Unity in Christ 

 

Our Christian community world-wide is dogged by the tendency for only a few to contribute actively to the life of the brotherhood. This arises partly from the fact that there are some very capable brethren and sisters amongst us, compared to whom our efforts seem insignificant and unnecessary. The newly baptized especially may feel that they have nothing to contribute in comparison to them. In many mission areas, women, the poor, those who don't know English, the illiterate- all these groups tend to be sidelined into a position where they (and others) feel that they can't contribute to our community. Other converts come from religions where there is a dependent mentality; i.e., the duty of a believer is perceived to be simply attendance at meetings, but all responsibilities are left with a priest or pastor. Those from these backgrounds may  find it difficult to accept the concept of responsibility for others. Or there is simply the problem of basic selfishness and laziness: not taking on any sense of responsibility for our brethren and sisters, leaving everything to others, assuming others will always provide, whilst we concentrate on ourselves.

Materially

Bible teaching about materialism is not simply that the richer ones amongst us should give their wealth for the work and establishment of the Gospel. Scripture does teach this: but it also has much to say about how poor people should give.

Because we know people (and brethren) who are richer and more wealth-seeking than we are, it's fatally easy to conclude that therefore we aren't rich, therefore we aren't materialistic. " Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break (Gk. dig) through and steal" (Mt. 6:19) was spoken to a huge crowd of Jewish peasants. The Lord wasn't only referring to the few rich men who might be hanging around on the edge of the group. He was talking to all of them. He knew their mud walled homes which thieves could so easily dig through. That little cheap bangle, that ring, thinly buried under the bed mat after the pattern of Achan, that prized tunic...the petty riches of the poor which they so strove for, which to them were priceless treasures. This is what the Lord was getting at; and His point was that every one of us, from beggar to prince, has this 'laying up' mentality. He is almost ruthless in His demands. He warns a similar crowd, living in first century, famine-plagued Palestine of the first century, not to everlastingly worry about where the next meal was coming from; and then in that very context, tells them to sell what they have (Lk. 12:29-33). He wasn't just talking to the rich. He was telling the desperately poor to forsake what little they had, so as to seek His Kingdom. He probably didn't mean them to take His words dead literally (cp. cutting off the offending hand or foot); what He surely meant was: 'Resign, in your mind, the possession of everything you have, concern yourselves rather with the needs of others and entering my Kingdom'. No wonder those crowds turned round and soon bayed for His blood.

The Mosaic Law countered this idea that only the rich can be generous. The purification after childbirth and the cleansing of the leper allowed a lower grade of offering to be made by the very poor- to underline that no one is exempted from giving to the Lord, no matter how poor they are. Consider the emphasis: " Every man shall give as he is able...he shall offer even such as he is able to get...then the disciples (consciously motivated by these principles?) every man according to his ability, determined to send relief [one gets the picture of a convoy of brethren going to Jerusalem, carrying a little bit of meal from Sister Dorcas, a few coins from brother Titus...] ...let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him" (Dt. 16:17; Lev. 14:30,31; Acts 11:29; 1 Cor. 16:2). The Lord taught men to give alms of such things as they had (Lk. 11:41); as we have opportunity / ability, we must be generous to all men (Gal. 6:10). All these passages are teaching a spirit of generosity; and even a sister with literally no money can have a generous spirit. The key passage is 2 Cor. 8:12: " If there be first (i.e. most importantly) a willing mind, it is accepted according to what a man hath, and not according to that he hath not" . Every man was to contribute to the building of the tabernacle (cp. the ecclesia) with a willing heart (Ex. 25:2- Paul surely alludes here). They weren't told: 'Whoever is willing and able to contribute, please do so'. And yet the majority of us have at least something materially; and as we have been blessed, so let us give. " Every man according as he purposeth in his heart (generosity is a mental attitude), so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver" . So when, e.g. we have visiting brethren, let's not mentally tot up what it actually costs us to entertain them; let's contribute towards our fares to gatherings as far as we are able; let's conquer our natural concern with costs with a generous spirit. " Use hospitality one to another without grudging" (1 Pet. 4:9).

Spiritually

Having said this, Peter continues: " Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace [gift] in its various forms" (4:10 NIV). We have each received some gift which is intended to be used " to serve others" (1 Cor. 12:7 cp. 1 Cor. 7:7,17). We each have our talent: and, worryingly, a characteristic of the rejected is that they won't have attempted to use their talent (Mt. 25:15). Each member of the early church had a spiritual gift in this sense, although only some of them had miraculous ones. All who have been baptized into the body of Christ have a part in that body; and by its nature, the body is dependent upon the contribution of every part. This is why wilful separation from the rest of the body is wrong: be it by belonging to an exclusive Christian 'fellowship', not contributing to our ecclesia, 'cold-shouldering' certain brethren... we not only limit our own spiritual growth, but that of the whole body.  

" Each part does its work"

" The whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Ephesians 4:16 NIV). In the context, Paul is demonstrating the necessity of Jew and Gentile to work together in the ecclesia; they couldn't just run parallel ecclesial lives, even though there seems to have been temporary concessions to their humanity at the beginning. The newly baptized, Old Testament-ignorant Gentiles had something to contribute to the Bible-saturated Jewish believers; and, of course, vice versa. " Let no man seek his own, but every man another's (spiritual) wealth" (1 Cor. 10:24)- no matter how little we feel we have to contribute. What this means in practice is that we should be concerned, truly concerned, for the spiritual growth of our brethren. This isn't equivalent to a spirit of nosy observation of others' weaknesses. When we observe a brother, let's say, with a fleck of pride as he speaks; a sister with a tendency to gossip... earnestly pray for them. Make a prayer list if necessary, either written down or mentally. " Pray one for another" (James 5:16)- all of us. Ask yourself, how many minutes / day do you spend in prayer? Not that number of minutes / day is necessarily a reflection of spirituality; but think about it. In addition to prayer, let's simply make spiritual conversation with our brethren, overcoming our natural reserve to talk about spiritual things. All in the new covenant should be teaching every man his neighbour and brother, saying " Know the Lord" (Heb. 8:11).  

There is a consistent Biblical theme that the community inevitably has elders- that is, those who earn respect as elders, rather than presume upon or are even voted into a position of authority. And yet we have seen that there is also significant emphasis on the fact that each baptized believer has a vital contribution towards the spiritual growth of other believers, which cannot be compensated for by the words or work or example of any elder, however spiritually dynamic he may be. We have commented elsewhere that we're all preachers, too; it's not something that can be delegated to just some brethren. Paul reasons that as he and Apollos were ordained as ministers of the Gospel, so the Lord had also in principle given such a ministry " to every man" (1 Cor. 3:5).  

The Inspiration Of The Cross

If we are to live lives devoted to the rest of the brotherhood, we need a motivation more powerful than just steel will-power. The constant out-giving of the cross, in the face of the most studied rejection and lack of appreciation, can be the only motivation that time and again, without fail, will revive our flagging will. Paul paints a powerful picture of the Lord's progressive self-humbling in service to others, culminating in " the death of the cross" ; and with this in mind, he asks us: " Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ..." (Phil. 2:4). The Mosaic command to give, every man according to the blessing with which God had blessed him (Dt. 16:17), is purposely similar in phrasing to the command to eat of the Passover lamb, every man according to his need; and to partake of the manna (cp. the Lord Jesus), every man according to his need (Ex. 12:4; 16:6,16). According to the desperation of our need, so we partake of Christ; and in response, according to our blessing, we give, in response to the grace of His giving.  

A Unique Unity

There will develop an utterly unique unity amongst us as a result of appreciating the Bible doctrine of the one body; and from the experience of regularly, genuinely, contributing to the spiritual and material needs of the brotherhood. We will see how the body itself, energized by the spirit and pattern of Christ, builds itself up. It is this unity in Christ which is unique to Christians: no other religion has this sense of being so inseparably linked. Sometimes when arriving somewhere to meet unknown brethren, I somehow know: 'That's them!', even from a distance. And others have commented likewise. This almost uncanny sense of unity is referred to in Eph. 4:3 as " the unity" ; although, as Paul shows, the keeping and experience of that unity is dependent upon our patience with each other and maintenance of " the one faith" (i.e. the unifying faith that gives rise to the one body). This unity is potentially powerful enough to convert the world. Through it, " the world may know" , " the world may believe" (Jn. 17:21,23). And yet, in Johanine thought, " the world may know" was a result of the Lord's death (Jn. 14:31), and yet also of the love that would be between His people (Jn. 13:35). The Lord's death would inspire such a love between His people that their resultant unity would let the world know the love of the Father and Son. Paul alludes to all this when he says that because of the new unity and fellowship between Jew and Gentile, " all men (would) see" , and even to the great princes and powers of this world would be made known by the united church " the manifold wisdom of God" (Eph. 3:9-11). The miraculous Spirit gifts were given, Paul argues, to bring the Jewish and Gentile believers together, " for the perfecting (uniting) of the saints" , into " a perfect man" , a united body. And thus, once Jewish and Gentile differences were resolved within the ecclesia by the end of the first century, the gifts were withdrawn. 

This unique unity was enabled and created by the cross. The communion, the fellowship, was brought about by the Saviour’s body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16). Indeed, “the fellowship” is a common NT phrase (e.g. 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:3). Because this has been created in prospect, from God’s perspective we are all united in the fellowship, therefore we should seek to be of one mind (Phil. 2:1,2). It broke down, at least potentially, the walls which there naturally are between men, even the most opposed, i.e. Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14). The laying down of the Shepherd's life was so that the flock might be one, in one fold (Jn. 10:15,16). The offering of the blood of Christ was so that He might " make in himself...one new man" (Eph. 2:15). Thus the theme of unity dominated the Lord's mind as He prepared for His death (Jn. 17). Reading Jn. 17:20 as a parenthesis: " For their sakes I sanctify myself [in the death of the cross]... that they all may be one" (Jn. 17:19,21). The glory of God would be the source of this unity in Christ (Jn. 17:22); and that Name and glory were declared supremely on the cross (Jn. 12:28; 17:26). The grace, mercy, judgment of sin, the goodness and severity of God (Ex. 34:5-7)... all these things, as demonstrated by the cross, bind men together. And thus in practice, both a too strict and also too loose attitude to doctrine and practice, an unbalanced understanding of the glory of God, will never bring unity. The whole congregation (LXX ekklesia) of Israel were " gathered together" before the smitten rock, which " was Christ" crucified (Num. 20:8 cp. 21:16; 1 Cor. 10:4). The " ensign" , the pole on which the brazen serpent was lifted up, would draw together the scattered individuals of God's people (Is. 11:2); and as stricken Israel were gathered around that pole, so the lifting up of the crucified Christ brings together all His people (Jn. 12:32 cp. 3:14). And yet the cross of Christ is also associated with the gathering together of all God's enemies (Acts 4:26). Even Herod and Pilate were made friends at that time (Luke 23:12). The cross divides men into two united camps; they are gathered together by it, either in the Lord's cause, or against Him. The crucifixion was the judgment seat for this world (Jn. 12:31). Likewise the day of judgment will be a gathering together, either against the Lord (Rev. 16:16; 19:19), unto condemnation (Jn. 15:6); or into the barn of His salvation (Mt. 13:30). And likewise, in anticipation of the judgment, the breaking of bread is a " gathering together" either to condemnation or salvation (1 Cor. 11). This is why the preaching of the Gospel is a gathering together of God's people to Christ (Gen. 49:10; Mt. 12:30) (1). We are now being gathered together, and yet the final gathering together will be at the day of judgment; therefore our response to the calling together of the Gospel now, is a foretaste of the gathering unto the day of judgment (Mt. 3:12 cp. 13:30).  

The Essential Intention

This unity in Christ, this fellowship between the redeemed which the cross enabled, had been God's original intention. The mystery of His will, His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, was that " in the dispensation of the fullness of time he might gather together all things in Christ" (Eph. 1:10). Thus the unity of the redeemed is not just an incidental product of our redemption and unity in Christ; it was the essential intention and goal of God from the beginning of the world, and was only revealed through the unity achieved by the cross (Eph. 3:9,10). This was His " eternal purpose" (Eph. 3:11). These passages in Ephesians need meditation; for it is easy to underestimate the tremendous emphasis given to how the mysterious unity of the body of believers, together glorifying His Name, was so fundamentally and eternally God's main purpose.  And so Paul marvelled that he had been chosen to plainly reveal this, God's finest and most essential mystery, to all men; for it was not revealed at all in the OT, nor even (at least, not directly) by the Lord Jesus. And we may likewise marvel that we have a living part in it. 


Notes

(1) " Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt. 18:20) cannot mean that the presence of Christ is only available if two or three physically gather together, and that He does not tabernacle in the individual. I would suggest that it means rather that if two or three gather in His Name,  this is because of Him being in their midst; i.e. unity, gathering together, is only possible around the person and presence of Christ.

" All that is not given is lost"

- Indian Proverb