The Unity of the Church

Does God expect His people to be one?

Yes, the Bible makes this clear.  Jesus prayed “…that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21)  Jesus also repeatedly pressed on His followers the necessity for love.

  • A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
  • This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. …  “This I command you, that you love one another. (John 15:12, 17)

Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)


What do we learn about this oneness from Jesus’ words?

This passage from John teaches us:

  1. The followers of Jesus should be one;
  2. This unity reflects the unity in the Trinity;
  3. This unity ought to be visible to those on the outside;
  4. This unity is a witness to the world that Jesus was sent by the Father and that the Father loves them.


What about the passage from Paul?

This passage teaches:

  1. All those who have been effectually called by God into new life ought to reflect this fact in their daily behavior towards their fellow Christians;
  2. The way to do this is by maintaining the unity of the Spirit;
  3. This ought to be a top priority;
  4. God Himself has already made unity, and Christians are called to preserve it.


What difference of opinion exists on this point?

Roman Catholics insist that the only real unity is all Christians in a single organization.  For them, that means three things:

  1. all are united under one government,
  2. all profess the same faith [doctrines], and
  3. all join in a common worship.

For example, the catechism of the council of Trent distinguishes between a unity in government and a unity of Spirit, hope, and faith (p102):

The first mark of the true Church is described in the Nicene Creed, and consists in unity: My dove is one, my beautiful one is one. So vast a multitude, scattered far and wide, is called one for the reasons mentioned by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians: One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Unity In Government

The Church has but one ruler and one governor, the invisible one, Christ, whom the eternal Father hath made head over all the Church, which is his body; the visible one, the Pope, who, as legitimate successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, fills the Apostolic chair.

It is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers that this visible head is necessary to establish and preserve unity in the Church. This St. Jerome clearly perceived and as clearly expressed when, in his work against Jovinian, he wrote: One is elected that, by the appointment of a head, all occasion of schism may be removed. In his letter to Pope Damasus the same holy Doctor writes: Away with envy, let the ambition of Roman grandeur cease! I speak to the successor of the fisherman, and to the disciple of the cross. Following no chief but Christ, I am united in communion with your Holiness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on that rock is built the Church. Whoever will eat the lamb outside this house is profane; whoever is not in the ark of Noah shall perish in the .flood.

The same doctrine was long before established by Saints Irenaeus and Cyprian. The latter, speaking of the unity of the Church observes: The Lord said to Peter, I say to thee, Peter! thou art Peter: and upon this rock I will build my Church. He builds His Church on one. And although after His Resurrection He gave equal power to all His Apostles, saying: As the Father hath sent me, I also send you, receive ye the Holy Ghost; yet to make unity more manifest, He decided by His own authority that it should be derived from one alone, etc.

Again, Optatus of Milevi says: You cannot be excused on the score of ignorance, knowing as you do that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was first conferred on Peter, who occupied it as head of the Apostles; in order that in that one chair the unity of the Church might be preserved by all, and that the other Apostles might not claim each a chair for himself; so that now he who erects another in opposition to this single chair is a schismatic and a prevaricator.

Later on St. Basil wrote: Peter is made the foundation, because he says: Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God; and hears in reply that he is a rock. But although a rock, he is not such a rock as Christ; for Christ is truly an immovable rock, but Peter, only by virtue of that rock. For Jesus bestows His dignities on others; He is a priest, and He makes priests; a rock, and He makes a rock; what belongs to Himself, He bestows on His servants.

Lastly, St. Ambrose says: Because he alone of all of them professed (Christ) he was placed above all.

Should anyone object that the Church is content with one Head and one Spouse, Jesus Christ, and requires no other, the answer is obvious. For as we deem Christ not only the author of all the Sacraments, but also their invisible minister ­­ He it is who baptises, He it is who absolves, although men are appointed by Him the external ministers of the Sacraments ­­ so has He placed over His Church, which He governs by His invisible Spirit, a man to be His vicar and the minister of His power. A visible Church requires a visible head; therefore the Saviour appointed Peter head and pastor of all the faithful, when He committed to his care the feeding of all His sheep, in such ample terms that He willed the very same power of ruling and governing the entire Church to descend to Peter’s successors.

Unity In Spirit, Hope And Faith

Moreover, the Apostle, writing to the Corinthians, tells them that there is but one and the same Spirit who imparts grace to the faithful, as the soul communicates life to the members of the body. Exhorting the Ephesians to preserve this unity, he says: Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; one body and one Spirit. As the human body consists of many members, animated by one soul, which gives sight to the eves, hearing to the ears, and to the other senses the power of discharging their respective functions; so the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church, is composed of many faithful. The hope, to which we are called, is also one, as the Apostle tells us in the same place; for we all hope for the same consummation, eternal and happy life. Finally, the faith which all are bound to believe and to profess is one: Let there be no schisms amongst you, says the Apostle. And Baptism, which is the seal of our Christian faith, is also one.


How do Protestants understand Jesus’ command to be one?

Protestants agree that unity is a mark of the true church, but they deny that this unity is institutional or the unity in government as defined by the catechism of Trent.  They believe that Jesus required a unity of faith, love, and hope.  Institutional unity may be useful and desirable, but it is not the unity that Jesus and Paul held in such high esteem.  Protestants point out that, in fact, a church may be institutionally one and yet fail to display the kind of unity that Jesus demanded.


You noted previously from Jesus’ words in John 17 that the unity of Christians must be visible.  How can this be if there is not one, visible institution?

John himself clarifies this elsewhere when he records more of what Jesus said on this topic.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Here Jesus teaches us how our unity is supposed to be a witness to the world.  Jesus wants His followers to love one another in such a way that this love, just like the unity in John 17, would be a visible testimony to the world.  By this, He said, people will know that you are My disciples.  He was not calling for one organization.


What does Paul mean by a unity of the Spirit?

By this phrase, Paul teaches us who is the cause of unity amongst Christians.  The unity of the Spirit means the unity produced by the Spirit.


So Paul isn’t really commenting on what true unity is he is simply telling us from where it comes. Thus, couldn’t he still be referring to an institutional unity?

If Paul understood Christian unity this way, then we must ask ourselves why so little effort was made by the first Christians to setup one organization embracing all Christians.  In the New Testament, we read next to nothing of any attempt at such organization.  Most of the congregations were completely independent of each other and made no effort towards uniting under one organization.


What do you mean by “a unity of faith, love, and hope”?

We mean;

  1. a unity of faith because we all believe the same fundamental doctrines;
  2. a unity of love because we all practice the same spirit of kindness, meekness, and forgiveness towards each other;
  3. a unity of hope because we are all waiting and expecting the same eternal life.


You stated above that a church can be institutionally one and yet not have the unity of the Spirit; how is this?

The government of the United States is institutionally one and yet we could hardly say that our government officials enjoy real unity. The division between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and socialists are deep-seated and often result in a good deal of bitterness and selfish maneuvering for power and influence.  The same can be said of many local churches; it might be one institution yet if the members do not relate to each other in truth and love, then they lack the kind of unity that marks true churches.

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