the weblog of Alan Knox

Continuing discussion on unity

Posted by on Dec 13, 2007 in blog links, unity | 10 comments

In my recent post called “Jesus died for unity“, David Rogers of “Love Each Stone” left the following comment:

I recently posted the following in the comment string on my blog:

“I think that is a good point about the difference between “unity in all we believe” and “unity in Whom we trust.” As I understand it, Ephesians 4:13 makes this same distinction when it talks about “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” From how I understand it, “unity in the faith” refers to the doctrinal content of what we belief, and “unity in the knowledge of the Son of God” to a personal, experiential knowledge of (relationship with) Jesus.

The big questions (at least for me) here are:

1. Is it possible to have one type of unity without having the other?

2. Does “unity in the faith” include agreement on secondary and tertiary questions? Or is it just unity in the essentials of the Gospel?

3. How do we reach an agreement on what points comprise the essentials of the Gospel, and what points are secondary and tertiary questions?

4. Is our unity with those with whom we differ on secondary and tertiary points less than it is with those with whom we are in agreement on all these points?”

I hate to hijack this discussion (bringing it over here from my own blog), but I think these questions also fit into the discussion here. And, I am really interested in what you and/or your readers might have to say in response to these questions.

In his comment, David refers to his own post called “Rocks on the Path to Unity“. I highly recommend that post and the comment thread that follows. Also, I recommend that you peruse David’s blog and read some of his other posts about unity. Unity is not a theoretical subject for David (or for me). Instead he attempts to live out unity with his brothers and sisters in Christ, and has offered us great examples of doing just that.

First, let’s look at Ephesians 4:13 -

…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… (ESV)

To begin with, there is only one “unity” in this passage. Paul does not write about the “unities” of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. Instead, he writes about a single unity which is comprised of both faith and knowledge. Also, its difficult to determine here if Paul is making a distinction between “faith” and “knowledge of the Son of God” or if these are standing in apposition to one another – meaning that they describe the same “thing”.

So, let’s get to David’s questions:

1. Is it possible to have one type of unity without having the other?
Well, since I only see one type of unity described in this verse, I would have to say, “No”. However, according to this passage, it is possible to be follower of Christ without being in unity. Notice that unity comes along with maturity. As one grows toward Christ-likeness (“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”), that Christ-likeness is demonstrated in both maturity and unity with other believers.

2. Does “unity in the faith” include agreement on secondary and tertiary questions? Or is it just unity in the essentials of the Gospel?
I’m not certain that “unity in the faith” indicates agreement on either secondary or tertiary questions. Instead, our faith is in God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Our faith is not in our doctrines – our teachings about God – whether we label them primary, secondary, or tertiary. We should recognize that some of our doctrines are wrong – we are not infallible. Thus, our understanding of God is incorrect in some areas – possibly in many areas. However, our faith is not in our understanding or explanation of God, but in God himself. So, we live in unity with one another because we have faith in the one God.

3. How do we reach an agreement on what points comprise the essentials of the Gospel, and what points are secondary and tertiary questions?
To be honest, I do not think it is valid to talk of “secondary and tertiary” doctrines. Instead, our goal should be to work together – with one another – to grow toward maturity in Christ. There are many truth claims in Scripture that those who are God’s children will confess: There is one God. Jesus is God. Jesus came in the flesh. etc. Scripture makes it clear that someone who does not confess these truths are not God’s children. It is not a matter of deciding if we are going to work with or fellowship with or become friends with another child of God, but it is a matter of determining whether or not someone is a child of God. Notice that there are also teachings in Scripture that we do not necessarily consider to be “primary doctrines”, and yet Scripture says to have nothing to do with people who do these things: refusing to care of those in need, refusing to work to support yourself, being divisive. Meanwhile, Scripture does not tell us to divide over other issues which we use to choose who is in or our of our particular circle: baptism, Lord’s Supper, leadership, etc.

4. Is our unity with those with whom we differ on secondary and tertiary points less than it is with those with whom we are in agreement on all these points?
Our unity is in God, created for us by Jesus Christ, and worked in us by the Holy Spirit. As we obey the will of God, we will also live in unity with other believers. As we abide in Christ, we will also live in unity with other believers. As we walk in the Spirit, we will also live in unity with other believers. We may disagree with others. But, we do not find unity by choosing which teaching is correct. We find unity in God himself. If we were to ask God, “Are you for us or them”, I think his response would be similar to the angel’s response to Joshua: “Neither”. Unity does not always demonstrate itself in agreement. Instead, unity demonstrates itself in patience, perseverance, deference, submission, forgiveness, kindness, humility, gentleness, love.

I realize that these are not easy answers. In fact, I do not think unity is easy at all. I think it is completely impossible for us to live in unity as humans. However, as we submit to the Spirit of God who dwells in us, he can and will teach us and change us and prompt us to demonstrate the unity that we already have in him.

I am certainly open to hearing from other people on this issue – even and especially those who disagree with me.


10 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 12-13-2007

    Alan,

    Thank you very much for giving so much thought to this, and dealing with it as you have.

    My inclination is to agree with the answers you give here. At the same time, I still have some lingering questions that keep me from being able to confidently affirm them.

    First, I have read some commentators (I can’t remember for sure exactly where right now) who say that, in the NT, there is a difference between ‘faith’ and ‘the faith’. ‘The faith’, according to this view, is the composite of the doctrines we believe as members of the faith community. Do you know of lexical evidence to either affirm or deny this interpretation?

    Next, would you agree that “unity in the knowledge of the Son of God” refers to experiential, relational knowledge rather than factual or doctrinal knowledge?

    Is it possible that, even if we are talking about one singular unity here, we are talking about two separate aspects of this unity?

    Also, I really like what you say here:

    “Unity does not always demonstrate itself in agreement. Instead, unity demonstrates itself in patience, perseverance, deference, submission, forgiveness, kindness, humility, gentleness, love.”

    However, I am wondering how you would respond to someone who quoted 1 Cor. 1:10 as a refutation to this:

    “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

  2. 12-14-2007

    The view from here:

    RE: I Cor. 1:10
    The audience this Scripture admonished is within the context of a “young” shared movement. These folks knew unity we do not by virtue of their time in the history. Interestingly it had to have been experiential based on relationship. A majority of folks didn’t read, and they did not have a canon. An admonishment to “one” unity made sense in their experience. We are part of an “old” shared movement.We know two thousand years of multiple renewals restoring identified lost truths, the development of the canon, the flowering of varied Christian intitutions in learning, caring and missions. Each of these areas has developed while often focusing on a determined interpretation of a given set of scriptures, Calvinism for example. Thus our experience is not the same. Though I Cor. 1:10 speaks to our hearts and we pursue it, there are so many perspectives it is difficult to have everyone agree on what the common denominator might be. Of course, we agree it is about Jesus, and that is largely the end of it!

    Unity does not mean we are responsible to manage conformity of others to all of our particular experience of Scripture. There is a level of acceptance to Scripture which is commonly held when someone is living in union with Jesus, though we may not all practice conformity to the same Scriptures exactly in the same way.

    Unity based on the heart experience of Jesus is real and achievable.

  3. 12-14-2007

    David Rogers,

    You always ask great questions. I’ll give some quick answers, but I’ll also continue thinking through these additional questions.

    I don’t think the distinction between “faith” and “the faith” is as clear cut as some make it out to be. For example, even if we look only at Ephesians, we see that translators interpret the definite article “the” differently. Eph 2:8; 3:12; 3:17; and 6:16 all have the definite article, but they are translated into English without the definite article. I think context more than the definite article helps us understand what “faith” is referenced.

    Also, I’m not comfortable defining “the faith” as “the composite of the doctrines we believe as members of the faith community”. Again, hopefully, our faith is not in a “collection of doctrines” but in God himself. Yes, we have doctrines to help us understand who God is. But, even the best theologian is faulty in his understanding of God. Our faith and “the faith” has as their objects a person – God – not a collection of doctrines.

    “Agreement” in 1 Cor 1:10 is probably best translated “the same mind” or “the same understanding”. I would understand these as being the result of unity and maturity, not the cause of unity. Because we are united and because we are maturing together, we are coming to the same mind – which Paul later tells us is “the mind of Christ”. It is possible, I think, to have the same mind and understanding while still disagreeing. Perhaps Philippians 2:1-11 is one of the best passages to demonstrate this.

    David (ded),

    There is certainly a difference between us and the Corinthians as far as the relative “age” of the church. I still think it is possible to come to agreement – or “the same mind or understanding” – as we all find unity and maturity in Jesus Christ. Since we have his mind, he will guide us into correct thinking and living. However, as you point out, this will not happen by focussing on a set of teachings, but on God himself.

    You said: “Unity does not mean we are responsible to manage conformity of others to all of our particular experience of Scripture. There is a level of acceptance to Scripture which is commonly held when someone is living in union with Jesus, though we may not all practice conformity to the same Scriptures exactly in the same way.” Awesome statement! “Managed conformity” is not “unity”. Thank you!

    -Alan

  4. 12-14-2007

    Alan Knox,
    You wrote, “I think context more than the definite article helps us understand what “faith” is referenced.”

    I agree. I would like to remind all, including myself that the body of Christ, living and meeting and breaking bread and continuing daily in “the faith” (probably) didn’t get together every Sunday morning and break down Paul’s letter into major and minor discussions about
    ‘definite articles’. That is exactly why we have the divisions we have now. I am not by any means lessoning the value of the study of scripture, but many times this leads to the very disunity we have.
    I picture (maybe wrongly) the ‘church’ receiving the letters from Paul’s messenger, gathering with the others, sitting down in hushed anticipation while waiting for them to be read, silently listening…chewing on the delivered directions to the body…and simply obeying it’s directive. I’m sure every once in a while, someone would err from those directions and the letter would be brought back out to refresh and exhort the one(s) in error of that directive. We on the other hand, have turned that “faith” into chin scratching and pondering the “definite articles” instead of “the faith”. I am not slighting anyone here, because of what was said or is being studied, but we all have spent many years and time in discussion that I cannot believe the Acts body did. They worked hard, were persecuted hard, for “the faith”, not discussions on letters.
    I love scripture, but we sometimes deny the Spirit in it.
    Love all you brothers,
    brent

  5. 12-15-2007

    Brent,

    I appreciate your comment. Your comment reminds me of something Jesus said which I’ve read recently in Matthew: Whoever hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house on the rock.

    -Alan

  6. 12-15-2007

    This video is a great sermon on Church Unity. It was preached at Johnson Bible College. You should check it out:

    http://www.godtube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=65bd1e280187eabbb039

  7. 12-16-2007

    Anonymous,

    Thank you for the video link. Since its late, I probably will not be able to watch it tonight. Perhaps I’ll have time tomorrow.

    In case I can’t watch it, and for the benefit of readers who don’t have time to watch it, would you be willing to offer a brief synopsis?

    -Alan

  8. 12-18-2007

    Amen Alan.

    Keep “The Faith” and keep exhorting others to do the same!

    brent

  9. 12-27-2007

    This morning I happened to read the following passage and then came across this post on church unity. So I thought I’d share the thought.

    Andrew Murray, in his book Absolute Surrender, wrote:

    One of the great causes why God cannot bless His Church is the lack of love. When the body is divided, there cannot be strength. In the time of their great religious wars, when Holland stood out so nobly against Spain, one of their mottoes was: “Unity gives strength.” It is only when God’s people stand as one body, one before God in the fellowship of love, one toward another in deep affection, one before the world in a love that the world can see–it is only then that they will have power to secure the blessing which they ask of God. Remember that if a vessel that ought to be one whole is cracked into many pieces, it cannot be filled. You can take one part of the vessel and dip out a little water into that, but if you want the vessel full, the vessel must be whole. That is literally true of Christ’s Church. And if there is one thing we must pray for still, it is this-Lord, melt us together into one by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let the Holy Spirit, who at Pentecost made them all of one heart and one soul, do His blessed work among us. Praise God, we can love each other in a divine love, for “the fruit of the Spirit is love.” Give yourselves up to love, and the Holy Spirit will come; receive the Spirit, and He will teach you to love more.

    I think Murray made a good point that love is the basis for unity. What do you think?

  10. 12-27-2007

    Mark,

    Yes, I think there is definitely a connection between love and unity. Thank you for the great quote from Murray.

    -Alan