Unity in the context of Scripture (part 1)

Note: This article is part of a series which refers to the PDF transcript of a Network teaching. The parenthesized numbers or ranges refer to lines in it. Some of the words I quote might be different from the PDF. This is because the transcript differed from what I heard Sándor say in the audio recording. This is part 1 in the series. See also part 2, part 3, and part 4.

One problem with this teaching about unity has to do with the interpretation of various passages. One of the things Sándor did a good job of was explaining nuance that an average reader may not be aware of in the case of the word “affection.” (452–459) This is a case that shows that the ESV is not always clear in its meaning. However, the same treatment was not given in the case of terms involving unity and oneness. The clarity of passages seems assumed and thus not explained; the context was not taken into consideration. These mistakes resulted in the idea of unity being taken more broadly than intended.

With one voice

Sándor interpreted “one voice” in Romans 15:5–6 as saying that “we would actually be together saying the same thing.” (221) Yet, the context of the passage doesn’t support this. In chapter 14, Paul warned about causing a fellow Christian to stumble or grieve over opinions on matters such as what to eat, drink, or celebrate. It wasn’t about having the same opinion on these things. The beginning of chapter 15 continues the line of thought. So Paul’s prayer for the church to glorify God with one voice was about a unity which transcends differences of opinion, not eliminates them. Disagreements over non-essentials exist—harmony implies differences—but even so, our lives show that we worship one God as one body. We need to be careful not to turn non-essential issues into matters of unity.

With one mind and judgment

When talking about 1 Corinthians 1, Sándor equated unity of mind and judgment to be “that we really do think the same thing about the same things.” (247–248). It is true that when Paul said “that all of you agree” in Greek, it can be literally translated “that all of you say the same thing.” However, there are a few problems with taking this as broadly as Sándor seems to teach.

First, the phrase that in the ESV becomes “that all of you agree” is recognized by scholars as being an idiom of politics, and one can’t simply take idioms at face value—they must be interpreted. Anthony Thiselton, citing J. B. Lightfoot, both English theologians, said this:

Lightfoot (1895) writes: “We have here a strictly classical expression. It is used of political communities which are free from factions, or of different states which entertain friendly relations with each other.” He speaks therefore of “making up differences,” although we should be cautious about implying any lack of difference that entailed bland uniformity. (p. 116, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC))

Lightfoot also pointed to how the Greek “ekklesia” was initially a political term as well, which Paul frequently used. Paul adopted existing terms for use in the church.

Second, the context of the passage doesn’t support Sándor’s interpretation. You might be skeptical or dismayed about the knowledge of Greek seemingly required to understand this passage, but it’s not necessary. The reports Paul received weren’t, “I believe this,” and “I believe that,” but “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Continuing on in the epistle, you can see from the context that the concern with divisions was more about power, pride, and envy than theological differences. For example:

  • Paul did not preach with “words of eloquent wisdom” or “lofty speech” so that the cross of Christ wouldn’t be emptied of power, and so that the Corinthians’ faith would be in the “power of God,” rather than the “wisdom of men.” (1 Corinthians 1:17, 2:2–5)
  • He was glad that he baptized few, so nobody could brag about being baptized by him (1 Corinthians 1:14–15).
  • God chose what was low in wisdom, power, status “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” and so one who boasts, boasts in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:26–31).
  • Paul had addressed the Corinthians not “as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” They still weren’t ready for “solid food” instead of “milk” because of “jealousy and strife.” Their claims of “I follow Paul” were “behaving only in a human way” and bragging in nothing, because “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:1–7)
  • He warned against thinking themselves wise, calling their thoughts futile and not to boast in men, because they already had everything through Christ (1 Corinthians 3:18–23).
  • Paul wanted them to learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of them “be puffed up in favor of one against another.” Everything they had, they received, but they boasted as if otherwise (1 Corinthians 4:6–7).

The opposite of division over power struggles isn’t agreement about everything, but recognition that we are one body, with one Lord, through whom we have all things (1 Corinthians 3:21–23), one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4–6); becoming a fool to become wise (1 Corinthians 4:18–20); setting aside selfish ambition and having a humble mind (Philippians 2:3).

Third, Paul demonstrated his tolerance for different thinking in 1 Corinthians 7. Twice he gave his judgment (v25, 40), but it was no disunity or sin for the Corinthians to go against that judgment. Paul wished that everyone was as he was, but recognized diversity given from God himself (v7). This doesn’t relativize all moral behavior but shows freedom in non-essentials.

The burden of proof would be on Sándor to demonstrate from Scripture that Paul was indeed speaking broadly and literally, but he didn’t. It comes off more as an assumption that only works by taking the verse out of context. Do you ever feel superior for being a part of the Network or any other denomination? Do you look down on others because you “follow Steve Morgan” or “follow John Piper” and they don’t? This passage is for you. Think twice before boasting about what you have received.

In Philippians, you can see a similar context. When Paul wrote, “do nothing from selfish ambition” in Philippians 2:3, he was referring back to Philippians 1:17, discussing people who were preaching the gospel with selfish motives. It wasn’t the contents of the preaching at issue (“Christ is proclaimed”), but the heart. Also note that the root word translated as “mind” is translated “feel” in the Philippians 1:7. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, co-author of the acclaimed How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth noted this:

The initial clause, “that you set your minds on the same thing,” has been rightly captured by the NIV, “that you be like-minded.” This verb, which he used in 1:7 to refer to his disposition toward them, is also used at the end of the letter of theirs toward him (4:10 [2x]). In between it dominates the imperatival moments in this letter. As noted before, the word does not mean “to think” in the sense of “cogitate”; rather it carries the nuance of “setting one’s mind on,” thus having a certain disposition toward something (e.g., life, values, people) or a certain way of looking at things, thus “mindset.” What he means by the “same” mindset will be explained in vv. 6–11, where Paul points them to that of Christ (v. 5). The emphasis is thus on the Philippians’ unity of purpose and disposition, unity with regard to the gospel and their heavenly citizenship—exactly as in 4:2, where he qualifies it, “have the same mindset in the Lord"—not on their all having the same opinions about everything. (p. 184–185, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT))

Love, not uniformity

What all of these passages show is not that we all become basically the same person. The center of unity is not uniformity, but love. It is at the center of Romans 14–15, where Paul talks about the strong and weak. It is the heart of the most well known chapter of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. And it is the focus of the five attributes in 1 Peter 3:81.

Should we work toward doctrinal unity? Absolutely. At some level, agreement about doctrine is necessary. If a church can’t agree on whether Jesus was truly the Son of God, for example, building unity becomes difficult. But agreement is only the beginning of unity, and the scope of that agreement has to be dictated by Scripture. Unity over things like how often to get your hair cut is legalism, not real unity. Leaders that apply this kind of pressure overstep the bounds of their authority to conform others to their own mind, rather than the mind of Christ. This is the subject of part 2.

  1. One can look at the attributes of 1 Peter 3:8 as a chiasm. The other two attributes, “unity of mind” and “humble mind” are parallel to each other; the next two, “sympathy” and “a tender heart” are also parallel to each other; the center, “brotherly love,” is the focal point of all of these attributes. ↩︎