Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Limits On Unity

Alan Knox has a new chain blog, this time on the topic of relational unity. The word "relational" is critical here. A lot of Christians will acknowledge the concept of unity while by their actions practically deny that very same unity. Saying "we are one in Christ but I don't associate with you Sunday morning or cooperate with you in any meaningful sense" is a farce and sinful.

I talk a lot about unity and there are some great posts already in the chain blog. I want to add a different viewpoint having to do with the limits of unity. Can we have unity without exception? Does unity trump everything else? If not, what are the limits?

When we look to Scripture we see clearly that unity is very important, not just in theory but in reality. We see the church around the ancient world collecting funds for famine relief for churches in other regions, we see the church freely sharing with one another materially, we see Jesus praying for unity in His high priestly prayer. However we also see that from the very earliest days there were people who for a variety of reason that we are warned about and often those warnings required us to separate from people, to be dis-unified for the sake of the church. Where we run into trouble is the "when" of this issue. The sad truth is that most of what we divide over in word or deed has essentially no Scriptural basis and sometimes it seems we fail to divide when Scripture says we ought to.

I want to start by looking at some places where separation is required and the first place in Scripture that springs to mind is the opening of Paul's letter to the church of Galatia.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:6-9)

That is some pretty strong language. Not "we should form an ecumenical council to discuss common ground". If someone, an individual or group of individuals, denies central tenets of the Gospel, replacing them with teachings that subvert the very essence of that Gospel, we cannot have unity with them. We can love them, and must. We can pray for them and ought to. Be visibly unified in the faith with them? No. This warning and the next are especially pertinent in our world today. No as far as what those central tenets are, that is a conversation for another day. Mormonism and the Jehovah's Witnesses obviously fall outside of Gospel orthodoxy. Historically that has been true to a lesser extent with Roman Catholicism. What about Seventh-day Adventism? Again, important topics for a different day.

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty." (2 Cor 6:14-18)

This might as well have been written to the political activists on both sides of the church. I see this mostly applied in the church to marriage as a warning against "inter-faith marriage" but it clearly is a much broader command. I understand the impulse to make public signs of unity with like minded unbelievers to achieve common goals but there is a real danger of unity with those whom we are nto united in the faith with. So there ought to be clear distinguishing lines between the church and the world.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."  (1 Cor 5:9-13)

Sexuality immorality and other gross sins that fester unrepentant in the church are destructive. Paul is not saying here that they have "lost their salvation" or that people who are sinning are not believers but that they should be treated as unbelievers, denying them the fellowship of the saints and "purging" them from the church. It damages the witness of the church and causes confusion when we look past these sins. So when people are refusing to repent of their sins we must of necessity separate from them.

So obviously the Bible places limits on unity. Here is another one, a tricky one to ponder....

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.  (Titus 3:9-11)

That is a hard one. The response to someone who is divisive is to...divide from them? In this case yes, being divisive is harmful to the church and for the sake of unity we must stay clear of people like that. Now they are plenty of people who are excessively quarrelsome in the church, not the same thing as people asking legitimate if difficult questions, and the church has an obligation to discipline and potentially eventually, to borrow an Anabaptist term, shun those who refuse to repent.

We face a major stumbling block in this whole issue of unity and limits in that we have an awful lot of trouble identifying and agreeing on what those limits mean. Most of what divides the church does not have much, or any, Scriptural support. Divisions over eschatology, music style or church governance, specifics of soteriology, traditions, denominations, etc. are common in the church but are completely absent from Scripture. I guess when you are being persecuted for the faith you don't have time to worry about secondary issues. Because we divide over secondary issues and other issues that are so silly they don't qualify as secondary we fail to clearly define what issues we should see as legitimate limits to unity.
We ought to seek unity, real and relational unity, as a top priority for the church. We should find barriers to unity and tear them down. Yet we must not mistake prioritizing relational unity with false unity, unity at all costs. Unity that compromises the Gospel is not unity we should pursue. Unity that overlooks what Scripture declares to be inviolable principles is false unity and worse than disunity. What is truly ironic is that because of our disunity we have utterly failed to have the conversations in the church that would clarify what rises to the level of an issue to divide over. Our disunity makes unity nearly impossible.

So what do you think? What are the reasonable limits of unity in the church? Where do we draw the line?


Chain blog rules:

1) If you would like to write the next blog post (link) in this chain, leave a comment stating that you would like to do so. If someone else has already requested to write the next link, then please wait for that blog post and leave a comment there requesting to write the following link.

2) Feel free to leave comments here and discuss items in this blog post without taking part in the actual “chain.” Your comments and discussion are very important in this chain blog (both on this post and the other link posts in the chain).

3) When you write a link in this chain, please reply in the comments of the previous post to let everyone know that your link is ready. Also, please try to keep an updated list of links in the chain at the bottom of your post, and please include these rules at the bottom of your post.


“Links” in the “Real Relational Unity” chain blog:

1. “Chain Blog: Real Relational Unity” by Alan

2. “The Treasure of Unity ‘in’ our Relationships” by Jim

3. “So The World May Know – Observations on the Road to Unity” by Christopher

4. “Christian Unity – What it is and What it’s not” by Nathan

5. “Steps to Relational Unity” by Randi

6. “Learn to Live or Live to Learn” by Greg

7. “The Limits on Unity” by Arthur

8. Who will write the 8th link post in the chain?


Alan Knox said...


I think you did a great job of expressing the lines that Scripture draws when considering our unity in Jesus Christ: 1) Deserting the gospel (i.e., salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ), 2) unbelievers, 3) unrepentant sin (sexual immorality or otherwise), 4) divisiveness. There may be a few other issues in Scripture - such as a refusal to work with your hands to support yourself and your family - but they are very few and often not what we choose to separate over today.


Unknown said...

Personally, Im not sure a divided church is equipped to properly apply these scriptures. They were written to a much more unified group of churches. In my post, which is based on my own experience, being in unity is its own protection from sin, carnality and the slippery slope of wrong application of judgement. Of course it is necessary to judge sin and fruit, but it needs to be a corporate endeavor, coming out of like-mindedness and an intense abhorrence of losing even one member. I don't know any group today that has that kind of longsuffering etc.
If the Corinthian man who slept with his fathers wife were a member of a mainline, or even house church today, would we have managed to see him restored, as Paul walked them through to see happen?
Im not so sure.
I think we should hold judgement on how to corporately judge these things until we have a better track record of judging ourselves.

Randi Jo :) said...

Thank you for this side of the issue! So very important to add to the conversation and our lives. I wholeheartedly agree.

When I wrote my entry, I was clearly not even thinking of any of these categories of people but people who actually do desire unity IN Christ.... so I thank you for this reminder that not all are in Christ (or desiring to live like they are) and we are not to unify with them.

Unity for the sake of unity reminds me of the comment on (which blog was it, Chris?) about loving without regard to truth --- hippy type of love. There is no pure lasting true love or unity apart from Jesus!

Alan Knox said...


Sorry for taking so long. After work, my family helped some friends pack up a moving truck. I've added your post to the chain blog now. Could you add the list of posts and the chain blog rules to your post?


Arthur Sido said...

Alan, done and done

Anonymous said...

Arthur - I love this post for the balance it provides and the summary of it that Alan gives in the first comment

Randi-Jo - true that! Oh to love as Jesus loves and see unity the way He sees it.

David Bolton said...

Thank you, Arthur, for this balancing perspective. It is possible to fall off both sides of the horse, as they say. Thanks for the Scriptures that point out these limits.

I would like to provide the next link in the chain and will post it early Monday morning. I'll supply the link back here after it is posted.


Alan Knox said...

Since no one else has asked, I'lll write the 8th post. It will be published tomorrow.


David Bolton said...

Thanks, Arthur, for this balancing post. It's possible to fall off both sides of the horse, as they say. I appreciate the Scriptures you've brought out showing the limits of unity here.

I would like to offer the 8th link in this chain blog. I tried to post an earlier comment, but apparently it didn't go through. The post has just gone up, so I can give you the link here:

Thanks also to Alan and the other bloggers who have participated so far. It has been a thoughtful and edifying series.


Kathleen Ward said...

Thanks for expanding the discussion, Arthur. There are limits to unity. Real relational unity should be shielded and protected from destructive forces, in the same way that any healthy family would keep themselves safe from negative and destructive influences.


- Kathleen

Jeremy Myers said...

Hmm. Limits on unity! Interesting discussion for sure! It seems that based just on the Scriptures you references, unity is nearly impossible with almost anyone!

Wish I knew the answer...

My own proposal is here: (as part of the chain blog) but now I am wishing I had read all the links before writing it. (I didn't do so though, because I didn't want to be influenced...)