The unity of the church

The second in a series of essays on the subject of unity. John Woodhouse examines what it means for the church to seek unity here on earth. (Read part one and part three online.)

The ecumenical dream

The ecumenical movement is defined by The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as “The movement in the Church towards the recovery of the unity of all believers in Christ, transcending differences of creed, ritual and polity”. The modern ecumenical movement is generally understood to owe much to the Evangelical revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which so powerfully crossed national and denominational boundaries.

However, the ecumenical and the evangelical movements through the twentieth century took very different paths. Put simply, but I do not believe unfairly, the focus of the ecumenical movement has been on visible unity of an organisational kind; the focus of the evangelical movement has been on the gospel, which both unites and divides. The difference Expresses two profoundly different understandings of Christian unity. Today evangelicals need to recover a clear appreciation of what gospel unity means. This is the concern of these three essays.

Over time the evangelical movement itself has become more and more disparate. As we saw in the first of these essays (December 2001, Briefing #279), evangelicalism has come to understand itself less ‘confessionally’ because at the level of doctrine there is less agreement. The search is on for an understanding of evangelicalism, which can embrace a wide spectrum of doctrinal belief, Christian practice and spiritual Experience. However we also saw that a concept of unity that is not based on agreement in the gospel is not the unityof which the gospel speaks. I believe that the evangelical movement has begun to tread the path already traversed by the ecumenical movement, about half a century behind.

In some ways this has been a consequence of ‘success’. When evangelicalism was small and institutionally weak, it was easy enough for it to be united around common belief in a common gospel. As more and more people have identified with evangelicalism, and as evangelicalism has come to dominate numerically many institutions and to occupy positions of responsibility in them, the uniting power of agreed belief has become difficult. Disagreements are inevitable: we are human. The more of us there are the more disagreements there will be, and as time passes the deeper some of these will become. The contention of these essays, however, is that most serious consequences follow when evangelicals allow gospel unity to be displaced by ecumenical unity.

The two views of unity (which I will call ‘ecumenical’ and ‘evangelical’) produce two different understandings of the church. As an ecumenical understanding of unity began to displace the evangelical understanding, some evangelicals Expressed unease at their inadequate doctrine of the church. Evangelicals began to develop an understanding of the church more amenable to the concept of unity they had begun to embrace. Just one Example: the official statement of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in Nottingham in 1977 includes: “The church on earth is marked out by Baptism, which is the complete sacramental initiation into Christ and his body.”1 The purpose of this essay is to reaffirm an evangelical doctrine of the church, based on an evangelical understanding of gospel unity.

The gospel builds one church

Jesus promised “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18).

This promise was made in the context of Peter’s recognition of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Jesus’ words echo the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7 concerning his son, who will be God’s son: “He is the one who will build a house for my name” (2 Sam 7:13). Jesus’ promise, “I will build my church”, is therefore not incidental to his role as Messiah. He is the promised son of David who is the Son of God who will build a house for God’s name: he will build his church.

The church that Jesus is building, therefore, corresponds to the Old Testament temple as antitype to type, or substance to shadow. The essential background of Jesus’ promise, “I will build my church”, includes the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC, the prophets’ promises of a new temple (most strikingly Ezek 40-48, but also many other promises that God will “rebuild”), and the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

What then is this church, and how is the Lord Jesus building it?

The metaphor of ‘building’ (or, as it is often translated, ‘edification’) becomes very important in the New Testament. The ‘building’ work is gospel preaching. So Paul committed the Ephesian elders“to God and the word of his grace, which is able to build …” (Acts 20:32). Paul described himself as an “Expert builder” who in Corinth laid the foundation, namely Jesus Christ. Others were building on it. But each had better be careful how he builds; he must measure his building work by the one and only foundation (1 Cor 3:10-11). The ‘building’ itself is the consequence of gospel preaching: the church.

In a mixture of metaphors Paul describes the result of this building work:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets [i.e. the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets], with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)

Here we have “members of God’s household,” “the whole building,” “a holy temple,” “a dwelling”.

These are metaphors. What is the reality? Where is this household, this building, this temple? What is it? These questions are answered in the context of the passage just quoted.

a. The church is the gathering God is gathering to himself

The various metaphors in Ephesians 2:19ff represent the reality that is consequent upon verse 18: “For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18).

God’s household, this holy temple, consists of Jews and Gentiles because:

His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Eph 2:15b-16)

In other words, these and many other expressions in the New Testament—including ‘church’—refer to the gathering that God is gathering to himself. The word ‘church’ translates the Greek ekklesia which in turn translates the Hebrew kahal. The Old Testament recalled “the day of the kahal,” “the day of the assembly,” when God brought the people to himself at Mount Sinai (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16; cf. 5:22). We saw in the last study how the Old Testament experience of Israel involved their subsequently being “scattered” as a result of their apostasy. Then there was the prophets’ promise that God would one day again “gather.”

The gospel is the fulfilment of those promises, and the ‘church’ is the consequence. It is called in Hebrews 12, “the heavenly Jerusalem”, “the city of the living God”, “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven”. And it is to this church that the readers of Hebrews 12 are said to have “come”.

We might therefore regard the word “church” in this sense as itself a metaphor—a metaphor for those who have come into the relationship to God of ‘sons’, those in whom God’s Spirit now dwells, those who by that Spirit have the same access to God.

This church is real, and our membership of it is as real as our relationship with God. However it is not a physical, or visible reality. It is known by faith. This church is not to be identified with, and is in no way dependent upon, any institution in this world. Jesus is building this church on the foundation already laid.

Peter was speaking of this church (without using the word ‘church’) when he wrote to “God’s elect scattered through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1):

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 2:4-5)

The scattered believers did not belong to any physical gathering or organization in this world, but they belonged together by virtue of having come to Christ, the living capstone. Many of them may never have met, but they were being built into the one “spiritual house”.

b. This church is the end, not a means to an end

Understood this way, it follows that this church is the end, the goal of God’s purposes, not a means to some other end.

Put another way, the church is what results from the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, rather than being the instrument or agent of that preaching. The work of the gospel is the building of this church, rather than the work of this church being something else beyond itself.

This church does not therefore have a ‘mission’. It is the outcome of God’s mission. This church is where the unity of mankind, which was the purpose of the creator from the beginning, is re-established on its proper foundation.

This church is ‘seen’ in the gathering of believers

Where members of God’s household, who now share the one Holy Spirit and are sons of the one Father, come together into one another’s company, to meet with each other, to meet together with their Lord, to continue to be built into the church that Jesus is building as they speak the word of Christ to one another, there you get a glimpse of the church that Jesus is building. There the church that Jesus is building can be ‘seen’.2

Notice that it is not the church because it is 11 am on Sunday morning and the notice board outside announces that ‘church’ is on at that time. The gathering of believers is the church because it is the gathering of those in that place whom God has gathered (and is gathering) to himself.

PT Forsyth captured this point like this:

It is not strictly correct to speak of the Corinthian Church, but of the Church of Corinth, as it comes to the surface there. And the Church in a private house was as much the Church as the whole Christian community of Corinth.3

This is the most common use of the word ‘church’ in the New Testament. In this sense, of course, there are many ‘churches’—many placeswhere God has gathered people to himself—so that when theselocal gatherings are referred to collectively, they are not ‘the church’ but, for example, the “churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16). The word ‘church’ in the singular applies either to the one church, the spiritual house, which is not seen, or a local gathering in a particular place. The common modern expression ‘the New Testament church’ or ‘the early church’ where the singular ‘church’ is used collectively for the churches of the period, has no parallel in any New Testament writer.4

a. The visible and the invisible church

The two senses in which I am suggesting the New Testament speaks of the ‘church’ seem very close to the Reformers’ distinction between the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ church.

As JI Packer has pointed out, it is important to understand that the Reformers did not think that they were talking about two churches when they distinguished between the visible and the invisible church—the ‘real’ church which is invisible, and the ‘visible’ church which is not really the church at all. Rather ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ referred to two aspects of the one church: “that which it wears to the eyes of men, who see only the appearance, and that which it has to the eye of God, who looks on the heart and knows things as they are, and whose estimate of spiritual realities, unlike ours, is unerring.”5

However, what I am suggesting here is an understanding that goes further than the Reformers in the emphasis that the ‘visible’ church is the actual gathering of believers in a particular place.

b. When is a church a church?

When, then, is a church a church? The classic ‘marks’ of the church are an attempt to answer that question. Article 19 of the Thirty Nine Articles is difficult to improve on:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The language may suggest a formality and structure that is not essential. However, a gathering of people of true faith in God is a church. Such a gathering will of necessity have the word of God spoken, and such a gathering will act in accordance with Christ’s commands.

My point is that the church is complete wherever two or three have been gathered by God to himself by his word. The trappings that we have added, and now associate with ‘church’, do not add anything essential—or even important—to the reality of church. We must stop thinking that the home Bible study group is less church than the gathering at 11 am on Sunday. The home Bible Study group or any other gathering of believers in the name of Christ lacks nothing of any consequence as the church of God.

Of course, conversely, a gathering of unbelievers, who have not been gathered by God to himself, who are not sons of God, and where the word of God is not heard, is not a church, no matter how many ecclesiological credentials of ‘apostolic succession’, liturgical magnificence, irreproachable order,impeccable denominational credentials are claimed. Nothing of the New Testament doctrine of the church applies to such a gathering. It is of no more consequence than a golf club. Indeed it is of markedly less value, due to its blatant hypocrisy!

It does not take an Einstein to recognise that what I am presenting is what is often disparagingly called ‘congregationalism’. But for what good reason has the term ‘congregational’ become an insult? It is no shame to recognise the glory of the gathering that God gathers. The shame is to seek that glory where it is not to be found, in human institutions.

The unity of this church is to be ‘kept’

The point to which this essay has been leading is that the church which Jesus is building is the place where the unity which we explored in the previous essay (Briefing #279), the unity the gospel proclaims, is established. It is also the place where the unity the gospel demands is to be expressed. In other words, the point at which the idea of Christian unity is often applied (between denominations, or within denominations) is not nearly as important as applying this reality where it belongs, namely to the church that Jesus is building.

a. The unity is not under threat

Let us note carefully that the unity of the church that Jesus Christ is building is not under threat.

In a question time recently after a public lecture, someone asked what I thought about the future for the church in Sydney. I hesitated, wondering what useful thing could be said in reply to such a broad question. I found myself thinking that I have no idea. The statistics are far from encouraging. The media is against us. The culture is against us. Pluralismhas relativised the claims of the gospel. There is more community interest in Islam than in Christ. See how easily our minds losesight of reality! The true answer to the questioner is that the church that Jesus Christ is building is not under threat. The gates of hell will not prevail against it! Its security has been won by the victory of Christ on the cross over the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

And, likewise, the unity of this church is not under threat. “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28b). The prayer of Jesus in John 17, that his followers be one, has been and is being answered “as you come to him” and are being built as living stones into one spiritual house (1 Pet 2:4-5). The dividing walls of hostility have been abolished through the death of Jesus (Eph 2:14-15).

Some suggest that a controversial proposal such as allowing lay people to administer the Lord’s Supper in Anglican churches will ‘divide the church’. It is said that evangelicals (if they go ahead with such a thing) will be marginalised and no longer be listened to. To do something like that would just demonstrate how little evangelicals care about the unity of the church!

This is a serious confusion. People being upset, even angry, about an action, a proposal, a policy, a statement is not a threat to the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. Nor, of course, is diversity of practice.

The unity of the church is expounded wonderfully in Eph 4:4-6. It is very important to ensure that we hear and understand this passage and its huge implications rightly. Let’s look at the essentials of unity through this text:

“One body.” This one body is the church: the one gathering called into God’s presence by the gospel. It is a fatal mistake to think that the one body is some worldwide organization. There was no such organization when Paul wrote these words, neither was there any move or reason to establish one. The organisational links that have developed over the centuries must not in any way be confused with this one body. “It is the heavenly gathering, assembled around Christ, in which believers now participate.”6

“And one Spirit.” On the one hand, we all have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph 2:18). On the other hand, it is the one Spirit, or breath, indwelling the members that animates the one body. The one body consists of those in whom the one Spirit dwells.

“Just as also you were called to one hope when you were called.” Paul earlier prayed that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18). The point now, however, is that the church is one body because there is one Spirit, and just as there is one Spirit there is one call, one gospel and one gospel hope.

“One Lord.” That is, the Lord Jesus Christ. The church’s unity is as certain as the uniqueness of her one Lord.

“One faith.” In this one body there is only one object of faith, and only one proper content of faith. Beware those who glory in theological diversity. There is “one faith”, not one for Jews and one for Gentiles—how much less one for Anglicans and one for Baptists, or one for one party of Anglicans and one for another party. In the one body there is one faith.

“One baptism.” Paul was clearly not thinking of our distinction between water and Spirit baptism. Nor is it conceivable that he identified those two things as one and the same. It seems to me certain that he means the baptism in the one Spirit by which all believers, Jews and Greeks, slave and free, were incorporated into one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:13).

And finally: “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”.

b. The unity is under threat

Only when we see and believe in the unity that is not under threat can we understand properly the fact that the unity is under threat.

The very passage in Ephesians 4 we have just considered is preceded by the call to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

In another place Paul was dismayed at the news that there were divisions among the believers in Corinth:

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Cor 1:10)

And in a kind of mirror image of Ephesians 4 he asks:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:13)

To the Romans Paul wrote:

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. (Rom 16:17)

Where, and in what ways, is the unity of the church, which is not under threat, under threat?

The potential for divisions about which the New Testament is concerned is located in the congregation of believers. The concern about divisions that we find in the New Testament is all focused on divisions within congregations, not divisions between congregations. The behaviour that will ‘keep’ the unity of the Spirit according to Ephesians 4 is the conduct between believers who meet with one another: it is humility towards one another, gentleness in dealing with one another, patience in response to one another, bearing with one another in love (Eph 4:2). According to Romans 16, those who cause divisions use smooth talk and flattery to deceive the minds of naïve people with teaching contrary to what you have learned (Rom 16:17-18).

c. ‘Keep’ the unity

In brief, the unity is ‘kept’ by the way in which believers behave towards each other in the congregation, and the rejection of false teaching in the congregation.

If we are serious about the unity that matters, our focus will be on the health of the local congregation—the church as it is in each place. That is where the unity of the Spirit is displayed, and that is where it is to be ‘kept’


The ecumenical movement was a wrong path from the beginning. It pursued a unity that, in the terms of the New Testament, is of minor importance. The unity that matters is secure—the Lord Jesus Christ is building one church, the reality of which is manifested wherever people are gathered by the gospel.

The question we have not yet addressed is the relationship between believers beyond the local congregation. In the final essay in this series we will consider the implications of gospel unity for an evangelical understanding of denominations.


1 The Nottingham Statement, p. 19. See the documented discussion of the development of a “new” evangelical doctrine of the church in em> Murray, Evangelicals Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950-2000 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), pp. 99-111.

2 Cf. DB Knox, ‘Denomination and Society’, in B.G. Webb (ed.), Explorations 3 (Homebush West: Lancer, 1988), pp. 97-98.

3 PT Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London, 1947 ed.), cited in JI Packer, ‘The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity’, Churchman 80 (1966), reprinted in Serving the People of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of JI Packer (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), p. 37.

4 See DWB Robinson, ‘Church’, in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 1 (Leicester: IVP, 1980), pp. 283-286. The few apparent exceptions to this rule, according to Robinson, are all references to the Jerusalem church “throughout the first generation it was ‘the church’ par excellence” (so Acts 9:31; 18:22; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6). See how Paul impressed this perspective on his churches (Rom 15:27). On Acts 9:31, notice that this verse concludes the section that began “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). The ‘church’ that by 9:31 was said to enjoy peace, was the Jerusalem church which was now scattered. It was this church that Saul (Paul) “began to destroy” (Acts 8:3). It is consistent, therefore, with the record of Acts to relate Paul’s own references to his persecution of ‘the church’ or ‘the church of God’ to the Jerusalem church.

5 JI Packer, op. cit., p.38.

6 PT O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester: Apollos, 1999), p. 281.

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