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Theology > Church > Nature of the Church > Basis for Unity


The Council of Constantinople (381) affirmed that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”; therefore, the Church is characterized by unity, sanctity, universality, and has a historic foundation—note that the first description of the Church is unity, “one.”

For unity Christ prayed: “that they may be one just as We are one . . . that they made be made perfect in one” (the same Greek word for “one” is used in each of the three occurrences (Jo. 17:20-23). The unity of the Church is to be like the oneness of the Father and the Son, meaning that the Church is to reflect the essence of the unfathomable Trinity.

Unity should be understood from at least two angles: spiritual and practical. There is a spiritual or positional unity that results from believers being in Christ, and there is a practical or working unity which is to reflect believers living and working together. Scripture speaks of this two-fold unity:

Spiritual Unity

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd (Jo. 10:16);

For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread (I Cor. 10:17);

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building (I Cor. 3:9;

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many (I Cor. 12:12-14);

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28);

And He  . . . gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body (Eph. 1:22-23; see: 3:2-6);

He Himself . . . has made both one . . . to create in Himself one new man . . . and . . . reconcile them both to God in one body (Eph. 2:14-16; see: vs. 20-22);

There is one body and one Spirit (Eph. 4:4; see: vs. 6, 12-13);

He is the head of the body, the church (Col. 1:18; see: 2:19).

Note: Christ says: “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18); “My church” – Christ founded one Church not multiple churches; the Church is one because it is the body of Christ, and His body is one.

Practical Unity

Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common (Acts 4:32);

Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:5-6);

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (I Cor. 1:10; see: v. 13);

Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually (I Cor. 12:27);

Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, on one mind (Phil. 2:2);

Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body (Col. 3:15).

Note: The Church is many but one, many believers but one fellowship; “The unity in diversity and the diversity in unity of the human body are the ideas of interest to Paul” (Culver, ST, 873).

It is obvious that both dimensions of unity—spiritual and practical—are from God and centered in Christ; there is no other basis for unity.

It cannot be doctrinal; while theological formulation is essential, necessary for education and missions, a creedal statement cannot be made the basis for fellowship. This point does not question nor deny the need for an agreement on a few basic and non-debatable beliefs, such as Theism, the Being of God, and His Revelation, the normative speaking by God to man (see: Foundations). Comprehensive doctrinal formulations, creeds, articles of belief, statements of faith, will not bring about unity among the brethren. Without enforced organizational unity from some authoritative base, it seems that there will never be doctrinal unity. Men cannot agree on details. And to the degree that doctrinal statements are postulated as foundations for unity to that degree the Christian Faith moves from being relational to being intellectual.

The unity cannot be structural. To stress an organizational model is to reject the essential nature of the Church as taught in Scripture, which teaches that the Church is a fellowship, a fellowship of love.

the word “church” is not a technical term denoting form,
but a generic term denoting relationship.

The essential unity of the Church is spiritual, with it being created and maintained by the Spirit. Spiritual unity, therefore, exists between the followers of Christ, forming a union or fellowship of love between the believers; thus, the essence of this spiritual fellowship is love: Jo. 13:34; I Jo. 3:14; 4:21; 5:1; Col. 3:14; I Thess. 4:9-10. That which is invisible—the spiritual fellowship of love—is to become visible as much as the sinfulness of men will allow—the world is to see the love of brother for brother manifest in the behavior of brother to brother. For this unity Jesus prayed in Jo. 17:20-23.

Clearly the unity among Christians for which our Lord is praying here is to be a visible unity if, as he prays, the world is to learn from it that the Father has sent him (Reymond, A New Systematic Theology, 840; note: The visible unity is not an organizational unity, but a unity of the Spirit; see: The Fellowship).

While the spiritual or positional unity is fixed and cannot be adjusted, the practical unity that is to flow from the spiritual and reflect it will never be realized during the present era. Though the believer is saint, he is still sinner. The unity in principle is to become unity in practice, a goal fully realized at the Eschaton.

Realization of the practical or working unity consist in avoiding certain individuals because “there are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit” (Jude 19). These individuals are goats pretending to be sheep, they are  tares among the wheat; therefore, the Church must be vigilant. Paul writes: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (II Cor. 6:14) and instructs believers to turn away from those who are “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Tim. 3:5, 7).

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