Church Unity and the Lord’s Table
An increasing number of our churches are getting involved in talks with neighbouring churches with a view to pursuing ecclesiastical unity. Some wonder whether we need to put much time or energy into this. Yet on the whole, I think our churches realize that we have an obligation to work for the unity of all true believers, and of all those who confess the name of the Lord. After all, if we are serious about our faith, we must be serious about promoting the unity of the church, and the unity of all true believers.
Setting the Goal
In all of the current discussions, as far as I know, full federative unity remains the goal and aim. This involves a complete merger: unity at the table of the Lord. And there is every reason to pursue this aim! Augustine called the table of the Lord the sign of unity and the chain of love. 1 So the Lord’s table is also defended in Scripture! The apostle Paul refers to the Corinthians as: the body of Christ. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:28). The body cannot be divided, and there should be no factions in the body (1 Corinthians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 11:18). The body is one. And the Lord’s Supper must be maintained and celebrated as one body (1 Corinthians 11:33ff).
The one table of the Lord as ordained by Christ is an incentive for us to pursue true ecclesiastical unity, in our own congregations, and also with those with whom we share a common background, those seeking to maintain the service of the Lord in their situation. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” Here the one faith is connected with the one sacrament. There is one baptism, and by extrapolation we can add: one table, one covenantal bread, one communal cup. Therefore we are to pursue the unity of the church as much as possible. A unity confessed must be put into practice. Paul says in the same context:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love; eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.Ephesians 4:3
The ideas of humility and forbearance are also connected with the unity of the Lord’s table in the first letter to the Corinthians. Concerning the fellowship meal Paul says: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Corinthians 11:33). The term used for ‘wait’ in this passage has many shades of meaning, but is closely connected to the idea of receiving one another, welcoming one another in love and forbearance. The word also includes the idea of being patient with each other in the church.2 A similar view of the unity of the believers is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The apostle speaks about the unity of the saints at Colossae, but connects this to the unity of all the saints when he says:
For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts might be encouraged, as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of the assured understanding, and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.Colossians 2:1-3
Here the apostle speaks not only of the unity of the local church, but also of the unity of the churches together. It is incumbent for all the believers to be knit together in the bond of love. Hence we can say: all true believers belong around the one table of the Lord, (see Article 28, Belgic Confession).
Waiting for One Another
This is the unity that the table of the Lord demands. It does not look only to the local situation or to the local church, but looks to all the churches. The prayer of the Lord Jesus is that all the followers of the Lord may be one (John 17:21). This cannot be tied to one specific congregation, but refers to the churches together. The churches must be united in a common bond of mutual love, commitment and fellowship. And it is as one fellowship that the churches are called to go forward and to promote true unity with all those who name the name of the Lord and desire to serve and worship Him in spirit and in truth.
This implies that a local church should not establish relations of fellowship with other believers on its own. Part of being together in one federation means that we as churches are all knit together in one bond of love, and we all have the mutual obligation to consult each other and move forward with willing subjection of the one to the other (Ephesians 5:21).
At any given time a local church may feel frustrated in its progress by the requirements of the church order. People then say: If you feel one on a local level, why wait for the other churches of the federation to get involved, and give their approval? Can you not simply inform them and proceed? The difficulty here is that unity on a local level is gained at the cost of federative unity. In fact, a church can end up severing the lines in its own federation.
Why is the approbation of the federation so important? The federative ties we have established are meant to serve as safeguards – checks and balances so that we do not end up derailing from the right track. Sometimes we can become so enamoured with the progress in a local situation that we lose sight of the broader picture. That broader picture implies that where other churches outside our federation are bound by federative commitments, we not only must honour our commitments, but also urge them to do the same! That requires patience – precisely the patience of which the apostle Paul speaks. But that is the patience by which the unity we seek is truly tried and tested, so proving itself to be a lasting unity.
Unity in the Truth
Ultimately the unity we desire is a unity in the truth. The unity of which the Lord speaks in His “high priestly prayer” is to be understood as a unity in fellowship of the truth. Many misunderstand the well-known words of John 17:21 – That they may all be one. They place the notions of love and understanding first. But the prayer of John 17 must be kept in its context. 3
Jesus called Himself the way the truth and the life (John 14:6). True love of God and His Son are manifested in keeping to the truth (John 14:23). The mark of the true unity is to hold to the words of Jesus (John 8:31, 32, 51). Then Jesus makes allusions to the holy meal:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser ... Abide in me and I in you ... I am the vine and you are the branches ... He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:1-5
It was after He had set the connection between the bread and His body and between the wine and His blood that Jesus prayed to the Father: “Sanctify them in Thy truth” (John 17:17). Therefore the phrase “that they may all be one” refers to those sanctified in the truth of the Father and His Son. We cannot have true unity without this unity in the truth, and we cannot have the true love of each other without love in the truth.
How is the unity in the truth to be found? By going back to the word of the Lord Jesus and holding to that. That also means that we follow the way of repentance and faith, and reform life – including our church life – according to Reformed principles. The Reformed church is constantly reforming!
Only in this frame of mind can we as Canadian Reformed believers reach out to others; and it is only in this frame of mind that others with us can discover and cultivate a unity that endures, and promotes the healing of life, and the healing of the brokenness of the church caused by sin and error. We must remember that there is one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). For the truth still applies:
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth:
One holy name she blesses.
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.