What Price Unity? (No 2)


Edward Gibbon, an English skeptic, wrote a scholarly history of the Roman empire.  His books have the title, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The books were published in 1880 and have probably been available all the years since.  Gibbon was very critical of some aspects of Christianity and yet he wrote of its rapid spread throughout the ancient world.  He listed five reasons why the church grew so rapidly, but I shall mention only one.  Gibbon said the church grew because of “the union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire (volume 1, p.380)


Gibbon used the word “union” whereas most of us would use the word “unity.” But was he right in saying that the church spread throughout the Roman empire because of union of the Christian republic? Unity may have been a very important factor; it would not be easy to prove that however.  But of this fact we can be sure: Unity may or may not spur growth; but division hinders growth.  Jesus knew division would stand as a barrier to men’s believing in him and obeying his gospel.  Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one as he and the Father are one that “the world may believe” that God had sent him. (John 17:20-21).Every person in my audience today surely knows how division and confusion have prevented men’s hearing and obeying God’s word.  Let us work then that division among the profession followers of Jesus Christ will simply disappear from the face of the earth. 


Nobody in the early church worked harder and prayed more for the unity of the Lord’s church that did Paul.  He preached unity at Corinth and severely condemned those who were causing division.  “And I, brethren could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.  I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto you were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able.  For you are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are you not carnal, and walk as men (1 Cor.3:1-3)? Did Paul mean that those causing division are carnally minded?  Is being carnally minded really serious?  “But to be carnally minded is death: but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be: (Rom. 8:6-7)


There are some preachers—even tragically among churches of Christ—who accuse faithful gospel preachers of being hindrance to religious unity.  Not many weeks ago, a preacher friend of mine told me of receiving a call from a denominational preacher.  The denominational preacher wanted to explore ways that all the denominations in town could work together.  But there was no basis for unity with those who wear human names, believe and practice the doctrines of men and follow human inventions.  We cannot unite with those who reject God’s plan for governing the church.  Human names, human creeds, human practices will have to be laid aside before true biblical unity can be achieved.


Let us examine as time permits some of the teachings and practices of churches of Christ to ascertain if we can forget about these teachings and activities for the sake of unity.  For example, we believe there is only one church, that is, only one which the Lord himself established.  Jesus never one time spoke of building churches.  He said, “Upon this rock,” that he is the Christ the Son of the Living God, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:16-18).  Recently, I heard a radio preacher urging his listeners, “Go to the church of your choice.”  Can you imagine our Lord’s telling men and women that?  Can you imagine the apostles’ teaching such soul-condemning error?  We are not to attend the church of our choice, but the church of the Lord’s choice.


In the plan for unity which Paul outlined in Ephesians 4:3-6, Paul said emphatically and dogmatically: “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4). Paul was even more emphatic when he wrote: 
But now are they many members, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:20)! The following passages tell us what the body is.  God “has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph .1:22-23). 
And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).


Is there any possibility of someone’s misunderstanding these simple Bible truths?  There is one body; the body is the church; so how many churches are there?  But there are thousands and thousands of denominations in the United States.  How could anyone say there is only one church?  My friends, who is our authority in religion?  Are we not to follow what our Lord revealed in his word?  On the basis of God’s word there is one church and only one church.  You and I may not know what that church is, but we know there is only one because that is precisely what the Bible says.


But are not all the denominations branches of the true church, as Jesus taught about the vine and the branches?  My friends, that would be one of the strangest natural phenomena in the history of the world.  We would have a vine which produces fruit of all kinds which you know cannot happen in the realm of nature.  Did not our God say in the beginning of time, all kinds of plants and animals will bring forth after their kind (Gen. 1:11)?  Does that principle apply only in the physical realm?  Does it not also apply to the church of the living God?  Is it possible to plant denominational error and produce a New Testament Christian?  If that can be done, we do not reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7-8).  But the principle of sowing and reaping is immutable.  Even if we could cease our emphasis on the one church for the sake of unity, would God be pleased with that kind of unity?  The Bible teaches that the Lord’s church was established on the day of Pentecost.  Can we sacrifice that belief to have unity?


The book of Ephesians teaches that salvation is in the church of the living God.  Many—if not most—denominational churches—deny that truth.  If churches of Christ are wrong about salvation in the church, they need to be shown where they are wrong.  If they are teaching the truth on that topic, will the denominations be willing to forgo their own positions and unite with churches of Christ on that truth?  Unity, according to the Bible is very desirable, but is it so precious that we will give up our beliefs and practices to be united? Is unity so great that we must compromise any truth to enjoy it?  Only the truth will make us free.  We cannot sacrifice that freedom for the sake of unity.


Can churches of Christ make any concessions on the gospel plan of salvation in order to have unity with our religious neighbors?  I would love to see genuine biblical unity throughout the world, but we cannot make any concessions on what God has revealed about human salvation.  When the Bible speaks explicitly on any topic, we have no right to change what God has revealed.  We must do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks unto God and the Father by him (Col. 3:17).  If we are not going to follow God’s plan for saving the world, what is the point to our religious devotion?  If we are involved in religion just to please ourselves, we will face the judgment of almighty God.


What area the non-negotiables relating to the biblical plan of salvation?  According to the scriptures, if men and women want to be saved, they must hear the gospel message.  “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent?  As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things: But they have not all obeyed the gospel.  For Isaiah says, Lord, who had believed our report?  So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:13-17). 


There is a move in the modern religious world—even among evangelicals—to attempt to include everyone in salvation—even if they never heard the gospel and know nothing about Jesus Christ.  According to these theologians, Jesus saves men on the basis of the light they have.  This view of salvation does not harmonize with what I have just read to you from Romans 10.  Neither can it be harmonized with the teaching of the book of conversations –Acts of the apostles.  If the New Testament means what it says—and it most assuredly does—then men must hear the gospel in order to be saved.  There is no salvation outside the kingdom of almighty God which is the church of the living God.  James writes, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all men who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  Can we give up the preaching of the word to have unity?


The gospel plan of salvation also includes believing in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, in the Bible as God’s word and in the God the Father.  Jesus taught:  “Let not your heart be troubled:  you believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). Paul and Silas instructed the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house” (Acts 16:31).  They then taught the jailer about Christ so he could believe in him (Acts 19:32).  Belief in Christ means more than merely believing.  We must believe, but if we believe only, our faith is not going to save us because it is dead faith (Jas. 2:17).  Paul instructed a young preacher: This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that you affirm constantly, that they who have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works.  These things are good and profitable unto men” (Tit. 3:8).  Are we permitted to de-emphasize faith in Christ or forget about it altogether for the sake of unity?  Here is the Lord’s answer to that question.  “Without faith it is impossible to please God: for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them who diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6).  If you want to learn the meaning of saving faith, read the Hebrew writer’s comments about Abraham (Heb. 11:8-10, 18-19). Nobody can get faith only from Hebrews 11.   


One of the major themes in the whole Bible is repentance.  God’s plan for saving man has always included genuine repentance on the part of all who would come to God to be forgiven.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ urged their followers: “Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2; 4:17).  Jesus said on one occasion: “Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:3). Two of Peter’s sermons to the Jews in Jerusalem are recorded in the book of Acts.  In his sermon on Pentecost, Peter commanded the Jews: “Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive he gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all who are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38-39).  On Solomon’s porch, Peter urged the Jews: “Repent and turn that your sins may be blotted out when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).  Paul also urged men and women to repent.  He said to the Athenian philosophers: “The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now command all men everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained, in that he has raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).  There are probably thousands of people in our world who would profess faith in God and in his Son—if they did not have to change their manner of life.  But can we forget about God’s commands to repent in order to fellowship some people?  Is unity so precious we are willing to forget some of God’s commands to attain it?


The scriptures require those who would become God’s children to confess their faith in Christ.  “If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.  For with the heart man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10).  When the alien sinner has heard the word of the Lord, believed it with all his heart, confessed the name of Christ before men, he is ready to be baptized into Christ for the remission of sins ( Acts 2:38).


So often our religious neighbors totally agree with what we teach on hearing the word of God, on believing in Jesus Christ and confessing that faith before men, but they balk on obeying the Lord in baptism.  Oh, they may practice baptism in some way, but they deny that baptism is essential to salvation.  They imagine that baptism is a work by which man earns salvation.  They are vigorously opposed to preaching works.  If baptism is a work, it is a work of God.  And who can examine the Bible’s teaching on baptism and think the act earns salvation to anyone?  I preach baptism for the remission of sins, but never have argued that a man can earn salvation by doing anything.  Did not Jesus teach, “so likewise you, when you shall have done all those things which are commanded of you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty” (Lk. 17:10)? My friends, if you were baptized every hour on the hour as long as you live, God would owe you nothing.  Your salvation would still be a gift.  “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:23).


If the Bible teaches baptism for the remission of sins and I can show you that, will you give up your doctrine of grace only and submit to the gospel plan of salvation?  But does the Bible make baptism a prerequisite of salvation?  Is baptism necessary for the remission of sins?  Please listen and make up your own mind.  I have read to you Acts 2:38, but then I was emphasizing repentance.  But let us look carefully at what the passage says about baptism.  “Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Will you admit that repentance is for the remission of sins?  If one’s sins are already remitted, why would he need to repent?  But whatever repentance is for, baptism if also for.  “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.”  But does not “for” mean because of? If it does in reference to baptism, it also does in reference to repentance.  But that does not make any sense—either logical or scriptural.  If they needed to repent to be forgiven; they also needed to be baptized to be forgiven.


But one does not have to know the meaning of the word “for” to arrive at the right position of baptism.  Ananias asked Saul, a penitent believer, “And now why are you waiting? Arise, and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).  What does baptism accomplish, according to this passage?  It washes away the sinner’s sins.  Can one be saved without having his sins washed away? 


In order to have unity among religious groups in the United States, should churches of Christ cease preaching baptism for the remission of sins?  Would that not be a price much too great in order to have unity?  We must preach and practice the truth of God’s holy book regardless of the reactions of the world around us.  


Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334