CULTIVATING BIBLICAL UNITY
IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
The Greek word usually translated “church” is the word ekklêsia.
This word occurs 118 times in the Greek New Testament. In the Authorised
Version, all but 3 occurrences of the word (Acts 19:32, 39, 41) are translated
“church” or “churches.” However, among these 115 occurrences, we can
distinguish three different shades of meaning.
In a few instances, the word is used to describe the sum total of all the elect
of God or the Invisible Universal Church (cf. WCF 25.1). This
meaning is particularly in focus in Paul’s epistle to the Church at Ephesus.
For example, he asserts that God has put all things under Christ and “gave him
to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fullness
of him that filleth all in all” (Eph 1:22–23). Occasionally, also, the
word ekklêsia is used to describe the visible church without
reference to any geographic boundary (e.g., 1 Cor 12:28; 15:9; Heb 2:12). When
it is used in this way, it closely approximates the concept of the Visible
Universal Church which comprise the sum total of all who profess true
Christianity throughout the world (cf. WCF 25.2).
But, by far the most common use of the word, ekklêsia, in the
Scripture is to describe a circle of believers in a particular locality, which
is purposefully united together and regularly assembled together for worship
(e.g., Acts 9:31; 14:23; 1 Cor 4:17; 11:18; 1 Thes 1:1; Rev 1:4; etc.). We may
call such circles of believers “Local Churches” (see PCC Bulletin,
vol. 1, no. 11, dated 12 Sep 1999). From this preponderance of references to
the Local Church, we may have some idea as to the importance of the Local
Church in God’s design. Every Christian must be united with a local church, and
be concerned about the being and well-being of his local church.
We spoke about the being of the local church when we studied
the marks of a true church. In this article, we want to look at the well-being of
a local church as it pertains to her unity. This is a subject which urgently needs
to be considered today because we live in an age of individualism and
independence, such as prophesied by the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1–5. This
spirit of selfishness has no doubt crept into the church, so much so that it
would be highly unlikely that an article as this will gain the readership of
most members in the church. Indeed, humanly,—being painfully conscious of the
extent and depth to which individualism has infected many of our hearts,—I fear
that many will read this article with nonchalance or even resistance, if it is
read at all. But then, I am confident that the true child of God, being
reminded of the hardness of his heart and his resistance to the teaching of the
Word of God, will awake in repentance. We must believe that grace can accomplish
what even the most cogent persuasion and argument cannot.
With this in mind, may I recommend five points to consider in the cultivation
and maintenance of unity in the church.
Confession of Faith
Although the Word of God is perspicuous, it is an undeniable fact that there
“are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and
unstable wrest,… unto their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). This has happened
throughout the history of the Church, so much so that every communion, that seeks
to be faithful to the Word of God in the maintenance of true biblical unity,
has found it necessary to state in clear systematic statements what it would
confess to be the teachings of the Word of God. Such statements constitute the
creeds (from Latincredo: “I believe”) or confessions (from “we confess”)
of the church. The Confession is like a banner of truth under which the church
marches (cf. Ps 60:4). It is the corporate assent to what the church believes
is taught in the Scripture. It is not infallible. It is subordinate to the
Scriptures and derives its authority from it.
But it promotes unity in two ways. First it identifies the church with the
churches which hold to them in the past. Thus, for example, all the churches
which faithfully hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith today
can honestly say that they have not departed from the old paths rediscovered at
the time of the Reformation. John Hooper is certainly right when he observes:
Doctrinal independence from the
church of the past is the hallmark of sectarianism. Sects, by their very
nature, reject and despise the creeds and confessions. They thrive in a climate
of theological individualism. They epitomize the idea of all men believing that
which is right in their own eyes and then drawing others after them. In
contrast, churches that “hold the traditions” will with gladness in their
hearts join their fathers in common confession of the truth which they all as
If church unity is to be Biblical,
therefore, the churches must be confessional churches (Biblical Church Unity,
K&M Books, 1998, 35).
The second way in which the Confession promotes unity is by providing a
framework for which the church may speak with one voice on vital issues.
We have in an earlier article noted that there are three principle uses of the
confession of faith in a local church, namely (1) the Constitutional or
Unifying Use; (2) the Juridical Use; (3) the Catechical Use (see PCC
Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 14, dated 3 Oct 1999). We noted that, as a unifying
tool, the Confession is not intended to bind the conscience of all the members
in the church, and as such we do not require every member to subscribe to the
Confession. But it does require members not to promote any view other than what
is the confessional position of the church.
Practically too, it means that members of the church should give priority to
studying the confessional stance of the church, where there are issues of
differing viewpoints. It will not do for a member of a confessional church, who
has not studied the confession the church, to read every article on the
Internet that oppose the doctrinal positions of his church’s confession. In a
perfect world, with perfect knowledge and sinless hearts, this may seem to be
an innocuous thing to do. But common sense and experience show us how easily
deceived we can be. For example, if you have never studied Calvinism, you may
be easily swayed by the arguments of persuasive writers such as Dave Hunt or
Clark Pinnock, so that you become shaken if not hardened against the
confessional standard of the church. Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that
it is wrong for us to read or hear opposing views. I do believe that, all
things being equal, the truth will always prevail. And I believe we have the
truth in our Confession. However, it is not only prudent but biblical that we
take heed to our weakness lest we fall (1 Cor 10:12); and that we should guard
against giving place to falsehood (cf. Eph 4:27). Moreover, it is simply
unnatural and perhaps even insincere to be found in a confessional church, but
taking heed to opposing views without giving due consideration to corporate
confession of the church. We are after all commanded to be of “one mind” in the
church (Phil 2:2).
Submission and Respect of Authority
Closely related to the need to give attention and priority to the Confession of
the Church, is the importance of submitting to the rule and authority of the
elders appointed over the flock. No organisation can have real unity without a
decisive leadership, and the local church is no exception.
The writer of Hebrews highlights this duty of the members of the local church
when he exhorts: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves:
for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do
it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17).
Countless pastors and elders have no doubt experienced grief when members of
the flock under their care not only fail to submit to their rule and counsel,
but are known to murmur behind their back. This grief is accentuated because
the elders and pastors are set as under-shepherds under Christ so that
rebellion against them is rebellion against Christ (Ex 16:7–8); and yet any
attempt to rectify the situation will likely be construed as a tightening of
the grip of power.
Many others must have also experienced having members of the flock pressurising
them to lead the church according to their opinions. When this is done with
malicious intentions, it is individualism with a vengeance, and is a
manifestation of the rebellion of Korah, which Jude warns again (Jude 11, cf.
Num 16:1–31). Others may do the same out of genuine concern that the elders and
pastors may be leading the church in a wrong direction. This is very noble, and
sometime needful, especially if the leaders are leading the church away from
the scriptural and confessional moorings. But anyone who may feel it is his
responsibility to caution or query the leaders, ought not only to have concrete
evidences (1 Tim 5:19), but to approach the matter with a genuine spirit of
meekness. Anything less than that hints of a divisive and individualistic
God helping us, I trust that the session of this church will not impose
anything, which we cannot with a clear conviction and conscience believe that
Christ would Himself impose the same. As such, may I urge all of us to resolve
to heed the call of the writer of Hebrew,—for the sake of the unity of the body
of Christ and the honour of Christ’s name,—to submit to instructions that are
either biblically based or not contrary to the Scriptures.
Attendance at the Appointed Meetings
Regular assembling of ourselves together at the appointed meetings of the
church cultivates unity in the local church in a number of ways.
In the first place, if we desire to know someone better, we would certainly
want to meet with the person as often as possible. In the same way, common
sense teaches us that if we are endeavouring to cultivate unity with other
members of the church, that we must seize every opportunity to meet with the
members of the church. How may we exhort one another and to consider one
another to provoke unto love and good works (Heb 3:13; 10:24) but that we be
frequently assembled together with the saints.
Secondly, attending every appointed meeting ensures that we are one in
understanding with the other members of the church because we hear the same
instructions. Pastoral instructions and clarifications are often given in
sermons according to the appropriateness of the subject being dealt with, and
so if members pick and choose what meetings to attend and what to miss, it is
inevitable that detrimental misrepresentations and break-down of communications
would result. Could this be the reason why many pastors today spend much time
explaining and re-explaining what they have already made clear either in
writing or in sermons?
Thirdly, regular attendance at all the meetings appointed by the leaders of the
church is a means by which a corporate spirit can be cultivated because the
individual picking and choosing what he wants to attend would ultimately be
cultivating a spirit of consumerism which is akin to the individualistic spirit
by which the individual says: “I know what is good for me. I do not need the elders
or pastor of the church to tell me what is best.” Such an attitude is contrary
to the attitude that the Scripture seeks to cultivate by having us realise that
the leaders of the church will have to account to Christ for the well-being of
the church (Heb 13:17).
May the Lord grant us obedience to the instruction of the word: “Not forsaking
the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting
one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb 10:25).
May we be able to encourage and exhort one another as we ourselves resolve to
make every attempt to be present at all the meetings—not only for the good of
our souls but the well-being of the church and the glory of Christ our head.
Use of Spiritual Gifts
The Apostle Paul, describing the church universal declares:
For as the body is one, and hath
many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body:
so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether
we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to
drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many (1 Cor
But the local church is a microcosm of the church universal, and so it may
likewise be regarded as a body. By God’s appointment, this body, like the human
body, has different members and different functions, interacting and
inter-depending upon each other, so that there is unity in diversity. It is
clear that the diversity that Paul has in mind is not only to do with our
outward estate, but the bestowal of spiritual gifts by God as well (see 1 Cor
12:4–11, 27–31). This is why there is repeated emphasis in the Scripture that
spiritual gifts are given for the edification of the church (see 1 Cor 12:7; 1
Pet 4:10; Rom 12:5ff; Eph 4:11–16). This being the case, the faithful exercise
of spiritual gifts by members of the church is essential to building the unity
of the church, as the members of the church learn to depend on each other.
We may have occasion to say more on this difficult subject, but for now, it
suffice to say that I do not think the specific list of gifts given in the
Scripture is intended to be exhaustive. In other words, I believe that one with
musical talents who serves as a precentor may in some sense be regarded as
being spiritually gifted for that function. Of course we must not stretch
spiritual gifts to include functions which are contrary to the Word of God. A
trained lights-man or a choreographer for the production of charismatic worship
can hardly claim to be gifted for the task, for God cannot possibly grant gifts
to be used to violate His own regulation of worship.
The implication of this thought is that unity of the church is promoted as
members of the church learn to serve one another with the specific gifts God
has given: be it a gift of administration, of ministering, of encouragement, of
discernment, of instruction, of giving, of music, etc. May the Lord grant us
that we may know how to stir to flames the gifts that He has granted us for the
edification of His church.
Relating to One Another Biblically
It is amazing how many instructions are given in the New Testament concerning
how members of the church are to relate to one another. It is my contention
that only if the members of the church are obedient to these instructions can
there be real unity of love in the church. As there are so many verses, I shall
not attempt to expound each of the verses in details here. Instead I will cite
the verses with a brief comment of each, and trust that you will look them up
and consider if you have been obedient to these scriptural injunctions. If you
find yourself falling short, I trust that you would resolve to do what the Lord
requires as you seek His help to obey His Word.
These are the duties towards our brethren that God requires of us: (1) We are
to be ready and willing to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 Jn 3:16). (2)
We must bear one another’s burden whether spiritual or material (Gal 6:2; 1 Jn
3:17). (3) We are to confess our faults one to another, and pray one for
another (Jas 5:16). (4) We are to always speak the truth one to another in
love, even when the truth hurts (Eph 4:15), and so, if needs be, we must be
prepared to admonish one another (Rom 15:14; Col 3:16). (5) We are to consider one
another, to provoke unto love and good works (Heb 10:24). (6) We are to exhort
one another daily lest anyone be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb
3:13). (7) We are to edify or build up one another by our speech and actions (1
Thes 5:11; Gal 5:13). (8) We are to comfort the feebleminded, to support the
weak, to be patient towards all men (1 Thes 5:14). (9) We are to prefer one
another in honour and to esteem other members in the church as better than
ourselves (Rom 12:10; Phil 2:3). (10) We are to forebear with one another in
love (Rom 14:13; Eph 4:2, 32; Col
3:13; 1 Jn 3:11, 23).
Unity is a very important aspect of the well-being of the local church. It is a
very powerful testimony to the world that we are the disciples of Christ (Jn
13:35). It is also much to be desired because when the church is united,
members may serve the Lord together with joy without being distracted by
painful schisms and divisions. But true biblical unity must not be accomplished
either by making the gates of membership admission narrower than the gates of
the Kingdom of Christ, nor by amputating members of the body which are of
differing convictions. No, true biblical unity within the local church must be
accomplished only by obedience to the Word of God and by patient reliance upon
Christ, the Head of the Church, to transform lives through His Spirit.