Spiritual Unity Versus Doctrinal Unity

Unity is a somewhat controversial subject in the Bible. What does the Bible say about unity? Is spiritual unity available now? Is doctrinal unity available now? What is our responsibility to our fellow Christians? Christians have observed the fragmentation of the faith over issues, some large (like indulgences or baptism) and some petty. In this article, we will take a look at what the Bible says about unity, what kinds of unity are available in modern times, and how we can live in unity with fellow Christians.

Let’s lay the doctrinal foundation by looking at some key verses from the Gospels and Epistles on the subject of unity.

John 17:20-21 (ESV)
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

Jesus’ prayer was that the disciples (and those in later ages who would become Jesus’ disciples through the Word) might potentially be unified in purpose (“one”). The point of this unity in Christ would be to prove that God had sent Christ.

Ephesians 4:1-6 (ESV)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

This is the foundation of the unity that each Christian experiences. There is one Body of Christ made up of born again believers in many churches and denominations around the world. There is one spirit that unites all of us. We have all been made to drink in the same spirit (I Corinthians 12:13). There is one hope—the hope of the return of Jesus Christ. There is one Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is one faith, the Christian faith. There is one baptism, the baptism in the spirit (Acts 1:5). And, most importantly, there is one God, the Father of all, including the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 20:17, Romans 15:6, II Corinthians 1:3). Notice that there is a common theme in these verses—these are all spiritual realities that our behavior does not affect! If I believe one thing and you believe another thing, that does not change that we have the same faith, the same baptism, the same Lord, the same God. That is spiritual unity, and it is a gift of God.

What about doctrinal unity? Didn’t Jesus pray in John 17 that God might unify all Christians in purpose? Does this necessarily indicate that all Christians would be unified doctrinally? Not exactly. Let’s be clear here: the Christian faith would be much stronger completely unified doctrinally, as long as that doctrine was perfect. But it seems that such doctrinal unity is impossible before the return of Christ. Inevitably, some Christians know more of the Bible than others. So even if they agreed substantially on the doctrinal issues contained in the Bible, they would hold slightly different beliefs. One would have a more refined, nuanced, and developed understanding of the Bible than the other. This would not be doctrinal unity. The goal is for every Christian to continue growing and developing to be more like Christ daily, and we are all at various stages of growth. As a result, even if every Christian agreed on every “substantial” issue, there would still be room for differences doctrinally.

When will doctrinal unity come about? That question is answered in Ephesians 4.

Ephesians 4:13 (ESV)
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,

The word “until” is the key here. Based on the context, the ministries (apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, and teachers) will be in operation until the events in verse 13 happen. Thus, the “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” is still future. So although doctrinal unity (based on an accurate knowledge of the Bible) is desirable, it is not available until the future.

Even though Christians may not have complete doctrinal unity, they can experience the unity in purpose that Jesus prayed for in John 17. How can Christians achieve unity in purpose without perfect doctrinal unity?

  • Focus on common doctrinal beliefs (salvation through Christ, the hope of the return, the lordship of Jesus Christ, etc.).
  • Support volunteer and fundraising events held by other churches for the common goal of building stronger communities and selflessly helping others.
  • Commit to having open-minded discussions about issues relevant to Christian faith and practice.
  • Encourage others to get more involved with a church organization or Bible study, even if it isn’t the same church or Bible study that you attend.

For example, here at Study Driven Faith, one of our main goals is to feed Christian believers and those interested in Christianity the Word of truth no matter what their official affiliation is. We would accept articles from any denomination or church as long as the content is scriptural and not based on dogma. Contributing to a website like this one could promote positive dialogue on subjects of Christian faith and practice, which builds unity of purpose.

Before we leave the topic of unity, I think it is important to look at what the Bible says about the opposite topic: division. Although division can happen between churches and denominations, it can also occur when people in the same church disagree on something of significance. Sometimes, that is a doctrinal issue; other times, it is a practical one. Let’s begin with the question: how should the church handle division? We will look at an example of division that was caused by an immature handling of dogma.

Acts 15:1-29 (ESV)
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,
and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.
Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.
And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,
but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.
For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,
with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.
Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,
it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:
that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Paul said in Galatians 2:5 that he resisted the teaching of circumcision when it hit Antioch. So here you had individuals from Jerusalem, where the Christian movement began, teaching the Gentiles that they had to be circumcised to become Christians. This was false teaching. In this case, false teaching caused division. What did Paul do? He resisted the teaching, and he decided to take the issue back to Jerusalem, from whence it came. What did the elders and apostles at Jerusalem do? They allowed both sides to speak and thoughtfully considered the matter at hand. Eventually, they heard the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. Finally, James and the others considered what the Word said in the Old Testament. Ultimately, the Word from the Old Testament was the standard, and the dogma of circumcision was viewed as irrelevant because of Christ. Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and took care of the Gentiles who were concerned about this issue. Here are some key points for churches dealing with issues of division:

  1. The Word must be the only standard, not church dogma.
  2. Each side must be carefully considered and given time and space to present their opinions.
  3. The meeting must be sufficiently public to ensure that the members of the Church observe no unbiblical favoritism to one side over the other. For example, in the record in Acts 15, it was a meeting of many elders and leaders. Even though the meeting wasn’t necessarily “open” to the public, it was an open discussion between groups of leaders that disagreed. That’s what I mean by “sufficiently public.” The meeting must not show open favoritism for one side in the disagreement, and there must be a fair amount of leaders or participants on both sides of the issue.

But what happens when members of a church begin to disagree on substantial doctrinal issues with the church? There are several verses to consider on this subject:

Acts 17:11 (ESV)
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

The Berean Christians checked Paul’s teaching by looking into the Old Testament Scriptures. So this is an indication that it is incredibly noble for Christians in a given congregation to “fact-check” their church by looking at the Word of God directly! All Christians are to stand approved before God in this category (II Timothy 2:15). So, it is definitely possible that a Christian could find doctrinal issues in their home church. What should that person do? First, it is important to remain humble, meek, and gentle in any situation that involves potential conflict (Galatians 6:1). Second, he should seek out the advice and feedback of others to make sure that his opinion and interpretation are sound (Proverbs 11:14). If it appears as if the doctrinal difference is important and that the grounds for disagreement are solid, then the next step is to present that information to the people who can address the issue. There are several options at this point:

  1. The church may decide to confirm its current belief. In this case, the person bringing the issue up has to decide if the issue is worth leaving that particular congregation over.
  2. The church may decide to deliberate for a period of time on the issue. In this case, the person bringing the issue may have a time deadline or other considerations before it would be best to find a more Word-based congregation or assembly.
  3. The church may decide to change its beliefs. In this case, there would be a concern with how to bring the rest of the congregation “up to speed” on the change.

What happens if the church tries to retaliate against the person who brought the doctrinal issue to the attention of the church? Some churches put an undue stress on the subject of doctrinal unity and use various manipulative and coercive tactics to keep “whistleblowers” from bringing issues to the church body. Sometimes, they will use verses like I Corinthians 1:10 to suppress discussion. Let’s take a look at I Corinthians 1:10 and address how that verse affects the subject of unity.

I Corinthians 1:10 (ESV)
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

Obviously, it’s great to have unity. Paul’s heart was that the Corinthian church would have no divisions. Paul wanted the church to agree, to have the same mind, and to have the same judgment. But was the issue here completely doctrinal in nature?

I Corinthians 1:11-13 (ESV)
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

The issue in Corinth was not necessarily some large doctrinal debate, but rather whose disciples these people were. Paul was reproving them for being senses, or fleshly, minded by taking “sides” when we are all on the same team. Paul obviously agreed that there should be substantial and thoughtful discussions about doctrine.

Acts 19:8-10 (ESV)
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.
This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

In fact, during one of the most productive two years of outreach of Paul’s ministry, the hallmark was “reasoning daily” with people in the hall of Tyrannus. The word “reasoning” is the Greek word dialegomai, which means “to converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss.”[1] Luke, by revelation, spoke favorably of the Bereans in Acts 17:11 because they “fact-checked” Paul’s teaching with the Old Testament. And here in Acts 19, we see how productive thoughtful discussion and deliberation can be. Paul was not opposed to thoughtful, reasonable discussion of the Scripture. He was, however, opposed to religious thinking, those who taught bondage, and those who were two-faced (Acts 15, Galatians 2).

A study on unity would be incomplete without addressing some of the passages where people were put out of the church. Let’s examine a few of them to see what kinds of patterns we can find.

Galatians 1:6-9 (ESV)
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.

In this section, Paul was handling a specific situation—those who were distorting the doctrine of Christ by introducing legalism. This is not a situation where someone had a small doctrinal concern. Men were attempting to lead people into legalism by promoting false doctrine. That’s why Paul commanded the Galatians to ask them to leave the assembly.

I Corinthians 5:1-13 (ESV)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.
And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
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.”

Again, the situation here is specific. There was a specific Corinthian man who was having inappropriate relations with his father’s wife. Paul was suggesting that he repent or that the people cast him out of the congregation. Later in the chapter, Paul clarified that those within the church that are consistently sexually immoral are to be put out of the church. The reason for this is simple: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” In other words, those who do these evil acts would eventually convince others that it is okay to perform those evil acts. Paul wanted the Corinthian church (and the rest of the Christian world) to be a shining example of how God wanted them to behave. And historically, we know that Corinth was an area where the pagan practices were particularly sexual in nature, which explains why it might have been a bigger temptation for that specific church. Modern churches can learn from these instances and promote Biblically accurate understanding of sexual morality.

Romans 16:17-18 (ESV)
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.

Here is another section that discusses forcing people out of the congregation. Here, we see that the main issue is teaching falsehoods. This is not talking about people who are genuine, humble, and discreet when asking questions about doctrinal matters. These were people who were intentionally subverting the early church with their open teachings that was contrary to the gospel, not the doctrine of a modern denomination. Are there situations in modern times that would fit this description? Yes, absolutely. But these types of situations are much better handled with humble, meek, open conversations about the Bible. Don’t let your disagreements fester and grow until you feel your only option is to speak out publically against a specific church or denomination. And those in authority within various churches should seek to have policies that promote open discussion on important issues. No church congregation wants to deal with someone who is upset about a doctrinal or practical matter and is speaking openly on those subjects. Open and honest discussion can alleviate the pressure of these situations before they build to the point where a split is inevitable.

There are situations where the religious authorities threatened to put people out of the congregation for certain views or where people were afraid to be put out based on their views. Let’s take a look at two examples of this in relationship to Jesus Christ:

John 9:18-23 (ESV)
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight
and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind.
But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
(His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.)
Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

John 12:42-43 (KJV)
Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue:
For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

In these two cases, people were afraid to openly support the ministry of Jesus because they were afraid of the consequences. In these situations, the local religious authorities held too much power. And they wielded it improperly.

Another interesting aspect of unity and division is that these concepts are typically seen in the eye of the beholder. Here’s an interesting section in Titus on the subject:

Titus 3:9-11 (ESV)
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.

The Catholic Church could have used this section against Martin Luther. They could have labeled Luther as one who “stirred up division.” But Luther had some incredibly valid points of disagreement with the Catholic Church. In fact, the modern Catholic Church would agree with the majority of the 95 Theses (see https://www.quora.com/Which-of-Martin-Luthers-95-theses-do-Catholics-believe-are-in-error). The key for the person bringing the potential issue to the attention of the church leadership is to remain meek, humble, and blameless. If the church decides to cut off discussion or refuses to change, then it is probably time for that person to find another place to worship God.

When should someone consider leaving his or her current church? Here at Study Driven Faith, we don’t show favoritism for one organization over another. Where someone worships, volunteers, and gives money are all very personal decisions. But here are some general things to consider when choosing churches and whether it is time to change churches:

  • Does the church challenge me to grow each day?
  • Do I agree with the major tenets of the church?
  • Does the church give me practical opportunities to practice my faith?
  • Do I feel that I can safely challenge church doctrine without punishment or retaliation by church leaders?
  • Does the church show any of the hallmarks of an abusive church? (See the insightful article here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2016/08/05/nine-marks-of-an-abusive-church-3/)

As we have seen, spiritual unity is a gift given by God in Christ to the Church (the Body of Christ). This type of unity cannot be earned by our actions, but it should be maintained as much as possible. On the other hand, doctrinal unity is not available until a later time. In the meantime, we welcome thoughtful discussions on the Scripture as long as it is profitable and leads to positive practical results. Here at Study Driven Faith, we want everyone to feel supported. This is a safe space to discuss doctrinal matters according to the Word. But these types of discussions require meekness, restraint, and a willingness to grow and change. If our interpretations stand through the test, then they will be much stronger. If our interpretations change, then we have corrected ourselves and now can understand more and potentially do more for God. No church will ever have the perfect doctrine until Christ comes to unite the Body. So let’s freely give each other grace and mercy as we search the Scriptures together!

[1] See Thayer’s Lexicon.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *