Let’s examine what the Scriptures say about unity.
GOD is Unified
Our starting point for any study of character traits or attributes should be to look at the nature of GOD. GOD wants man to imitate His character and nature in every way, so He always provides the target for which we should aim. Unity is no exception. GOD is comprised of three separate spiritual Beings—God the Father; God the Word, who became Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and God the Spirit, referred to in Scripture as the Holy Spirit.
Though these are three separate Beings, and each is God, there is but one GOD. This concept is difficult for humans to explain, because mathematically, one is not equal to three. The only way that Father, Word and Spirit can be one GOD is that they are completely and totally unified. All three Beings are intimately involved in everything that happens, from before the creation and forever, but there has always been one eternal plan. As the apostle Paul wrote:
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Eph. 4:4-6 NIV)
For more on the unity of GOD, including Scripture references, read: GOD is Unified.
In the Beginning
At creation, humanity enjoyed a perfect and harmonious relationship with GOD. GOD talked directly with Adam and GOD proclaimed that everything was good. There was unity between GOD and man. Although there was only one man and one woman at the time, they were perfectly unified as well.
When Adam and Eve sinned, eating of the forbidden tree (Gen. 3), everything changed. Man now knew both good, which we were created to know, and evil, which GOD did not create us to know. The unified relationship was broken and man became enemies with GOD (Rom. 5:10). Unquestioned devotion to GOD in the hearts of men was replaced with persistent internal battle between the forces of GOD and the forces of Satan.
We don’t even have to leave the Garden in order to see the impact that sin had on unity. When GOD confronts Adam about his sin, Adam immediately blames Eve. Not to be outdone, Eve claims she was tricked by Satan (Gen. 3:11-13). The harmonious relationship between Adam and Eve was temporarily disrupted, and it would never be quite the same as a result of their sin.
Unity Before Israel
With sin having corrupted GOD’s perfect creation, what did GOD expect with regard to unity between humans? Scripture doesn’t directly answer this question, but we are given enough clues to form a general conclusion. The time between Adam and the Law of Moses is commonly referred to as the Age of Patriarchs. During this time period, GOD spoke directly to certain men, often the head of the family, and gave them direct instructions. Most of these conversations aren’t recorded in the Bible, but some are.
First, we see that GOD must have taught men not to kill one another. GOD warned Cain (recorded in Gen. 4:6-7) because He knew Cain’s heart was filled with hatred. When Cain killed his brother Abel, GOD punished Cain and told him directly what his punishment would be. It seems clear that GOD gave certain instructions to the patriarchs as to how to live sin-free lives, and to offer sacrifices that were acceptable to GOD. Unfortunately we don’t know how detailed and specific GOD’s instructions were regarding love and proper relationships.
As time progressed and the human population of earth increased, relationships became more complex and new challenges were introduced. After the worldwide flood, Noah’s descendants traveled east to the plain of Shinar. They decided to construct the Tower of Babel, for the purpose of remaining together. It seems that, among other reasons, the Tower of Babel was a human attempt to remain unified.
Interestingly, for whatever reasons, GOD saw that it was best to scatter the people, so He confused their languages where they could no longer understand one another, and scattered them over the whole earth (Gen. 11:1-9). Between this event and the life of Abraham some 300 years later, the families of Noah had grown into various nations of people. With this growth had also come the rise of idolatry, and GOD would begin the process of proclaiming His name throughout the more populous earth, beginning with one man—Abram of Mesopotamia.
After GOD called Abram to leave his home of Ur in the region of Mesopotamia, Abram went to the land of Canaan, along with Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew. In time, there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot, because they had both become too prosperous to continue living in the same area. Abram resolved the strife with Lot by suggesting they dwell in separate areas.
The first battle between nations that is recorded in scripture is in Gen. 14, where multiple kings fought one another, and Lot was captured in the process (Gen. 14:12). Abram took 318 servants, divided them up and attacked Lot’s captors and freed the prisoners. This act of defensive violence was praised by GOD’s high priest at the time, Melchizedek, who stated that GOD had delivered these people into Abram’s hand.
It is clear from the Old Testament that, while GOD would prefer men to live peacefully towards one another, He acknowledged that there would be conflicts between nations, and GOD supported His people engaging in battle, when the cause was just, as it was with Abram. In fact, GOD would later call the nation of Israel to purge the earth of the Canaanite nations as a means of punishing them for their extreme wickedness and, more specifically, their idolatry.
Unity Under the Law of Moses
As GOD’s eternal plan unfolded, He made the descendants of Abraham into a great nation. Under the leadership of Moses, the children of Israel left Egypt and journeyed to Mount Sinai. There, GOD entered into a covenant relationship with them to be their God and they His people. GOD gave Moses a law which governed all aspects of life for the Israelites, including personal, spiritual, social and civil relationships.
The Law of Moses was lengthy and extremely detailed, a necessity for properly explaining GOD’s expectations for His people, so GOD began the Law with a simplified overview known as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20). These 10 instructions were basic and short enough that the Israelites could memorize them, yet broad enough to govern all facets of life when followed.
In time, due to their desire to be like the nations around them, Israel became a kingdom under the rule of a human king. So, under this first covenant, in what ways did GOD expect an Israelite—a citizen of the physical nation of Israel—to be unified?
Jesus would later say that the two most important commands in the Law of Moses were to love GOD with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). If an Israelite loved GOD with all their being and treated their neighbor as more important than themselves, then that Israelite would naturally follow the more specific commands, such as not to covet, steal, lie, murder, or commit adultery. Thus, individual Israelites were to be unified with one another under GOD’s instructions.
Beyond this, the Israelite was expected to obey the rulers and government officials, pay taxes, and bring the prescribed offerings and sacrifices to the priests. In situations where there were disputes between Israelites, they would go before a judge who would make a ruling. They were unified as citizens of one kingdom, working for a common purpose, living in a land GOD had given them.
Sadly, failure to completely wipe out the Canaanite nations resulted in idolatry creeping in, corrupting and destroying the kingdom of Israel. Because of Solomon’s many pagan wives, he was pulled away to serve idols and GOD punished him by splitting the nation of Israel into two peoples. Continued pursuit of idolatry ultimately led to the destruction of the northern nation of Israel and the captivity of the southern nation of Judah.
During Jesus’ Earthly Ministry
Jesus lived by the Law of Moses and He preached the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He gained a substantial following of disciples, twelve of whom He selected as His apostles.
Were Jesus’ disciples unified while He was on earth? After all, they argued frequently over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1-4; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-30). And Judas Iscariot eventually betrayed Jesus for money.
I submit to you that the answer is, yes, the disciples were unified.
There is a difference between unity and harmony. Harmony speaks to peace within the relationship—the absence of arguing, whereas biblical unity speaks to having a common leader, acceptance of one another, plan and mission.
The apostles universally recognized that Jesus was their leader, that they were striving to be like Him as His disciples. Remember, the apostles left everything in order to follow Jesus. Though they had a limited understanding about spiritual matters, including the nature of the kingdom of heaven, and though they argued from time to time, they were not divided.
While Jesus was with them on earth, He taught His disciples a better way. He taught them not to lord it over people as the Gentiles did, but instead to be like little children. Jesus pulled a child from nearby when He said these things, using them as a visual aid to drive home the point.
Jesus also led by example, showing them the way of a servant, as He served others’ needs daily and as He washed the apostles’ feet on the night before His crucifixion (John 13:1-17).
Jesus prayed for His disciples to be unified, just as He and the Father were one (John 17:1-26). He gave Himself up on the cross in order to show the extent of His love for each of us. After His resurrection, Jesus once again served His apostles, making them breakfast by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14). Like all other areas of life, Jesus was the perfect leader.
Unity Under the New Covenant
Having offered Himself upon the cross, Jesus became the author of a New Covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6-13), purchased by His blood (Matt. 26:28).
Under this New Covenant, what actions have GOD and Jesus taken to promote unity among disciples?
The Holy Spirit
I believe the answer to the question above begins with the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent after He ascended. The Holy Spirit first came to the apostles and then to all who believed and were baptized (Acts 2; 5:32). In the first century, the Holy Spirit was actively involved in unifying Christians, including:
- Reminding the apostles of all that Jesus had said (John 14:25).
- Guiding the apostles into all truth (John 16:13).
- Inspiring the writers of the New Testament books, giving disciples of all generations GOD’s fully-revealed word (2 Tim. 3:16). These writings include instructions on unity and dealing with problems within the church.
- Serving as the disciple’s guarantee and down-payment of eternal life that is to come (2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:13).
- Providing miraculous spiritual gifts, such as prophecy, which instructed the early Christians (1 Cor. 12-14).
While things have changed now that we have the complete word of GOD, the Holy Spirit is still very much involved in the lives of Christians and the church. For a more comprehensive look at the Holy Spirit’s role, read: What is the Role of the Holy Spirit?
The Kingdom of Heaven
While Jesus was on earth, the message He preached was that the kingdom of heaven was near. In fact, Jesus told His generation that some of them would not pass away until after the kingdom had come (Mark 9:1).
After His ascension to heaven, the apostles and other evangelists went all over the world preaching about entrance to this kingdom of heaven (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).
Every aspect of the Old Covenant was, in some way, a shadow of something in the New Covenant (Heb. 8:1-6; 10:1-4). The Old Covenant was for a physical nation, whereas the New Covenant is a spiritual nation.
There are strong parallels between the way Israelites were expected to be unified under the Old Covenant and that of Christians under the New Covenant. For example:
- Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites followed one leader, beginning with Moses, then Joshua, then a Judge, then a king. In the kingdom of heaven, we follow Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the head of the church.
- The Old Covenant was governed by the Law of Moses, whereas the New Covenant is governed by the Law of Christ (Rom. 8:1-2; Gal. 6:2).
- Citizenship under the Old Covenant was by physical birth—by nationality, whereas citizenship under the New Covenant is by spiritual rebirth (John 3:1-8). Kingdom citizens are expected to be unified with other citizens of the same kingdom—Israelites with other Israelites, and Christians with other Christians. Non-Christians are citizens of other kingdoms or countries, not of GOD’s kingdom. Their allegiance is to other kings than Christ and their purpose (their mission) is not the same as the Christian’s.
With Whom Should Christians be Unified?
Understanding kingdom citizenship is critical to the discussion of biblical unity because this answers the question, “With whom are Christians expected to be unified?” Equally important is the truth that not every believer is a Christian (Acts 19:1-5).
Jesus said that many who call Him “Lord” would be cast into hell because of disobedience (Matt. 7:21-23). Christians are not expected to be unified with those who aren’t truly in Christ, regardless if they believe.
(Christians should love those who are outside of Christ, and help all who are willing to get into Christ. For an explanation of how one gets in Christ, read: Life’s Most Important Question.)
Must Christians Agree About Everything?
No, there are examples in the New Testament where Christians disagreed. For example, Paul and Barnabas got into a heated argument over whether to take John Mark with them on a missionary trip (Acts 15:36-41). Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, but Paul didn’t think it was wise. They decided to go separate ways, Barnabas taking John Mark and Paul taking Silas. Both groups went in different directions working for the Lord Jesus.
Although they disagreed, Barnabas still loved Paul and Paul loved Barnabas. They were still unified under Jesus even though they disagreed about this specific decision.
Just before this, in Acts 15:1-5, we read how certain Pharisees who had apparently become Christians were teaching the new Gentile converts that they had to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas disputed this and, ultimately, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem determined that the Law of Moses did not need to be kept for one to be saved.
The truth is that GOD didn’t speak on every single subject. In situations where GOD is silent (not specific), He gave us a mind to use for reasoning and applying principles from His word in order to live righteous and holy lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17). GOD knew that Christians would disagree over certain things, so He left us instructions on how to deal with these situations.
In Rom. 14, we learn that GOD doesn’t want us arguing over disputable or “doubtful” things—stuff GOD didn’t give instructions on.
GOD wants us to be convicted, in our own minds, about these things and to individually honor Him with our choices. He wants us to act in a way that will edify our brother or sister in Christ, and avoid doing things which would cause them to violate their conscience and thereby sin.
We cross the line, however, anytime we bind our opinion on others regarding something GOD hasn’t specified. That’s precisely the thing Jesus frequently rebuked the Pharisees and teachers of the Law for doing.
Someone says, “But what about 1 Cor. 1:10, which says that we must ‘speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you’?”
If we look at the context (1 Cor. 1:11-17; 3:1-17), we see that the specific problem in Corinth was that the Corinthian Christians were bragging about which man taught them the gospel and baptized them into Christ, saying, “I am of Apollos.” or “I am of Paul.” The result of this was that the group was divided as opposed to being edified. Therefore, from this text we see that Christians are expected to recognize that we are all of Jesus Christ and that it does not matter who taught us the gospel, only that we are in Christ.
Jesus is not divided, nor should His body be.
What Things Must Christians Agree On?
Thankfully, GOD answered this question for us. Paul covers it in the previously-referenced verses in Eph. 4:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Eph. 4:1-6 NIV)
In verse 3, Paul instructs us regarding the importance of unity.
In verses 4-6, he gives us the fundamental truths upon which Christians must be agreed in order to be unified.
Of course, the details of these “one’s” are where division so often occurs, but I submit to you that these “one’s” are the very truths that GOD has gone to great lengths to instruct us regarding in His Word. Thus, they are the clearest items in Scripture for us to understand, which makes sense because they are so very important to us.
- We’ve got to recognize that there is one GOD who created, sustains, loves and ultimately will judge each of us.
- We’ve got to believe that His Son Jesus lived a sinless life, offered His life upon the cross, was buried for three days and three nights before GOD raised Him from the dead.
- We’ve got to trust in the hope that Jesus’ resurrection assures our own by GOD’s promise. This is our one shared faith.
- We’ve got to obey and teach the one baptism that Jesus commanded and the apostles carried out.
- We’ve got to submit our lives to the will of the one Lord, Jesus.
- These are the essentials about which there can be no disagreement. In order for us to be unified, we must agree on these truths.
These are the essentials about which there can be no disagreement. In order for us to be unified, we must agree on these truths.
The following have become increasingly clear:
- Unity among Christians is extremely important to GOD. Sin and false doctrine should never be tolerated, nor should Christians draw lines where GOD hasn’t drawn them, thereby creating disharmony—and potentially division—within the church.
- The biblical concept of unity is actually a simple one to grasp:
- Recognize Jesus as head of the church.
- Submit yourself to His leadership.
- Recognize that the scope of your responsibility is to be unified with (all) other Christians (and only those who are truly in Christ).
- Maintain a servant-like attitude and actively seek ways to encourage and build up fellow Christians.
- When necessary, sacrifice personal freedom to keep from causing your brother to stumble.
- Like biblical unity, the gospel of Jesus is simple. And just like men have complicated and perverted the gospel, we have complicated and misapplied the biblical concept of unity, professing that all Christians must agree on every subject or else they aren’t unified.
- Over the centuries, Christians and would-be-Christians have made a terrible mess of the church (or at least people’s perception of the church). This statement is not surprising, but the study of what the Bible teaches regarding unity has helped me better understand how we got to here. False teaching; dogmatic arguments over “doubtful things”; a failure to place supreme importance on remaining “one in Christ;” and a failure to recognize those who have been properly baptized into Christ as brethren despite various doctrinal differences have each contributed to the fragmentation of the church and the rise of denominationalism.
- Like denominationalism, the rise of the “church building culture” has also significantly impacted Christians’ view of what it means to be unified. Sadly, for many, the way they identify who they are “unified with” is based on where they meet for collective worship, what facilities their building contains, and what title is written on the sign out front. Friends, this is not from GOD. It was not so in the New Testament.
How Do We Fix This Mess?
If Christians are ever going to fix the mess of division that exists today among true Christians, we must do so one heart at a time.
Study the apostolic church afresh.
Do your best to remove your personal biases, prejudices, and past experiences, and picture the way things used to work when the LORD was leading the early Christians through the apostles.
Align your heart to what you read in the New Testament regarding unity.
Pray for GOD to help as you apply yourself to the study.
Then, promote the truth on the subject and help others to take the same journey you have.