I hear a lot of talk in our day about unity. And I recognize that as a native-born citizen of these United States of America, the word ‘unity’ is even embedded in the name of my country.
But I hear calls for unity in the American Church in particular, steadily increasing in recent years, or at least more noticed by me, and they along with the calls for unity from politicians in the civil sphere lead me to a simple question. What is unity? And what are we to make of these calls for being united?
In searching the ESV for this particular word, I came across four results – one in the Old Testament, and three in the New. And of the three instances in the New Testament, two are found in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, specifically the fourth chapter of Ephesians.
But consider Psalm 133 for starters.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
The footnote says “dwell together” would also be a satisfactory translation in place of the phrase ‘dwell in unity.’
So is that all there is to unity? Living together? Or is the living together marked contextually by holiness, reverence for God, and prosperity?
Is one of these conditions the cart and the other horse? Or do both happen simultaneously when the unity is along certain lines, of a certain spiritual nature, and on God’s terms?
Perhaps we do well to consider also 1 Peter 3:8-12. In the New Testament instances I think we get a better idea of the answer to these questions.
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For
“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
The interest here is on eagerness to maintain “the unity of the Spirit,” as if both enthusiasm and sustained effort are required, and unity does not just happen or keep up on its own.
But what is “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” specifically? And is that talking about unity with Christ or unity with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? I think it must mean both if it can ever mean the latter. But that is to say that it must be at least the former, unity with God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
Notice also, though, that we are called to speaking the truth in love – neither forgoing truth, nor neglecting love – as an integral part of maturation in the body of Christ. Then ask the needful question. Can the kind of unity spoken of here occur or be maintained if we stop speaking the truth, or if we put away love and let our hearts grow cold?
No indeed, I should say. Yet to speak the truth to one another, we must ourselves know the truth. So if we move on to a search for the word ‘united’ in the ESV, we come across one passage particularly relevant.
Consider 1 Corinthians 1:10.
“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.”
Unity of mind appears again here. Now Paul is making an appeal to agreement, and being united in mind and judgment.
But what is the primary source of the quarrel in the context of this passage? In a word, it is factionalism, plus cult of personality – particularly centered on men who are faithful servants of Christ. Some follow Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ by turn. Paul asks whether they think Christ is divided like that.
Yet how does agreement happen moving forward? And how do they, or we, become united in mind and judgment like Paul is writing about?
Quarrelling is ruled out. But can there be genuine agreement without meaningful discussion, persuasion, speaking, reasoning, and listening?
In my experience, that’s impossible. Yet we try it anyway all too often. And when we do, what we get is superficial and fake agreement rather than love being genuine. Instead, we fall prey to the principle at work in Proverbs, that “The first to state his case seems correct until the other comes and examines him.”
When no one is ever allowed to come and examine the first to state their case, unity and agreement apart from discussion and deliberation will always wind up being everyone just trying to beat everyone else to the punch.
This is not exactly a grand way to unify around truth, goodness, and beauty, if indeed that is our end-goal.
And this brings us to another question. Is there any negative example of unity in the Bible?
As it turns out, yes.
Consider Acts 18:1-17, specifically verses 12-13.
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.”
What do we have here? The Jews in Achaia are making a united attack on Paul.
Are they more right than he, then? They are united, after all. And Paul is just one man. And unity is a godly virtue, after all. Perhaps Paul should unify with the Jews of Achaia, we might murmur. God does want us to be unified.
But of course that is folly. The united Jews of Achaia are opposing Christ in opposing the gospel Paul preaches, and unity on these terms does not please God, nor is that kind of unity what we are called to by God as Christians.
Yet if someone would say Paul is causing trouble to have upset these Jews in such a unifying way that they would even bring him to the proconsul, Gallio, I will say they are not reading their Bible carefully enough.
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