The Unity of the Spirit
God attaches great importance to the unity of the Spirit and (if he seeks to be faithful) so must the believer. Hence Paul exhorts the saints to “walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love; using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 1-3, my emphasis). The AV is too feeble here. It is not merely endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit for endeavouring is commonly applied to that which we attempt, even where we have little or no hope of succeeding. The exhortation is not to try to keep the unity of the Spirit, but rather to use diligence in ensuring that we do. The word keep is also worthy of notice. It does not say make because the unity of the Spirit is already made. Of course, many sincere souls are seeking to bring about a unity of their own devising, but the path of the faithful is simply to recognise and keep the unity that the Spirit of God has made. What then is this unity of the Spirit that He has established, and which is incumbent on you and I to keep?
The Unity of the Spirit and the Unity of our Spirits
The unity of the Spirit is not the same as the unity of our spirits. We might have that in a bad state without the Holy Spirit at all. Of course, the unity of our spirits in a good sense is a desirable thing, and is by the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean that is what Eph. 4: 3 is talking about. Walking “with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love” (v2) would certainly nurture a unity of spirits between believers, and, indeed, go a long way to helping keep the unity of the Spirit itself. However, since the condition of our souls is so changeable, the unity of our spirits also ebbs and flows. It is an imperfect thing. Furthermore, even if there was only one Christian in a good state and all the rest were unspiritual—and so little or nothing in the way of a uniting of spirits—that would not absolve him at all from the responsibility of keeping the unity of the Spirit.
The unity of the Spirit is a subsisting fact. If we do not keep it, the unity of the Spirit continues to exist regardless—we have simply stepped away from it. God Himself has brought it about, and our responsibility regarding it is to keep it. It is not that we have unity of our own to make, or that God will make a unity for us in heaven in a future day. The unity of the Spirit exists now, we need to recognise it, and having recognised it, we need to keep it.
When was this unity made? On the day of Pentecost. Before then, there were individual believers, but no corporate entity embracing only true saints (Israel was a unity, but it was not exclusive to faith). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in a new and unique vessel that encompassed every living saint of God. As 1 Cor. 12: 13 later declares, “in [the power of] one Spirit we have all been baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks … and have all been given to drink of one Spirit”. Christians are united by the Spirit to other believers in a way that was not possible before, and instead of walking merely as individuals, we now have to take recognise that we are “one body in Christ, and each one members one of the other” (Rom. 12: 5). It follows that no one can intelligently keep the unity of the Spirit and forget for a moment in either principle or practice the truth of the one body.
There is One Body
At this point the reader might conclude that the unity of the Spirit is really the unity of the body. Certainly, there are not multiple ‘unities of the Spirit’ to fit every individual gathering or group (although many behave as if there are). There is “one Spirit” (Eph. 4: 4), and so there can be only one unity of that Spirit. However, although they are bound up together, the unity of the Spirit and the one body are to be distinguished from one another. One simple fact will demonstrate this: we are to keep the unity of the Spirit, but nowhere does the Word of God exhort us to keep the unity of the body (indeed, the expression ‘the unity of the body’ does not even occur in the Bible). In relation to the unity of the Spirit, I am responsible to keep the unity that God has established. The unity itself cannot fail, but there is the possibility of failure on my part in not walking in accord with it. In relation to the one body, keeping that unity is not presented as my business at all. That is God’s responsibility alone, for He “has tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to [the part] that lacked; that there might be no division in the body” (1 Cor. 12: 24-25). All Christians are bound together as members of the one body, and keeping the unity of the Spirit demands, at its most basic level, the practical recognition of that fact. However, keeping the unity of the Spirit is not just that. Why? Because while unity is founded on the fact that there is one body, there are also clearly other things that God would have us take account of. The Assembly is not only the body (see Col. 1: 24), but also “a habitation of God in [the] Spirit” (Eph. 2: 22). The body of Christ is our corporate blessedness, but the habitation of God is our corporate responsibility as having God dwell in our midst. The unity of the Spirit takes account of both. Thus, keeping the unity of Holy Spirit implies practical recognition of the fact that God’s house is holy. One example will suffice: the wicked man in 1 Cor. 5 is taken up on his Christian profession and put in the outside place. Keeping the unity of the Spirit necessitated his expulsion but this did not touch his membership of the one body if truly a child of God. Thus, if the saints in Corinth wished to keep the unity of the Spirit, then they had to “remove the wicked person” (v13) from among themselves. Of course, all these things need to be worked out in the local gathering, but there is a universality to their effect that cannot be ignored. As it says elsewhere in another context, it is “the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12: 4) and keeping His unity must apply to the whole “house of God” (1 Pet. 4: 17). The Corinthian saints were not called to a mere Corinthian fellowship but to the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9), and if “any one called brother be fornicator, or avaricious” etc. (1 Cor. 5: 11), then he was to be excluded from that fellowship.
The Unity of the Flesh
The Bible often teaches us by contrasts, and the unity of the Spirit supposes the possibility of a unity of the flesh. Indeed, Israel’s unity in the OT, being based on circumcision, was essentially a unity of the flesh (even though it was set up by God). Of course, the Holy Spirit has now come, and a unity has been formed on a different principle, the principle of the Spirit. Sadly, Christians are very much in the habit of replacing the unity of the Spirit with a unity of the flesh, and this normally manifests itself in one of two ways. The first is by setting up a unity larger than that of the Spirit, the second by producing a unity that is smaller. Fundamentally, whatever may be the object or excuse, what is at work is the will of man in opposition to God’s.
It is the established principle of some to enlarge unity beyond Scriptural parameters. They insist on taking in many more than are members of the body of Christ—recognizing souls as belonging to Christ without adequate ground for it. I am not speaking of honest mistakes, but of the deliberate acceptance of persons who have evidently never passed from death unto life. They are no more than Christianized unbelievers, and yet provided they have completed all the necessary religious rites and their behaviour is not publicly scandalous, then communion is open to them. As for the genuine children of God in such places, how is their acceptance of this unhappy situation compatible with “using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3)? Are they not instead helping on a false unity that is not of God? It is no use pleading that these unbelieving communicants participate on their own responsibility. They do, but that is not the only responsibility to be taken account of. God instructs His people to “be not diversely yoked with unbelievers” because Christians are “[the] living God’s temple” (2 Cor. 6: 14, 16). Could anything be clearer?
Then there are those who, while professing to receive only genuine Christians, shrink from applying or recognising Scriptural discipline. This also results in a unity wider than Scriptural parameters. Such do not wish to be ‘judgmental’, ignoring the fact that it is the Word that is to judge. Desiring to show ‘love’, they forget that “hereby know we that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments” (1 John 5: 2, my emphasis). It is perverse to argue that being a believer trumps everything, however bad the state. God demands holiness in His house: “Do ye not know that ye are [the] temple of God, and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any one corrupt the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye” (1 Cor. 3: 16, 17).
The Unity of the Faith
There is another unity in Ephesians, namely the “unity of the faith” (Eph. 4: 13), and it customary for Christians to make this the basis of their fellowship together. Now it is true that the “teaching” and the “fellowship of the apostles” (Acts 2: 42) are inseparable, but one of those same apostles also spoke of little children, young men and fathers (see 1 John 2: 13). To make spiritual intelligence the governing principle in receiving one another is ruinous and makes no allowance for growth. You will either exclude the babes in Christ who hardly yet understand anything, or you will force believers to take up doctrinal positions which they have yet to work out in their own souls. The work of the ministry is “with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ; until we all arrive at the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4: 12, 13, my emphasis)—that is, we will arrive at that unity of understanding and knowledge one day, but it is an objective of fellowship not a condition of entrance. To insist on, for example, a right understanding of the mystery or of the coming kingdom as a preliminary only serves to manifest the lack of spiritual intelligence in the one who demands it. The unity of the Spirit embraces not only those with knowledge, but also those largely without it. Do they know the Lord? Then they have enough knowledge to be received!
Has the public ruin of the Assembly altered this principle? No, for “the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, [The] Lord knows those that are his; and Let every one who names the name of [the] Lord withdraw from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2: 19). Not a word about requiring ecclesiastical or doctrinal intelligence, but simply a matter of walking “with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (v22), that is, with real saints in a day of lax and hollow profession. Now I cannot exactly know who calls upon the Lord out of a pure heart—there may well be such with whom I am not acquainted—but where I am aware of believers pursuing “righteousness, faith, love, peace” (v22) then there is a possibility of fellowship. All is very simple, because the qualities listed are all moral. Man, with his desire for a premature unity of the faith makes everything complex and difficult.
Now it would be good if man’s ‘unity of the faith’ was at least confined to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v3) but this is almost never the case. Some openly draw up their own form of government while others have an understood, though unwritten, system of rules which exclude saints as godly as themselves who cannot accept these regulations. In both cases we have a unity narrower than the unity of the Spirit, and that designedly so. The tests that are enforced are not the commandments of the Lord, yet they become practically as authoritative as His Word, or (as is usual) even more so. What has been lost sight of is that the Assembly has no independent authority to legislate, but is called to believe, pronounce, and execute the Word of the Lord. The moment the Assembly lays down an extra-scriptural test, she takes the place of the Lord, and there is a practical assumption, indeed, a virtual denial, of the Lord’s authority.
Practical Working Out
Of course, some readers may not appreciate these issues being aired. It is, they would say, an unnecessary raking up of matters that do not tend to peace, and they would prefer to go on quietly in their own limited circle avoiding any difficult questions about the parameters of fellowship. This attitude of indifference to the unity of the Spirit, while at the same time seemingly placing great importance on preserving what unity they have, is not the product of faith, but of complacency or fear (or both). God has, through His Word, exhorted us to use “diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 3), and to do this we must have the same outlook as God. Peace among brethren is a very precious thing, but if we think that we fulfil our duty to the Scripture just quoted by managing to get along with a few of the Lord’s people then we are deceiving ourselves. Of course, it is undeniable that the matter of keeping the unity of the Spirit raises difficult, and even painful questions, but we cannot be faithful servants of Christ unless we are prepared to measure ourselves by the standard Scripture has set.
Of course, it is easy to draw attention to areas where Christians (including you and me) have fallen short of God’s mind. The negative side of presenting the problem is relatively straightforward. But what about the positive side? How do we seek, from this moment on, to use diligence to keep that one unity of which the one Spirit is the author? Surely the first step is an honest assessment of where we stand practically in relation to it. Truth held as a doctrine one thing, but truth practised is quite another.
Even in NT times there was a danger of Christians of slipping away from the unity of the Spirit—why else would Paul exhort the saints to use “diligence” (Eph. 4: 3) in keeping it? The Corinthians, for example, had formed themselves around various named servants of the Lord, quite forgetting that they had been called, not to Apollos or Paul, but into “the fellowship” of God’s Son “Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1: 9). Today, this tendency to slide into a unity of the flesh is just as apparent and is certainly more developed in its practical outcome. Even where there is at least an intellectual understanding of the evil of sectarianism, saints may be largely united by personal friendships, family relationships or shared ecclesiastical history and experience. Such things are not wrong in themselves, but are those who do not share in them excluded? Or, put another way, would they struggle to fit in? Ecclesiastical culture can easily be the unifying principle rather than the living Christ to whom the Spirit of God would gather us. If we are to use diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit then we must scrupulously avoid making anything a point of difference between saints, excepting those things in which the Bible clearly instructs us. It is far from right, in the words of Mark 9: 49, to refuse someone to the Lord’s Supper simply because he “follows not with us”. There must be valid Scriptural reasons for declining fellowship with any. Presumptuous thinking about occupying a supposed ‘collective position’ to which all must apply and submit indicates that we have failed to appreciate the situation in which we find ourselves. Despite the public breakdown, the Assembly (both in its universal and local senses) remains the same collective entity in the sight of God as it ever was (although it may be less apparent to the human eye). God continues to recognise no other corporate body and nor should we. That is why it is so incongruous to get it into our heads that our ‘meeting’ has some sort of collective status in the sight of God. The word to the faithful is that they are to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2: 22). Nothing here about creating a new company which others must seek to join! Rather, all is intensely mutual, in which individuals join together but do not join anything corporate. They make no collective claim beyond seeking to provide as far as they are able what is due to the Lord from his people. In a day of confusion and ignorance it would be gross presumption to even claim to be the only saints following 2 Tim. 2: 22!
Certainly, no one ought to be recognised on his own bare word. If a stranger came by then care for Christ’s glory would demand that there be adequate testimony from others as to his faith—and if this was not forthcoming, then he would have to wait until he had proved himself. Even an “elect vessel” (Acts 9: 15) like Paul needed a Barnabas to recount to the apostles how he “had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (v27). The two halves of 1 Tim. 5: 22 are not unconnected: we are to “lay hands quickly on no man” for if we do there is a danger that we will “partake in others’ sins”. Of course, some speak of ‘occasional fellowship’ (for example, when away on holiday) where there is a tacit understanding that there is no long-term committal, and others make a difference between being ‘formally’ in fellowship and not. Scripture knows nothing of any of these distinctions. To participate in the Lord’s Supper is to express fellowship together in the highest possible sense (see 1 Cor. 10: 16-17), and fellowship (koinonia in Greek) is not merely a matter of privilege but responsibility. That it is a matter of responsibility, is presented very starkly in the passage just referred to. In v14, Paul instructs the Corinthians that they are to “flee from idolatry” and having spoken of the Lord’s Supper in vs. 16-17, he then contrasts it with eating what is sacrificed to idols, concluding “Now I do not wish you to be in communion” (koinonos) “with demons” (v20). Furthermore, this responsibility necessarily extends not only to God, but also to our brethren, for fellowship is not merely sharing together but partnership (koinonos is, for example, used to describe the business links between Peter and John in Luke 5: 10). Of course, such a partnership necessarily has a greater practical impact when the partners live in close proximity, but an application beyond what is local clearly applies. Paul was a “partner” (koinonos—Philemon v17) with Philemon, although the apostle was a prisoner in Rome, and Philemon, it seems, was a resident of Colosse—a place the apostle had never visited (see Col. 2: 1). Furthermore, the responsibility attaching to our partnership together extends to our associations. In the “great house” of Christian profession, there are vessels “to honour, and some to dishonour” (2 Tim. 2: 20). It is only when the believer has purified (ekkathairo—“purged” as in 1 Cor. 5: 7) himself from the vessels to dishonour that the Bible describes him as a “vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work” (v21). Personal purity is not enough—our ecclesiastical links must also be clean.
By this point, many readers will have concluded that the Christian pathway in a day of public breakdown is extraordinarily difficult, and they would be right. If the people of God needed diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the apostle’s day, how much more so now! Evil doctrine abounds, and the people of God are like bewildered sheep without a shepherd. On the one hand, we must never surrender the holiness that is due to God, but on the other, we must also go with our brethren as far as we can in faith and a good conscience because the needs are very great. It is very likely that we will have to have a long, hard look at ourselves to see whether the keeping of the unity of the Spirit is in fact a practical truth with us. Do not try to weaken the demand made by the truth by drawing attention to the public breakdown in the Assembly— we are always to be obedient whether in bright days or in dark. Nor does keeping the unity of the Spirit mean that we must be in practical fellowship with everyone else also apparently keeping that unity—or that we have exclusive title to the claim. There is difference between severing links of fellowship on account of known evil, and not being wholly free to unite with brethren in Christ who seem just as godly as we are (or even more so). The day is one of confusion, and there are many knotted points of difference that cannot be untangled however much we try. Divine wisdom sometimes sees fit to leave certain things in place to keep us humble.
The unity of the Spirit abides whether there a few or many that keep it—let us ensure we are in their number! Certainly, we shall need to be marked by “all lowliness and meekness” and “long-suffering” and to bear “with one another in love” (Eph. 4: 2) but these blessed features are not in themselves sufficient. There will be no keeping of the unity of the Spirit until we hold in a living way the blessed truth that “[There is] one body and one Spirit” (v4), while at the same time, adhering to the implications of the fact that God’s people “are built together for a habitation of God in [the] Spirit” (Eph. 2: 22). To accept some other basis for unity (however much ‘assembly truth’ we hold in our heads) would be to fail to “walk worthy of the calling wherewith” we “have been called” (Eph. 4: 1).