Attributes of the Church: Unity
Taken from forthcoming book, Daily Doctrine by Kevin DeYoung, Copyright © 2024. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
Most of us have thought about the attributes of God, those qualities and characteristics that describe the Godness of God. But fewer Christians have considered the attributes of the church. Fortunately, many of us have learned these attributes without realizing it. The Nicene Creed confesses: “We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The four attributes of the church are found in that one sentence: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.
Because God is one, the church is one (John 17:11). Though diverse in many ways (1 Cor. 12:4-31), the church is bound together as one body. The dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been torn down (Eph. 2:14-18), and by that same unifying blood of Christ other estranged peoples can be reconciled in Christ. So important is the unity of the church that Jesus made it a central theme in his high priestly prayer (John 17:21).
The unity of the church is not primarily external, but internal and spiritual in character. That is to say, the presence of many congregations, or even many denominations, may not necessarily be a violation of “one” church. Not all divisions are schismatic. Many are caused by unavoidable differences in language, culture, and location. Berkhof puts it well: “It is quite possible that the inherent riches of the organism of the Church find better and fuller expression in the present variety of Churches than they would in a single, external organization (Systematic Theology, 574)”. Moreover, according to the Apostle Paul, some factions—when the result of moral laxity or theological heterodoxy—can be an occasion for true Christians and true churches to stand apart from false counterfeits (1 Cor. 11:19). The oneness of the church depends upon the church also being holy, catholic, and apostolic.
The logic of Ephesians 4:1-16 is crucial. Unity is a relational good we are called to maintain where true spiritual unity is already present. Having just finished explaining how the mystery of the gospel brings together Jews and Gentiles, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). All true Christians, at all times and in all places, share in one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (4-6). This is what theologians call the essential unity of the church. Paul wants the Jews and Gentile Christians in Ephesus to get along because, despite their historic, ethnic, and cultural differences, they have these deep, essential, spiritual realities in common. The goal, then, is to be patient with each other and bear with one another in love (v. 2).
There is no unity of the Spirit cannot exist without a shared allegiance to our one Lord Jesus Christ and a shared commitment to our one faith (v. 13). If we do not share “one faith” with Mormons or liberals or Unitarians (and we do not), then we have no unity to maintain. Paul celebrates unity in the midst of diversity, but the diversity is not theological. Unity is something true, orthodox Christians have in Christ; something we strive to maintain in the church; and something we grow into now and in the future (v. 13).