Recently I had the opportunity to prepare and share a short message on body unity. The occasion was a prayer meeting for the sophomores of two Christian fellowships here at UCLA, and so I thought it would be a good time to teach a bit on the importance of unity in the body of Christ. The message has been adapted for posting here on the blog–formatting, material added and removed, etc.
I trust that you all are in a local church. The biblical precedent for being for being part of a local church is strong—that’s where you should serve, be taught, be discipled, and so on. Everything I’m about to talk about is applicable to the local church. But I think it would be a mistake—even sinful—to focus solely on unity and fellowship within the local church. We might perhaps focus on that primarily, but not solely. The Bible commands that unity and fellowship be present in the whole body. So what I want to look at today is body unity, and why that’s so important. We’ll start by looking at three reasons why body unity is important, and then we’ll move onto three applications of those things.
1. There is unity in the Godhead.
We are all aware that God has three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are distinct identities, and yet they are all united in the entity of God. In John chapter 17, Jesus says, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. . . . I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (vv.11, 20-21a). As Jesus says here, our unity as the body of Christ, as the universal church, is rooted in the unity among the three persons of God. The love expressed by the members of the Trinity for each other is to be our model for how we as believers should love one another. In verse 26, Jesus prays that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” The standard of love among believers is the love that God has for Jesus Christ. That is the love that we are called to. This is true not only for those in our own church or fellowship, but for all other believers.
2. There is unity in the gospel.
The gospel, by its truth, inevitably unites all people. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). There are no exceptions. We are united in our sinfulness and depravity. However, for those of us who have been born again, we are also united in our justification. Ephesians 4:4-5a says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” There are not multiple ways to be saved. There are not multiple faiths. There are not many different groups of believers. Despite differences in nationalities and ethnicities and secondary beliefs, there is one gospel, and so there is one body. The bottom line is that all believers are united in their faith. All who believe the gospel belong to the body of Christ.
Those of us who are Gentiles have particular reason to be thankful for this aspect of unity. In Ephesians 2, Paul addresses the Gentile believers at the church in Ephesus. He writes to them, “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (vv.12-14).
The apostle Paul was an ethnic Jew who was an heir to the promises of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. To these people, God made many promises: that they would be numerous, that they would inherit the land of Canaan, that even though they rebelled against God and worshipped idols, they would be restored to faithfulness and righteousness. Though non-Jews like Rahab did enter into this covenant, the covenants of the Old Testament were, on the whole, for the nation of Israel. But as Paul points out, with the death and resurrection of Christ, we Gentiles are now united with the Jews in the blessings of God. The mystery of the gospel is that Gentiles get to partake in the blessings of the new covenant (Eph. 3:6). Christ’s death unites Jewish and Gentile believers in our love for God and God’s love for us. The life and salvation that the gospel brings, not to mention the unity between all believers because of it, is cause for great worship. Which brings me to my final point.
3. There is unity in purpose. (And purpose in unity.)
As believers, we are also united in our duty and desire to glorify God. This is the way God designed it. God ordained that we be united by the gospel so that we could be united in our focus to glorify Him. Continuing in Ephesians 2, Paul says, “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (vv.20b-21). God has brought us together to be one in Him that we might be a temple to Him. The purpose of our unity is to worship God, and through our worship to glorify Him. We are saved so that we can worship and glorify God, and we are united in this cause. Looking back at John 17:21, we find that the purpose of our unity is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Yes, this certainly applies to the local church, but it is by no means limited to that. The reason unity in the body, and love for all our fellow believers, is so important is because it testifies the love God has for us. If we are unified in our love for each other and God and His glory, God is glorified in us.
Some quick applications of body unity are as follows.
1. Preach the gospel.
This is the incredible good news that brought us into this family. We should also desire that others be brought into this sphere of salvation. As we saw in John 17:20-21a, Jesus prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Christ has concern for those who have been elected but are not yet in His kingdom. We should share the same concern and invite them, through the preaching of the gospel, to join in this body of Christ.
2. Do not malign other fellowships.
Although the time for freshmen looking for fellowships has largely passed, this point is worth mentioning. We need to abstain from saying negative things about other fellowships. Be truthful, yes, but make sure that love is in there. We happen to be part of the two most doctrinally rigid fellowships on campus, and sometimes it may be easy for us to look down on other fellowships. But just because we might be more theologically mature than they are does not make them any less saved. As long as they believe the gospel, they are also believers. As such, we need to love them and make sure that the testimony of Christ’s love and unity is not maligned by our speech–and attitude and behavior–toward other brothers and sisters.
3. Love believers outside of your fellowship.
It’s easy for me to forget, or ignore altogether, that there are other believers outside my church and fellowship. It is important to note that all the verses we’ve looked at about body unity are not confined to the context of a local church. Consider the following verses: “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:24b-25). As much as possible, we are to avoid division and to care for one another. This is limited not only to the local church; it is a vision for the whole body (v.24b).
One way to do that is to pray for other fellowships and ministries. We have the opportunity to do that here, with requests from the staff from both fellowships. In my opinion, God is even more glorified when believers who don’t know each other show love and care for each other, because that’s not something seen in the world. That kind of selfless, non-reciprocal love is a result only of our transformation and sanctification by His grace. That is what is on trial and on display in our relationships with other believers. When it is done right, our own testimonies and witness are strengthened, but even more, God is glorified as we display His love and grace in the unity of the body.