Christian unity is important. In the previous article we underscored four reasons, witnessed by Scripture and experience, why Christian unity should be important to you. First, unity is a good and pleasant thing. Second, disunity is a bad and unpleasant thing. Third, unity is at the center of the Christian’s calling. Fourth, God promises to command the blessing of eternal life within the context of Christian unity.
In this article, I suggest that the most significant roadblock to true unity lies in our own misconceptions of true unity. If we misunderstand what Christian unity is, then we will never get to the real thing. Instead, we will remain deceived, accepting the counterfeit in place of the authentic.
Let me illustrate. In my culinary world there is no better prepackaged snack than an Oreo cookie. As you know, the Oreo has been copied by many well-meaning but under-achieving cookie makers. Now, suppose your whole life you knew only imitation Oreos. You would likely be satisfied with them. The fact that you were satisfied with a simulation would actually keep you from experiencing the real thing. Now, while you could still live a happy life to the glory of God if you only knew of counterfeit Oreo cookies—not so with counterfeit unity.
Counterfeit unity gives the impression of oneness and thereby keeps us from enjoying life in true community. There are at least four imitations that many of us may be accepting as true Christian unity. Our goal is to identify these counterfeits so that we can reject them and give our attention to seeking the real thing.
Superficial or Formal Unity
The first two counterfeits are similar enough to be considered together. Superficial unity is the sort of kinship that stays at the surface. This is the unity that is often expressed on first dates. Imagine a “love-struck” girl clasping her hands on her heart and exclaiming to a boy she has just met, “You like music too! We must be soul-mates.” We could make an endless list of such coincidental commonalities that surface early in any relationship: music preference, age, type of vehicle driven, or skin color. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these superficial similarities as conversational starting points in a relationship. We must not think, however, that by virtue of these things we are unified.
Formal unity is a little more complex, which only makes it more deceptive. By “formal unity” we mean unity in form only, not in reality. These forms often seem much more substantial than the superficial things just mentioned. For example, because each of us belongs to a family, (whether nuclear or ecclesiastical) we experience a built-in form of unity. In your nuclear family you have a formal unity because you share a name. You live in the same house. You may eat at the same table. In your church family, as well, there is a formal unity that sometimes passes as the real thing. We know each other’s names. We may even spend time with each other outside of church. There is, however, little intimate involvement. Too often, we do not know the people with whom we are formally united. The problem is that, beneath the formal skeleton of unity, there lies a bunch of unconnected parts.
Is your unity superficial or formal? Take this simple test: Children, what was the last thing that made your father cry? Fathers, what is your teenage son’s greatest heart struggle? Wife, what are your husband’s greatest fears? What is his greatest hope? Open up your church directory to a random page and point your finger at a “random” family. When have you last shared a meal with this family? Digging deeper—are their extended family members saved? If not, have you prayed for them? How well do you know the families that make up the other churches of your classis? These may appear to be arbitrary questions, but the answers may be indicative of superficial or formal unity. Do not be content with this!
Another way to identify superficial or formal unity in particular relationships is to ask yourself how this relationship would be different if the formal or structural unity did not exist. For example, imagine there was no coffee time after church. Imagine that everyone entered worship silently and left immediately after service. Would your church “still” be unified?
A few years ago I gained a good friend. We initially became friends because we commuted to and from work together and then worked side by side all day. We spent roughly seventy-five percent of our waking hours together. And we had fun. But it was not until the night before I moved away from that particular city that we both came to amazingly difficult but enlightening realization that we had been enjoying a superficial friendship on the basis of formal unity. We came to that realization when one of us suggested that we pray together. This was something that we had never done. This is not to say that we did not care for each other, but that our friendship was built primarily upon formal structures.
Parents sometimes realize that the relationship between themselves and their spouse is simply a formal unity. When the children move out, the scaffolding that had “unified” them for so many years is removed. Long-term marriage breakups are often blamed on the “empty-nest syndrome.” Perhaps the “syndrome” should better be called “full-nest-formal-unity syndrome.”
God is not calling us to a superficial unity. He is calling us to something deeper. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling” (Ephesians 4:4; KJV). He says we are to be one in body and one in Spirit. Just as a human body enjoys an intimate interconnectedness between all of its parts, so must we know all the parts of our familial bodies. God says that Christians all have one hope. In other words, the unifying element is not just a formal structure. It is a common hope in the grace of God.
The second type of false unity is less subtle. Sometimes we boldly pretend to be in harmony with others when we know this is not the case. This is hypocritical unity. You may know that the word “hypocrite” literally refers to one who wears a mask. A hypocrite pretends to be one thing while actually being another.
I was once walking through a mall with my wife when, all of a sudden, another girl bounded up to her, gave her a hug and started talking as if she was a long lost friend. After the girl left I mentioned to my wife how nice it must have been to see such a good friend again. Her response was, “That girl has never liked me.” I had been completely fooled by the mask put on by this girl.
Sometimes our unity is simply the donning of a mask. The Bible tells us that this is not only a modern problem. One of the clearest biblical examples of hypocritical unity is described by Paul in Galatians 2:11–13. “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.”
Hypocritical unity is a bald-faced lie. Genuine unity always tells the truth. In fact, truth-telling is the difficult antidote that God prescribes for cases of hypocritical unity. Paul spoke difficult words of truth to Peter. Peter would have then been obliged to speak difficult words of truth not only to the Gentiles whom he had offended but to the Jews whom he had tried to appease.
If some of your relationships are simply expressions of hypocritical unity, ask God to give you the wisdom and courage to ground these relationships upon the truth and in love. In a passage clearly calling for unity Paul admonishes us to, “Let love be without hypocrisy” (Romans 12:9).
There is a type of supposed solidarity that is built upon emotions and feelings rather than on truth and love. This is not exactly superficial unity since emotions generally run quite deep. Neither is it hypocritical unity since there is no intentional desire to mislead. Sentimental unity has the appearance of politeness or courtesy. Those who practice sentimental unity prefer not to “rock the boat” or “ruffle feathers.” In fact, this is false unity. It is a cowardly refusal to take a stand on the truth. And, sadly it is something that we experience all too frequently.
Bob was a tenth grader at a Christian school. He had a large group of friends who were quite close. They were generally regarded as “good kids.” Recently, however, Bob had begun to experiment with marijuana. Some of his close friends were aware of Bob’s new habit. They even talked about it when Bob was not with them. For the sake of unity (their so-called friendship) they said nothing to him. This is sentimental unity. As you can guess, this false unity eventually unravels. Bob soon became distant from his once-close friends because they had rejected true unity. Soon he became committed to drugs and began down the road to a very difficult life.
Or, consider this example that could have happened in your family. During a recent holiday gathering, a relative began to open up about his religious views. Now this was something new. It was perhaps uncomfortable for the individual. The problem was that the views expressed were entirely unorthodox. Now, sentimental unity would say, “No one should speak out against these views because the speaker might become either discouraged or hurt. That is not how we do things in our family. After all, people are sensitive. We don’t want to create a stir. We don’t want to appear to be divided so let’s just nod our heads.”
It should be obvious that this is not the kind of unity that Paul is advocating. We saw in Galatians 2 that Paul paid no mind to mere sentimental unity. He opposed Peter openly (probably hurting his feelings). Why? The gospel was at stake. We may disagree with each other; sometimes we must. At times our disagreements will make things uncomfortable. We must not pretend that the preservation of sentiments is the equivalent of true solidarity.
Finally, the Bible makes clear that some things just do not go together. Just like oil and water cannot unite, so light and darkness cannot be united. This is illustrated to us every single day. Every day we witness a battle between light and darkness. We call these times dawn and dusk. There is a temporary mingling of the two, but every time either the light scatters the darkness or the darkness consumes the light.
Similarly, the Bible teaches that Christians may have no real unity apart from the family of God. In a previously cited passage, Paul names our common baptism as a characteristic of true unity: “There is . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). This word “baptism,” properly understood, gives us a parameter for unity. God says that baptism is a distinguishing mark of those who may appropriately be unified. Now this does not mean that you may have fellowship with anyone so long as they have undergone the external rite of baptism. Some of the most wicked people in the world have been baptized. So why does Paul connect unity with baptism?
We must remember that, regarding sacraments, there is intended an intimate connection between the sign and the thing signified. Baptism signifies the washing away and the putting to death of sins, and the renewal and sanctification of the believer in Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 70). Paul mentions baptism as a ground of unity. He is not referring to baptism as a bare sign, but baptism as a symbol of union with Christ. Christians may have fellowship only with those who are truly living out that which baptism symbolizes.
By contrast, we live in a world where ecumenism is running rampant. The cultural priests of this age promote with vigor the doctrine of the brotherhood of all men. John Calvin speaks for all Christians when he says, “We recognize no brotherhood . . . except amongst the people of God” (Commentary, Psalm 133:3).
In the next article, we shall consider the primary theological consideration for true unity. What we need to understand is that the only real basis for Christian unity is our mutual union to the Triune God. When a person is engrafted by faith into a communion with God, he is also engrafted into a community of the redeemed (Romans 11). This means that what unifies us with fellow believers at the same time takes away the possibility of our having true unity with unbelievers. Genesis 3:15 declares that there is a God-ordained hostility (not unity) between believers and unbelievers. The antithesis defines Christian unity both positively and negatively.
This may challenge some of us deeply. Some of will have to admit that we really do not like “hanging out with church people” but would prefer to associate with worldly people. The Bible teaches that one of the litmus tests of true Christianity is love for the brethren (1 John 3:14). Conversely, God says that “if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Where is your love? Is it expressive of true unity or of inappropriate unity?
Christian unity is no superficial or formal thing because it is rooted in our relationship to God himself. Christian unity cannot be characterized by hypocrisy because Christians are those who have been set free by the truth (John 8:32). Christian unity is much more than a commitment to preserve feelings, because true unity loves the whole person, not just his feelings. Finally, ultimate solidarity cannot exist between those whom God has separated.
Next time we ask the question, “How is this possible? How can superficial, hypocritical, sentimental and un-loyal people enjoy true unity?” Hopefully this critical approach to unity has helped us to clear away lesser things so that we are able to take in the amazing reality that Christian unity is an expression of our mutual union to the Triune God.
Rev. William D. Boekestein is the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.