UNITY OF THE BODY: CHAPTER 5
Perhaps nothing in the New Testament is dealt with more extensively than the subject of unity among God’s people. Near the end of his earthly ministry Jesus prayed to the Father: “And the glory which Your has given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one… that the world may know that You did send Me” Jn 17:22-23).
Jesus’ concern for unity was evident from the very outset of his public life. Consider how he carried out his brief but eternally effective ministry When Jesus walked the earth, he knew that the world was perishing in darkness. He was acutely aware of the suffering and bondage in which most men and women lived. And he realized that his time on earth would be short.
Now, presuming that Jesus had the power to heal sickness and to set men free from bondage, what course of action might we have expected him to take? We know that he was full of compassion for the suffering of others. How should he have used his great wisdom and power to bring men to salvation? He could have held great healing and evangelistic rallies in an effort to touch and save as many people as possible. With the right organization and the right staff, he could have reached great portions of the earth. Or, he could have performed such clear and irrefutable miracles that every person watching would have known at once that God was in their midst.
However, Jesus used neither of these approaches. Instead, he gathered a small band of twelve disciples, one of whom he knew would betray him. Slowly and carefully he began to pour his life into them, bringing each into a relationship with himself. He walked with them, taught them eternal principles, answered their questions, and even rebuked them at times to help them master their fears and doubts. In short, he created a bond of unity with them and among them, one which would be vital if they were ever to accomplish the task he was to give them.
Many times the disciples must have felt tired and confused. They may even have felt like leaving the Lord and going their separate ways. But Jesus held them together. And, gradually, they began to realize who he was. “To whom shall we go?” Peter once asked after many of the Lord’s followers had walked away from him. “You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69).
After his death and resurrection, Jesus walked again with his disciples for a period of forty days, teaching and instructing them. Eventually, the time came for him to leave the earth and ascend to heaven. His disciples still had many questions to ask him and were reluctant to see him go. But Jesus had finished the essential work he had come to do. In his three short years of ministry he didn’t convert every person on earth, nor did he heal all who were sick. Rather, he opened a way of reconciliation. Through him, men and women could forever be reconciled to God, and lasting peace and unity between people became an achievable reality.
What was the significance of the Lord’s relationship with his disciples? What kind of relationships was he trying to create among his followers? Are the answers to these questions relevant for Christians today? Before responding, let’s digress for a moment and consider the role unity has always played in the affairs of this world in matters unrelated to God’s church.
The Principle of Unity
Without the principle of unity, men couldn’t have accomplished much of what they have in the last 200 years. Whether scaling Mt. Everest or travelling to the moon, a unified, collective effort — with each eye fixed firmly upon the goal — is essential from the start. Indeed, the greater the challenge, the greater the need for a unified, concerted effort.
Very early in human history men learned that a powerful force was released whenever their minds were unified around a common purpose. Genesis provides the evidence. “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words … And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city .. and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:1,4). What was God’s response to this united effort? “Behold, they are one people,” God declared, “and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6).
These men had recognized the power of unity. Though their purpose was motivated by pride, the principle of unity still worked for them. As long as they remained united in mind and purpose no one but God himself could keep them from accomplishing their goal. In the end, God destroyed their workmanship — removing their ability to communicate and demolishing the focus of their labors. Without communication, they couldn’t maintain even a semblance of unity. Thus, they were scattered to the ends of the earth.
Unity is an essential element of all successful human relations. Human beings are forced by necessity to sustain at least a minimum level of unity in order to prevent earthly affairs from bogging down in chaos and confusion. Even though such unity is based primarily on selfish motivations and a mutual need for survival, it does work.
A Higher Unity
There exists, however, a form of unity much higher and more powerful than the selfish unity achievable by men. God’s love, as manifest in the lives of his people, produces a unity and harmony of relationships that is not only powerful; it is something that brings glory to God himself. Unlike worldly men, who organize and unite around their own selfish ends, God’s people have been given a much higher purpose upon which to focus their lives — to glorify God and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ.
The day is coming when the church will finish God’s work on earth. As the prophet Habakkuk foretold, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). The church, functioning together in awesome, God-created unity, will play a vital role in the fulfillment of this task. Jesus says, “By this, all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Jesus knew that if God’s love took control of the lives of his followers, the world would witness a unity it had never seen before. “That they may be one, just as we are one,” Jesus prayed. “That the world may know that You did send me.” As this great love and oneness among God’s people begin to grow in this age, God’s truth will move across the earth in a way that will make the power and effectiveness demonstrated by the early church pale by comparison.
How did the unity that Jesus developed among his first disciples affect the course of the early church? Immediately after the Lord’s ascension, we see the very first example of New Testament church unity. “And it came about that while He was blessing them, He parted from them. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple, praising God” (Luke 24:51-53).
Though the disciples had been commanded by the Lord to go into all the world and preach the gospel, Jesus also told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. That power, in the person of the Holy Spirit, would provide the final link of unity between them and their Lord.
So, “these all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication … and when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 1:14, 2:1). Within hours, three thousand souls were added to the church. Never before had Jerusalem witnessed a spiritual movement of such magnitude. Scripture makes it plain that the three thousand new converts followed the example of those who had preceded them into God’s kingdom.
“And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:42-47).
The King James Version translates the words “everyone felt a deep sense of awe” in this way: “And fear came upon every soul.” This fear came upon all the residents of Jerusalem — not just the Christians. It was not a cowering fear, but a deep sense of awe and respect for the presence and power of God. The people of Jerusalem knew that the unity and love demonstrated by these early Christians was something that by themselves men could not have produced.
It’s true that displays of unity are not unknown to the world: army battalions marching in unison; large corporations with thousands of employees pooling their resources and skills, promoting their products across the world; teams of scientists exploring the mysteries of the universe. All these are forceful and impressive examples of unity.
However, men and women do not unite in the kind of selfless love and mutual care that was evident among the members of the early church unless God is involved. And so, when the unity of heart and mind among these early Christians poured into the streets of Jerusalem, people knew they were witnessing something supernatural; it was more than human beings were capable of on their own.
If God’s people today are going to affect the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ and make the presence of God felt in every nation on earth, this same kind of unity must be again manifested in the church. That is what Jesus so earnestly and painfully prayed for in His great high-priestly prayer to the Father:
This great prayer of our Lord reveals two simple but powerful truths about the church. As we experience the same kind of unity with one another that Christ had with the Father, two things will happen. First, the world will know that Jesus was truly sent from the Father. Second, the world will know that the Father loves us even as he loves his own Son. Before God’s work on earth can be finished, the unity Jesus prayed for must become a reality in the church.
Yet today’s church, far from testifying to God’s great love, often testifies to disharmony and strife — things the world knows only too well. The modern church is often perceived as scattered, splintered, and divided. What can be done? How can the unity Jesus prayed to become a reality, even in this generation?
Three things will help to create this deep oneness and unity in the church. First, Christians must have a common purpose. Second, what I call the five ministries of Christ must be active in the church. Third, the ministry of God’s priesthood in prayer must be operating.
1. Common Purpose
At the tower of Babel tremendous human power was released because its builders focused on a common purpose. In modern times, Hitler generated massive nationwide support for his hideous schemes because he held up a common purpose to Germany. Time after time the world has used the principle of a common purpose to achieve some vision or goal. Even when the vision was evil or selfish this principle worked for a time and produced results.
Conversely, Scripture makes it clear that where there is no vision the people perish. A nation with a common purpose is aggressive, strong and growing; a country whose people share no unified cause is weak and ineffective. Eventually, it will disintegrate.
This same truth applies to the church. It is desperately important that we in the church fix our eyes upon the common purpose God has given us. Yet, tragically, the church today is scattered and divided. “Our purpose is to build a large congregation,” one group insists. “Our purpose is to get ready for the Second Coming,” another answer. “Our purpose is to become holy!” yet another declares. There seem to be as many purposes as there are churches, with each group focused on some secondary vision or goal and all failing to see that the church’s highest purpose is to glorify God.
Second, goals obviously play an important part in God’s plan. God does want us to be holy; he may want us to build a large church; he surely wants us to be ready for the return of Jesus. But our primary and ultimate concern must always coincide with God’s central purpose for our lives. We are to please him, glorify him, and exalt his Son Jesus Christ.
“I ask on their [the disciples’] behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those who Your have given Me; for they are Yours … Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are… I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that You did send Me …. and did love them, even as You did love Me” (Jn 17:9,11,20-21,23).
His glory and the name of his Son must take first place in our thinking and plans. “Of course that’s God’s purpose,” we might say. “It’s obvious that we should live for God’s glory.” But unfortunately, this is not so obvious.
Too many Christians today are caught up with lesser purposes — with goals that are in themselves good, but which fall short of the central purpose of God. “How can we bring God glory?” should be the question on every Christian’s lips. “How can we fill our city and our country with his name? How can we join together to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ?” These must be the questions that consume us, the great purpose toward which all of our actions are aimed.
One problem in particular frequently keeps us from uniting around God’s purpose. Many of us have placed an exaggerated emphasis on doctrine. As a teacher of the Bible for many years, I believe that certain doctrines are critically important to the Christian faith. For instance, the doctrines that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus is Lord, that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin — all of these beliefs are vitally important. We should never waver in upholding the central truths of the Christian faith. However, it is tragic that so many minor issues and opinions have become great wedges of division in the body of Christ.
For example, I may preach a sermon in a particular place and someone present will come up to me afterwards and say, in so many words, “Aha, Jim Durkin! So that’s what you believe? Well, I want you to know that I took one of the Bible words that you quoted, and I studied it in the truest sense of the original language. I pulled every letter apart and got down to the very essence of its meaning. I reached the very nucleus of the word. Do you know what the word in the super-nucleus of the original Greek text means? It means “blxlbrklgw”. Therefore, because you said it means “oblxlbrvslw”, I’m not going to have anything to do with you or your church!”
When phrased in this exaggerated manner, such response appears both ridiculous and unnecessary, as well it should. How much better it would have been for this person to say, “Jim Durkin, I don’t like your preaching. But I would like to know you as a brother. Maybe we can work out our differences later.” Instead of looking so hard for things that cause dissension, we should be asking the Holy Spirit for a clearer revelation of God’s whole message. This revelation is what will produce a changed and productive life, one that brings glory to God.
Fear Causes Division
The real cause of division is not doctrinal differences, but fear. Most of the time, doctrinal differences merely act as a cover for the fact that we’re afraid of each other. But what are we afraid of?
We ministers are afraid of losing either our people or our position. Most often Christian people themselves are not afraid to come together. They love to meet brothers and sisters from other churches. But if fear and mistrust have been imparted to them by others, they will become suspicious of members of other churches. As a rule, leaders are the ones who are afraid. We think that we have to protect our flock, though it is often not our flock that we are protecting. We’re guarding our position and our security; we’re afraid that someone is going to take what we have. But if God gave us our ministry, and if he is the one upholding our authority and position, who can take it away?
Of course, genuine cases of attempts to overthrow a pastor or to remove people from a congregation by subversive methods do occur. This is an entirely different matter. Most of the time, division and separation result from unjustifiable fears, often on the part of church leaders.
When I speak of church unity, I do not mean that all independent churches and organizations should dissolve so that one great “super church” can emerge. That would be a tragic mistake.
Unity is a matter of the heart. I am convinced that we can work for the kind of unity Jesus prayed for while still maintaining our individual church structures. Organization in itself is not a bad thing; it is only harmful when it obstructs the Spirit of God and hinders the flow of love within the body of Christ.
How important it is that we ask God to free us from our fears. For without a genuine openness between churches and church leaders we will not only fail in our corporate goal of church unity, but we will be left without something that is vital to our spiritual maturity and growth — the influence of other parts of the body of Christ and of other ministries present in the church. Very simply stated, God, made us fit and work together. We need every gift that resides in every part of the body of Christ.
2. Five Ministries of Christ
Scripture tells us that when the Lord ascended into heaven “He gave gifts to men… He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:8,11). In short, the Lord gave something of himself to certain individuals and then gave those individuals to the church. He did this for a specific purpose: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).
For years, whenever I read this passage, I thought that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers had been given a three-part function: to perfect the saints, to do the work of the ministry, and to edify the body of Christ. But instead, I’ve learned that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers were gifts to the church for equipping and perfecting the saints, who in turn were to carry out the work of God on earth. Contrary to the traditional idea that ordained and seminary-trained ministers are the ones who “do the work of the ministry,”
Scripture says that every believer has an important ministry to perform. Indeed, each Christian is to do his or her work of ministry helping to build up the body of Christ. What will happen when God’s people, equipped by these gifts, do their work of ministry? The result will be a united, mature body, fully manifesting the Lord Jesus Christ.
All five of the equipping ministries of Christ — apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher — were present, of course, in the Lord himself. All the fullness of God dwelt in him. But it was not God’s plan to give all these gifts again to any one man. Rather, they were to be distributed throughout the church, each gift and ministry representing some facet or function of the Lord’s own ministry.
It is God’s design that we function together in harmony if we are to become a mature body, able to carry out his work. These five ministries must work together, equipping the saints, “until we all come … unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
As a final illustration of the vital importance of these combined ministries, let me use myself as an example. If I were ever to try to equip a group of God’s people by myself, I would not only impart the gift Jesus has given me, but I would impart many of my own weaknesses and faults. I would succeed only in producing saints who were immature and imbalanced. Even if I spent years carefully teaching only the right things, you would still conclude about those who had received my teaching: “They are Jim Durkin’s group”. Now, instead of one Jim Durkin, there are 1,000!
No matter how experienced we are and no matter how many trials and testings of maturity we’ve gone through, not one of us alone can properly equip the people of God. Only a composite of ministries can produce balanced and mature believers who are able to do the Lord’s work.
Tragically, though, many of these ministries have been ignored by the church for centuries. Until recent years, only the ministry of the pastor has been given official recognition and even then the pastoral ministry has been narrowly defined. To gain a complete picture of the ministry of pastor, we must look at Jesus himself who embodies each of the five ministries mentioned in Ephesians.
Jesus is the Great Pastor. Peter referred to him as the “Shepherd and Guardian of our souls” ( 11 Pet 2:25). A pastor is not one who merely shepherds the members of his congregation, taking care of all their pastoral needs. Rather, he imparts to them the loving, caring, and shepherding heart of the Great Shepherd, Jesus.
Similarly, the function of the Evangelist is to impart a unique aspect of the Lord’s nature to God’s people. His work is not simply to travel and win souls. He will do that, of course, but above all he is to instill the spirit of evangelism into the church, equipping Christians to win others to Christ. This is precisely what Jesus did with his disciples.
As with the other ministries of Christ, the gift of Apostle must also function in today’s church. Just as Moses understood God’s charge to build the tabernacle according to the pattern shown him on the mount (Heb 8:5), the apostle’s function is to build the church in accordance with the overall pattern presented in scripture. As “a wise master builder” (1 Cor 3:10), the apostle provides the broad and balanced plan into which all the other ministries and gifts can fit. He is not the builder or architect in an ultimate sense, of course. He is, however, one who envisions the church in a mature and complete condition. Like Moses, he is a servant in the house of which God himself is the builder and architect.
The Prophet, too, must play a vital role in equipping the church. The primary work of the prophet or prophetess is twofold: (1) to inspire the church by making it aware of the immediacy of God’s presence and (2) to confirm the work of the apostles. To do this, the prophet may speak, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, a revelation of God’s heart concerning some crisis or subject at hand (see Acts 11:28, 21:10). He may reveal the secrets of a person’s heart, thus attesting to the presence of God in the midst of his people (see 1 Cor 14:24-25). Or, he may foretell something of the future which is shown to him by God, thus providing a basis for making some decision or embarking on a course of action.
Confirming the work of the apostles by prophets is illustrated in Acts 15. Two prophets (Judas and Silas) were sent with Barnabas and Paul to confirm the brethren in Antioch (Acts 15:22-32). This confirmation by the prophets of the apostles’ work reflects the biblical truth spoken of in Ephesians 2:20, referring to the church as God’s household “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone.”
Lastly, it is the work of the Teacher to clearly comprehend and clarify the teaching of Scripture as well as to encourage the individual members of the body to search out for themselves the Word of God. As is true of all these ministry gifts, the teacher does not bring forth “new” revelation but merely expounds upon the truths already presented in Scripture. The canon of Scripture is settled. There are no new revelations or inspired words to be added to or considered equal to the Bible.
We also learn from the New Testament Scripture that a man may operate in more than one ministry. Paul, for example, called himself an apostle and a teacher (2 Tim 1:11). Peter referred to himself as both an apostle and an elder (I Pet 5:1). It even seems that a man’s ministry can change, as was the case with Barnabas. Called a prophet or teacher early in Acts 13:1, he was later called an apostle (14:4).
Because many of these ministries have been dormant or only partially exercised in the last several hundred years, our response should be one of inquisitiveness. Often, however, this subject is met with fear. “These ministries no longer exist in the church,” we hear it said. Or, “apostles and prophets are no longer a part of church structure.”
In our search for a full understanding and experience of Scripture today we must instead ask ourselves: “If Christ gave these gifts to the church until God’s people become perfect and mature, where are they? How can we be sure that they are given room to flourish and to complete their work?” If we sincerely desire to understand and to build the church according to God’s pattern, he will provide the answers.
Scripture makes clear that the Lord has given these five ministries — apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher — to equip the saints. But not just one or two of these ministries is sufficient to equip the saints. If God’s people are to mature, all five must work and flow together. For only in this way can the fullness of Jesus himself still function. Yet even a full combination of these five ministries, by themselves, cannot do a complete work.
Elders and Deacons
According to Scripture, in every local body, there should also be a group of godly elders, functioning in the fullness of their own ministries and working in harmony with these other five. Some in the five ministries might also be elders (like Peter), but men in the five ministries will not form the entire eldership of a local church. Scripture makes clear in 1 Timothy 3 that an elder should be a mature man of God, able to draw the respect of all who know him. His chief work is to set a godly example for the body. His home should be in order; he should be “temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.” He should also have the ability to see and act in harmony with the broad apostolic view of the church, guiding each member of the body for whom he is responsible to be balanced, mature, eager to serve.
In addition to godly, mature elders, every local church should also have deacons. Many churches, though, have no real understanding of what deacon means. In some cases, men are appointed deacons chiefly because they have pleasant personalities. But a deacon is far more than just someone who acts as a church secretary or janitor. A deacon or deaconess is one who serves. They serve the elders and other church ministries, lifting responsibilities and details from their shoulders to free them for greater service. They also impart to the church the same spirit of service that fills them. They are, above all else, examples, inspiring and leading each individual church member into a life of service (see 1 Tim 3:8-13).
The call to be a deacon or deaconess is one of the highest callings in the body of Christ. When our Lord took a basin and a towel and knelt to wash his disciples’ feet, he was acting as the great Deacon of God. “You call me Teacher and Lord,” he said to them, “and you are right; for so I am … you should also do as I did to you.” Jesus was among them as one who served (Jn 13:13,15).
For the church to be fully equipped, all five ministries need to be working in harmony, with elders and deacons, honouring and upholding one another in love. The result will be a church with saints prepared for their work of ministry, a united body carrying the gospel across the face of the earth.
It is important to note here that historically these ministries have never been absent from the church. They have simply been stifled and suppressed by the fears and traditions of men. Only when we have allowed these ministries to freely function again will we see the maturity in the church which they were intended to produce. Yet it will not be these ministries alone which will create unity; it will be every individual believer functioning together in the highest of all ministries — the priesthood of the believer.
3. The priesthood of the Believer
Today there are some who think that the highest office in the church is that of an apostle. They imagine a sort of ladder, starting at the bottom rung with a saint, and then moving up to deacon, then elder, and all the way up through the five ministries to the apostle.
One of the first conclusions every man with a true call to ministry must reach is that he is called to serve. The highest office in the body of Christ is not that of apostle or prophet, but it is the priesthood of the individual believer. Every Christian is called to be a priest.
The apostle Peter said, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). The primary purpose of any gift or ministry is to equip and prepare the saints for their highest calling — to be priests.
One of the most important aspects of this priestly ministry today is that of intercessory prayer, specifically, interceding to God for the fulfillment of the high-priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17. We must begin to pray, “Father, bring your church together, that the world may know you have sent Jesus and that you have loved us even as you have loved him.”
If that was the prayer of our Lord, the Great High Priest, then it must become the prayer of his earthly priests. We must begin to pray that God will heal the schisms and divisions in the body of Christ so that he will truly be glorified through his people on earth. One day Christ’s bride will have made herself ready and Jesus will have returned. There will be no more need for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers; their work will have been finished. But the ministry of the priesthood will go on forever, never ceasing to give praise and glory to God. Such is the value and importance of the highest ministry of all.
The Power of Unity
Much work remains to be done. The people of the world are not yet convinced that God sent Jesus into the world. Only as we begin to focus on our common purpose, to allow the ministries of Christ to operate freely, and to earnestly petition God, will the unity of power and love that Jesus prayed for be realized on this earth. That unity will be a witness to God’s truth and love that will resound to every corner of the globe. The supernatural power of God will be released across the earth and the “earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14).
We were created to glorify God. In this period of world history, God is determined to receive glory through his church. Individual believers will be conformed to Jesus Christ, the body of Christ will walk together in unity and love, and the glory of God will be spread to every corner of the earth.
For Reflection and Discussion
- Jesus sought to establish a kind of relationship among his disciples. Describe the relationship he wanted among them and why it was so important to his purposes.
- What is the difference between the unity that produces great human achievements and the unity that glorifies God?
- The author says that three things will help create unity in the church:
- 1) common purpose (that is, to glorify God);
- 2) the five ministries of Christ (see Eph 4:11) that equip believers to build Lip the church in unity;
- 3) and the priesthood of all believers (that is, all believers praying for the unity of the body). How have you seen any of these lead to a greater unity of the body of Christ?