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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Unity (2)

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UNITY.—In the NT the term ‘unity,’ like its Gr. equivalent ἑνότης, occurs only in Ephesians 4:3; Ephesians 4:13—both times with reference to the unity of the Christian Church (Ephesians 4:3 ‘the unity of the Spirit,’ Ephesians 4:13 ‘the unity of the faith’). But the idea of the unity of the Church as the ‘body of Christ’ is one that constantly meets us both in positive and in negative forms—in connexion, i.e., alike with exhortations to Christian unity and with the deprecation and rebuke of schism or of the divisive spirit.

St. Paul in 1 Cor. (1 Corinthians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 11:18; 1 Corinthians 12:25) is the first to use ‘schism’ (σχίσμα) with an approach to its present technical meaning. The σχίσματα, however, which he condemns are parties only in the Church, not sects; ‘strifes,’ but not separations. There is no suggestion that those who called themselves ‘of Paul’ had ceased to communicate with those who called themselves ‘of Apollos’ (1 Corinthians 1:12). The ‘divisions’ apparent in their meetings for worship (1 Corinthians 11:13-21) were of class, of richer and poorer (1 Corinthians 11:22), and did not prevent the common meeting. The ‘schism’ deprecated in his parable of body and members (1 Corinthians 12:25) amounts only to carelessness of mutual interest; solution of continuity in the body of Christ is not contemplated. The word αἵρεσις (Authorized and Revised Versions ‘sect,’ ‘heresy’). comes nearer in NT use to the idea of ‘sect,’ though it does not reach it. It still denotes any party or faction within a single communion, as of the Sadducees (Acts 5:17), of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5, Acts 26:5), or of Christians considered as a school of Judaism (Acts 24:5; Acts 24:14, Acts 28:22). It goes no farther in Galatians 5:20, where αἱρέσεις are counted among works of the flesh, as the natural sequence of ἐριθεῖαι and διχοστασίαι. In 2 Peter 2:1 they are the secret work of pseudoprophets, and are αἱρ. ἀτωλείας; but there is no suggestion that they amounted to separations: they work ‘among you.’ The strongest expression used on the subject is that of St. Jude (Judges 1:19), who speaks of some as ἀποδιορίζοντες, ‘marking themselves off’ from their fellows; but apparently only in tone and conduct—there was no interruption of formal fellowship: the murmurers still ‘feasted’ with the Church, and were present at its ἀγάπαι. The Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15) were a party within the Church, not a separation from it. The idea of communions severally arranged upon differing bases of opinion or order does not exist within the NT thought. What is conceived as possible, only to be reprobated, is the tendency to faction, or the spirit of party, or the ‘divisive course’: as for actual schism—μὴ γένοιτο.

1. Our Lord’s personal teaching on the subject is positive, not negative; He inculcates unity rather than forbids division. It is to be gathered (1) from His example, (2) from His recorded sayings.

(1) The condition of religion in the Jewish commonwealth of His time was profoundly unsatisfactory to Him. It called forth His sharp rebuke. Its teachers, their doctrine and their practice, incurred His denunciation. The Temple demanded cleansing at His hands; the synagogues were in possession of those scribes and lawyers and Pharisees on whom He cried ‘Woe,’ as hypocrites. Nevertheless, He bade His disciples respect their authority and obey their ordinances—always without imitating their conduct. They ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ (Matthew 23:2); a seat self-assumed,—their office had no recognition in the Law,—but in a sense they represented the prophetic succession, and de facto stood for constituted order. Christ neither separated Himself, nor allowed others to separate, on the ground of their corruption, error, or abuse of power; though He recognized that all these existed, and protested against them. His custom was to go up to the synagogue on the Sabbath days. He observed the Feasts of the Temple, that of the Dedication (which had only customary sanction) as well as those prescribed. His example suggests no extremity of circumstance under which separation from the Divine Society becomes the course of duty.

(2) His express teaching is as emphatic as the circumstances permit us to expect. He establishes a Kingdom which in time and place is to be represented by the Ecclesia which He will build upon the confession of Himself (Matthew 16:18). The essential unity of the Kingdom necessarily reflects itself in the unity of the representative society. Unity is involved in the fact that its bond is a relation to Himself: the one Shepherd implies the one flock, the one door implies the one fold (John 11:9; John 11:16). It is presented under similes which convey the idea of unity: it is one building on one foundation (Matthew 16:18), one enclosed vineyard (Matthew 20:1-11), one shoal taken in a single net (Matthew 13:47-48), one company of watchers (Matthew 25:1-13), or of guests at one feast (Luke 14:7-24); it is a perfect century of sheep, a complete sum of money, and the breaking of its completeness is intolerable (Luke 15:4; Luk_15:8).

Its unity is primarily theological, necessitated by its causation in the unity which is in God (John 17:11; John 17:21), and objectively effected by the indwelling in its constituents of the one Christ (John 17:23). The subjective unity in mutual affection of which Christians are conscious is a result of this objective unity, and is evidential of their common relation to Christ (John 13:35, cf. 1 John 3:14; 1 John 3:19); but that sense of unity does not constitute the bond which unites Christians; the bond is antecedent to the sense of it, and stands in the life of Christ transfused through the discipleship. This transfusion of life is effected by the mission of the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost mediated by Christ in His heavenly intercession (John 14:16-19), and results in a vital unity of Christ with the recipients of the Paraclete; which is comparable to that of a single organism (the True Vine, John 15:1-8) in which the individual inheres by the fact of his inherence in Christ (John 15:6-7). So much our Lord declares of His own operation; for the rest, He implies that He is in measure, in this as in all, dependent for the realization of His purpose on our apprehension of it and co-operative obedience. Undoubtedly He desires that the vital and spiritual unity which He effects should have a concrete expression—such expression as is apprehensible, not only to the spiritual man discerning spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:11-16), but to the world, which cannot receive the Spirit (John 14:17), and is aware of that only which with eyes of flesh it sees. He commands us, as a condition of the world’s recognition of our discipleship, to love one another ‘as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). He prays the Father that we may be one in such fashion that the world, seeing it, may believe in His mission: and defines this unity as comparable to His own unity with the Father. Beyond question He demands a unity manifested in terms of the common understanding of the man of this world. He prays, not that believers may be ‘at one’ (in harmony of faith or temper—or as Abraham and Lot were at one in agreeing to part peaceably), but that they may be ‘one thing,’ ἵνα ὧσιν ἕν (John 17:11; Joh_17:21-22); ‘completed into one thing’ (John 17:23). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this ‘one thing’ is, spiritually, the Kingdom which His Incarnation brings among us (Luke 17:21); representatively, the Society which He builds (Matthew 16:18), to which by His institution the one Baptism (Ephesians 4:5) admits, and which the one Bread (1 Corinthians 10:17) shows. Every kingdom, He says, divided against itself (the Kingdom of heaven is included in the argument) is brought to desolation; every city or house (the City of God, the House built of living stones, is included) divided against itself shall not stand (Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:24-25). The unity which our Lord teaches appears, then, to be a visible and organic unity, based upon a vital unity in the Holy Ghost, and necessary both for evidence and for stability. His verdict upon schism, as the interruption of such unity, must be inferred—it is nowhere stated* [Note: The possible exception is where (Matthew 24:51, Luke 12:46) Christ threatens the evil servant who smites his fellow-servants and eats and drinks with the drunken, that He ‘will come and cut him asunder (διχοτομήσει αὐτόν). The RV translators and others suggest for this remarkable phrase (ἁπ· λεγ. in NT) ‘will scourge him severely’—which is as if one were to say in our speech ‘will flay him alive,’ and is an expression which one has difficulty in hearing with that sense from those lips. Ruskin somewhere interprets it of the judicial aspect of schism, as ‘God’s revenge’ upon worldly and oppressive priesthoods—an interpretation which the history of schism may seem to commend.] —from the sanctions assigned to unity, and from the intensity of His supplication that it may be realized in the experience of His Church.

2. In this sense the Apostolic writers have understood Christ. It is noted that the disciples were ‘all with one accord in one place’ to receive the Spirit (Acts 2:1); that, as the result of Pentecost, they ‘were together, and had all things common’ (Acts 2:44); ‘the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul’ (Acts 4:32). The assumption of the Epistles is that ‘the saints’ anywhere are ‘the church of God’ which is there (Romans 1:7, 1 Peter 1:1 etc.). If they are ‘churches,’ they are not less one fellowship in the unity of Christ (Galatians 1:1, Revelation 1:4).

St. Paul is copious on the subject. The unity on which he insists is not only of spirit; it is also embodied unity. Many as we are, we are one loaf and one body, being partakers of the one sacramental food (1 Corinthians 10:17; cf. Did. ix. 4). The one Spirit makes us one body, and members one of another (1 Corinthians 12:4-27), ‘that there should be no schism in the body.’ The unity of the Spirit is to be guarded in the bond of peace—‘one body, one Spirit,’ as there is unity in every basis of our life (Ephesians 3:4-6). This body is the Body of Christ, and requires for its attainment to completion the harmonious interworking of every member and group, as constituting a single organism in which all inhere (Ephesians 4:13-16). The Church is a Body, of which Christ is Head (Colossians 1:18; Colossians 1:24; Colossians 2:19). It is ‘the mystery of Christ’ that the Gentiles should be of the same body with Israel (Ephesians 3:6). Baptism is into a unity to which neither race nor status nor sex is a barrier (Galatians 3:27-28). It is against first principles to assume the name of any leader as a party distinction (1 Corinthians 1:13); to do so is ‘carnal’ (1 Corinthians 3:3-4). God is to be glorified with one mouth, as well as with one mind (Romans 15:5-6). The Churches of God have no custom of love of controversy (1 Corinthians 11:16); God is not the author of confusion but of peace; and so it is in all the Churches (1 Corinthians 14:33). The contentious earn indignation and wrath (Romans 2:8); those who cause divisions are to be noted and discouraged (Romans 16:17); a partisan after repeated admonition is to be rejected (Titus 3:10). A Church is commended which follows other Churches already in Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Doubtful disputations are to be avoided; the weak to be borne with; uniformity of opinion on ceremonial or ritual points is not to be insisted upon; to insist on uniformity may be ‘to destroy the work of God’ (Romans 14:1 to Romans 15:3). It becomes the gospel of love that men should stand fast in one spirit with one mind (Philippians 1:27): nothing is to be done through strife or vainglory—the guard of unity is humility (Philippians 2:3); we are to do all things without murmurings or disputings, as children of God (Philippians 2:14 f.).

St. Peter assumes the same general conception; diffused as the Church is (1 Peter 1:1), it is one building, one priesthood, one nation (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9). St. John conceives of the Church as a fellowship with Apostles who have fellowship with God (1 John 1:3), united in love, which is to be in deed and truth, not in phrase (1 John 3:18). The Epp. to the Churches of Asia deal with conditions of corruption, moral and doctrinal; but there is no thought of self-segregation as the duty of the faithful, even where deeds that Christ hates are tolerated (Revelation 2:6); He lays no other burden on His servants but to hold fast (Revelation 2:24-25).

The teaching of the NT, in fact, is positive. It shows a threefold unity of the Church:—(1) An objective unity of origin and of vital relation of its constituent elements, which (like the racial unity of blood) is constituted by the Divine act and exists antecedently to any action, for it or against it, of ours; to which we may do violence, but which we cannot abrogate; and which is the Church’s spiritual oneness. (2) A social unity, the result and therefore the manifestation of this common Divine life, which is related to the life communicated in the Holy Spirit as the physical organism of the individual is to the personal life which co-ordinates that of its component cells, one body for one spirit; which (being body) may be wounded, but only with suffering and to its hurt and weakening. (3) A unity of temper and intention, of consent in belief and thought, which it rests with us to supply; which is the co-operation with the Divine action that is required of us,—obedience to the law of the nature of the Body of Christ in which we find ourselves—the bond of peace in which we are to observe (τηρεῖν) the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). The existence of a state of schism is not contemplated in the NT, nor is any direction given for conduct in such a case. Party spirit and divisive courses are condemned, but there is ‘no precept for the regulation of the relations of one sect to another.’ The Apostolic doctrine as to schism can be inferred only from these facts.

3. According to the conception of the Church of the first centuries, unity was locally constituted by association in acts of communion with God (especially in the Eucharistic synaxis), and by recognition of the authority representing the discipline of the Church; œcumenically, it was constituted by intercommunion, evidenced by reception on the part of each local community of the formatœ (commendatory letters) of the rest, by homologation of each other’s discipline, by the encyclical letters of their respective chief pastors, and later by common Conciliar action. It was jealously a unity in the faith, but not necessarily in identity of expression of the faith; the Creed, as repeated in different Churches, was not in all verbally the same. It was a unity in moral obedience, but not a uniformity in ceremony or custom: each Church ordered its own liturgy, and determined its own ritual and usage; wide differences might exist in practices, e.g. of fast and festival (Eus. v. 24—Polycarp and Anicetus, Irenaeus and Victor). Such differences were held only to demonstrate identity in the faith: ‘in una fide nihil officit sanctae ecclesiae consuetudo diversa’ (Greg, ad Leandr., quoted by Bingham; see also his letter to Aug. of Cant. in Bede, Hist.). For the sojourner or incomer to scruple at local custom in things indifferent, or to abstain from the common worship on account of unfamiliar details, was in itself a schismatic act (Aug. ad Januar., ib.).

In the earlier stages of the Church’s life, government by bishops and presbyters in one local community could coexist with government by college of presbyters in another, without offence to either; Antioch, Epbesus, Smyrna communicated with Rome and Corinth. Ignatius addresses the collegiate Church at Rome as cordially as he does the monepiscopal elsewhere. Clement has no criticism for the absence of a bishop at Corinth, but only for insubordination to its presbyters. Churches autocephalous (externally independent of each other) might exercise large discretion in internal arrangement, yet recognize each other’s sacraments and discipline. The centre of unity was in heaven, not on earth. It was a unity as that of Hellas, rather than as that of the Empire. Local Churches were ‘as bays of the one sea.’ Unity was essentially maintained when intercommunion was maintained. Schism was the interruption of communion: ‘schismaticos facit, non diversa fides, sed disrupta communionis societas’ (Aug., quoted by Sprott, Macleod Lect. ‘Schism,’ p. 2).

As for local unity, the safeguard of that was the recognized principle that only one valid ecclesiastical authority could exist in the same community; latterly, that only one bishop could validly occupy one seat, that presbyters could not act validly without him, and that the flock should communicate with him in sacraments and prayer. The worst form of schism was held to be the violation of this rule, as it produced sect within the same area, and led to the setting up of ‘altar against altar’—a greater evil than interruption of communion between one local Church and another, as civil war is a greater evil than war between State and State. The converse responsibility was equally recognized: that no uncatholic or heretical term of communion should be locally imposed or required between Church and Church. In the case of that being done, the schism was held to be on the part of the authority imposing such terms, or of the Church requiring them. Thus Firmilian writes (with reference to the excommunication by Stephen of Rome of those who disallowed the baptism of heretics): ‘While thou thinkest that all may be excommunicated by thee, thou hast excommunicated thyself alone from all’ (Epp. of Cyprian, lxxv., Oxf. translation p. 284).

4. It was to this latter principle that the Reformers generally appealed, as justifying in Catholic order their action in reclaiming the autonomy of national Churches, and in continuing their administration independently of the Roman See; which they regarded as a ‘tyranny,’ under which impossible terms of communion were schismatically demanded. As to schism generally, the Reformers maintained the traditional doctrine, and Calvin’s view may be taken as typical: ‘Such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of His Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society in which the true ministry of His word and Sacraments is maintained, He regards as deserters of religion’ (Inst. iv.).

5. The modern tendency is to recognize that responsibility for divisions has generally been a diffused responsibility, and that a distinction is to be drawn between that of the authors of separation and of the inheritors of positions of confusion which personally they have not created; to accept the essential validity of the conceptions of unity which guided the Church in its inception, while recognizing the difficulty of return to their practice; and to welcome the efforts of those who desire to be called ‘repairers of the breach, restorers of paths for men to dwell in.’ See, further, artt. Church, Communion, Oneness.

Literature.—Augustine, de unitate Ecclesiœ; Ambrose, Epistles; Calvin, Institutes, iv.; Bacon, Essays, ‘Of Unity in Religion’; Barrow, Of the Unity of the Church; Bingham, Ant. xvi.; Archp. Wake, Letters; Walker, Scot. Theol.; Durham, on ‘Scandal,’ 1659, Com. on Revelation, 1660; Boston, Serm. on ‘Schism’; Wood of St. Andrews, Works, 1664; Ferguson, ‘Sermon before the Synod of Fife,’ 1653; Rutherford, ‘Due right of Presbyteries,’ 1644; Bp. A. P. Forbes, Nicene Creed; Sprott, Macleod Lecture, 1902; Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers; Gore, Body of Christ; Dale, ‘The Idea of the Church’ in Essays and Addresses, and ‘The Unity of the Church’ (Lect. xv.) in Ephesians; Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology, 513 ff.; Denney, Stud. in Theol. 186 ff.; Lindsay, Church and Ministry, 10 ff.

H. J. Wotherspoon.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unity (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/u/unity-2.html. 1906-1918.

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