What is the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3)?
In many quarters of Christendom, the rampant sectarianism of the past has been largely abandoned, and replaced by an enthusiastic drive for unity. While there are many who have resisted such wholesale amalgamation, their energies have been directed into the maintenance of their own smaller unities based on particular doctrines. Neither is the unity of the Spirit.
It is an interesting fact that the word ‘unity’ occurs just twice in the NT, and that both occurrences are in Ephesians 4. The unity of the Spirit (v3) is something for the present time, but the unity of the faith (v13) looks on to the future. I rather think that some relegate the unity of the Spirit to the future while striving to ensure the unity of the faith now.
The unity of the Spirit is not just unity––some strive today to preserve that at all costs––but the unity of the Spirit. Again, it is not just being united in what we believe, nor a similarity of sentiments evidenced in the unity of our spirits. It is certainly not the unity of a particular circle of meetings. It is sometimes wrongly brought forward in order to avoid conflict when the truth of God is called into question, but indifference in matters which tarnish the glory of Christ is not within its scope. When error is taught, it cannot be ignored as a pretext for keeping the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace. Then one must be prepared to enter into conflict and “to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints”, (Jude v3). Peace at any price is totally foreign to the Word of God.
Now what the Spirit of God wrote to each assembly was largely determined by the spiritual state of that assembly. What was suited to one was not necessarily suited to another. The exhortation in Ephesians is not to make but to keep the unity of the Spirit. Now you can only keep that which you already possess. If I do not have something, then I cannot rightly be exhorted to keep it. This word could hardly be given to the Corinthians as they were divided and far from united. The word to them was to “be perfectly united in the same mind and in the same opinion”, (1 Cor. 1: 10).
Now the doctrinal part of Ephesians ends with chapter 3 and chapter 4 begins the practice which should follow. Paul is about to speak of the gifts and their purpose for the Assembly, that is for “the edifying of the body of Christ; until we all arrive at the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, at [the] full–grown man, at [the] measure of the stature of the fulness of the Christ” (Eph. 4: 12, 13). Now in the body of Christ saints are distinguished by gift. An evangelist is distinct from one who is not an evangelist, a teacher has a prominence that those who are not teachers do not have. Hence, before Paul introduces that which, if the flesh dominates, Satan could use to divide the saints, he presses the conditions and the diligence that all need to keep the unity of the Spirit, and thus hold the saints together according to God.
The unity of the Spirit is paralleled (by being separated by a semicolon in the English Bible) with “…walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, bearing with one another in love;” (Eph. 4: 1, 2). These were the features that so marked the walk of Christ when here. These features were absent at Corinth, and while we have similar exhortations to the Philippians (see Phil. 2: 2), he still does not go so far as to exhort them to keep the unity of the Spirit. The reason is, I judge, because it would have been inappropriate when there were those there who were not at one with each other (Phil. 4: 2). Again I say you can only keep what is already there. There was nothing to reprove at Ephesus. Earlier Paul had said, in relation to both Jew and Gentile being formed into one new man, that Christ is our peace, and the glad tidings are described as the glad tidings of peace. (see Eph. 2: 14–17). Now this unity established by the Spirit of God is to be kept with all diligence in the uniting bond of peace. When saints walk in lowliness and meekness, making nothing of themselves, having Christ as their only attraction, then they are maintained in unity, and the features that came out in perfection in Christ when here are continued in them. They are as thus the body of Christ in practice. This I believe to be the unity of the Spirit. Once these conditions are there, they are to be preserved and kept with diligence. Thus I take it that the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace is the oneness of the body of Christ maintained practically by a walk according to the Spirit of God in grace.