The Unity of the Christian Church
“I have given them the glory which you have given me, in order that they may be one just as we are one.”—John 17:22.
1. Why can Jehovah be called the great Unifier?
JEHOVAH is the great Unifier. He is the One who in a marvelous way is able to combine intelligent creatures into a unity for whatever purpose he desires. For millions of years before man ever saw the light of day, Jehovah had worked in perfect union with his first-born Son, through whom he created everything. As Jehovah’s work of creation proceeded and the number of intelligent creatures increased in the universe, it did not lead to confusion. Jehovah united them all into a harmonious, smoothly operating unity by binding them to him and to one another with bonds of love. To illustrate this happy union, he speaks of his universal organization of faithful heavenly creatures as his wife with whom he is united in happy wedlock.—Col. 1:16; 1 John 4:8, 11-13; Isa. 54:5, 6.
2. What is the strongest tie for making a unity of people, and how did Israel become the only true congregation or church of God in its days?
2 When Jehovah God began building the human society, he started out with the smallest unit of it, the marriage union, which normally is one of the strongest of the unions man is part of. This is so because the binding factor in marriage is love, and that is the strongest cement any unity of creatures can have. In fact, it is the only basis on which any unity can last. Drawing larger circles, parents and children are bound together by strong ties of love into the family union, and it was the families or tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob, the patriarch, that Jehovah God bound together into a national unity. An agreement or a covenant was made between him and the Israelites to the effect that he should be not only their King but also their God; and that made Israel not only a nation but also a congregation or church of God, the only true church of that time.—Gen. 2:24; Ex. 19:5, 6, 8; 20:1, 2; Acts 7:38; Ps. 147:20.
3. Was Jehovah nationalistic in selecting Israel as his congregation?
3 Why did Jehovah select the nation of Israel to make a church or congregation out of it? Was he a nationalistic God? No, he was not. It was because of a promise given to his friend Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites, that they were permitted to make up the body of that new church. But Jehovah did not in a nationalistic spirit prevent non-Israelites from becoming members of the only true church by circumcision. All God-fearing people who wanted to join with Israel in worshiping the true God were accepted regardless of nationality and race, previous religion or political affiliations. Provisions were made for making all such circumcised foreigners a part of the unity God had with Israel by constitutionally providing a place for them within the congregational organization under which Israel was. Israel was told to love the stranger just as Jehovah loved him. Neither did God show consideration for nationality or race by forming separate unities or churches with his circumcised worshipers of non-Israelite origin. There was but one temple where God could be met, one high priest, one Law, one unity or church for all worshipers to be united in. The Bible record shows that some peoples and tribes, such as the mixed crowd that came out of Egypt, the circumcised Gibeonites and circumcised Rechabites as well as many individuals like the women Rahab and Ruth, became a unity with Israel. Thus Jehovah proved to be the first successful Uniter of nations.—Deut. 10:17-19; 1 Ki. 8:41-43; Ex. 12:38; 2 Sam. 21:1, 2; Jer. 35:18, 19.
4. How did the Christian congregation get to be God’s true church?
4 The Jewish church or congregation, however, did not show love for Jehovah in the long run; and consequently it was severed from its union with him, and the Christian congregation became the true church of God as of Pentecost A.D. 33.
5, 6. How do we know that the congregation of God must be one, and who is included in the oneness?
5 Outstanding about the early Christian church was its unity. First of all, it was united with Jehovah God and Christ Jesus, and that is the most important of all unions. Jesus emphasized this unity in his illustration of the vine: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He that remains in union with me, and I in union with him, this one bears much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing at all. If anyone does not remain in union with me, he is cast out.”—John 15:4-6.
6 A union with Christ must also lead to unity among those united with him. So in his prayer immediately before he was betrayed, Jesus asks for such unity among his followers, saying: “I make request, not concerning these only, but also concerning those putting faith in me through their word, in order that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in union with me and I am in union with you, that they also may be in union with us, in order that the world may believe that you sent me forth. Also I have given them the glory which you have given me, in order that they may be one just as we are one. I in union with them and you in union with me, in order that they may be perfected into one, that the world may have the knowledge that you sent me forth and that you loved them just as you loved me.” Notice the directions this oneness takes. All his followers should be one; not only those living then, but also those putting faith in him through their, that is, his disciples’, word; whereby the oneness reaches into the future and includes all true Christians living today. At the same time it reaches into heaven to include Jesus Christ and Jehovah God, in order that his followers may be, as Jesus said, “in union with us.”—John 17:20-23.
EXTENT OF UNITY
7. What makes a union loose and weak, and what makes it close and strong?
7 What kind of unity was Jesus asking for in his famous prayer? How many and how strong should be the ties holding it together? Not all unions are equally strong. Some unions affect only one particular field in the lives of their members. For instance, people can belong to the same union for the protection of animals and still be as separated as East and West in matters of religion, politics and other interests. Such unions are loose ones. In contrast to them, the marriage or the family unions are close and strong unions, because they affect a whole number of interests in the lives of their members. In a normal family such things as blood ties, mutual love, the common home, its spirit or atmosphere, the family name, tradition, religion, cultural standard, trust to the extent of sharing one another’s confidence, respect and understanding are all things the members have in common; and the more things people share, the closer and stronger they are knit together.
8. What made the unity of the early Christian church so strong?
8 Now, back to our question. What kind of unity was Jesus talking about in John 17? Was it just a loose union, affecting merely one or two interests in the lives of his followers? No, he was asking for the strongest union there could be. “I have given them the glory which you have given me, in order that they may be one just as we are one.” We can think of no closer and stronger unity than the one existing between Jehovah God and his Son, Christ Jesus. The strength of that unity was proved by Jesus’ obedient course even till the death on the torture stake. It was into the closest family union of God, a privileged sonship, that Jesus asked his disciples to be taken, and for that purpose he had ‘given them the glory which Jehovah had given him,’ “a glory such as belongs to an only-begotten son from a father.” (John 1:14) Some of the many things they were to have in common are mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 4:3-5, where he speaks about “endeavoring to observe the oneness of the spirit in the uniting bond of peace,” and then goes on and enumerates: “One body there is, and one spirit, even as you were called in the one hope to which you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all persons, who is over all and through all and in all.” What a closely united and compact body his followers must have become considering the numerous things held in common!
9 To illustrate further that closeness and compact unity, Paul compares it to the human body: “For just as the body is one thing but has many members, and all the members of that body, although being many, are one body, so also is the Christ. For truly by one spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink one spirit. . . . God compounded the body, giving honor more abundant to the part which had a lack, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its members should have the same care for one another.” “Speaking the truth, let us by love grow up in all things into him who is the head, Christ. From him all the body, by being harmoniously joined together and being made to cooperate through every joint which gives what is needed, according to the functioning of each respective member in due measure, makes for the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” Could there be any more perfect unity than that between members of the human body? Could the body possibly be divided? Could there be more than one head to a body? What an excellent illustration to show the highest degree of unity and oneness of the many members making up the Christian congregation!—1 Cor. 12:12-25; Eph. 4:15, 16.
10. Why was the Christian church a true wonder of God’s spirit from its beginning?
10 From the very first day the Christian congregation proved capable of assimilating into its oneness not only persons from Palestine, but also from many different countries with their different languages, people from all sects of Judaism, Jews and circumcised proselytes, making the various religious and local opinions give way to Christian thinking. People of completely different social backgrounds, humble fishermen, farmers, shepherds, tax collectors, were brought into oneness with learned Pharisees and physicians, rich and poor, young and old, men, women and children, and were joined into the unity of the congregation. They were one even to the extent of temporarily sharing their material means to meet a critical situation that developed at Jerusalem during the first onrush of members and which required immediate relief action. “The multitude of those who had believed had one heart and soul, and not even one would say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” It was a true wonder of the spirit of God. The first three and a half years of its existence, however, the members of the church remained Jews and Jewish proselytes having come out of Judaism.—Acts 2:5-11, 41; 4:32-35.
11. In what respect did a change take place in the Christian congregation A.D. 36?
11 Then A.D. 36 the Christian congregation entered into a new phase of its history. In that year something happened that surprised everybody: An uncircumcised man and his family, Gentiles who had been in no covenant relation to Jehovah God before, suddenly became part of the Christian congregation with full and equal rights and obligations, as shown by the fact that these Gentiles were baptized and received the holy spirit the same as the believers from the Jewish organization. Now the famous commandment of Jesus was to be carried out: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations.” From being a Jewish believers’ unity or organization, the Christian congregation should open wide its gates to the rest of mankind and expand to become an international organization, facing all the problems international organizations always have had to face. By all this, true unity should be preserved in the bonds of peace and love.—Acts 10:44-48; Matt. 28:19.
OTHER INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
12. Why was the Roman Empire interested in making a unity of its subjected peoples, how did it go about it, and did it meet with success?
12 The pagan Roman Empire of that day was building and maintaining an international organization the best it knew how. After having conquered most of the civilized world, its job was to keep the many peoples, nations and races in subjection to the Roman rule. Like any other world power, national and religious feelings were the greatest obstacles it had to contend with in uniting the great variety of people under its control. Attempts were made to level class distinctions and to replace local customs by uniform laws and administration, and to supersede national religions by a common religion so as to weld the whole empire into a solid block; but the efforts were never crowned with success. Says Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. IV, p. 293: “Rome was never able to make a solid nation of her Empire. . . . The Empire had higher aims from the first, and the sense of duty to the conquered world increased on it as time went on; but it could neither restore nor create the patriotism of a nation. The old Roman nation was lost in the world; and if the world was lost in Rome, it did not constitute a new Roman nation. Greeks or Gauls might call themselves Romans, and seem to forget their old people in the pride of the Roman civitas [‘state’]; but Greeks and Gauls they remained. . . . There were peoples in great variety; but the old nations were dead, and the one new nation was never born.”
13. Why have our day’s world rulers no reason to look down on Rome?
13 Our day’s world rulers have no reason to boast, because they have not achieved any better results than the Romans, in spite of the enlightenment of the twentieth century and its United Nations organization. H. G. Wells compares the accomplishments in A History of the World as follows: “The Roman people found themselves engaged almost unawares in a vast administrative experiment. . . . It was always changing, it never attained to any fixity. In a sense the [administrative] experiment failed. In a sense the experiment remains unfinished, and Europe and America today are still working out the riddles of the worldwide statecraft first confronted by the Roman people.”—Chapter 33, “The Growth of the Roman Empire,” pages 149-151. Published 1922.
14. As single blocs, has the West or the East solved the problem of making a true unity of nations?
14 As single blocs of nations, neither the Democratic West nor the Communistic East has solved the riddle of international unity. In the Western world an international military alliance such as NATO often finds co-operation frustrated because of national pride on the part of some of its members. In the East, when Yugoslavia separated from the rest of the Communistic bloc and preferred its own brand of communism, an international movement as highly idealistic as the Communist and working for years under the motto “Workers in all the world unite” had to face the fact that not all Communists were prepared to sacrifice their national pride on the altar of Communist international unity. Whereas the Communist movement has achieved amazing results in uniting people of many nations around a political program, it has failed to make an international unity out of Communists. Nationalism, races, religion, languages and many other dividing factors have been like rocks in the sea on which the ships of human international rulers have met their disaster sooner or later.
15. (a) What made the international Christian church a greater wonder than the originally Jewish Christian church? (b) How did it accomplish its results?
15 For this sea, so full of undersea rocks and shipwrecks, the Christian congregation, young and inexperienced in international affairs, was now to set sail. In branching out and opening its doors to people of all nations, in meeting with all shades of pagan religion and philosophy, national pride, language barriers, racial, political and social controversies, could it maintain its achieved absolute unity? Could it do so without having to compromise as to its teachings and standards for membership? Could it still maintain its theocratic organizational setup unchanged, with a visible governing body at Jerusalem? Would it not have to break up into national groups with some form of self-government for each group and then join them somehow? Could it remain itself? If already the national Jewish church had been a wonder, it was a small one compared to the wonder of the international church, especially as seen on the historical background. What has been an unsolvable problem to human world builders till this day proved to be no problem to Christ Jesus, the Head of the Christian church. The Christians went to work at the very root of that which divides as well as unites, namely, the human mind. They started making over the minds of humble, Godfearing persons everywhere. Quite soon such believing persons in all nations experienced a change in personality as they started imitating their Head, Christ Jesus, and the result was amazing: All separating barriers vanished as people of the nations were incorporated in the body of Christ. To the local congregation at Colossae in Asia Minor Paul wrote: “Strip off the old personality with its practices, and clothe yourselves with the new personality which through accurate knowledge is being renewed according to the image of the one who created it, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, foreigner, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all things and in all.” And to those of the church in Galatia: “You are all, in fact, sons of God through your faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.”—Col. 3:9-11; Gal. 3:26-28.
16. What is a prerequisite for one church, and did the first Christians have it?
16 The basis for one church is unity in teaching and belief, and as long as the apostles and other mature brothers filled with the spirit were present, this unity was preserved. When once there were tendencies to building of sects in the congregation at Corinth, Paul reminded them: “Does the Christ exist divided?” and they were exhorted that they should “all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” Common faith makes a common church, no matter who and where the believers are.—1 Cor. 1:10, 13.
17. What other factor contributed to international unity?
17 Another factor supporting the Christian unity was the particular view of government held by the first Christians. They were no part of this world and its political system, which fact alone can contribute a lot to unity. Still they did not consider themselves a people without a government or ruler, but they had confidence in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ own words as to himself as the real King in a real kingdom exercising real government and with an army strong enough to destroy all other kingdoms in due time. They confessed the supernational King Jesus Christ as their Lord and dedicated their lives to God’s kingdom through him in unswerving loyalty. They were still obedient citizens of the nations they lived in, but in case of a clash between the commandments of their Lord and Master and those of man they took the stand that they must obey God rather than men; and they meant it, as Rome’s Caesars found out when they tried to interfere with the union in which Christians were bound to their God and to their King. They did not imagine that God’s kingdom is something just in the hearts of men, as many professing Christians do today. Keeping separate from the world, with the eyes firmly fixed on that heavenly kingdom and guided by the love-producing holy spirit, they were “one body” though international.—John 17:16; 18:36, 37; Dan. 2:44; Acts 5:29.
18. (a) Did the spirit guide the local congregations direct in the early church? (b) Why might one think complications could arise over decisions made by the visible governing body at Jerusalem, and did they arise?
18 Since there was just one organization, there could be only one central administrative agency for the whole organization. The apostles and the mature brothers at Jerusalem made up such a visible governing agency or body under the guidance of the spirit. It was recognized and readily co-operated with, world-wide. Problems of international significance to the church were taken to Jerusalem to be decided on. When the matter of circumcision arose, Paul did not summon to a synod the congregation overseers of Antioch and the rest of the province of Syria for the purpose of discussing and deciding on the matter, neither did he expect the spirit of God to give direct guidance to the congregations, but he went to the visible governing body at Jerusalem; and after the matter was settled there under the guidance of the spirit on that body, he was sent back to the congregations to make known the decision to them. This procedure led to no complications on the part of the non-Jews, as might have been expected under other circumstances. From a normal worldly viewpoint one would not have been surprised to hear the Greeks make objections, calling attention to their proud traditions of the past. After all, were not the world’s leading historians, poets, mathematicians and architects Greeks? Was not everything by the name of culture even in all the Roman Empire actually Greek? Or the Romans, the self-assured citizens of the world’s capital, why should they listen to despised Judeans, who, at times, were not even permitted to live at Rome? The world domination of the Semitic race, had it not passed from the Semitic to the Aryan race with the fall of Babylon? Why, then, should Aryan Romans and Greeks take orders from Semitic, Aramaic-speaking Jews in Jerusalem? Could they not think for themselves? There is nothing in the records to indicate any such worldly nationalistic or racial thinking gnawing away like termites on the roots of the Christian unity. Evidently everybody looked at it the same way as Paul did: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for there is the same Lord over all.” Far from its causing dissension, the record says: “Now as they traveled on through the cities they would deliver to those there for observance the decrees that had been decided upon by the apostles and older men who were in Jerusalem. Therefore, indeed, the congregations continued to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day.”—Acts 15:2, 41; 16:4, 5; Rom. 10:12.
19. In which respect was the early Christian church something never seen before?
19 Indeed the church was a wonder and an outstanding exception in the history of mankind; an international organization, yet characterized by “one heart and soul,” “same mind,” and “same line of thought,” ‘one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.’ (Acts 4:32; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:4-6) Something never seen before. A true product of God’s spirit. Certainly, Jehovah had fulfilled Jesus’ prayer for unity of the Christian church.—John 17:20-23.