“The union of a sect within itself is a pitiful charity; it’s no concord of Christians, but a conspiracy against Christ; and they that love one another for their opinionative concurrence, love for their own sakes, not their Lord’s.” (Joseph Glanvill)
I want to diverge just a bit from last post’s cliffhanger if I may. Consider this a parenthesis, then, on this matter of unity, with the question being, “what is real unity, and what is its practical expression?”
First of all, unity is not conformity. For a people to be one it is not required that they all think alike, act alike, dress alike, or anything else of the like. Unity is essentially a matter of the spirit, and its practical expression flows out of the union of our hearts with God through Christ.
Christ is the only force in this universe that brings true unity. Everything else in the world is one big conglomeration of sects, divisions, and conformities of every sort. Such is the nature of Babylon. Good news is that Christ laid low that system through His cross and established something in the earth that is anti-confusion and anti-division. We call her the church. Compare Genesis 11 with Acts 2 and you’ll see that the church is the reversal of Babylon. How ironic is it, then, that there exists all over this planet today a religious system that goes by the same name which is just as divided as the world?
The unity that Christ brings is a unity of hearts. It is the unity of the Spirit. It is not systematic or structural. It is the unity of a family. It is not something we must strive for, rather it is a reality in Christ which God has established and now invites us to realize and enjoy. Thus we are never told to create this unity, though we are told to keep it. “Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Paul says (Ephesians). This unity of hearts in Christ has a very practical expression, and that expression can be either kept or forfeited. As in a family, or better yet a marriage, this practical expression of unity is essentially the commitment to stick together. In a marriage there is not always the romantic sentiments that existed between two people in the beginning of their relationship. There is not always the fuzzy feelings and warm enthusiasms. These things may come and go, but the commitment to one another remains, and that is love in practical expression. It is not dutiful and rigorous, but it is real, and if this commitment gets thrown out the window when the warm feelings fade and tough times overshadow, then it may rightly be questioned whether there was any real love present to begin with.
How does this relate to the unity of the church, you ask? Well, the fact of the matter is that most groups of believers who decide to “do church” together don’t stick together for the long haul. Eventually there are conflicts, disputes, or the ebbing away of the original vision, and little by little the group disbands as the members move on to other pursuits. Now, that is the common scenario outside the institutional setting. The only difference inside the traditional setting is that the institution may remain while the faces constantly change as people come and go. Either way it is all a reflection of our attitude toward unity, and a result of the fact that we have yet to come home once and for all to the local expression of the church, to take the ground of unity in Christ and commit ourselves to one another in a practical display of love and oneness.
In short, present-day Christendom has traded in the unity of the Spirit, of the one Body locally expressed, for the unity of a sect. The best way I know how to illustrate this is to talk from my own experience. I used to look at unity differently than I do today. For years my understanding of unity was in keeping with what you might call the congregational view of church. The congregational view of church holds that any group of believers who come together with the expressed intention of being a “church” is therefore a church. This is the kind of view I referred to in my first post on this series where you hear men all the time talking about “starting a church.”
The only “church” known to scripture, however, is the church in a particular locality. In other words, it is the church in Thesslonica, or the church in Ephesus, or the church in Smyrna. One Body, locally expressed. God’s choice of locality is not county-wide, state-wide, or nation-wide, it is city-wide. For instance, think of the town in which you live. There are a certain number of people who know and follow the Lord Jesus Christ residing in your particular locale. These people make up the church in your town. That is how God sees it. How beautiful a thing it would be if that is how we would see it, and better yet, practice it!
Believe it or not, this is how the Body of Christ once expressed herself in keeping with the unity of the Spirit, and though the situation in most if not all of our localities is in utter ruin, there may yet be hope for restoration! I warn you from my own limited experience, though, that the way is a costly one. It demands forbearance, infinite patience, the surrender of our rights and “freedom”, and for some of us the giving up of our insatiable desire to be leaders of God’s people. In all actuality it is an impossible task. But I say through God’s grace let us get caught trying!
Anyway, I’m starting to digress. This is the church as God sees her. She is local. The Body of Christ worldwide is made up of all those everywhere who place their faith in Christ, yes, but when I talk about the churches I’m talking about the local expression of that one Body. And according to the pattern shown in scripture this expression is city-wide. When Paul instructed Titus to ordain elders in every church on the island of Crete, in the very same letter he told him to ordain elders in every city, thus showing that Paul’s view of the church was city-wide. As Watchman Nee pointed out, the boundary of the local church is the city in which that church is located. Anything larger than the city (as in a denominational system of “churches” or the Roman Catholic church) is not the church, and anything smaller than the city (as in the many independent “churches” and groups) is not the church.” The local church is the meeting together of all the believers in Christ who reside in your and my town, period. Nothing more and nothing less.
The biblical definition of a sect, therefore, is any group of believers who come together on any lesser ground than that of the one Body locally expressed. Am I being clear in saying that? This is what I mean by saying that present-day Christendom has traded in the unity of the Spirit for the unity of a sect. This was my personal attitude toward unity for many years. I always knew somehow that unity was important, but my view of the church was all skewed, so my perception of unity was off as well. Being reared on the congregational view of church with no understanding of what the local church really was, the only unity I concerned myself with was the unity of the little group that I was part of. It didn’t matter to me what was going on in that other group of Christians down the street, nor did it matter that I didn’t even know them, despite the fact they were brothers and sisters in the same Body and same town. If things were good in my little group I felt there was unity among the Body and therefore all was well in the Kingdom. All the while I failed to recognize that the group I was part of was not a church at all but a sect… only a section of the church in my town rather than the church herself. And to refer back to the beginning quote by Joseph Glanvill, “The union of a sect within itself is a pitiful charity; it’s no concord of Christians, but a conspiracy against Christ; and they that love one another for their opinionative concurrence, love for their own sakes, not their Lord’s.”
Well, that’s it for the moment. You’ll have to forgive me if this post was a bit anti-climactic, but it was only a parenthesis after all. I realize I may only be raising more questions with each post, but stay with me if you’re interested. These issues are very near and dear to my heart, and hopefully there are at least a few answers on the way!