In Ephesians 4 unity is presented in a threefold way. In verse 3 we have the “unity of the Spirit”; in verse 13, “the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God”; whilst in verse 4 we learn there is “one body.” In this verse the word “unity” does not occur; yet since the “one body” exists in the power of the one Spirit, and is indeed a unity of all the members of which it is composed, we may venture to term it the “unity of the body.”
It may be helpful to observe the differences between these three aspects of unity.
The unity of the body exists as the result of the purpose and work of God. Nothing that can happen during the time of the church’s pilgrimage on earth can possibly annul it. The Spirit of God is the source and power of it, and it therefore abides for ever. Man did not make it. The most devoted of saints could not maintain it, nor could the most perverse mar it. It stands connected not with the responsibility of saints, but with the sovereign purpose and power of God.
“There is one body,” come what may! In these days of ecclesiastical confusion, owing to the will of man asserting itself in God’s things, a great point will be gained if we thoroughly recognize this. It is a mark of faith so to do. Elijah recognized the unity of the twelve tribes of Israel when he built his altar of twelve stones, though the nation was divided and largely apostate (1 Kings 18:31). The same thing is found in James’ epistle, in regard of Israel, in the New Testament. He wrote to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, though at that time the larger part of them had disappeared. All outward manifestation of the unity of the body may today have disappeared as completely as the lost ten tribes have, still the unity of the body itself abides for God and for faith. Let us have faith to recognize it.
The unity of the Spirit based upon the foregoing is that practical oneness which will be found amongst all the members of the one body, or any number of them, for just so long as they are really controlled by the one Spirit.
It is not merely an ecclesiastical unity; it goes much deeper than that, for it is possible to maintain outward ecclesiastical ties whilst disunion is rampant within. On the other hand, it certainly includes it. Should pride and self-sufficiency—the opposites of the excellent features mentioned in verse 4—so gain the upper hand amongst saints that even ecclesiastical bonds are riven asunder, then the unity of the Spirit is indeed broken as effectually as ever it can be.
The unity of the faith differs from both the above. It is neither something formed by God which exists today because maintained by Him, nor something produced by the Spirit and entrusted to our keeping. It is something not complete as yet, but at which we all should seek ultimately to arrive. It is the unity, not “of faith,” but of “the faith,” i.e. the faith of Christianity, and as the whole faith of Christianity centres in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, it adds, “and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”
This verse may well be connected with Philippians 3. The knowledge of Christ is there seen to be the great object of the Apostle Paul’s desire (vv. 8, 10, 12). After this he pursued, not counting that he had already attained, but still pressing on and urging all others to do likewise. Those who were thus minded with himself he terms “perfect,” or of full growth (v. 15).
The more truly the faith of Christianity possesses us, the deeper our knowledge of the Son of God, the more will this unity be reached by us, though doubtless never in perfection until the resurrection day, as Philippians 3 indicates.
We might summarize the matter by saying:
1. The unity of the body is a unity of life which cannot be broken. The body is in the life of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
2. The unity of the Spirit is a unity of love. It is a plant of most tender and sensitive growth, easily injured, and must be therefore jealously guarded by us.
3. The unity of the faith is a unity of light. It is therefore a matter of apprehension and attainment. It is not that with which we start, but to which we are to come.
Now what are our responsibilities in regard to these things? As to the first, our responsibility is to recognize its truth and reality, and shape all our practical life and conduct in the light of it. “There is one body”; we need to remind ourselves of this fact again and again, just because Christians generally have so largely forgotten it, and walk individually and collectively in the truth of it. Since it is so, our every dealing with any saint we meet must be consistent with it. Equally so must all our collective actions and gatherings together be in the light of this fact. We are no more at liberty to act inconsistently with it in an assembly way than in a private and individual way. The natural mind always runs to one or other of two opposite extremes—easy-going looseness or sectarian narrowness. Careful recognition of the unity of the body will help us to steer clear of both.
As to the second, our responsibility is to keep it. “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” That this is an exceedingly difficult matter the whole history of the church bears witness. How are we to keep it? What will help us? The cultivation of “lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love,” and that alone. Outward uniformity may be produced by ecclesiastical edicts, such as Rome and other bodies of professed Christians sometimes enforce; but uniformity is not unity. The latter can neither be formed nor maintained by such means.
In Mark 9:33-37 we find the first recorded breach in the unity that marked the twelve apostles, and its root is discovered for our instruction. “They had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.” Its remedy is shown to be the cultivation of the spirit of the little child. Thus and thus alone can unity be kept.
As to the third, we must give diligence to pursue it. In order that we may reach it gifts have been given. The most exalted gifts are no longer with us in flesh and blood—apostles and prophets I mean—but we have them in their writings. The Scriptures therefore practically take their place as far as we are concerned.
Whether, therefore, it be the Scriptures, or gifts from the ascended Christ still available for us, let us value and use them each in their place; always remembering that neither will be of much benefit apart from that diligent earnestness of soul which marked the Apostle in Philippians 3
Notice carefully that gifts find their place in connection with the unity of the faith, not the unity of the Spirit . No “gift” is necessary for the latter. If dissension appears amongst saints the sovereign remedy is not to send for some gifted servant of God, but rather to seek afresh that lowliness of mind which the Spirit of God produces. On the other hand, if believers are ill-taught in the faith and have but little knowledge of Christ, to send for a gifted servant of God would be a very appropriate thing.
Let us then beware of confusing these three “unities” in our minds. Has there not been a tendency to do so, especially in the case of the second and third above mentioned? They are not one and the same thing, and the unity of the Spirit is not a unity of light. Many a saint who has been but poorly instructed in the faith has excelled in keeping the unity of the Spirit over other saints whose degree of light has been greater than his. Many a time has the unity of the Spirit been broken by the enlightened brother who has refused and treated disdainfully the brother much less enlightened, but no less true to Christ than himself.
Let us each and all seek help from God that we may more fully recognize the unity of the body, more carefully keep the unity of the Spirit and more diligently pursue the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, until all three unities coalesce in the one great unity of the church as of “one pearl of great price” in the glory of God.
Our Calling 1912, p. 109