Between 1875 and 1892 George Müller travelled the world preaching with seven objectives in view. The fourth of these was, 'To promote among all true believers, brotherly love; to lead them to make less of those non-essentials in which disciples differ, and to make more of those great essential and foundation truths in which all true believers are united.'
No real Christian could discount such an aim. Yet since these words were spoken no great advances have been made toward attaining this goal. How is that to be explained? I offer some reasons:
It was unity of this kind, then widely enjoyed, that gave rise to those great trans-denominational efforts of the nineteenth century which shaped the history of the world. I am thinking of missionary societies, Bible and Tract societies, in which there was wider co-operation than had been known before. Remembering this should restrain our controversies over issues which do not directly concern the gospel itself. George Whitefield would never have accomplished what he did had he not acted on the principle, 'I despair of a greater union among the churches, till a greater measure of the Spirit be poured from on high. Hence, therefore, I am resolved simply to preach the gospel of Christ, and to leave others to quarrel by and with themselves.'
- Unity has too often been pursued by those who are not advocates of the 'great foundation truths.' 'Unity' — interpreted as organisational oneness — has been treated as a good remedy to stop the decline of Christian influence, with 'fellowship' given priority over 'doctrine,' contrary to Acts 2:41.
- The quest for unity around personalities and preachers (the threat in the Corinthian church) is never lasting, although it may seem to have short-lived success.
- Müller’s call 'to make less of non-essentials' is not exactly straightforward, and the very phrase is liable to misinterpretation. True believers do disagree over some issues in Scripture — church government and the ordinance of baptism, for a start. Yet history has shown that all attempts to downplay these distinctives, and thus to end denominations, are going to fail. Believers are going to hold convictions on all that Scripture reveals. The policy of John Wesley and others to deem anything 'not fundamental' as 'mere opinion' is not good enough. Given the imperfect understanding of all Christians, and the need for corporate agreement on some secondary issues, denominations of one kind or another will remain. Better for us to accept this fact and, as J.C. Ryle says, keep the walls as low as possible and shake hands over them often. This is not to deny that the distinction between secondary and fundamental truths, while not always easy to determine, is an important one.
- Christians agree that unity is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:3). It follows that when believers experience more of his grace and power, the bond between them will grow. Conversely, what William Hamilton once said is true, 'The more carnal a Christian is, the more sectarian he will be.' An outpouring of the Spirit always brings greater unity. What Daniel Baker reported as happening in the revival at Beaufort, South Carolina, was true in many parts of the States at the time of the Second Great Awakening:
'The effect no one can conceive who was not present. Politics were laid aside; business stood still . . . The union of sects produced on the occasion was not the least striking feature of the event. Distinctions were laid aside. Christians of all denominations met and worshipped together, indiscriminately, in either church, and the cordiality of their mutual attachment was a living commentary on the great precept of their Teacher, "Love one another."'
What are the needs in the contemporary scene with regard to unity?
- In an age of doctrinal indifference, we need to be awake to the difficulty of obeying the injunction to 'follow peace with all men' while contending for the faith. In that regard, we should do our utmost to avoid derogatory terms in speaking of fellow Christians. All distinctive identity labels should be used very sparingly. Christians are to love and serve one another in all circumstances.
- We need to be alert to the threat that innocently adjusting services to the musical taste of modern culture poses to the reverent worship of God. God’s powerful works have always been accompanied more by awe, penitence, and silence than by noise and 'celebration.' Practice, as well as faith, needs to conform to the simplicity of the New Testament. The fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit belong together (Acts 9:31). True worshippers should know something of what is said of Jacob: 'He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17).'
- Instead of attempting to form new alliances and organizations, we need to discern what God is doing. His work will last for eternity. It is one of the brightest hopes in the United States at the present time that gospel preachers, from different denominational backgrounds, are being spontaneously drawn together in a common concern to advance the cause of Christ. This cause does not need new labels or structures; most of all it needs the anointing of the Spirit, more prayer, love, and humility. Announcements of success, or satisfaction with numbers, are to be feared rather than sought. God’s work needs no publicity. A true advance and recovery will be marked by the sense of weakness and need which gives all glory to God. Let us not stop short of seeking a real spiritual awakening!
1. I have written on 'Church Unity and Christian Unity' in The Old Evangelicalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005).
2. William Baker, Making Many Glad, The Life and Labours of Daniel Baker (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), p.149.
3. L Tyerman, Life of Whitefield, vol. 1 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876), p.552.
Iain H. Murray was a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, 1957, and his subsequent work has been divided between preaching and writing. He is a minister emeritus of the Australian Presbyterian Church.
This article appeared in the 9Marks eJournal for March/April 2008, and can be found here.