Striving for Unity


“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Psalm 133:1

Ephesians 4 begins the second major section of Paul’s letter, where he begins to apply the great theological truths expounded in the first three chapters. This is typical Pauline style: doctrine before duty. Considering God’s sovereign work of grace in calling us to salvation, we should therefore live a life worthy of that calling. The word “worthy” in Ephesians 4:1 is the basis of our English word “axiomatic” and refers to that which is obvious or self-evident. In other words, living a life worthy of the grace we have received should be obvious to every Christian.

Paul begins the application with an appeal to unity. While I am deeply grateful for the unity of our church, I know that we are not perfect and that there have been and will be times when we struggle to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3) To do that we need to remember three great truths about church unity:

1. It requires a proper heart attitude.

Church unity cannot be forced by regulations or created through organizational structure. You cannot guarantee church unity just because it’s listed as one of the core values of your church. It begins in our hearts. The first attitude mentioned by the apostle is humility, which is the soil from which all Christian graces spring. The Bible says clearly that “only by pride comes contention.” (Proverbs 13:10) That being true, it follows that only through humility comes unity.

Our souls are so flawed, our natures so corrupted by sin, that we can never fully know our own hearts. For it is that moment when we start to feel humble that pride begins to tighten its grip. When we receive recognition for something offered in Christ’s service and indulge a slight feeling of self-contentment, it is then that Satan begins to whisper prideful thoughts in our ears.

The other two attitudes mentioned that flow from a humble heart are gentleness and patience. Gentleness is strength under control. It is that quality that restrains and keeps us from reacting when it’s within our power to do so. Patience is simply making allowances for the failures and short-comings of others.

The bottom line is always Christ. “Not I, but Christ” whose example points the way to true unity. Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8) We need to be careful because ego is always there, lurking to take some crumb off the table of grace as if we, in some small way, deserve it. Therefore, unity begins with humility that produces gentleness and patience.

2. It’s Based on Sound Theology

Christian unity is never a peace-at-any-price proposition. And when it comes to the Christian life, ethics are inseparably linked to theology. Proper Christian attitudes and conduct flow out of a proper understanding of biblical theology. In Ephesians 4:4-6, Paul presents the trinitarian creed which expresses the perfect unity within the Godhead. He states that there is one body, the church, by which we are placed by the Holy Spirit who is the seal of our hope.

Then there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, one body of truth that in centered in the person of our Lord Jesus, and one baptism by which believers publicly identify with his death, burial, and resurrection. Finally, there is one Father, sovereign, transcendent, immanent, rules overall and works all things after the counsel of his will.

Compromising fundamental truths for the sake of unity always results in unholy alliances. When churches or denominations set aside the true gospel in search of theological common ground, it creates an unhealthy theological minimalism. Unity in the church must be safeguarded by the teaching and preaching of sound doctrine.

3. It’s a Pleasing Aroma to God.

Finally, unity within the local church body is a source of great blessing. It blesses us, and it blesses God. “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1) David compares unity to the holy anointing oil poured over Aaron’s head that flowed down his beard onto the collar of his high priestly robe. Thus anointed, he would venture into the Holy of Holies to offer atonement for the people and the wonderful fragrance of that concoction would ascend to God as a “pleasing aroma” to him. The point David makes in Psalm 133 is that unity among God’s people like perfume and “smells” good to him.

Paul’s challenge for you and me to make every effort to guard the unity of the Spirit is threefold. First, humbling ourselves before God, counting others more significant than ourselves. (Philippians 2:3) Second, striving together for the faith of the gospel, realizing doctrine must take priority over personal preferences. And then, remembering that unity is a sweet-smelling fragrance to God. It pleases him, blesses us, and enhances our witness before the world.

In order to maintain unity we need to remember three great truths about church unity.