Unity vs. Conformity

In this lesson, Mike highlights the differences in the two main approaches used to create "oneness" in the church.
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In my sermon I'd like to talk to you about two things – conformity and unity, and how each is used to create oneness in the church. These ideas are very important for us as Christians because they determine what our basic experience will be like in the body of Christ.

Conformity and unity are words that refer to how people relate to and remain part of a group, any group, including church groups. So, let's take each word and break it down to see how this works.

1. Conformity

Basically, means to become the same. So, creating a group and keeping it together using the principle of conformity means that pressure is applied to make sure everyone thinks, acts, and even looks the same.

  • School uniforms
  • No mixing with people outside the group
  • Repeating the rules
  • No changes in procedure
  • No room for individual freedom, personal opinion or differences

These are all methods used to form, maintain and grow a group using conformity as a basic idea. There are advantages in using the conformist approach:

  1. It is easier to establish and grow a group where everyone is the same. It is easier to spot and eliminate the troublemakers – they're different!
  2. A group built on conformity is usually easier to control from the top down. Fewer leaders can control a larger number of people since there is only a single goal to pursue – conformity.
  3. Conformity is comfortable. People like conformist religious groups because they feel safe. Everybody's the same, their environment is controlled, no need to think differently, just keep working on conformity.

Of course, there is also a downside to conformity as an approach to establishing and maintaining a religious group.

  1. People are not machines, they like to ask questions and express themselves. This causes turmoil in a conformist group.
  2. Conformity breeds competition. People within the group begin to compete to find who conforms best and thus can rise to leadership. In conformist groups, leadership is based on performance and performance stimulates competition and competition produces rivalry, jealousy, and all kinds of negative emotions as well as sinful behavior.
  3. Perhaps the worst downside feature of conformity when it comes to religious groups is the fact that it's not the method given by the Bible as the way to establish, build, and nurture the church.

The Biblical methodology, when it comes to groups, is called unification.

2. Unity

The dictionary defines unity as "the state of being made one". Whereas conformity tries to create a group by forcing each individual to become the same, unity creates a group by getting each individual to commonly share the same thing/person.

With unity, people become part of a group because they each hold to a common idea while maintaining their individuality. The pressure to keep them inside the group comes from within, like a magnet drawing everyone to the center rather that a fence preventing them from getting out.

In Ephesians, chapter four, Paul talks about the unity that exists in the church, how it was established and how to maintain it. Now that we've briefly explored the differences between conformity and unity, let's open our Bibles to Ephesians chapter four and examine this passage together.

I. Unity of the Church – Ephesians 4:1-16

Let us begin with some background information on the first three chapters of Ephesians to help us understand what Paul was talking about here in chapter four. In the first three chapters of this epistle, Paul lists all the things that God has done for the Ephesians:

  • Planned for their salvation before the beginning of time.
  • Prepared spiritual gifts waiting for them in heaven.
  • Created a link/union between Himself, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the church producing spiritual oneness.

In chapter four (where we'll begin) Paul then explains the response that God expects from the church because of what He has done on her behalf. He'll mention the number one thing that God expects from the group (church) He has established through Jesus Christ. It is interesting to note that the first and foremost thing He requires is that the church preserve the unity, not conformity, that He has already established within this entity. In chapter four we read about Paul's call to unity among brothers and sisters in the church.

1. The Call to Unity – Ephesians 4:1-3

1Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
- Ephesians 4:1-3

He begins by exhorting them to preserve the unity that already exists and to which they (the church) were added. The church does not create unity. Unity already exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When Jesus gave His life to create the church and gave His word to instruct it, and the Holy Spirit to sustain it – He made the church part of this unified Godhead (John 17:14-21).

  • Jesus is part of the Divine and unified Godhead.
  • The church through the cross, His word, and the Holy Spirt is part of Jesus.
  • Therefore, the church is also (through its connection to Jesus) part of this unified Godhead.

Every person, whether Jew or Gentile, who becomes part of the church also becomes part of the unified Godhead. Jesus, as Paul explains, has maintained His unity with the Father and Holy Spirit by accomplishing the plan of salvation.

Now, Paul puts forth what the church must do in order to maintain its unity with Christ. You see, unity in the church equals unity with Christ and the Godhead. This is why unity is such an important issue. The threat of division at Ephesus also carried the danger of losing unity with Christ. Paul begins this section by encouraging them to preserve unity and he explains how they are to do this. Preserving unity requires that we have a certain attitude toward one another in the church, and Paul teaches the Ephesian brethren what this attitude should consist of, he mentions four things:

  1. Humility – the opposite of pride and vanity; an accurate assessment of self.
  2. Meekness (Gentle) – not self-willed or violent.
  3. Patience – a willingness to put up with trials, suffering, even failure without losing self control or cheerfulness.
  4. Forbearance (make allowance) – the ability to not allow the action of others to provoke us.

Paul tells them that, in Christ, both Jew and Gentile are equally blessed, saved, and precious to God. Now he exhorts them that by means of humility, patience, meekness, and forbearance they should persevere the unity of which they were made a part of when Jesus brought them into the church.

2. The Basis of Unity – Ephesians 4:4-6

As I mentioned before, many times we confuse unity with conformity. Conformity is sameness. We become the same as something or someone else (i.e. McDonald's – same food). Unity is the experience of sharing. We share a similar hope, leader, ideal – this is the basis of unity. In verses 4-6 Paul will mention 7 objective elements that Christians share, which serve to bring them into one unit.

4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
- Ephesians 4:4-6.

We are united because we share…

  1. One Body – there is only one group of the saved. One church in God's eyes.
  2. One Spirit – Holy Spirit; His work and word.
  3. One Hope – salvation and its effects.
  4. One Lord – Jesus (can't serve two).
  5. One Faith – the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, they only taught one thing.
  6. One Baptism (immersion in water as an expression of faith in Jesus. Acts 2:37-38) – Only one baptism that
    1. puts us into the one body
    2. gives us one Spirit
    3. permits one hope
    4. unites us to one Lord
    5. forgives us of our sins
      From the 3,000 baptized on the day of Pentecost to today, we share the same baptism that forgives our sins.
  7. One God – creator of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God Who sent Jesus.

Paul's point with all of this is that these are the things (beliefs, responses on our part etc.) that unite us to Christ, to God and to one another. They are at the center and hold us together as one. For example, in baptism I am united to Christ and through Him to God as well as the Holy Spirit, but also to everyone else who has experienced this same baptism. We are united by the experience of all these things.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. To be divided from Christ is to also be divided from one another. Therefore, maintaining the unity that exists in the church requires a right type of attitude towards one another and a sharing of the elements of the one faith, body, Spirit, hope, Lord, baptism, and God.

3. God Helps Us to Maintain this Unity – Ephesians 4:7-13

Of course, we are not alone to maintain this unity. God helps us with certain gifts that He provides, and Paul describes a set of gifts that we rarely perceive as "gifts".

7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says, "When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men." 9 (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
- Ephesians 4:7-10

In regards to this unity and the maintaining of it, each person has received a gift (grace) in order to contribute to the maintaining of this unity. This grace (gift) has been given by Christ to each and given according to His ability (or fullness) to give out these gifts. Paul in verse 8 quotes the Old Testament (Psalm 68:10) that summarizes Christ's achievements on behalf of men.

  1. He went to the underworld to show Himself so that those who rejected God even from the days of Noah would see that their lack of faith was in error and their judgment is true (I Peter 3:19).
  2. He has died and gone to the underworld, but He has also resurrected and ascended to the right hand of God in the highest heavens. Therefore, His presence fills both the spiritual and material realms. Someone at this point might say, " So what?"

The answer to this question is that Jesus is able to supply abundantly the "gifts" needed to maintain this unity. Jesus fills everything. He does not lack the ability to give us everything we need to maintain unity.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,
- Ephesians 4:11

In these verses, Paul describes the gifts that Christ gives are not powers, but people! Each is a gift in two ways:

  1. You have the gift yourself to carry out the ministry as one of these people.
  2. You receive the gift of ministry from one of these people.

Either way they are gifts that help the church maintain unity. The gifts he mentions are:

  1. Apostles – messengers chosen by Christ to witness the resurrection and record the New Testament. These witnesses are long gone but we have the inspired record of their witness and teachings that serve in their place today.
  2. Prophets – different types – Old Testament: Isaiah foretold the future. New Testament: Agabus, spoke God's word in the first century before the New Testament was recorded. These were inspired teachers who nurtured the church with God's word. Today we have the word of God that continues to teach and nurture the church.
  3. Evangelists – Proclaimed gospel (Phillip – Acts 8). These men established and organized congregations. They also promoted unity (i.e. Titus/Timothy were sent to various congregations to do this kind of work). Today preachers and missionaries fill these roles.
  4. Pastors and Teachers – elders who shepherd by teaching (Acts 20). Those who teach the word, but don't shepherd (Acts 13).

These were gifts then as well as today.

12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
- Ephesians 4:12-13

Their work consists of building up the church and maintaining the unity that Paul speaks of at the beginning of the chapter. How do they do this? Supplying each saint what he or she needs to serve others in the body, and thus create and maintain unity.

They serve the body to achieve what goal? To achieve perfect unity in Christ by promoting and modeling the following:

  • Unity of faith- helping members mature in the knowledge of Christ and His word.
  • Unity of relationships – encouraging members to mature in Christian love for God and others.
  • Unity of service – equipping members to serve the church and thus bear spiritual fruit in ministry.

Christ gives "gifts" to the church so that they will serve in helping it mature in every phase of unity until they are like Christ in maturity.

4. Results of Unity – Ephesians 4:14-16

14As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
- Ephesians 4:14-16

Unity produces a body of believers:

  1. Who are firmly Planted in the Word
    • Not easily seduced by lies, tricks, plans of evil men and Satan.
  2. Who Speak the Truth in Love
    • No gossip, division or hypocrisy.
    • Ability to speak the word to the lost and those who are struggling among the saved.
  3. Who are Mature
    • Become like Jesus in attitude and character.
    • Become truly united to Him.
  4. Who Cooperate in Mutual Service
    • The body functions in the way the head directs it for the strengthening of every member.

The idea is that the body is to grow to the point of maturity that the head has already accomplished. We become like Jesus perfectly united to God and each other.

God provides key elements to the body to help its every part grow towards this ideal.


Of course, like conformity, there is also a downside to the pursuit of unity. The cost of unity is discomfort. It's not easy maintaining love, patience, gentleness, forbearance with someone you disagree with about the one Lord, faith, baptism, etc. This is why conformity is so appealing. Every one agrees or they're out! It's easy to get along with people who agree with you. However, God says that we need to make an effort to maintain unity through peace since He knew it wouldn't be easy. Why?

  • We are not all at the same maturity level.
  • We have been taught different things.
  • We are sinful and our sins limit our understanding.
  • We have misunderstood and forgotten what we've been taught.

So, it's not easy to get along, to be patient and loving towards those who don't agree with us, but making the effort to maintain unity despite these obstacles is the true test of our discipleship because Jesus said,

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
- John 13:35

Notice that He didn't say – all men will know you are my disciples by…

  • How big a group you are.
  • That you are all the same.
  • You know all the doctrines.
  • That you think you're right.
  • That you're very motivated.

All those who confessed Christ and were buried in baptism have been added to a divinely united circle that includes the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the church. The greatest task we have as Christians is to maintain that unity, that oneness by loving one another despite our differences. Those who know and truly understand what I am saying in this lesson must realize that they are on the front lines of charting a course for the unity of the church.

I hope we can learn the hard lessons that have divided so many of our congregations in the past. I pray that this generation will be known as the ones who sought after and won, once again, the unity and peace in the church that have been so carelessly harmed in past generations.

If you are separated from God by disbelief and sin, repent and be baptized in order to be united to God through Christ and added to the church. If you are separated from the church or your brother or sister in Christ because of unfaithfulness or sin come and be restored to the unity of the body through prayer.

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