Come together, right now, over me. ~The Beatles
If you take two cats and tie their tails together then you have a union; the last thing you have is unity. The vexed question of church unity is like the woman in the gospels—the more the physicians treat her, the worse she gets. In large measure, this is because church leaders (naturally enough) tend to place the locus of unity in government—ecclesiastical union. But we need to reexamine this. Of course, governmental unity among all Christians is certainly to be desired, but is it the foundation of all unity or an instrument toward it? Fortunately, the Bible tells us where to look.
The same Paul who tells us to labor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace also tells us the basis of that unity. He tells us that we as Christians are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling as Christians (Eph. 4:1). Our demeanor in this is to be one of humility and patience (v. 2). With this attitude, we are equipped to obey his next command, which is the command to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (v. 3). This unity is kept by us, not created by us. Armed with the right attitude, assigned the right task, what we now need is the right foundation. What foundation does Paul declare as the basis of this unity?
There is one body because there is one Spirit. There is one hope of our calling. One Lord. There is only one faith. There is only one baptism. And above, through and in us, there is one God and Father (vv. 4-6). In heaven is the triune God, and on earth we find a common confessed faith and a common baptism—Word and sacrament. It is striking that there are no governmental bonds referred to here; the bonds are of another nature entirely. He does not list one holy Father in Rome. Nor does he say one ecumenical headquarters in New York. He does not refer to summit leadership conferences in Colorado Springs. He doesn’t even hint at an executive committee in Nashville.
Of course, this does not mean that government is irrelevant to this question of unity. In the next breath, Paul says that the one Lord ascended into heaven, and from there He gave the gift of godly government to men. “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). The reason He did this was so that these officers would labor in the perfecting of the saints, building up the body of Christ until we all come to the unity of the faith (vv. 12_13). The task before these officers is the presentation of a perfect man, a Church that has grown up into the measure of the fullness of Christ (v. 13).
This means the saints are exhorted to have an attitude of humility and patience as they endeavor to preserve that measure of unity they already have, a unity created by the Spirit of God. At the same time, they clearly do not yet have the full measure of the unity that God intends for His Church. So Paul teaches first that we have a unity that must be preserved. He also teaches that we do not yet have full unity. That is the pastoral and eschatological goal of those faithful officers who labor in the Church. The unity we already have is based upon the unity of God, the unity declared in baptism.
Faithful pastors, therefore, advance the work of true unity. Unfaithful teachers disrupt that unity and so their lying ministries must themselves be disrupted. As unity grows under a faithful ministry, we are no longer children, tossed to and fro by televangelists, or carried about by every wind of doctrine to blow out of the magisterium. We are no longer vulnerable to the cunning craftiness that makes us buy IVP books (v. 14). The work of true unity is not advanced by an irenicism that tolerates the “sleight of men.” A shepherd who tolerates wolves is a shepherd who hates his own sheep. A shepherd who loves his sheep is one who fights the wolves. And the wolves in sheeps’ clothing don’t like this, not at all, and so they raise a great cry—unity!
In dealing with this threat, faithful pastors do not declaim from the pulpit about “wolves abstractly considered.” They name names, like Hymenaeus and Alexander. And that is why it is treachery to the cause of true unity to refuse to point out obvious departures from the faith. I mentioned InterVarsity Press a moment ago only because wolves are running up and down the corridors there.
Pastors labor to this end of unity by speaking the truth in love, in order that the already unified body might become unified. We are growing up into our head, the Lord Jesus Christ. From Him, the whole body is being joined together—and the picture here of being joined and compacted, as every joint supplies, is an image of being knit together in the womb (vv. 15_16). There is an essential unity in an embryo, but there is also a unity toward which the embryo is growing. Many complaints about the disunity of the Church are actually complaints about how God knits in the darkness of the womb. We look over His shoulder and have the temerity to criticize what He is doing there. But we must go by what the Word says, and not by what we see.
So as we grow up toward this unity, to extend the metaphor, we necessarily fight false teachers who want to introduce their birth defects into the process. As we love one another in all humility and stand for the truth in love, we advance the cause of unity in truth. God directs how this process will finally culminate. Our task is not to oversee the whole process, but rather to be faithful and obedient in our small portion of it.
We therefore affirm a doctrine of apostolic succession, but this is not a succession of ordinations. That is not the basis of unity. Rather, it is a succession of baptisms, and all that those baptisms represent. He is one and we are one in Him.