In the last several years, the concept of unity has been a significant topic within the church and world at large. In this article, we will look at the basis of biblical unity, examine some key questions the early church faced, and see what positive examples and words of wisdom have been left for us to follow in scripture. In addition, we will look at what Ellen White wrote about unity and see what takeaways we can apply to our lives today. There are many implications to take into account when considering all that has been written in scripture and White’s writings on the topic of unity.
What does the Bible say about unity?
Unity in the Body of Christ
Unity in the body of Christ includes a solid commitment to love the family of God (Romans 12:10[i]). We are to have affection for those in our family: not just to tolerate one another, but truly accept one another. This means feeling endearment towards those with whom you may not see eye to eye.
Peter and Paul did not always agree with one another. Paul even called out Peter on his hypocrisy when he stopped interacting with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13). But the differences between these two men did not prevent them from being united in their love for one another. Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:15-16, “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation — as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the scriptures.”
Peter identifies that even though Paul may be difficult to understand at times, he is indeed a beloved brother who has received wisdom from God. Colossians 3:13, 14 states that we must be “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” When we truly love one another, God’s love in us perfects us. In this way, we grow and mature our faith.
Spirit-rooted, Christ-exalted, truth-cherished, love-focused unity is designed by God to be a witness to the world by declaring his glory. The apostle John makes this most clear. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Christian unity includes affectionate love, not just tolerance for those you don’t like.
Jesus’s famous statements in John 17 are rooted in the profound spiritual unity between the Father and the Son, and with those whom God has chosen out of the world (John 17:6). “I ask that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Note the witness to the world is that the disciples are in the Father and the Son so that the world might believe. This is vastly more — deeply more — than being related through a common organization.
The ultimate aim of such Christian unity is the glory of God. Hence Paul prays, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:5-7). When we show such love for one another, not only do we create a harmony in our church family, but we glorify the God of unity.
Unity in the Jerusalem Council
In Acts 15, the early Christian church is presented with a dilemma: what should be done with circumcision? The ministry of Paul and Barnabas amongst the Gentiles was called into question, and a meeting of the leaders of the church was held to determine just what the Gentiles should be asked to do to become believers in Christ. The leader of this council, James, did not choose to hold onto the Old Testament ways. Nor did he choose to throw out circumcision completely. He made an accommodation to meet in the middle, keeping the law but ruling out circumcision for the Gentiles. “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Concerning this decision in Acts 15, Tom Lemon writes, “the decision that resulted in a continued oneness within the now burgeoning church broadened rather than narrowed their understanding of the gospel itself, their approaches to leadership, and their understanding of the diversity that the Holy Spirit was bringing into the church.”[ii] He also adds that this ruling allowed the gospel to move forward with renewed energy and without creating any winners or losers. The wisdom of this accommodation can be seen in how it united believers in their mission.
Unity According to Paul
In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1:10). That word “divisions” is rooted in the ancient Geek word “schismata.” A literal interpretation of schismata is “to tear or rend.” Therefore, what Paul is pleading is for the body of Christ to stop tearing itself to shreds.[iii] “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12,13). In these verses, we can see that the church had been ripping itself apart, with various believers dividing themselves into camps based upon prestige and differences. The appeal of Paul is that God’s people would be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (perfectly joined together).[iv] Ellen White adds to this, stating that, “Christ has been the uniting stone, the chief cornerstone, in all ages. The patriarchs, the Levitical priesthood, the Christians of today, all have their center in Him. He is all and in all.[v]
Unity comes as a result of our love for Jesus and our love for each other. It is also a result of respecting each other, living harmoniously together even when we have different opinions from one another. Paul writes in Philippians 2:1, 2, “therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” Paul says that where there is fellowship of the Spirit of God, believers should hold the same love for one another and be in the same accord. In the Greek, the phrase “same accord” can be translated to mean “to be of one mind and one passion.”[vi] John echoes Paul by adding that God’s love is made complete in us when we love one another (1 John 4:12).
Unity According to Ellen White
Whenever she spoke about unity — and she did so often — Ellen White tended to focus on how unity is found within Christ. She repeatedly emphasized this point, stating that Jesus is to be our primary focus if we wish to be united and carry out his mission on earth. For example, in her commentary on Pentecost, she stated, “no longer were they a collection of independent units or discordant, conflicting elements…they were of ‘one accord,’ ‘of one heart and of one soul.’ Christ filled their thoughts; the advancement of His kingdom was their aim.”[vii] Christ was to be the center of their unity.
But what does this look like in a church filled with so much variety? Regarding just how to find unity in a church body of many different people, Ellen White said this: “The strength of God's people lies in their union with Him through His only-begotten Son, and their union with one another. There are no two leaves of a tree precisely alike; neither do all minds run in the same direction. But while this is so, there may be unity in diversity. Christ is our root, and all who are grafted into this root will bear the fruit which Christ bore. They will reveal the fragrance of His character in the talent of speech, in the cultivation of hospitality, of kindness, of Christian courtesy and heavenly politeness.”[viii] Here White is acknowledging that no two minds think alike. Rather than this being a detriment to the church, this is actually a gift from God, and since it is such a gift, we must respect one another’s ideas. In addition, our differences should allow us to bear fruit which reveals the character of God.
White continues, saying that the church is a beautiful mosaic of radiant colors because of its diversity. “Look at the flowers in a carpet, and notice the different colored threads. All are not pink, all are not green, all are not blue. A variety of colors are woven together to perfect the pattern. So it is in the design of God. He has a purpose in placing us where we must learn to live as individuals. We are not all fitted to do the same kind of work, but each man's work is designed by God to help make up His plan.”[ix]
When we as individuals are working together in love within the church, incredible things can happen. This is the prayer that Jesus had for his followers. “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20,21). The basis of unity in the church is rooted in our total connection in Christ. White had this to say concerning Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “It is the will of God that union and brotherly love should exist among His people. The prayer of Christ just before His crucifixion was that His disciples might be one as He is one with the Father, that the world might believe that God had sent Him. This most touching and wonderful prayer reaches down the ages, even to our day; for His words were, ‘Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word.’ While we are not to sacrifice one principle of truth, it should be our constant aim to reach this state of unity. This is the evidence of our discipleship.”[x]
Because there is such an emphasis on discipleship, there is clearly an emphasis on growth. God wants to grow and develop us in faith and through his word. But according to Ellen White this work is incomplete without a church body around us. It is easy to be united with others who think and do exactly the same as you. But true growth can be seen when we appreciate and celebrate those around us who differ from us. Evidence of God’s discipling can be seen when we engage lovingly with our brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter our differences.
In regard to diversity, Ellen White in fact allows it and even encourages us not to quench it. “But if a man makes a mistake in his interpretation of some portion of the Scripture, shall this cause diversity and disunion? God forbid. We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light. The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement.” Her concept of unity is rooted in our unity in Christ — not in agreeing upon every policy, every interpretation of scripture, or every religious practice. “Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance.”[xi]
What Implications Follow for Us?
As we have found, there is much thought given to unity in scripture and in the writings of Ellen White. It is good to read and understand these concepts, but what does it all mean for us today? There are several significant implications which rise to the surface concerning just how we can celebrate diversity and unity within our church family. Although we have boundaries of culture, of background, or of situation which may easily divide us, we must reach across them to gain unity with one another.
Love each other across boundaries.
“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14). Cultivate affectionate love across differences for those who are your brothers and sisters in Christ, even those who don’t agree with you. Humans have never been good at this. Whether it is in politics, in business, or in the church, the philosophical and emotional climate today makes it even harder for us to generate sincere affection for others. But we must seek to become like Jesus.
Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if we have once known and recognized anyone to be our brother or sister in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ compels us to no longer think of them as an opponent with a different view, but a fellow citizen with the saints. It is not our differences of theology, practice, or lifestyle that are most important, but our joint connection to Jesus and his mission for us which is the basis of our unity.
Respect each other across boundaries.
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). We as Seventh-day Adventists do believe, preach, and advocate the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. We believe in worship, healthful living, and prayer. But in practice and interpretation of these beliefs there is great variety from one individual to another, from one church to another, and from one culture to another. We need to distinguish between principles and preferences. We need to learn to live with each other because we are one family. That does not mean that we need to see everything the exact same way.
Ellen White wrote that, “there are the main pillars of our faith, subjects which are of vital interest, the Sabbath, the keeping of the commandments of God. Speculative ideas should not be agitated; for there are peculiar minds that love to get some point that others do not accept, and argue and attract everything to that one point, urging that point, magnifying that point, when it is really a matter which is not of vital importance, and will be understood differently. Twice I have been shown that everything of a character to cause our brethren to be diverted from the very points now essential for this time, should be kept in the background.”[xii] Thus, there should be a broad set of beliefs — main pillars of belief. But with these pillars as supports, there needs to be freedom in interpretation. There ought to be a big umbrella for Adventism.
We need to determine and define our essence and allow for culture and local circumstances and context to be the interpretation of that essence. For example, we have seen how people interpret principles of the Sabbath, of healthful living, and of worship styles differently based upon local circumstances and context. In addition, the 23rd Fundamental Belief states that, “marriage was divinely established in Eden and affirmed by Jesus to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship.”[xiii] However, the application of this belief is hotly debated in Africa as many African cultures practice polygamy, and for a new convert to divorce all but his first wife would mean condemning the other women to be outcasts of society.[xiv] The essence of this belief is clear, but in practice its principle may show up in different forms and even with unintended consequences. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we prayerfully and through extensive study of scripture and culture apply the truth of the scripture to our own local circumstances. As Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22a).
Serve each other across boundaries.
“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). For the sake of our witness to the world, seek out ways to show love for brothers and sisters across boundaries — keeping in mind the differences between principles and preferences. Remember that just because another’s preferences might not match yours does not mean they are wrong. In spite of differences, we are still called to connect and serve others. Do this for the glory of God.
It is in the midst of a difference that we have our golden opportunity to demonstrate love and service towards one another. When everything is going well and we are all standing around in a nice little circle, agreeing with each other in perfect harmony, there is not much to be seen by the world. But when we come to the place where there is a real difference, and we exhibit uncompromised principles but at the same time observable love, then there is something that the world can see, something they can use to judge that these really are Christians. Ellen White encourages us to demonstrate this love for one another by putting others before self which implies respecting differences in thoughts, in theology, and in practice. “‘Love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous’… Do unto others as you would wish them to do to you. God forbids you to favor self, to the disadvantage of another.”[xv]
Regardless of how we feel about our differences and preferences, Christian charity compels us to love other people and give them space for growth. We have a tendency to look down upon and judge those who do things differently. However, Christian charity says we need to give people the space to grow. It’s much like a married couple. The husband and wife are one: one in love, in purpose, in goals and commitment. But at the same time, they are completely different and separate from one another. Just like a married couple, we must be united as one even as we are different as individuals. As a church we must accommodate for varied opinions. We need to hold on to principles, the essence of our beliefs, even as we leave room for personal interpretation. As Ellen White says, “we have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.”[xvi]
Notes & References:
[i] All scripture references are in the NKJV.
[iv] Barclay on joined together: “A medical word used of knitting together bones that have been fractured, or joining together a joint that has been dislocated. The disunion is unnatural and must be cured.” https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/guzik_david/StudyGuide2017-1Cr/1Cr-1.cfm?a=1063010
[v] The Review and Herald, January 3, 1899.
[vi] In Acts 2:1 when it says, “one accord,” the Greek word is “homothymadon” which means “with one mind, with one accord, with one passion.” Blue Letter Bible gives a beautiful description of the use of this word here: “A unique Greek word, used 10 of its 12 New Testament occurrences in the Book of Acts, helps us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. Homothumadon is a compound of two words meaning to “rush along” and “in unison.” The image is almost musical; a number of notes are sounded which, while different, harmonize in pitch and tone. As the instruments of a great concert under the direction of a concert master, so the Holy Spirit blends together the lives of members of Christ’s church.” https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3661&t=KJV
[vii] White, Ellen. Acts of the Apostles. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2002, p. 45.
[viii] The Review and Herald, July 4, 1899.
[x] White, Ellen. Patriarchs and Prophets. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2002, p. 520.
[xi] 1888 Materials, p. 1092.
[xii] White, Ellen. Counsels to Writers and Editors. Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Association, 1962, p.77.
[xiii] Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief 23.
[xv] The Review and Herald, April 13, 1905.
[xvi] Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 37.
Katelyn Campbell is an MDiv Student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University.
Joseph Kidder, DMin, is Professor of Christian Ministry and Discipleship at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
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