A Call To Unity
I watched a recorded worship service the other day. During it, I was invited to sing a verse of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” that I had never sung before. It reads:
Like a mighty army
Moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where the saints have trod;
We are not divided;
All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity.
I suspect that I have not sung the verse before, despite its quality, because of the mention of “the saints” in the past tense in the fourth line. This did not trouble me much; I was happy to gloss “saints” as “heroes of faith” and proceed with my worship. I like the idea of following in the footsteps of the holy men of old!
Instead, I choked on the second quatrain. I was singing about the church of God and insisting that it was not divided, that it was one body, and that it was one in doctrine. None of these things are true, not among the mass of baptized believers, not among the churches of the Restoration Movement, and not among the churches of Christ.
We have faithfully reproduced the same kinds of divisions that led those who came before us to abandon denominationalism. Even the source of the problem is the same. It is the introduction of human reasoning and human innovation into the simple, inspired plan of the New Testament. When innovation appears, division will not be far behind.
In this, we have forgotten the impetus behind the Restoration Movement itself. The Restoration was not merely about achieving unity among believers, nor was it merely about returning to the Bible. It was about achieving unity by returning to the Bible.
Indeed, the Bible is the only possible basis for unity among believers. Many among us see things differently these days. They think the so-called “distinctives”, doctrines like our insistence on acappella singing and baptism for the forgiveness of sins, keep us from unity with the wider evangelical world.
However, abandoning Bible teaching for the sake of unity is ineffective as well as wrong. Once the devil has gotten us to give up on the instrument and baptism, he will surely keep pushing to see what else we are willing to give up. The evangelical world is headed for a massive split over same-sex marriage in the next few decades. Will we accept homosexual couples into fellowship in order to remain united with those who do? Down this path, the only kind of unity available is conformity with the world.
Instead, we must pursue peace with one another by moving in the opposite direction. The true unity of the Spirit does not come from compromise with the world but from devotion to the word.
In this, to borrow a phrase from Edwin Crozier, we must draw near to the Lord, not to the line. Our object must not be to see how elastic we can make the pattern, to see how far we can digress from the primitive church without losing our souls. “Can I get away with doing this?” is exactly the wrong question to ask.
Rather, we must ask what the primitive church did and how we can imitate it more fully. If we find ourselves doing something that Christians in the first century did not do, that is not an opportunity to engage in inferential gymnastics to justify ourselves. Instead, it is a call to soberly consider our practices and ask whether we have strayed.
This isn't much fun, but honest self-examination never is. However, if we are serious about drawing near to the Lord and to one another, no other option is available to us. If we all rededicate ourselves to the truth, we will be able to sing about the unity of God's people without choking on the words.
Matthew W. Bassford