Let us explore the idea of a unified church. What might it look like? I see a church with only one name and no denominational status. Sounds good! I see a church where leaders seek the good of all, without pretense and deceptive control tactics. That’s important! I see a church where everyone’s calling and gifts are acknowledged while embracing an attitude of mutual respect for all believers. Truly, all things in common! Finally, I see a church where the Holy Spirit is affirmed as the only one who provides all things for the body of Christ in their quest to bring salvation to the world.
I could certainly add to this list, and so could you, but I’m sure you get the picture. When all is said and done, however, I fear that many see the above description as nothing more than ideal or a novel approach at best. Because we know, like it or not, that this simply is not the way things are done. Nevertheless, maybe we should leave things the way they currently exist. After all, it’s not a perfect world. Isn’t that just like God to come up with an ideal plan in an imperfect world? On the other hand, what other kind of world is there? If we can see that God had a good plan going, does it seem reasonable that he would give up on it? Is God so incompetent that he cannot create a fail-safe plan? Perhaps, instead, we should consider that it is not God’s plans that fail, but man who continually fails to carry out the plan of God. Would you agree?
I believe God had the right church plan to begin with and that our failure to carry it out doesn’t indicate incompetence on the part of God or annul his plan. Jesus warned us that disciples would fail. After prophesying the deaths of his apostles (Matthew 24:9ff), Jesus stated that in the aftermath many would turn from true faith unto false prophets, wickedness would increase, and the love of most would wax cold. He was describing a divided, secularized church; a church that looks little if anything like the unified church described at the beginning of this lesson. But because it is the church we have come to accept, we believe God accepts it as well.
God’s plan is a united, citywide church. In reading the letters of Paul and Acts, one would find it hard to argue that the apostle was not writing to a citywide church. While it is true that the church existed as individual households (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19), they were inclusive, not exclusive entities of the larger, collective body. When the church attempted to separate according to their respective teachers, Paul denounced the move as divisive and worldly (1 Corinthians 1:10-11; 3:3-4), deeming such actions as evil and instrumental in instigating quarrels among the brethren.
Division is not a pretty sight. Sadly, history’s record book is replete with uncontestable evidence as to the combative disposition of the church, or I should say, Christian organized religion. This being the case, how can we call the present-day church the unified body of Christ? In what way is God glorified, each denomination going its own way? Some have even come to believe that ecumenism will save the day. But it won’t. Ecumenism, simply defined, is unity with a view to preserve division – the right of independent thought and doctrine. After all, it’s the democratic way!
God had in mind a church that would convert the world, one city at a time. His strategy is easy to follow especially if viewed from a military perspective. The city represents the single largest, independent, self-sustaining entity of a country or state, as the case may be. From a military perspective, major cities are the primary target in quest of the overall objective, the nation. Capture the nation’s cities and you have captured the nation, capture the nations and you capture the continent. Strategic, but simple. For the church to have success in this endeavor, however, it must have the cooperation of each “unified” city.
God used apostles (Greek – apostello, “sent ones”; Latin missio – “missionary”, “to send”) to initiate his work. These kingdom emissaries went from city to city. They laid the foundation for understanding Christ and his unified body, leaving behind gifted believers to carry on the work. Apostles were financially supported in their work by the city-church that sent them, as directed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2; 16:6-10). The apostle(s) stayed until the job was done, in response to the specific work the Holy Spirit had given them to do.
And what a work it was! Imagine one never having to come up with a plan to do mission work but, instead, waits for the Lord to tell you where the people are that are ready to listen (Acts 16:6-10). No wonder Paul had problems being anxious (Philippians 2:28), seeing all of the wonderment of salvation through the eyes of the Holy Spirit and always wanting to make sure that things were going well for the church.
This brief explanation illustrates that unity has its form and function. It’s not just a “good idea”. Just in case you think that the unity ideas proposed at the opening of this lesson are mine, they’re not. They belong to the apostle Paul. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4, NIV).