I believe one church of Jesus Christ. This confession implies a calling to seek the unity of this church—a divine obligation on every believer and every church.
Belief in the one church is the heartfelt confession of every believer. In the first centuries after Pentecost the ancient church delineated this cardinal truth and required that every believer affirm it before becoming a member of the Christian church. Week after week, in various countries and cultures, in perhaps hundreds of languages, believers around the world confess the truth—I believe an (that is, one) holy catholic church.
We can say it so easily. Do we recognize the astounding wonder of “one church”? Do we stand in awe of this mighty work of the Son of God Himself, who “from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21)? He gathers not many churches, but one church of Jesus Christ.
Part of the wonder is exactly due to the church’s diversity in her unity. The church encompasses many members—ultimately as uncountable as the stars in the heavens and the sand on the ocean’s shore. And these members are so very different! Aged saints waiting to be delivered from this life, middle-aged matrons, teenaged boys in the strength of youth, toddlers and crying babies are among the host that is called “one church.” The diversity extends to nationality and race. Included are Russian members and Nigerian, Samoan and Chinese, American, Dutch, Jews, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and so many more—believers out of every race, every tribe, and every nation.
Some of the members are the lowest of society, despised by all, kicked and beaten by evil employers, or even masters. Some are business executives who work in air-conditioned comfort. Many of the members are devoted mothers spending themselves in the service of their families. Some are rulers, who have many people heeding their commands. Yet, one church.
I believe one church. Not as Rome corrupts it—I believe in one church. Faith in is reserved for the triune God only. He saves, and He alone. The church does not save.
But I believe one church. I believe that she exists. I believe that God maintains her. Even if I cannot see this one church, I nevertheless confidently believe.
This one church exists because the all-powerful, all-wise God eternally decreed this church. He sovereignly chose each member in Christ, having predestined each one to the adoption of children to be part of His eternal family (Eph. 1:4, 5). Every father knows how many children the Lord has given him, and who they are. How much more does God know His own children. He knows each and every one eternally in love. He gave each one to Christ. He redeemed each one with the precious blood of His only begotten Son, gives to each the life of Christ, and irresistibly calls each one unto Himself by His Word and Spirit. Then He, the triune God, dwells within each member by the same Spirit of Christ.
God’s church is one from the beginning. God made this plain in the record of the genealogies—the line of Seth is the line of the one church. The seed of Abraham was next singled out as the church of God. The kingdom of Israel was the church of God, with Christ typically sitting on the throne of David.
With the coming of Christ and the gathering in of the Gentiles, Scripture is at pains to express the truth that there is still but one church of Christ. Christ Himself (John 10) promises that all His sheep will hear His voice—not merely the Jews to whom He was preaching, but His “other sheep” also. For, He said, there shall be “one fold, and one shepherd.”
The Spirit gave several powerful figures to emphasize the same truth. Writing to the Galatians (Galatians 3, 4), Paul compares the church to a person who in the old dispensation is like a child under a governor, and in the new dispensation is the same person, only grown into adulthood.
To the Ephesians, Paul acknowledges that the Gentiles formerly had been “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenant of promise” (Eph. 2:12). But he goes on to explain that Christ by His death had broken down the wall between Jews and Gentiles. Thus the Gentiles were “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:19). Not only that, but they have become of the same “household of God,” and part of the one temple of God, built on Christ (Eph. 2:20-22). One church.
Paul instructed the saints at Rome that they (as Gentles) were branches from a wild olive tree grafted into the original olive tree, which is Israel (Rom. 11).
One church with many members and much diversity of gifts, Paul instructed the Corinthians, so that each member of the body is necessary for the whole. And in which body, all party spirit, all schism, is anathema (I Cor. 12).
The true unity of the church is Jesus Christ. He is the root of the tree, the cornerstone of the temple, the Head of the body, and the Bridegroom of the church. Each member, though unique, has been chosen in Christ, redeemed by His blood, filled with His Spirit, and adopted into God’s family by the blood of Christ. That one church is described in her glorified state as the pure and holy bride adorned for her husband, and as a city of astounding richness and beauty (Rev. 21). What an amazing and beautiful work of our glorious God is the one church of Jesus Christ!
Do you see that one church?
I trust that you, fellow believer, do see a manifestation of that one church in a local congregation. You will recognize this congregation as part of the true church by the three distinguishing marks of Christ’s church, namely, 1) the proper administration of the two sacraments Christ gave His church; 2) the right use of the kingdom key of Christian discipline; and chiefly, 3) the lovely sound of the pure gospel that she preaches. Christ calls every believer to join himself or herself to such a congregation.
But do we, can we, see this one church so gloriously described in Scripture as the bride of Christ, the temple of God, and a holy nation? No, not with the natural eye. We believe it. God has chosen, does have, is gathering, and is glorifying this one church of Christ.
And believing it, we are called to seek that oneness, that unity of the church. This is the express command of God through the apostle in Ephesians 4. Paul writes (vv. 1-3): “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The Spirit then leads Paul to describe the unity of the church that each member must endeavor to keep. The word “endeavor” is expressive of diligence, of making haste, of exerting oneself. To this activity God calls every believer.
The oneness of the church of Christ is so important that Christ made it a significant element in His prayer to the Father the night before He died. John 17 records this powerful prayer. In it, Jesus specifically identifies the objects of His request, namely, His own—”I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine” (v. 9). Subsequently, Jesus prayed for them and for all who would believe, with this goal, “that they all may be one” (vv. 20, 21). Jesus further strengthens this point when He adds, “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one” (vv. 22). The next day Jesus did what was necessary to make the church one. He laid down His life for this one church.
Historically, this unity of the church has not only been an essential article of the church’s confession, it has also been energetically sought, often at great cost. Believers experienced that heresy divided the body into factions. Striving for unity therefore has often required strenuous efforts to defend the truth over against the lie. I think of the early church history, and the hundreds of elders and bishops traveling many dusty miles to Nicea in A.D. 325 to settle the division in the church caused by Arius, who denied that the Son is very God, one essence with the Father. In connection with that same conflict, I think of faithful Athanasius being hounded out of office five times in his life because of his defense of the truth—the truth that unites the one church.
Others of God’s servants labored tirelessly to mend existing schisms that rent the body of Christ—schisms not over doctrine as such, but due to the pride and stubbornness of men. I think of the great church father Cyprian, who wrote a treatise on The Unity of the Church in the face of serious schism over the question of what to do about those who had lapsed from the church in fierce persecution. Cyprian considered schism a work of the devil. He writes in the third section of his treatise that Satan “has invented heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity.” He adds, “Those whom he cannot keep in the darkness of the old way, he circumvents and deceives by the error of a new way. He snatches men from the Church itself…so that, although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light.” He is so bold as to say that they maintain antichrist under the name of Christ. “This happens, beloved brethren, so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master.” The conclusion of the treatise is a lengthy plea for peace in the church.
The great Augustine likewise considered unity of the church something that demanded strenuous work. He spent himself for this cause. When he became the Bishop of Hippo in 395, he was confronted with a schism already of eighty-year duration. The Donatists had separated themselves from the rest of the churches in North Africa over issues arising out of persecution. Augustine found this intolerable. One biographer of Augustine wrote: “For almost thirty years of his life,… [Augustine] was constantly engaged in controversy, writing, speaking, and organizing.” Concerning Augustine and the Donatists another historian wrote:
The energy with which he pursued them is remarkable. From his first discussions with the local Donatist clergy during his presbyterate until his final exchanges with Gaudentius of Thamugadi, not a year passes without some anti-Donatist tract or sermon…. For ten years he spent all his energies as a writer and a diplomat in combating them, his object being first to defeat their leaders in argument and then, as a result of a general conference, to persuade the mass of the Donatist Church to reunite with the Catholics…. There was hardly a Donatist leader whom he did not personally try to convert.
The pursuit of unity has a long and honorable history in the church.
The pursuit of unity is also the heritage of the Reformation. In harmony with the church of the past, the great reformers defended truth over against the lie. They also rejected schism. But their situation demanded new effort and energy. Having been put out by the apostate Romish church or compelled by the Word to leave the whore that was no longer their spiritual mother, they knew that there was a common bond of truth that united them. However, they were separated by distance, divided by language and culture, and increasingly by development of dogma and church polity. Yet they saw the need to strive for unity among themselves.
The church today is nearly five hundred years beyond the great Reformation. The calling to strive for unity in the church remains (Eph. 4). The desire to manifest the unity of the one church is in the heart of every believer, for it is the desire of his Lord whose Spirit lives in the heart of every believer. And yet, so much wisdom is required in this endeavoring.
The purpose of this series of editorials is to face some of the issues involved in seeking the unity of the church. History can help us. The Word of God must guide us. But endeavor we must.