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 one believe.

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 spirit.


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 12:12–14).


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).


Conclusion


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.


JJ Lim