Unity and Diversity in the New Testament

Shane Rosenthal
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Mar/Apr 2001

In John 17 Jesus prays for his flock to “be brought to complete unity” (v. 23). Yet in Luke 12, he tells his disciples that he did not come to bring peace on earth, but division (v. 51). While often seen as two completely different and contradictory statements, they actually provide a window to explore the broader issues relating to unity and diversity in the New Testament. And this inquiry sheds light particularly on equipping modern Christians in their quest for biblical unity and for a more effective witness in the postmodern world.

First of all, it has to be said from the outset that Christianity is always going to be divisive, because the Gospel itself is an offensive message and a stumbling block to those who are perishing. This is, I think, Jesus’ point about bringing not peace on earth but division. “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:52). Their acceptance or rejection of the claims of Christ will divide members of a single household. Here the division is between believers and unbelievers. This type of division is a natural outcome of Christian proclamation and cannot be avoided simply because there will always be “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).

However, those who do accept the Christian faith are called to live together in unity. The way to resolve the two conflicting passages, then, is to recognize the two different subjects that Jesus was addressing. On the one hand, he was speaking about the Church, and on the other hand, he was speaking about the effect of Christian proclamation on the world. The failure to understand these different contexts often results in confusion, not only in biblical exegesis, but also in the way we live out our Christian lives.

The Call to Unity

Contemporary Christians in my opinion have not given enough attention to the character of the Scriptural call to unity. For example, notice what Paul emphasizes in his letter to the Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers… that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought”(1 Cor. 1:10). These are some very difficult words. Though we will never see absolute perfection either in our personal sanctification or in our unity together, perfection is nevertheless our attempted goal and aim for Christian unity. But notice how Paul says we are to be united. It is not a call to unity in emotions or feelings, nor merely in service, but rather, we are called to be perfectly united in our minds and our thoughts about God. Too often Christians of our age push aside all doctrinal differences in their quest for a “unity of the spirit.” But true spiritual unity is one that is based on the teaching of Scripture, and is therefore doctrinal.

When Paul tells us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices as a spiritual act of worship in Romans 12, the first directive he gives is that we should no longer be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (v. 2). One hardly thinks today that the first thing to do in order to become a living sacrifice is to work through a catechism or book of theology, but these are exactly the kinds of tools that were designed to transform our minds into Christian ways of thinking. And we are to think about the faith, not as isolated individuals, but as one body of believers. In the book of Ephesians Paul describes this as a “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God,” and with this content-oriented unity comes maturity and stability, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:13-14). Being united together in the faith is what prevents us from being divided by crafty or deceitful men. And it also protects us from ourselves. If, for example, we neglect mind renewal as a part of our spiritual act of worship and service to God, we will often remain in ignorance of much that God has revealed in his Word.

Peter warns us of this in his second letter, saying that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”(2 Pet. 3:16) A number of things need to be pointed out here. Peter admits that some sections of Scripture are “hard to understand,” but we are not to be like the ignorant who want everything to be simple and easy (see for example the complaint recorded in Heb. 5:11-12). Christian mind renewal is sometimes hard, challenging, and difficult, but not impossible. This is why Peter continues, “Therefore…be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:17-18). Peter’s antidote to ignorance is for us all to grow in grace and knowledge. This is what will prevent us from being carried away by lawless and divisive men. Jude in his epistle makes a similar point when he warns of “men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith….” (Jude: 19-20). The point is simply this: Ignorance leads to distortion and division; growing in faith and knowledge leads to maturity and unity.

Pursuing Unity in a Divided Church

So how are we to deal with the world in which we find ourselves given the fact that there are so many divided churches and denominations in Christendom? Where do we even begin? The first issue is to recognize that not every church that claims to be a church is a true Church. Or, to put it another way, there will always be some kind of division or another because there will always be lawless and divisive men, heretics, and distorters of the truth up until the day of consummation. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warns of men such as “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Notice that these men were not irreligious. They believed in the resurrection, for example, but according to Paul, they were to be rejected as heretics because they believed it had already happened. This is an important lesson. Paul, who tells us in many passages to pursue unity, here prefers division. Why? Because of very specific doctrinal issues. Sometimes, therefore, division is to be welcomed. There are many so-called churches in our own day that fall into this category. Whether Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Unitarian, or United Pentecostal, groups such as these by all accounts have so distorted the essentials of Christianity that as Paul says, they have given up the faith entirely.

The second thing one needs to keep in mind is that there are different kinds of true Christians. There are some who are wise in the faith and others who are infantile. Those weak in the faith include the newly converted (1 Cor. 3:1-2), those who are spiritually malnourished (Heb. 5:12-14), and those who are willfully ignorant (1 Cor. 15:34). These types of Christians are often “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14) because of their shallowness, instability, and immaturity, and this is often the cause of many church splits, factions, and the formation of various kinds of sects. Though many such churches are founded out of zeal for God, too often it is zeal apart from knowledge (Rom. 10:2).

Given this context, it is no wonder that we have thousands of different kinds of Christian churches in this country and around the world. Nevertheless, we must always remember what our goal is. We are called as a Church to be perfectly united in mind and thought. Christian dialogue and interaction from across denominational lines on substantive doctrinal issues is a very clear Scriptural command.

A Case for Denominationalism

One problem that many contemporary churches face is that they have neglected creeds, confessions, and the importance of doctrinal standards. But these are very useful tools that help Christians to see, with the wisdom of the ages, which doctrines are essential to the fabric of the faith, and which are not. The error of the Judiazers recorded in Galatians was so significant that Paul calls their message another gospel. But can perverted teachings about angels, for example, ever amount to this kind of condemnation? Probably not. It might be sinful, but it probably wouldn’t amount to an abandoning of the main articles of the faith.

The great thing about denominations with clear doctrinal standards is that you can know from the outset what are determined to be the essentials of the faith as they see it. If, for example, you commit yourself to a particular denomination with a confession of faith (such as the Three Forms of Unity, the Book of Concord, etc.), and a particular person begins teaching doctrine contrary to that standard at your local parish, you have an obvious solution. You can confront the individual by showing him that what he is teaching does not reflect the standards of your tradition, and if he is not receptive to you, your elders, or your pastor, the church should have the authority to discipline him by removing him from his teaching position and possibly face (if the issues are serious enough) excommunication.

Apart from this type of ecclesiastical affiliation it is very difficult to protect one from being “tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14, 1 Tim. 4:16). The simple truth is that it’s not enough to “just believe the Bible.” We need to understand the essential character of certain doctrines over against others. In many churches that have minimal statements of faith, often there is some kind of stand on, say premillenial eschatology, while at the same time there is nothing about an essential doctrine, such as justification by faith alone on account of Christ alone (the heart of the Gospel). However, in choosing a church tied to a confessional standard, care must still be given to make sure the standards are in accord with Holy Scripture (Acts 17:11).

Circles and Squares

At this point an important distinction should be introduced, a distinction that is as simple to grasp as the difference between circles and squares. And that is that Christians need to be cognizant of the fact that how they approach issues of unity and diversity depends largely on the particular setting in which they are. As you live and move in your own circle or confessional tradition, you are allowed to act in very concrete and dogmatic ways. As in the example previously cited, if a person teaches something contrary to what is expressly stated in your standards, that person can be disciplined. However, as you live and move outside the church walls and encounter people from other faiths and denominations, you are now in the arena of the public square. Here there is no such thing as a heresy trial or disciplinary charges. It is a place for Christians to talk openly and candidly about their faith with believers and unbelievers alike without threats or restrictions. In the circle, however, there are restrictions; one can be thrown out. But in the square, there is no “who’s in, who’s out”; one is always welcome for dialogue.

At first this may seem rather basic and obvious, but confusion over these things has been the source of numerous problems in the evangelical world. For example, because of their rejection of creeds and confessions, many evangelical churches as a result have little or no doctrinal standards by which to define the borders of their own circle. Often one is accepted at such churches if he or she qualifies merely as a “Bible believer.” The inescapable problem with this is that Hymenaeus and Philetus were Bible believers, along with the Pharisees and the Judiazers. Controversy erupted regarding what these men believed about the Bible, especially on the essential matters of the faith. So many evangelical Christians are left unprotected either from their own distortions of Scripture or from those who come to deceive and divide from the outside.

And while there is great confusion about what defines the circle at individual evangelical churches, at this same time there seems to be a lack of clarity about what defines Evangelicalism itself. Is it Reformed or Arminian, Lutheran or Wesleyan, Baptist or Pentecostal? Interestingly enough, the great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield complained over a century ago, “Nobody any longer seems to know what [evangelical] means. Even our dictionaries no longer know.” (1) The term in our day, even more so than in Warfield’s, has been emptied of its meaning because it has been used in too many different ways by too many different groups. There is simply no doctrinal core or binding center. How, then, can we evaluate whether or not someone is evangelical? Rather than answering this question, we should simply inquire whether or not a person is in good standing with his or her confessing tradition. If professed evangelicals teach or write something classically unorthodox, we should let such persons be responsible to their own church authorities and doctrinal standards rather than attempt to revoke the use of the word evangelical from their biographies. If a church body fails to discipline one of its members for teaching heresy in the public square, this will speak poorly of that particular circle.

So Christians have work to do to help their churches do a better job of defining their circles, and, at the same time, they need to understand that any work done outside those circles is in the public square. A big part of grasping this distinction is understanding the attitudes that characterize each forum. Jesus’ attitude toward the Pharisees, for example, was sometimes harsh and dogmatic (Matt. 15:12-14), but we must remember that he was speaking from within the circle, and his concern was the protection of the sheep. Paul gives similar instructions to pastors, writing that an overseer,

must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach (Titus 1:9-11).

Those in the Church who are teaching “unsound” doctrine must be refuted and silenced. Here the attitude is serious and inflexible. But this same apostle has completely different instructions for dealing with those outside the Church: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5-6). A good example of this is Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17. He does not merely say, as John the Baptist did from within the circle, “Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand,” but is much more subtle in his approach; he quotes their own poetry, interacts with their culture, and then proceeds to argue that the God of Israel has given proof to all men of his coming judgment by raising Jesus from the dead. This was a sermon in the public square. His goal was to win converts, not to silence heretics. Paul makes this distinction crystal clear in his first letter to the Corinthians,

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

Inside the circle, there are times when people need to be judged, and even expelled. But not in the public square. We are not to judge those outside the Church. This point was obviously lost on those picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was murdered because of his homosexuality, and many protesters carried signs among the grieving with slogans such as “Burn in Hell Fagot!” Contrast this approach with Paul’s instruction for the lifestyle of believers: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thes. 4:11-12). In fact, so concerned was this apostle about having a good reputation with outsiders that he even lists this as one of the qualifications of an overseer (1 Tim. 3:6-7).


If we are to follow the instructions of the New Testament, we must be concerned about Christian unity. There will always be some kind of division or another, but our goal is to be perfectly united in mind and thought with other believers. This requires a lot of hard work, and more attention, not less, needs to be given to focusing on the underlying doctrinal issues at the core of the division. Churches clinging to clear doctrinal standards and confessions have an obvious advantage because they already have defined what is and what is not essential. Churches without such standards should put time and energy into ironing out what doctrines they believe are most important in Scripture. Only when all these “cards” are on the table will discussions about doctrinal unity be fruitful.

Christians, especially evangelicals, need to give more attention to the text and context of their message. If the context is their own church/denomination, they need to “correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2) because the ultimate concern of this sphere is the care of the sheep (protection from division, and encouraging them toward unity in sound doctrine). But if the context is the public square, evangelism is the first concern. Here, one’s conversation should always be “full of grace,” not judgment, and individuals should prepare themselves to “know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). I am convinced that if this biblical distinction is recovered, we will begin to see greater progress toward Christian unity, and at the same time, greater effectiveness in evangelism. It is my prayer that God would grant us the grace and wisdom to achieve these ends in our time.

1 [ Back ] Warfield, B. B., "Redeemer & Redemption," The Princeton Theological Review, vol. 14 (1916): 177-201.
Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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