“The Basis of Christian Unity” by Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Quick Review
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. Romans 16:17-19
If you travel textually through doctrinally sound, theologically beneficial books on the Christian faith, particularly if you are of the Reformed persuasion, Martyn Lloyd-Jones is hopefully a familiar name to you. The works of this pulpit-dominant, Reformed, twentieth-century pastor are resources that are valued for their depth of Biblically-informed thought and their easily apprehended, logical style.
(For a good biographical read on Lloyd-Jones, check out The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Steven Lawson, a title from “A Long Line of Godly Men” series.)
Perhaps no other book on the issue of Christian unity is more pertinent for the church today than Lloyd-Jones’ text entitled The Basis of Christian Unity. More of a booklet – it’s merely 77 pages in length – the tiny tome blasts out Biblical truth about Christian unity in a forthright, and hopefully convicting (for modern church ecumenicists) manner.
Lloyd-Jones outlines in exegetical fashion the two primary Scriptural texts speaking on the topic of Christian unity, John 17 and Ephesians 4. He walks the reader through a verse by verse explanation of what these Scriptures teach on a critically important, and increasingly popular, matter.
From his exegesis of John 17, Lloyd-Jones summarizes the foundational understanding of Christian unity that is reinforced later by Paul, and echoed throughout the remainder of New Testament references on the issue:
“So we find here that the whole of our Lord’s statement is not an exhortation for us to do anything, but is a prayer to His Father asking Him to preserve this unity that is already in existence.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones
This “already in existence” unity sounds remarkably unfamiliar given the tone of the unity rhetoric heard in so much of the church today. We see impassioned pleas for ecumenical unity from every corner of Christendom. Denominations within similar theological frameworks have historically shared brotherly fellowship, but the cry for unity today has moved far beyond the restricting boundaries once demanded by theological integrity.
Protestants now unite eagerly with Catholics. (Lutherans recently reversed the Reformation, as you might know.) Theologically conservative denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention, now have leadership engagements with those who would have been, less than a generation prior, deemed heretics. (Which they still are, by the way; see former SBC President Ronnie Floyd’s “unity” follies HERE, for example) We see massive, theologically-decentralized, doctrine-disregarding gatherings as unity is effectively proclaimed to be a man-made endeavor. (Consider the recent Together 2016 rally as just one recent example.)
While leadership of the modern church seeks to create unity, Scripture teaches otherwise.
Lloyd-Jones spends the bulk of his text dealing with Ephesians 4:1-16. Unlike Christ’s prayer in John 17, in which the believer is not commanded to do anything, the Ephesians text “is an exhortation to Christian believers.” But it’s not an appeal to create something, as we’ll see. It’s an appeal to protect.
The expected, contextual, verse by verse hermeneutic is employed by Lloyd-Jones to bring out the proper meaning of this critical Scriptural explanation and exhortation of unity. Simply put, “you cannot have unity without the faith” but “the faith” is particular, specific, and drawn strictly from the teaching of God in His Word.
“… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Ephesians 4:14
Paul, as Lloyd-Jones says, was “writing to people who are already one in their doctrine; and one in their knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ,” but had not yet fully realized its perfection. Paul was encouraging those authentic, doctrinally-sound believers to continue growing in their faith so that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” (Ephesians 4:14)
False teachers claiming to be of Christ, but with Biblically unsound teachings, served as a threat to believers and to the church. Paul’s words “by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” emphasize the threat to an already-present unity shared by authentic believers.
At the beginning of the chapter, Paul reminded the readers of the unity they already shared. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5) As Lloyd-Jones points out, the unity Paul cites in Ephesians is the same unity Christ prayed for in John 17. Paul’s exhortations are not, therefore, for his readers to create unity, but rather to realize it, grow in it, and defend it.
Lloyd-Jones emphasizes that unity is a Christ-given assurance within the church, but, as Paul warns the church in Ephesus, it must be protected against false teaching. Unsound doctrine that is allowed to gain entrance into the church, if not thwarted, will result in spiritual havoc for believers, serving to keep them as “children tossed to and fro.” Thus, it is truth and sound doctrine that defines the authentic unity which Christ has created.
“The New Testament everywhere insists upon true doctrine. I emphasize this because, as we have seen the whole tendency today is to discourage talk about doctrine and to urge that we work together, pray together, and evangelize together because ‘doctrine divides’. Doctrine is being discounted in the interests of supposed unity. The fact is, however, that there is no unity apart from truth and doctrine, and is departure from this that causes division and breaks unity.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones
The author’s remarks are validated by the apostle. Paul’s closing comments to the church in Rome reveal where the source of true disunity lies in the church, as it did with the congregation at Ephesus, and with every other local body. Division and disunity are caused by those with contrary doctrine.
As Lloyd-Jones laments for the church of his day, we share today the same grief with the same ecclesiastic reality. “Modern teaching about unity has departed so far from the New Testament that it dislikes any polemical element at all in the preaching and the teaching of the truth.”
If our post-modern era has a defining buzzword, that word is “tolerance,” and its impact is increasingly felt within the church. “Any polemical element is regarded as a negation of the Christian spirit,” as Lloyd-Jones writes. We prefer peaceful, uncontested agreeability rather than firm stands on Scriptural truth. It’s important to remember that the One who referred to Himself as “the way, the TRUTH, and the life” (John 14:6) also made it clear that His ministry in declaring that Truth was divisive by divine intent. (Luke 12:51)
“Let us remember, in these days when ‘niceness’ and ‘friendliness’ and ‘fellowship’ are exalted to the supreme position and at the expense of the truth, that the exhortation addressed to the New Testament teachers and believers was not that they should be ready to agree with anything for the sake of unity and fellowship.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Lloyd-Jones concludes his brief, but excellent, tome with a number of concluding summary statements. He expands briefly on each of them in the book, but a few of them are given here.
“Unity must never be isolated, or regarded as something in and of itself.”
“It is equally clear that the question of unity must never be put first.”
“We must never start with the visible church or with an institution, but rather with the truth, which alone creates unity.”
“To regard a church, or a council of churches, as a forum in which fundamental matters can be debated and discussed, or as an opportunity for witness-bearing, is sheer confusion and muddled thinking.”
To this last point, particularly apropos to current unity endeavors, Lloyd-Jones contends from Scripture that “those who question and query, let alone deny, the great cardinal truths that have been accepted throughout the centuries do not belong to the church, and to regard them as brethren is to betray the truth.” He quotes Paul from Titus 3:10 in the King James translation, “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.”
Lloyd-Jones’ position is consistent with other voices from orthodoxy who have stood firm in the faith as the appeals for unity and fellowship among doctrinally-diverse, though often unsound, elements of the self-proclaimed church clamored with increasing volume. Another no less stalwart a figure of faith than Charles Spurgeon gave his own pithy response to pursuits of unity during the time of downgrade facing the church of his day.
“It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretense of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.” Charles Spurgeon
The Basis of Christian Unity is a valuable resource for the church today. Every denominational leader, every pastor, and every Christian teacher should read it, study it, and abide by its clear exegesis of Scripture. Believers who might otherwise be unknowingly amenable to embracing unfettered fellowship in the name of tolerance should carefully peruse its message.
Believers are always called to contend for the truth in love, but always to contend. When faced with those who deny the truth, or teach doctrines unsupported by Scripture, we are to have no fellowship, no unity, with them. Indeed, we cannot, for those teaching false doctrine are not of the faith. But for those who share with us the “one faith,” we already have unity – Christ assures us of that.
The Basis For Christian Unity by Martyn Lloyd-Jones was published by The Banner of Truth Trust and is copyrighted by Lady Catherwood and Mrs. Ann Beatt, 2003. All quotations cited herein are from this volume. It is available for purchase directly from Banner of Truth and from Amazon.
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[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]
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