You may have noticed that the tagline for our website is “That They May Be One” and wondered what it means. A group of Bible students had the same question as they met together to consider the desire of the Lord Jesus expressed in these words, repeated four times in His prayer to God His Father. What one-ness was He praying for? And where was it expressed in the days when the apostles served the Lord?
Some have taught that He was referring to the unity of the Church, which is His Body, of which Christ is the Builder and Saviour and Nourisher. But an elderly brother in the group spoke. “I cannot see that it can be the Church, His Body, for in that church all the members are one in Christ; whereas the Lord Jesus prayed (in John 17:21), ‘That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.’ Surely that is different from being in Christ”, he said. The brother’s point was a good one, and the conclusion he reached is supported by the fact that the Church, His Body, is in Christ’s safe keeping. It cannot be marred, for “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). If its unity cannot be destroyed, the Lord Jesus could obviously not be praying about it.
Further, He was praying for a unity that the world could see and through which the world would know (v.23) and believe (v.21) that the Father had sent the Son. The unity of the Body can’t be seen by the world, because no-one knows who are members of it until they declare themselves as belonging to Christ and, in any event, countless numbers of its members are now in heaven. Its members who are still on earth are scattered throughout the world, and although “joined and knit together”, (Ephesians 4:16), the unity thus produced is something of which the world isn’t aware.
Quite clearly then it must have been another unity which the Lord Jesus had in mind and for which He prayed so earnestly. We don’t have far to look to find out what it was, for the Acts of the Apostles makes it clear. When the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and filled the believers (Acts 2:1-4), the Lord Jesus began to build His Church, building into it every believing one. Very shortly after, those who believed were baptized in water and added to some who were already together, and as a company they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:41-42). Here was something additional to the unseen unity of the members of the Body of Christ; a company of baptized believers together to obey the word of the Lord. Here was something which the world could see. They were regularly gathered together and the world could see them breaking bread and engaging in collective prayer. At the beginning this movement was confined to Jerusalem and we learn from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that the gathered disciples were called the church of God (Galatians 1:13)
Membership of the Church, the Body of Christ depended solely upon the new birth. Each born again person was baptized by Christ in the Holy Spirit into His Body as 1 Corinthians 12:13 teaches. But those in the church of God in Jerusalem were disciples who had been baptized in water, added together by the Lord, and were continuing in obedience to the faith (see Acts 6:7). In the Church His Body each member was eternally secure. He couldn’t be snatched from it, nor wander from it of his own accord, for His word is sure, “neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28); whereas at death a person ceases to belong to a church of God, or during his lifetime he may wander away in disobedience, thus forfeiting his place, or may have to be put away because of serious sin (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
The Churches of God
Let’s briefly trace the progress of the movement described as “the churches of God”. These churches grew rapidly both in size and in number in those early days of the Holy Spirit’s activity. Persecution scattered the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria and they went about preaching the Word. Philip went down to Samaria and those who believed were baptized. In Acts 9:31 (Revised Version) it says, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was multiplied”. Some believe that “the church” in this passage relates to the Jerusalem church in its scattered state, before additional churches were planted. We take the view that the singular is used to describe the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria; these churches in three small provinces at that time, although many, were integrated into one, and called “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As such, weren’t they then the answer to the Master’s prayer, that they may all be one? We believe they were.
An Expanding Movement
And so they continued to be, as the work of God spread to Antioch, through Syria and Cilicia, Phrygia and Galatia, and to the great cities of Asia, and eventually into Europe, as the Word reached Philippi and the cities of Macedonia. In the purposes of God the apostle Paul was used to spearhead the work of the commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:19,20). Paul preached for decisions, then stayed to teach his converts, and before moving on he built the obedient ones together as living stones (1 Peter 2:5) into a testimony for God in their town or city. That was the pattern to which he always worked.
In most places he left behind him a building for God, composed of baptized disciples built together to the pattern of the first church of God in Jerusalem. And so, the saints of the church of God in Thessalonica, for example, are described as being imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea. Isn’t this characteristic of the one-ness for which the Lord Jesus prayed? And incidentally, remembering our elderly friend’s comment on the Master’s words in John 17, we notice that the churches of the Thessalonians are said to be “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1). “That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us”. Can’t we see an association of thought here?
There were many churches, but all linked together in one fellowship of assemblies. And because they were one fellowship, reception into a church of God carried with it the privilege of belonging to that fellowship. Letters of commendation were used (see Acts 18:27; 2 Corinthians 3:1; Romans 16:1,2) whereby disciples commended from one assembly to the fellowship of another were assured of being received. And conversely, because they were one, a person put away from one assembly could not be received in another. When such judgement was carried out it was recognized by all the churches: a necessary result of the unity of the churches under the authority of the same Lord, bound together by the same faith.
“The faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude v.3) was the basis of their unity. They were all subject to it because it was the word of the Lord. As new churches of God were founded they were all built to the same pattern, because they were subject to the same teaching, as Paul made very clear: “… as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17) and “…so I ordain I in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17). And of course the same teaching resulted in the same practices, and so Paul went on to write, “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16).
Division Nipped in the Bud
If this is the unity for which the Lord Jesus so earnestly prayed and for which also He died (please note carefully John 11:52), it isn’t surprising that the Adversary repeatedly tried to disrupt it. Acts 15 is a notable occasion when seeds of discord were sown as brothers from Judea introduced wrong teaching among those in the church in Antioch. The problem was too thorny to be handled by Antioch brothers alone, and certain men were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders on the question. The chapter is full of instruction for us today as to how unity is to be maintained. Leaders stood up and gave the lead, and others were in subjection, all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that they reached the point where they could say “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us” (verse 28). Decisions were made which were binding upon all the churches, as Acts 16:4,5 makes clear, with the result that unity among them was preserved.
A second principle emerges therefore, that if the unity of churches of God is to be maintained, not only will the same teaching need to be binding upon every church, but the elders among them will require to be united to hold it and to teach it. And this was precisely the case in apostolic days.
A United Elderhood
Please notice the following three cases where elders of more than one assembly acted together. First, when the disciples in Antioch desired to send a gift to their brothers in Judea, they sent it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29-30). There must have been many churches of God in Judea and how could the distribution have been made unless the elders were acting together?
Another example of the same truth is seen in Acts 16:1-3 when Timothy was sent out to the work of the Lord by the laying on of the hands of the council of elders (1 Timothy 4:14). Timothy belonged to the church of God in Derbe, but Paul sought the fellowship of the neighbouring assemblies of Lystra and Iconium before taking him with him. The council of elders or elderhood refers to the body of elders together and we believe that the elders of the three assemblies are being referred to. Doesn’t it show clearly the unity of the elderhood in a group of churches?
And thirdly, in 1 Peter 5:1,2 we have a much larger grouping, for Peter wrote to the elders, not of one province but of five, in what is now present-day Turkey, exhorting them to tend the flock of God which was among them. There must have been many churches of God throughout those provinces, comprising perhaps thousands of disciples, but they were one flock, and the elders among them one elderhood, so obviously linked together that the one letter was addressed to the whole.
Some believers have taught, and still do, the autonomy of individual assemblies, but where is that seen in the Scriptures? We write in a kindly way, for we love all who are fellow-members of the Body, and the bonds which unite us in Christ are close and precious. We write because we believe that this is a line of truth which is very dear to the heart of the Lord, and we hope that many will read what is written here and search their Bibles to see if these things are so.
A Parable for Today
To us it is clear that there was a grouping together of assemblies both in districts and provinces, and also in larger areas, and that within each of these groups the elders functioned together as one. An illustration of the principle is in God’s instruction for the building of the tabernacle. “The tabernacle shall be one”, He said (Exodus 26:6 Revised Version), and the tabernacle was made of ten curtains of the same measure which were joined together, five into one, and the other five into one, and then the two ones coupled together by the clasps of gold. This is a parable from which we are to learn lessons for today, that when God joins many into one, He joins a few together, and another few, and then all are joined into a united whole.
Doesn’t it tie up with the New Testament pattern of individual churches grouped together in districts and provinces, such as the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2) and the churches of Asia (1 Corinthians16:19), and then joined together, as Ephesians 2 puts it, into a dwelling-place of God in the Spirit which is called “the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9)?
Can’t we build to the same pattern today? In the late nineteenth century, there were men and women who believed they could and that God was calling them to do so. They saw in the Scriptures these truths of the grouping together of assemblies and of the united elderhood, etc., and, in order to give expression to them, at great personal cost they left their previous associations. In God’s mercy the movement which they pioneered is still at work in churches of God worldwide today, and we call upon fellow-believers to examine the teaching in the fear of the Lord and to determine whether this was the unity for which the Master prayed. If it is, then with God’s help, let’s stand together in giving expression to it.