does not fundamentally undermine the church’s unity and ecumenism that strives for one-church government or the eradication of denominations is suspect. The only exception, according to Brad, is when institutional disunity threatens other forms of unity. For example, if two churches with the same confession of faith are “jealousy squabbling and competing for members, then perhaps we should campaign for a merger.”
Regarding liturgical unity, Brad believes that the church should be united in excluding certain worship practises that fall outside the pale (he points to 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 for examples) and embracing the “core features of Christian worship and practice:” the two sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper), prayer, songs of praise, and the reading and preaching of the Word. However, he acknowledges that since scriptures give no detailed blueprint, churches can differ (on prudential grounds) about the forms that these worship practises will take without undermining Christian unity.
The church must be united on the “basic confession of Christian faith” and recognise that beyond the basic confession, it’s difficult to get all believers to agree on the same doctrines. Lack of a common confession may legitimately hinder cooperation in some cases (it will be hard for two denominations to create the same Sunday school curriculum; take Lutherans and Baptists as an example) but not in others (different denominations can unite to fight sex trafficking or construct a well for the community).
Having examined these three forms of unity, Brad comes back to the primary one: the unity of Spirit. This is the unity that dominates Paul’s thoughts, as we have seen. Brad defines it as “the love that binds believers together.” (emphasis mine) This is the unity that forces us to ask: “Do we treat one another with the love of Christ, and see ourselves as sharing a common cause and destiny? Do we work together in common mission and witness when possible, or distance ourselves from one another?” This is the unity that Paul was demanding from the Philippians: “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2)
This love must dominate our interpersonal relationships as believers within the same local church and as believers outside of any particular church or denomination. We must see every confessing Christian as brothers and sisters and love them with the same love with which Christ reconciled us to himself.
While institutional unity is undesirable except in a few exceptional cases, liturgical unity is possible only to some extent, unity of faith limits the range of cooperation, unity of Spirit must loom large everywhere believers are present.
Third, while we strive for unity, we must not despair at our failures “since Christ promises to hold us together despite our attempts to pull apart.”
Fourth, we must not undermine unity by turning it into “the postmodern feel-good idea of tolerance, and think that charity precludes judgment and discrimination.” As we saw in Ephesians, Paul encourages us to speak the truth but to do so in love (4:15).
The church has one foundation – Christ Jesus. He is the one who abolished the wall of hostility and brought Jews and Gentiles into one humanity.
His goal is that through this one humanity, his reconciling power will be made more evident, in anticipation of the consummation when all things will be reconciled in Christ.
Therefore, for the glory of Christ, we must always strive to display the unity that Christ has purchased by loving one another, pursuing ever-increasing holiness, and reflecting Christ in our lives. This unity will be our witness to the world and to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, to the praise of God’s glorious grace.
In Paul’s words, let us “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word;
From heav’n He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride;
With His own Blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.
Elect from ev’ry nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation
One Lord, one Faith, one Birth.
One holy name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord, to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end.
Tho’ there be those that hate her,
False sons within her pale,
Against both foe and traitor
She ever shall prevail.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed;
Yet saints their watch are keeping;
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
Mid toil and tribulation
And tumult of her war
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore,
Till with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
 Albert Banes, Notes on the Whole Bible, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/ephesians/1.htm
 Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/ephesians/1.htm
 Pulpit Commentary, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/ephesians/1.htm
 Bryan, Chapell, Ephesians in Reformed Expository Commentaries (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2009), Page 79, Epub.
 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2013), Page 118, Mobi.
 Chapell, Ephesians, Page 147.
 Brad Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (South Carolina: The Davenant Press, 2017), Page 84, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 84, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 91, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 91, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 92, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 93, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 94, Pdf
 Ibid, Page 95, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 89, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 96, Pdf.
 Ibid, Page 96, Pdf.