The catholicity of the church of Christ or the understanding that there is one true church, has been believed by Christians throughout the ages. This is a truth which cannot be separated from orthodox Christianity. We continue to confess this truth today in the historic Christian creeds like the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. Though diverse in its settings, the true church of Christ is one at its core. In this article, we will reflect on how the church of Christ is one in spite of its diversity. By the church, I mean the true church of Christ which is marked by true preaching of the Bible, faithful administration of ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper), and the practice of biblical discipline.
In His high priestly prayer in John 17:20-23, Jesus prayed that all His people be one. These are people from every tongue, tribe, nation, background, and all ages who will believe in Him through the preaching of the gospel (vs. 20). Interestingly, the unity which Christ prayed for is like the unity that He has had with His Father from eternity past (“…that they may be one even as we are one (vs. 22)” [emphasis added]). The unity which Christ prayed for will have a tangible and visible impact in letting the world know and believe that He is from God. Not only that, it is unity which will make God’s love visible before the world. This is wonderful and we should not take it lightly. In the words of John Murray, “The unity prayed for was one that would bear witness to the world, and therefore belonged to the realm of the observable. The implications for visible confession and witness are unavoidable”.1
Throughout the history of Christianity and even now in our time, we witness various differences in the body of Christ. We see different denominations within Protestantism that represent different theological convictions. Does this imply that the huge bridge of Christian unity is crumbling, divided and falling down? Is Christianity divided? What has happened to the intercession of our great High Priest? Will His prayer be remembered as an idealistic wish? The answer to these questions, and others like them, is a big and emphatic, no! Christ’s church, which He is building, is still unified at its core and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
The church, which is the body of Christ, is one because the head of the body, Christ, is one. In 1 Corinthians 12, we see the church as one body consisting of many parts. Each part is connected with other parts despite the differences in functions. All the parts are connected to one head, which is the source of all its life. The diversity in the body of Christ does not, in any way, imply that it is not united, since unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. As John Murray stated when talking about 1 Corinthians 12:12, “…Paul in this brief clause, ‘even so is Christ’, brings together the church and Christ, and says in effect ‘Christ is one, and so the church is one’.2 This is to say that it is very possible for there to be differences in theological convictions in different churches and denominations. For example, some differences include matters relating to church government, baptism, and the events surrounding Jesus’ second coming. Even though the differences are real and visible, these differences should not be the reason for us to believe that the church of Christ is divided. A.A. Hodge puts it beautifully in his book, The Confession of Faith:
“The conditions of human life, physical, political, and social, and the imperfections of Christians, render impossible a practical organic union of all these organized bodies; yet that they all are one visible Church is self-evident, from the fact that they are all visible parts of the true spiritual or invisible Church, which, being “the body of Christ,” can never be divided.”3
As long as a local church is a true church preaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ—which is His life, death, burial, and triumphant resurrection for the justification of those who will believe in Him—it is still part of the one, holy universal or catholic church (not Roman Catholic). For Christ not only prayed, but also died that His people be one as He is with His Father. And in His death, all His people from all ages are united in Him. So, despite the existing differences in various churches, the truth of our union with Christ in His death makes it impossible to divide the one true church. Instead, it establishes the fact that the church is one and that we can be assured in the faithfulness of God. He will ensure that this remains till the day we see the glorious unity of the church and praise the Lamb who has prayed and died for His bride.
Until then, the unity that Christ prayed for is worth pursuing. It is the unity grounded in the gospel, the only truth that liberates. God commands that we maintain the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). While on the one hand, compromising the gospel to engineer unity would be an act of grave ignorance. While to work against truth-based unity is to grieve the Holy Spirit. What does the oneness of Christ’s church mean for us today?
It means that we are to be slow in judging our brothers and sisters whose convictions are not the same as ours on secondary and tertiary issues and to be quick to show them true Christian love and patience. When there are (as there will be) times of difference, may we pause and look at the cross and remind ourselves of God’s patience towards us, before taking up our daggers of strong theological convictions. As we do this, we will be patient with our fellow brethren. After all, it was while we were rebellious sinners that Christ came and died for us. We clearly do not have any excuse to lose our patience with our brothers and sisters, since the same Christ has died for those who disagree with us on secondary and tertiary elements of our faith. The gospel demands that we show grace and pursue gospel-centered unity in the church. After all, are we not saved by grace?
Though there is diversity within the body of Christ, it is still one. May we remind ourselves and others of this unity. May our hearts be not dismayed because of the differences among various members in the body of Christ. Rather, let us rest in the fact that Christ has prayed and has even died, so that His people may be one. Let us strive to maintain this oneness, so that the manifold wisdom of God would be displayed for the world and the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. May unity be maintained throughout the church. May many lost souls be saved into the Kingdom and become part of Christ’s one body.
1 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol.2, Banner of Truth, p.335
2 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol.2, Banner of Truth, p.333
3 A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, Banner of Truth, p.313