Jesus used literary figures of speech such as similes and metaphors in His explanations of spiritual truths, and this practice continued throughout the writing of the New Testament and in Christian thought and teaching to this very day. A powerful metaphor which has increased in meaning and appropriateness through the centuries is that which pictures the essential unity of all believers as one Family of God, one Church, one Body of Christ on earth, one Bride of Christ, consisting of all who ever have or ever will live in loving relationship with God through the redeeming power of Jesus’ blood resulting in actively seeking to know and obey Him.
On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for all human rebellion against God, earned forgiveness for all people. The exact terminology we use in personally accepting His sacrifice for us doesn’t matter so long as it involves recognition and rejection of our failure to give proper first place honour and authority to God, acceptance of Christ’s finished saving work on the cross, and recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives. Jesus once explained this as being “born again” and being “born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8), and thus also identified it as the first step in a process of growth and development, of becoming more like Jesus, of becoming the image of God that He intends us to be. We cannot earn anything from God by doing good works, but if we are His children indwelt by His Holy Spirit, then we are motivated by love to live in obedience to His will, to live increasingly pure and holy lives as He desires. Throughout his letters to the churches, Paul spells out what this looks like, as in Romans 12:1-2 or Philippians 4:8, for example. As we search the Scriptures, seek to know Him and do His will, we will discover deep joy in our relationship with Him.
As we experience different congregations, different denominations, work in inter-denominational organizations, we realize that there are these true believers in every congregation and denomination, and even outside the organized church. The sense of unity is based on the common ground core beliefs and experience of relationship with God, and thus surpasses all differences in the non-essentials of belief or practice. Indeed, true believers have more in common with each other across all institutional boundaries than they have in common with those in their home congregations who have failed to truly connect with God through Jesus Christ. At least two of Jesus’ statements speak to this situation. Of those who claim a faith they actually lack, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:21-23 NIV) Fortunately, it is not for us to try to determine who else fits where, because Jesus also said, “Do not judge.” (Matt. 7:1 NIV) Unlike us, God looks on the heart, knows every thought, attitude, emotion, experience, and motivation, so can judge correctly.
The sound basis of unity across denominational lines makes sense if we take another look at how the divisions came about. There were exceptions, but historically, most new denominations came about because a church organization had become institutionalized and stale, had developed its own practices and traditions, and had lost the excitement and joy of actively living in the Spirit. From within, a leader developed who truly knew God and His Word and lived in the power, inspiration and joy of the Holy Spirit. He tried to bring renewed spiritual life to the church and often was effective in bringing new believers into it. The existing institution was unwilling to come back to spiritual life and pushed out the leader and his followers. Among those leaders were Martin Luther, whose reforms were denied by the Roman Catholic Church resulting in the Lutheran Church, John Calvin, whose understanding of Scripture led to the Reformed churches, John Wesley, whose evangelistic emphasis and enthusiastic Bible Study were rejected by the Anglican Church resulting in the Methodist Church, and William Booth, whose poverty-stricken lower class converts were rejected by the Methodist Church a century later, resulting in the Salvation Army. Each leader or new group tended to interpret differently or emphasize different aspects of Biblical Christianity, and for a time, the differences were given undue importance in order to justify the separation between the old and the new. Today, as the church in our western world is coming under such strong “intellectual” pressure, it is important to come back to the basics and stand together and strong for our common Christian core faith. We must display a genuine love for each other across all denominational lines in obedience to Jesus when He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”