I was recently at a Christian leaders’ conference called ‘Difficult Conversations’, and subtitled ‘How do we maintain unity’? The subjects for conversation included Islam, gender issues, same-sex marriage, and how Maori see our Pakeha-European churches. As I listened to the presentations and discussions, I thought of my friend Marcus Ardern who often spoke on unity. He pointed out the Scriptures speak of two very different kinds of unity, one that is to be ‘maintained’ while the other is to be ‘attained’. In other words, we already have one that we are to keep but the other we don’t yet have and must reach.The text he used was Ephesians, chapter 4. In v. 3, Paul writes that we must be ‘diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit’ while in v. 13, he adds ‘until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.’

So, if we don’t want to be confused or divisive, we have to understand which is which so we can respond appropriately.

‘The Unity of the Spirit’

This is experiential. Strictly speaking, it only exists for those who have been born of the Spirit of God, who have a shared experience of God, His love, His goodness, His justice, His forgiveness. As they say, it’s better felt than telt, and anyone who is born of the Spirit has a natural affinity with everyone else who has. However, Paul says, we need to be ‘diligent’, careful, to maintain it. This means we will be tempted to let it go, through neglecting or not valuing it enough.

How are we ‘preserve’ this unity? Paul continues, ‘be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. This means we will be tempted to war, to fight. We need to lay down our weapons, get over our defensiveness, and engage with any brother or sister, despite their views on any issue. As Laurie Guy, one of the speakers at the conference emphasised, we need to humble ourselves, to be kind, gentle, and patient1 and…:

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.2

 We are called to be ‘one body’ and, above all else, we need to love each other.

Of course, none of this is rocket science but it is like building a rocket to practice it – hard, costly, self-denying work. We may each need a major change of attitude to preserve the unity of the Spirit but it’s worth it at all costs, especially to our pride and selfish ambition.

It also shows how we are to be towards unbelievers of every stripe. Some years ago, I was called to work amongst some alternative life-stylers and, knowing that I would be encountering complex and contentious moral issues, I was praying for wisdom. I felt the Lord say to me very clearly, in the words of the old hymn, to just follow Jesus who ‘emptied Himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race.’[1] It struck me then, and still does now, that He didn’t come to argue, He didn’t come to impose Himself on us – He emptied Himself of all but love. Love can unite us if we let it. Accordingly, I laid down every agenda in my heart and went to meet these wonderful people without any preconditions. I only had to answer their questions and the effects were dramatic, radically changing the way that I worked from then on.

Laying down our agendas, arguments, and preconditions to love even our enemies necessarily removes a lot of tension in our hearts while we converse.

‘The Unity of the Faith’

This is doctrinal. How on earth are we to ‘attain to the unity of the faith’? As I discovered at this conference, we often have very different ideas as to what ‘the faith’ is and therefore two very different approaches to attaining it. One speaker spoke of our need to let go ‘the letter’ of the Scriptures to follow their ‘trajectory’. I’d never heard of Trajectory Theology before but I like the speaker and I enjoy being taught. However, as he gave his examples, I found myself disagreeing with each of them, which undermined his conclusion that we therefore can’t be sure what the Scriptures are saying about “marriage-equality” for same-sex couples.

I later found this definition of Trajectory Theology: “an interpretive method which finds progressive change in the application of Scripture through the trajectory of time going beyond the completion of the New Testament… In other words, whatever direction the Scriptures were heading, we are to take up that ball and carry it to its finality.”[2] This means the ball can end up in a very different place, even to contradictions of the Scriptures.

The five examples our speaker gave were the circumcision debate of Acts 15, Jesus’ teaching on murder, and Christians’ historic flip-flopping attitudes towards slavery, divorce and remarriage, and contraception. From Acts 15, he argued that James was letting go the Law with a good ‘compromise’ by giving the Gentiles ‘Law-lite‘; he was apparently unaware that James, in reversing his previous stance for circumcision, 3  was also affirming the standard Jewish teaching that all of mankind is under the Noahic Covenant. This wasn’t a trajectory but a reaffirmation.

As for Jesus’ applying the commandment against murder to rule out hate,4 our speaker thought this too was a trajectory, rather than Jesus dealing as He always did by going to the heart of every command of the Law, e.g. Mark 7:14-23. But Moses said it too: “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart”.5 This was not a trajectory but a reaffirmation.

As for slavery, divorce and remarriage, and contraception, I agree wholeheartedly that the church has historically often been on the wrong side of these issues. However, in every instance, those church leaders were ‘untaught and unstable’, in Peter’s words, distorting the Old Testament Scriptures and Paul’s letters to suit their own agenda:

…our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, …in all his letters, …in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.6

Rather than demonstrate this now, I will address slavery in another article and I’ve already written about  Divorce & Remarriage. Our subject here is how to attain to the unity of the faith.

What is ‘the Faith’?

Biblically, ‘faith’ is not vague. It is believing whatever God has said and is saying7 and ‘the faith’ is the compilation of all of those words, i.e. what we should believe. This leaves open two very different approaches and the conference helped me realise that.

Those who believe in Trajectory Theology have accepted the Roman Catholic approach that the Church decides doctrine, e.g. that contraception is wrong.[3] However, Jesus taught that it’s not up to us to decide so much as to discover what God has already decided:

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven8

The tense makes all the difference: God doesn’t retroactively change His decisions in heaven to match ours; we’re supposed to seek His decisions and declare them. That’s why Jesus went on in this teaching to say we need ‘two or three’ agreeing9 – ‘every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses’.10

We are to do this from two sources: the Scriptures11 and the Holy Spirit. 12 Seen in this light, James the Lord’s brother was not advocating ‘compromise’ and ‘Law-lite’. Instead, he affirmed Peter’s experience as Spirit-led 13 but also in accord with what God had revealed through Noah for all mankind,14 and through Amos as to the timing of all mankind being acceptable 15 through faith in Jesus. 16

The whole church only attained this unity of the faith ‘after great dissension’ 17 and ‘much debate’. 18 They finally accepted the testimonies of Peter, 19 Barnabas, and Paul,20 followed by James changing his mind, seeing the whole process as Spirit-led:

…it seemed good to us, having become of one mind… For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials…21

 Jude, another of the Lord’s brothers, was very specific regarding ‘the faith’:

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.[ref]Jude 1:3[/ref]

‘The faith’ has already been given to us so, instead of looking for a trajectory of where we might or might not be heading, we are to ‘contend’, or fight, for what we have already received but may not have yet recognised. We have to do this at all costs! 

Interesting, isn’t it? To maintain the unity of the Spirit, we have to lay down our weapons to maintain love and peace amongst us; to attain to the unity of the faith, we have to fight, to dissent, to debate, to preserve ‘the faith’ from being distorted into something else. And we are to do both simultaneously.

Attaining Unity of the Faith

When Jude was writing in the 1st Century, they needed to retain the faith; in the centuries that followed, Christians needed to rediscover what had been lost and then fight for it, piece by piece.

Consider the last 500 years, exactly. As we heard from Stuart Lange at the conference, this is the five hundredth year since Martin Luther sparked the Reformation – in 1517, he rediscovered faith in Jesus as the means of our salvation instead of the Church. However, he needed the help of Prince Frederick to ward off the armies of the Pope who wanted to burn him as a heretic. He then set about translating the Bible from Latin into German so that everyone could read it for themselves. In other words, Martin Luther helped many in his generation to attain to much of the faith and, five hundred years later, the Catholic Church officially admits he was right. Thanks largely to Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholics are attaining to the unity of the faith with the rest of us who believe in Jesus.[4] 

The Reformers could also be terribly wrong. When 16th and 17th Century Anabaptists rediscovered believer’s baptism, they were often put to death in ‘the third baptism’, drowned by Reformers who wouldn’t accept the Scriptures’ teaching on water baptism. Today, thankfully, we can peacefully attain to unity in that part of our faith but we should never forget the terrible personal cost paid by the Anabaptists.

 

 

 

 

In the 18th Century, John and Charles Wesley’s rediscovery of not  only the gospel but its extraordinary outworking led to Christians reforming English society and thus the British Empire. Wilberforce’s consequent abolition of slavery in 1833 was not a trajectory but a rediscovery of the New Testament’s teaching on slavery.[5] Today, we all enjoy the fruits of attaining this unity of the faith. Soon after, William Carey’s rediscovery of our call to evangelise the world spearheaded the world-wide spread of missions which paved the way for New Zealand’s extraordinary founding covenant. Read more in New Zealand’s Amazing CovenantIn the 19th Century, William and Catherine Booth began their wonderful work amongst the destitute and the victims of the sex trade. If we today add our voices and resources to this work, we are attaining to the unity of the faith as clearly practised by Jesus in the 1st Century.

The 20th Century saw the widespread rediscovery of the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, as unmistakably described in the Scriptures, and although our mainline churches initially rejected and sidelined participants, today most denominations are attaining to the unity of the faith in this area.

Notice, none of these were trajectories, all were rediscoveries of ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’.
How about us then? How we can do our part in our generation?

The Cost to Us

(i) Accept personal responsibility to learn the faith
On the Day of Pentecost, the three thousand men who became followers of Jesus had only a brief time before they had to return to their families in Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. 22 Accordingly, they made the most of that time, ‘continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.23

(ii) Recognise teachers
Besides apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds, most of whom can preach, the Lord gave us teachers to help us dig deeper into not only the twelve apostles’ teaching in the New Testament but also all of the Old Testament Scriptures:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith24

If we aren’t better taught in the Scriptures, we will not attain to that unity.  

(iii) Grow in Him
Paul didn’t stop there. He continued:

…and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.25

 We are not called just to rediscover and attain ‘the faith’ but to properly know Jesus Himself. This will help us attain to a unity from which we won’t easily be removed or seduced:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ. 26

(iv) Aim to be ‘noble-minded’
We have to stop being distracted, apathetic, or lazy, and become instead like the Berean Jews who bothered to listen to Paul and Silas:

Now these [Jews] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. 27

In far too many of the ‘difficult conversations’ I’ve heard in our churches, the participants have been completely unwilling to even hear Paul, or to examine the Scriptures for themselves, and certainly not daily. No wonder the unity of the faith is missing – we don’t even know what it is, let alone how to get to it.

Remember: to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we have to lay down our weapons to maintain love and peace among us; to attain to the unity of the faith, we have to fight, to dissent, to debate, to preserve ‘the faith’ from being distorted into something else. And we are to do both simultaneously.

It will cost every one of us, in time, energy, and research. 

If we don’t do our part, we may see it happen around us but we will be left behind and never attain the unity of the faith

 Come on – at all costs, let’s do it!


  1. Col 3:12-13
  2. Col 3:14-15
  3. Gal 2:12
  4. Matt 5:21-22
  5. Lev 19:17
  6. 2 Pet 3:15-16, emphasis added
  7. Rom 10:17
  8. Matt 18:18
  9. Matt 18:19-20
  10. 2 Cor 13:1 Also 1 Cor 14:29 and 1 Tim 5:19.
  11. John 17:17
  12. John 16:13, 1 John 2:26-27
  13. Acts 15:13-14
  14. v. 20
  15. vv. 15-18
  16. v. 19
  17. v. 2
  18. v. 7
  19. vv. 7-11
  20. v. 12
  21. Acts 15:25 & 28
  22. Acts 2:9-11
  23. Acts 2:42
  24. Eph 4:11-13, emphasis added
  25. Eph 4:13, emphasis added
  26. Eph 4:14-16
  27. Acts 17:11-12