Ephesians 4:4 requires every Christian to endeavor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This exhortation assumes that Christian unity comes from the Holy Spirit. Christians do not create unity, but Christians can either damage it or maintain it.
Parachurch organizations often specify the kind of churches to which they want their people to commit. For example, training institutions may specify the kind of churches that they will permit their students to attend. By stating which churches their people may attend, these institutions are also saying what kind of churches they forbid. They are imposing a level of separation upon their people. The question is whether these separations impair the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. If they do, then they are schismatic and sinful. If, however, such separations are sometimes warranted, and if they do not necessarily damage the unity of the Spirit, then they may well constitute one way in which biblical principles about Christian fellowship can be applied to real-life situations.
What are those principles? One is that unity is always a function of that which unites. Fellowship is always a function of what is held in common. To claim unity without a unifying factor, or to claim fellowship without actual commonality, is contrived and hypocritical. Christian unity can never stand upon a foundation of hypocrisy.
Another principle is that the quality of unity is defined by the thing that unites. Unity and fellowship can be defined as Christian only when the right unifying factors are held in common. What are these? The answer to this question is not entirely straightforward. Christian unity exists at more than one level, and what unites Christians at one level may not unite them at another. All Christians can and should experience what might be called minimal Christian unity. They should also strive toward increasing levels of unity and fellowship, culminating in the “unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). In other words, Christian fellowship occurs along a sliding scale from minimal to maximal.
Minimal Christian unity is defined by the gospel. Common belief in the gospel is what unites all genuine Christians, constituting them as one flock (Jn. 10:16) and the one body (1 Cor. 12:13). Of course, finite humans cannot infallibly judge whether someone actually possesses genuine faith in the gospel, but they can judge whether someone else professes faith in the genuine gospel. Profession of the true gospel is the minimal requirement for the demonstration of Christian unity and fellowship. All those who profess faith in the gospel should be recognized as fellow Christians unless their profession is belied by their conduct.
What about maximal Christian fellowship? This form of unity is created by common possession of the faith, i.e., the system of doctrine, affection, and practice that was revealed by Christ through his apostles, embodied in the Scriptures, and handed down through the generations of faithful Christians. The closest possible Christian fellowship occurs when people or institutions are fully committed to the same vision and practice of the system of faith.
Between minimal and maximal Christian fellowship are many levels of Christian mutuality and communion. These range all the way from simple, personal fellowship to local church leadership, including (e.g.) discipleship, collaboration, targeted cooperation, and church membership. Some levels of fellowship pertain to the relationship between churches, some to the relationship between individuals, some to the relationship between churches and individuals, and some to organization that occurs outside the local church.
Fellowship and separation are inversely proportional to one another. Among those who profess faith in the true gospel, some level of fellowship is always possible. Among those who disagree about the system of faith, complete fellowship is never possible. In general, the more of the faith that Christians hold in common, the greater is the possibility for fellowship between them.
Christians who experience differences over the system of faith must choose between limiting their message and limiting their fellowship. They limit their message by setting aside those aspects of the faith over which they differ. This response can be chosen only when the difference does not actually affect the level of fellowship that is at stake. Otherwise, they must limit their fellowship. Indeed, if either party considers the difference too serious to set aside, then limiting fellowship is the only remaining alternative.
It is impossible for every Christian to fellowship with every other Christian at every level. Consequently, decisions about fellowship and separation are necessary. These decisions must be made by weighing several factors. One factor is the level of fellowship that is being contemplated. A second involves the extent and importance of the agreements (or disagreements) between parties to the proposed fellowship. A third involves the attitude of both parties toward the differences that they experience.
Both individuals and churches must make decisions about fellowship and separation. So must institutions such as seminaries. For a Presbyterian seminary to hire a Baptist ecclesiology teacher would be destructive and hypocritical. Furthermore, if the purpose of the seminary is to produce Presbyterian ministers, then it should require its students to be members of Presbyterian churches.
In general, this principle applies to whatever distinctives characterize the institution—including its understanding and implementation of the doctrine of separation. When an institution is committed to a particular understanding of the faith, then it has a right to expect its people to reflect their commitment to its ideals in their choice of church membership. Not only is this procedure not divisive, it may well be the best way of maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
A committed Baptist and a committed Presbyterian could never plant a church together without conflict. They must separate at that level. Nevertheless, they may still love one another, pray for one another, and wish for God’s blessing upon each other’s ministries. That is a form of unity and fellowship. Neither fellowship nor separation is necessarily exclusive (except when the gospel is at stake). Sometimes recognizing the necessary separations is the best way of safeguarding fellowship in those areas in which it is still possible.
When separation at any level becomes necessary, the fault lies with the brother who has departed from some aspect of the faith. The problem is that none of us believes that we are the ones who have left the faith. At minimum, we should credit our brethren with trying to uphold the faith as they understand it, even when we must separate from them.
If a school forbids its students to attend a church for petty or political reasons, then it is damaging the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Not all reasons, however, are petty or political. Some may be tied to the school’s understanding of the faith and its commitment to reproduce that understanding in its students. To require that students covenant with churches that agree with the institution’s distinctives is actually to seek the unity of the faith. By itself, it need not damage the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
O God, No Longer Hold Thy Peace
The Psalter, 1912
O God, no longer hold Thy peace,
No longer silent be;
Thine enemies lift up their head
To fight Thy saints and Thee.
Against Thy own, whom Thou dost love,
Their craft Thy foes employ;
They think to cut Thy people off,
Thy Church they would destroy.
Thy ancient foes, conspiring still,
With one consent agree,
And they who with Thy people strive
Make war, O God, with Thee.
O God, Who in our fathers’ time
Didst smite our foes and Thine,
So smite Thy enemies today
Who in their pride combine.
Make them like dust and stubble blown
Before the whirlwind dire,
In terror driven before the storm
Of Thy consuming fire.
Confound them in their sin till they
To Thee for pardon fly,
Till in dismay they trembling, own
That Thou art God Most High.