“The Unity and Disunity of the Church”

The book mentioned in the heading of this article is a Wm. B. Eerdmans publication. Its author is Dr. G.W. Bromiley, an evangelical Anglican, and a recent addition to the Faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary.

This is an important book. It reveals wide learning and deals with a subject which holds first place in the interest of perhaps more thinking Christians in our day than any other. Regardless of which church or denomination you are a member, it will be influenced to some extent by the views advanced in Bromiley’s book and it will have leading theologians or church men who, secretly or openly, sympathize with the positions taken by the author.

The Author’s subject and his opinion of it are indicated in the Introduction. The churches’ recent concern about unity “has grown not merely from the liberal emphasis upon brotherhood but from the spiritual and practical problems of disunity as they have found particular emphasis on the mission field and in the face of modern apostasy.” In the movement he sees especially “a deep and prolonged examination of unity from the ultimate biblical and theological standpoint which must underlie all concrete schemes if they are to be a genuine contribution to unity.” The movement “poses the inescapable question to all Christians what must be their attitude to it.” Though they may not like many aspects of it, “it cannot be denied that real disunity, even for what seems to be the best of reasons, is a definite evil in the church. The movement for unity is thus to be applauded in principle.” The book attempts to point “to the true nature of the church’s unity,” and draw conclusions regarding the church’s task.

The book then begins its real discussion by treating the church’s sense of unity, which is ultimately grounded in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. In the face of that, how is one to explain the actual disunity of the churches? Although the church’s presence in the world and history and the natural diversity between people are to be considered, the basic cause is sin. How then is the church to solve the problem of the unity it confesses and the disunity it practises? The author deals with two “blind alleys” by which the church has tried unsuccessfully to arrive at unity. One is an enforced unity of organization. This road to unity again and again proves unsatisfactory because it seeks unity in historical forms rather than in Christ. A second “blind alley” is to say that the real unity is “invisible.” This way. while more realistic and biblical, leaves the disunity of the church in history and becomes an excuse for inaction.

The author feels that the problem must be met by recognizing emphatically that the church is united in Christ, and so in the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Christ we are adopted children of Cod, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, united in love. We are united in Christ’s death and resurrection. Out of these (acts there emerges the true pattern of the church’s unity. This unity in Christ is to be realized through the church’s use of means, or “subsidiary foci of unity; the word of God in the Bible, the confession of Christ, the sacraments, and the ministry.” The s e factors “are not exempt from the ultimate transformation which the church itself is to undergo. In their detailed forms, they, too, are subject to a constant process of reformation and renewal” (pp. 65, 66). These means “neither achieve the unity nor do they dictate its pattern” (p. 67). They “serve only to give provisional actualization to a unity already attained, and they can do this only as they help to promote a common pattern.” If not seen and used in this light, “they are far more calculated to promote disunity: But they are God-given means.

The rest of the book treats of these “means and subsidiary foci of unity.” Of these “the Bible is the first and most obvious and perhaps the most important….” It is perhaps going a little too far to make acceptance of the Bible an absolute standard of unity or communion, but “the Bible is plainly essential to the unity and indeed to the whole life and being of the church.” “If the church is ultimately united in Christ, it is united around the Bible which speaks of Christ” (p. 68). “…The Bible is not to be abstracted from Christ and made a center of unity in its own right.” “This is important” because (1) “we make unity impossible if we insist that all Christians and churches must begin by accepting the Bible…” and (2) “unity is grounded in Christ himself.” The church should busy itself with scholarly study and proclamation of the Bible. “…Presenting Christ himself as the one Mediator between God and man” is spoken of as “the task in which in different ways and according to their different understandings all professing Christians are constantly engaged.” “Do we not all wish to proclaim the Christ…as he is attested in Scripture…?” (p. 73).

A second means and subsidiary focus of unity is confession of faith in Christ. “All Christian bodies confess in some way their faith in Jesus Christ”; yet creeds, eve n one so simple as the Apostles’ Creed, also divide. “If the confession is to be a genuine means and focus of unity, the first essential is to see it in its proper function as a response of faith to Jesus Christ. This means that it is not the ground of unity. Nor is it an instrument for the testing of orthodoxy” (p. 77). “Does not genuine unity have to be unity in truth? Can we cooperate with other Christian bodies when we are convinced that on certain issues they think and speak falsely?” “This is a difficulty…” (p. 78). “To confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is obviously essential. To accept an intricate definition of his relationship to God is not so obviously essential to saving faith, and surely ought not to be imposed as a condition of unity.” “….Are we not constrained to make a firm stand for what seem to be clear and Biblical doctrines? And even if we are prepared to accept as Christians those who think otherwise, do we not have to dissociate ourselves from their errors and therefore pursue a different path of preaching and teaching? Is there any way out of the resultant impasse…?”

The writer thinks that there is a way to unity even across such differences if we cling to the fact that unity is in Christ as the Truth and our confession of him, rather than in our statements of truth. He makes the following suggestions for realizing a united church in practice: (1) “a common confession of Christ as Savior and Lord”; (2) “concentration upon the common preaching and teaching of positive biblical truth”; (3) “the common deposit of faith, e.g., in the Apostles’ Creed, is to be accepted, but with no prescription of use or enforcement of rigid conformity”; (4) free discussion of disputed issues; (5) attempted reconciliation of contradictory confessions under the Word of God; (6) respect of minority opinions (pp. 80, 81).

The Sacraments and their bearing on unity and disunity are treated in a similar vein. They must be used as means to promote the unity of the church in Christ. Hence recognition of others’ baptisms is in order. And “communion will be administered to any baptized and confessing member of any other church” (p. 87). Intercommunion must lead to integration of denominations. Different denominations with different practices must grow, but not be forced, together.

Finally, the author feels that the ministry of the churches is one in Christ and therefore must move toward integration. “It is one of the more hopeful aspects of modern ecumenism that it stems from a deep-seated anxiety that divided Christendom cannot properly fulfill its great commission of evangelism either at home or abroad” (p. 97). “A united ministry…is a powerful factor in the realization of that unity in Christ which is the new and true and eternal unity of his people” (p. 98).


In trying to evaluate this book the reviewer would first observe that the author handles skillfully a matter of great importance in the church of our day. His subject is one to which the church of the recent past, especially the part of it that is trying to be orthodox, has given relatively little attention. It ought to be noted further that he attempts to handle the subject from a biblical point of view; he reveals a concern about the gospel and appeals to the Scriptures often. His emphasis on the fact that the church is united in Christ is also to be appreciated.

In spite of these virtues, in fact partly because of them, the book leaves this reviewer thoroughly dissatisfied. The trouble with the author’s thesis is that he treats unity as though it were a quality that should take precedence over other attributes of the church, and in effect he defines that unity only as “unity in Christ.” Throughout the book, therefore, there runs the assumption that the movement toward union of the churches, however much may be wrong with some of its motivation and methods, is in principle good. The author assumes that all churches are basically really one in Christ, that their divisions are the result of sin, and that it is the will of the Lord that these divisions be overcome. Not even loyalty to the Bible may get in the way of the drive for unity, for, in spite of all of his appeals to the Bible, Bromiley classifies it among the “means and subsidiary foci of unity” which “neither achieve the unity—nor do they dictate its pattern” (p. 67).

It seems to me that all of these assumptions ought to be challenged, and that because the Lord himself teaches us to do so. Although we must admit that in our church divisions there is much that is plainly the result of sin, we must also recognize, as Mr. Bromiley does not seem to do, that the Lord himself came not just to unite, but to institute a division and that in the “church” (Matthew 10:34–36); for Israel as the Old Testament church was certainly divided on account of him. And a mere confession of Jesus as Lord was by no means adequate to entitle one to a place in his kingdom, for the church was warned again and again against false prophets and false Christs (Matthew 7:15–23). The church is called not only to union, but just as emphatically to separation from unbelievers (II Corinthians 6:14–18). It is commanded to exercise discipline of doctrine and life, commended when it does so, and warned of the disastrous consequences when it does not (Revelation 2). All this the leaders in the movement toward church union, even conservative men like Dr. Bromiley, seem to overlook. Concerned about the “scandal of disunity,” they show little or no concern about the scandal against which Christ and his Word warn us with just as great emphasis, the scandal of false doctrine. If neither accepting the Bible, nor so simple a statement of faith as the Apostles’ Creed, nor even some definition of Christ’s relationship to God may be demanded as a condition of church unity, is not the door being thrown wide open to every kind of heresy that has ever tried to invade the Christian church? Must not the consequences be—rather are they not becoming —the destruction of any clear-cut testimony of the gospel to the world? It seems to me that Dr. Bromiley’s book exemplifies in a striking way how the popular slogan of church unity can, even in the thinking of an evangelical Christian, and in the name of loyalty to the Bible, promote the destruction of the gospel and of the Christian church.



What makes this book significant is that it is not an isolated reflection of one professor’s thinking. Rather it appears representative of the drift in the thinking of many evangelical church leaders. This is the kind of argumentation in the minds of many men who, though personally they want to be true to the gospel, seek to justify remaining in liberal churches and cooperating with liberal inter-church movements. “The movement toward unity is in principle good; Christians should therefore join it and try to influence its direction.” That kind of thinking is increasingly appearing in churches like our own.

Coming with quasi-biblical arguments and in the name of advancing in a missionary way the cause of Christ, it is proving far more effective in hoodwinking evangelical Christians in to joining doctrinally subversive movements, and robbing them of their defenses against them, than the old Modernism ever was. In the light of all this does it not appear that this modem ecumenism is a work of the devil rather than a movement of the Holy Spirit?

But if we must repudiate Dr. Bromiley’s suggested course of action, what are we to do about the real problem he raises? May we ignore the fact that Christ prayed that the church should be one, and the fact that the church is sadly disunited? The answer to that, it seems to me, must be that while we must recognize the spiritual unity of all who truly are Christ’s, and must express that unity as far as we can, also organizationally, we must with equal concern insist on maintaining without qualification the Lord’s own standards of faith and discipline and never sacrifice them as though they were secondary to the demand for unity. But, Dr. Bromiley’s question then becomes pertinent, “Will not such a position make real organizational unity impossible?” And the answer may be, perhaps, in many cases it will, but a clear testimony to the gospel is more important to the life of the church and to its witness in the world than an organizational unity for which such a testimony would have to be sacrificed.” I do not know with how little knowledge and how much heresy my neighbor may still belong to Christ and therefore be my Christian brother, but I may not reduce the standards of Christ’s church to the vanishing point just to make sure that I am not excluding any of his people. Judging men’s hearts is the Lord’s work, but maintaining the standards he has laid down for his church is the duty he has entrusted to us and may not be shirked, as most evangelicals are unfortunately doing.

It ought not to be overlooked that there is more real Christian unity between evangelicals whose uncompromising convictions about the gospel, because they are in error here and there, prevent them from living in one church fellowship, than among those who are trying to unite the churches at the expense of leaving the gospel on which they are supposed to be uniting undefined. And it is a demonstrable fact that more evangelistic success is being encountered by rather exclusive denominations (such as the Missouri Lutherans and Southern Baptists) than by the churches which are most loudly calling for unity to promote evangelism! It just is not true that the church must have organizational unity to fulfill its evangelistic commission. We best serve the cause of Christ and our fellow Christians if we stand firmly for his gospel even at the apparent cost of creating disunity. The unity we have in him will in his time become apparent, and it will not be a unity purchased at the expense of accommodating unbelief and heresy in the church. We should never try to purchase it at that price.