[b]A SEARCH FOR UNITY[/b]
[i]by Rolfe Barnard[/i]
Said our Lord to the religious leaders of His day, "You pour over the scriptures for you imagine you will find eternal life in them, and it is they that give testimony of me" (John 5:39). Here are people with the wrong center. They missed the One of whom the scriptures spoke. Division is the tragedy of Christendom. Unity is the talk of the hour. Where shall it be realized? is the question.
All Christians are one in Christ. We cannot create this; we can only recognize it. However, we must recognize it and then fearlessly practice it. We must receive one another on the ground of a mutual fellowship with God in living union with Christ in the Holy Spirit. But we (Christians) have lived all our lives (and our fathers before us) in the time of disunity and divisions, not oneness in Christ. We know nothing else by experience. How to start out on a return from where we are to what the Bible teaches on this matter is our problem. It is a serious one. This divided, wounded condition is long with us. It began even before the New Testament scriptures were completed. Every awakening has fallen short of the New Testament pattern.
What then is the center, the essence of Christianity? The answer is clear; it is this: the center of the life of faith for the early church was Jesus Christ, Himself, in their spiritual fellowship with Him. Christ was personally the center of their faith. Their faith and experience was centered in Christ Himself. The center of Christianity is neither institution nor organization, nor is it even the Bible; for the "body" existed before the New Testament. There is only one center and that is spiritual fellowship with God through Christ, life-union with God in Christ. Where there is this (union) there is the body of Christ, and there alone. In Acts, Chapter 2, one finds divine order and the church in action, but none of her practices were the center of their faith. The ordinances were valuable expressions of faith but not the center. The New Testament preachers and writers sought to explain their faith, not produce creeds (for example Paul). It needs to be noticed, however, that today one might understand his explanation of his faith but have no fellowship with the Lord. The former must not be taken for the latter.
A look at what has happened in history to this apostolic life union as the center. All our trouble today is the result of long years of mistaken and false ideas of the center or essential nature of the one body. The living faith of apostolic Christianity was made concrete in the rituals, organization, doctrines, and creeds of the Greek and Roman churches.
The Religious renaissance of the 12th and 13th centuries came to a stop in scholastic theology and ecclesiastical institutions. This was repeated in the European Reformation of the 16th Century. The Reformation came to its conclusion with the establishment of state churches and systems of pure doctrine and conventionalized Christian conduct. The same is true in America. Puritanism, Quakerism, the great awakening, and frontier revivals all poured white hot convictions into the souls of men only to have these cool off into crystallized codes, solidified institutions, and petrified creeds. The center long since gone, what shall now be the center? Sad to say, the succesors of the Reformation made the Bible to be dogma, not testimony of the true center! Thus creeds came into existence, all of them good; but none can be the absolute standard of faith. Faith is life in Christ, and a life can never be confined within a system or a creed. These must not be the end or object of faith in themselves, but simply expressions of our fellowship in Christ. The fullness of the living Christ cannot be held within the narrow limits of written creeds. The Bible itself is but the description of the life; that is, a description of God in His relationship to men. So one cannot sum up the truth of the Bible in any fixed creeds or confessions. Failure to understand this has caused much heartbreak and has become the cause of the many sects and denominations, all based on different interpretations and understanding of certain texts or teachings of the Bible. Thus the people of God are even now divided so that to realize our unity in Christ seems hopeless. This has come about by mistaking what is the true center and substituting theology, dogma, creeds, institutions, rituals, and ceremonies for "life in Christ."
How may we move toward the realization of our oneness in the fellowship of our living Lord? I do not have the answer, but I offer the following thoughts. (1)Where there is true fellowship with God, true unity will come naturally of itself if no man-made barriers are raised. Therefore we must begin by receiving one another simply on the ground of a mutual fellowship with God in living union with Christ; this is the essence of the true body of Christ, and here alone is the pathway to the realized unity of God's people. I am speaking here of Christian fellowship if it be true that church fellowship be a more difficult hill to climb.
If we start at any other point we shall fail. Without this living faith, this life union with Jesus Christ, we are not Christians even though we technically believe every Bible doctrine. (2) True unity is not a matter of human effort or cooperation. It must come solely from God. When there is true fellowship with God, it comes natually. The power of Christians does not come from human cooperation but from life-union with God. Let barriers be removed as we can. (3) Faith is the gift of God which produces in us this fellowship with God in Christ. It cannot be created or maintained by human efforts. Faith is but another name for fellowship. Where this is seen, all other important things (viz. doctrine, etc.) fall into their proper place. None of them can be the center. (4) If we will practice this living union with Christ, loving each other because of our union with Him, we shall have made a start on the way to the unity of His "one body."
The New Testament speaks of the church which is "His body." There was a time when this was the church at Jerusalem - Antioch, etc. The church at Corinth was plagued with disorder - the churches in Galatia, etc. Paul speaks of the occasion when the whole church at Corinth comes together in one place. Now in a given place we have many "churches" (?), all with names or brands, all with their distinctives. Church fellowship seems impossible apart from an intervention from above. Christian fellowship can be realized, if not church fellowship. Let us begin.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon