Posted by: Moses | April 27, 2010

Christian Unity and Liberty: Part 1 of 4

Throughout redemptive history, God has crafted a singular people for himself. One of the deepest mysteries of the redemptive story was God’s unveiling of the grafting in of the Gentiles to God’s singular people (Rom 11:25, Col 1:24-27 ESV). All are united to Christ. Something precious, a unity among brothers, rests in the unity in Christ. In the words of the Psalmist, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps 133:1 ESV). In Ephesians Paul relates the essential reality of believers’ union; they are united whether they like it or not (Eph 4:4–6 ESV). Furthermore, the Lord does not just reveal essential, ultimate union but also a present reality of unity. Paul values this existential unity, the fruit of essential, redemptive historical unity, encouraging His listeners to strive to preserve it through humility. Before describing the fundamental oneness of Christianity in Ephesians, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling…with all humility and gentleness…eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1–3 ESV). Lloyd-Jones goes so far as to say that “our first and chief concern as Christians should be to guard and to preserve this precious, wondrous unity of the Spirit . . . . We must ever feel that our first duty is to guard this unity, to preserve it at all costs.” Paul boasts in the Philippians as completing his joy by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2 ESV).

Often, unity and truth are juxtaposed against one another as if they were antithetical. On the contrary, Paul argues that true unity is founded upon true doctrine. In Ephesians 4, because of the theological reality of unity, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to preserve their existential unity. If believers are united in Christ, a relationship that depends upon the truth of the gospel and the promise of God, then they cannot be united apart from that truth. Lloyd-Jones relates that one “cannot have Christian unity unless it is based upon the great doctrines outlined in [Ephesians] chapters 1 to 3 . . . it must be based upon an understanding of the truth.” If Christians are united in some sense apart from that truth, they are not united as Christians but through some other bond. This explains a bit of Paul’s seemingly bipolar application of extreme efforts to preserve unity in some passages and intentional, flagrant division in others. Apart from Christ, sinners are hopelessly bound to their own selfishness, pride, and consequent alienation from God and arguably from any true fellowship with their fellow man (Col 1:21; Eph 2:12, 4:18 ESV).

Though unity is founded upon truth, unity is also worth preserving even above some aspects of the truth. In this tension is the rub. One must not jettison the foundation to attempt to retain a cornice. Though often called “Christian liberty” as if an independent doctrine, differences in practice and minor differences in doctrine seem to fall squarely under Paul’s broader teachings on unity within his corpus. Though Ephesians 4:1-7 and Philippians 2:2-7 and other passages technically deal with the preservation of unity, they take the form of a general exhortation toward unity when no specific abuse has been committed. Consequently they have little value for weighing Paul’s value on preserving unity in comparison to doctrine or practice. However, three primary passages in Paul’s writings deal with the preservation of unity when other valued concepts are also in play: 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21 concerning nuances of theology, Romans 14:1-15:6 concerning Christian practice derivative from Scripture, and 1 Corinthians 8-10 concerning Christian practice and engagement with culture. Through these passages, Paul teaches a rather comprehensive doctrine that believers should preserve their existential unity in the gospel even at the expense of liberty in their practice of the gospel or an exhaustive agreement on doctrines derived from the gospel.

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Responses

  1. Sounds good to me. LMNL


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