1. There is one body.
First of all, there is only one church, which is the Body of Christ.
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
The one church is to be united and not divided. Divisions are evil, as they split the Body of Christ.
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
Notice also that the unity of the church is to be found in agreement in doctrine and practice, as everyone holds to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42).
2. The one Body of Christ consists of a variety of individual members who are all parts of it and have concern for the whole.
As in a physical body, the members are all bound up with each other. They are not independent, but are parts of the larger whole. Their care should not just be for themselves, but for each other, for the whole body. All the different parts of the body have particular roles to play and they all need each other.
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked. That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)
3. The Holy Spirit has given gifts to the members of the church, and these gifts are to be used in communion with the whole body and for its edification.
These spiritual gifts are diverse according to the diversity of the members of the church, and they are all to be used in conjunction to complement each other for the good of the whole body.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. . . . Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:1-11, 27-30)
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:4-16)
4. Among these spiritual gifts are particular gifts that prepare members of the church to fulfill certain established offices in the church--such as the temporary offices of apostle and prophet, as well as the permanent offices of elder and deacon.
The word deacon means "servant." The office of deacon was established to contribute an office not of rule or teaching, but of service to the church.
And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)
Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13)
We saw from the lists of spiritual gifts in the previous section that gifts of rule, administration, and teaching have been given to the church. In the New Testament church, the first place in terms of rule and teaching is given to the apostles. But secondarily, God has also appointed elders or bishops in the church to rule and to teach. As the apostles' office was temporary, the elders were to take the first place on earth as rulers and teachers of the church after their departure, always subject to the words of the apostles recorded in Scripture, as these are the words of Christ himself who has given spiritual gifts to men.
This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-3)
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1:5-9)
Not all elders have exactly the same gifts. Some are called more especially to teach in the church as well as to rule: "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" (1 Timothy 5:17).
The role of elders in the church is to rule over and shepherd the church, to teach sound doctrine and refute false doctrine, and to exercise spiritual discipline over the church. The church is in danger of evil doctrines, practices, and divisions entering into its life, and the job of elders is to use teaching and spiritual discipline to prevent these and to nourish the body and help it grow properly.
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:13-19)
Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:19-23)
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:15-20)
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)
A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself. (Titus 3:10-11)
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. . . . And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15)
And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)
Elders are not to rule independently from each other. Just as the individual members of the church are to use their gifts in conjunction with each other for the edification of the whole body, so elders are to function interdependently and complementarily, joining together as a ruling body to exercise oversight over the church. Each elder is to function as a part of the whole ruling body, and he is subject to the whole, even to being disciplined in cases of sin or error: "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" (1 Timothy 5:19-20).
A good illustration of the unity of the church in the early days of the church is found in Acts 2:41-47:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
5. As the church grew and spread throughout the world, it became necessary for logistical reasons to sub-divide the church into smaller groupings, particularly local congregations, and yet the unity of the one Body of Christ remained the same.
Whereas at the beginning there were simply the believers in Jerusalem, as recorded in the Book of Acts, later on, after the church had spread throughout the world due to persecutions and the preaching of the gospel, individual congregations in different places were developed, such as the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Antioch, the church in Rome, etc. Each local congregation formed its own mini-body, with a diversity of members sharing their spiritual gifts with each other--as we see, for example, in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul gives instructions to the local congregation in Corinth regarding their gatherings and the proper use of spiritual gifts in those gatherings.
However, there was still only one Body of Christ in unity throughout the world. The local congregations were to continue to share the fellowship of the whole body with one another.
Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:15-16)
Here we have the Apostle Paul writing letters to different churches and telling these churches to recognize each other in fellowship and share their apostolic letters with one another.
And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30)
But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:25-29)
Here we have examples of the care the saints are to have for the whole body of which they are a part being manifested between congregations in different areas.
But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16)
The Apostle Paul's comment here comes at the end of his instructions to the Corinthian church regarding head coverings in the worship of the church. He states that if anyone wants to argue about the teaching he has delivered to the church as an apostle (see 11:2), that person should be aware that there is no other custom in the universal church. The churches throughout the world are united in the doctrine of the apostles.
6. As with the other aspects of the church, so with the oversight of the church. For logistical purposes, the rulers and official teachers of the church are sub-divided into distinct groupings to serve the various congregations, and yet they remain unified as part of a governing body that has rule and oversight over the entire worldwide church.
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee. (Titus 1:5)
And we sailed thence, and came the next day over against Chios; and the next day we arrived at Samos, and tarried at Trogyllium; and the next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. (Acts 20:15-17)
So there are elders appointed in each city, over the diverse congregations. These elders, in their immediate office, are given charge over particular congregations or smaller groupings of Christians.
However, as we recall, the eldership was given to the church as a whole in order to preserve the whole body from heresy, schism, sin, etc. It is evident that the elders, say, of Corinth, functioning specifically in their role as elders of Corinth, would not be able to exercise rule over the entire church. And yet the entire church requires the exercise of oversight over the whole body. If the elders and church of Antioch, for example, were to go astray, this would not be a matter affecting only them. The entire Body of Christ would be concerned in a part of itself becoming infected with evil, and it must be the job of the eldership of the church to discipline the offending congregation in order to preserve the peace and purity of the entire church; just as when a particular elder in a congregation goes astray, he must be disciplined by the larger body of elders of which he is a part (1 Timothy 5:19-20). We can see, therefore, that just as a body of elders in a local area have oversight over the individual elders making up that body, so the same must hold for the church throughout the world: Individual elders and groups of elders must be accountable to the larger body of elders that is over the entire church. Only then is the unity of the church preserved, along with the unity of its spiritual gifts, including rule, that are to be exercised within the context of the entire body and for the benefit of the whole body, despite any sub-divisions made in that body for purely logistical purposes.
The above is inferable from principles already articulated, but it is also confirmed by direct examples.
These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. (1 Timothy 4:11-16)
Here we have the Apostle Paul exhorting Timothy, an evangelist sent by Paul to aid the churches, to carry out his responsibilities--which responsibilities he received from Christ through the "laying on of the hands of the presbytery [that is, the body of elders]." The body of elders as a whole gave to Timothy his charge as an evangelist--and they also have the power to take it away if necessary.
Our greatest example of the elders of particular congregations coming together in a joint body to exercise rule over the entire church is the occasion of the Jerusalem Council:
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. . . . Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. (Acts 15:1-6, 22-35)
Here we have a situation where a certain issue was troubling one of the local churches, the church in Antioch. Unable to resolve the issue there alone, the church in Antioch sends representatives to Jerusalem to meet there with other elders from the wider church in order to discuss the matter and come to a resolution. This general council comes to a conclusion, and that conclusion is then binding on all the churches: "And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16:4-5).
Notice that although the apostles were involved in this council, yet they did not exercise their immediate apostolic authority alone in it. Instead, they joined in a larger council with the other elders of the particular churches, and the entire church came to a conciliar decision. In doing this, the council left us an example to follow even after the apostles had left the scene. When matters concerning the entire church cannot be adequately resolved by one local body, the elders can join together in a larger governing body, even up to the entire eldership over the universal church, to decide the matter; and so long as their decision is in accord with the Word of God (which includes the teaching of the apostles, thus making them, in a sense, present in spirit at every such council), it is binding. This is perfectly logical, considering what we have seen regarding the biblical teaching on the unity of the one church of Christ throughout the world. If such a council were not possible, there would be no way for the elders to govern the entire church. The universal church as a whole would be without an eldership, contrary to Christ's gift to the entire church of the spiritual gift of leadership to be exercised within the context of and for the benefit of the entire body.
To sum up everything we have seen thus far, what we have is one church, one Body of Christ, throughout the world. This one body is made up of many diverse members, each of whom is given a different set of spiritual gifts to use within the context of and for the benefit of the entire church. Among these spiritual gifts are gifts of service, as well as gifts of teaching and leadership, which are to be exercised in permanent offices within the church. As the church has grown in size, it has become necessary for logistical purposes to sub-divide the church, its members, and its officers into smaller local groupings, without impairing the essential worldwide unity of the entire church. That unity is preserved within particular congregations as members use their spiritual gifts to build each other up and elders teach and rule over the church, and it is also preserved between local bodies throughout the world as members care for each other and fellowship with each other throughout the world as opportunity arises and as the elders over particular local bodies come together in larger governing assemblies to exercise rule over the wider church.
7. This biblical picture we have seen of the nature and unity of the church has been called the presbyterian view of the church and church government, and it has been historically the view held by the Reformed churches.
1. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.
2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
3. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25:1-3)
1. For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.
3. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word. (WCF 31:1, 3)
THERE is one general church visible, held forth in the New Testament.
The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of the New Testament, are given by Jesus Christ to the general church visible, for the gathering and perfecting of it in this life, until his second coming.
Particular visible churches, members of the general church, are also held forth in the New Testament. Particular churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz. of such as, being of age, professed faith in Christ, and obedience unto Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles; and of their children. . . .
CHRIST hath instituted a government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church: to that purpose, the apostles did immediately receive the keys from the hand of Jesus Christ, and did use and exercise them in all the churches of the world upon all occasions.
And Christ hath since continually furnished some in his church with gifts of government, and with commission to execute the same, when called thereunto.
It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical.
It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convent, and call before them, any person within their several bounds, whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern. They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church-censures. . . .
The scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call Synodical. Pastors and teachers, and other church-governors, (as also other fit persons, when it shall be deemed expedient,) are members of those assemblies which we call Synodical, where they have a lawful calling thereunto. Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and oecumenical. . . .
IT is lawful and expedient that there be fixed congregations, that is, a certain company of Christians to meet in one assembly ordinarily for publick worship. When believers multiply to such a number, that they cannot conveniently meet in one place, it is lawful and expedient that they should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations, for the better administration of such ordinances as belong unto them, and the discharge of mutual duties.
The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings. (Form of Presbyterial Church-Government)
We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church-- a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. . . .
And so this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith. (Belgic Confession, Article 27)
We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.
But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.
And to preserve this unity more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to God's Word, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church, in order to join this assembly wherever God has established it, even if civil authorities and royal decrees forbid and death and physical punishment result.
And so, all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God's ordinance. (BC, Article 28)
We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and adminster the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church. (BC, Article 30)
We believe that ministers of the Word of God, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by a legitimate election of the church, with prayer in the name of the Lord, and in good order, as the Word of God teaches.
So everyone must be careful not to push himself forward improperly, but he must wait for God's call, so that he may be assured of his calling and be certain that he is chosen by the Lord.
As for the ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the church. (BC, Article 31)
8. A few important practical implications that follow from the above doctrine of the church that are particularly relevant for the Reformed churches in this day and age.
As we have seen, the church of Christ is one through all the world. Its unity is not merely invisible, but visible, as members of the church unite in formal, visible fellowship with each other under the formal, visible eldership of the church. And since the church is one through all the world, this formal, visible unity does not stop at local congregations, or even regional presbyteries, but must be extended throughout the whole church in all the world. Members of the church, as opportunity arises, must exercise their spiritual gifts not only for the benefit of their particular local congregations, but for the whole body of the church everywhere. And elders, in particular, are not to exercise their teaching and ruling functions only with regard to particular congregations, but in the context of and for the benefit of the entire universal, catholic church.
If we take seriously the biblical picture of the unity of the one catholic church and its government, we cannot take lightly denominational separation. There is absolutely no room in this biblical picture of the church for multiple denominations that recognize each others' de jure auhority but are not united to each other in formal fellowship under a common government or eldership. When Presbyterian denominations are separated from each other, the necessary implication is that they are rejecting each others' de jure authority and legitimacy as churches (though not necessarily their de facto existence as churches) and accusing each other of the sin of schism, of causing division in the Body of Christ, by separating themselves through various means from the entire catholic body.
We can also see from the above principles that the unity of the church cannot be sought by uniting in formal unity by means of agreeing to disagree on some of the doctrines delivered by the apostles. The teachings of the Word of God are non-negotiable and cannot be given away as bargaining chips in negotiating formal unity between Christians. Neither can churches maintain unity merely by cultivating relationships with each other short of full institutional unity, for, as we've seen, institutional separation involves a rejection of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority. Rather, the unity of the church must be sought by means of individuals and churches examining themselves and repenting of any sins or errors they maintain in order to come to agreement in doctrine and practice with each other on the basis of the truth, thus removing any need for continuing division.
Also, we see that the unity of the catholic church is not merely the unity of a genus to a species. That is, the biblical picture is emphatically not that we have a general category of "church" which is then manifested or instantiated in "particular churches." This is a congregationalist or semi-congregationalist view of the church. The biblical, Reformed, Presbyterian view is that there is not merely an institutional, visible unity at the level of particular churches but at the level of the entire catholic church as well. The universal church de jure, no less than particular congregations de jure, is to be a visible, institutional body governed by a tangible body of elders (made up of all the elders of all the churches throughout the worldwide church). Particular churches are members of the catholic church not merely by being instantiations of a "church" genus, but by being local parts of a larger institutional body governed by the ecumenical eldership of the whole church. When this aspect of what the "catholic visible church" means is not preserved, the presbyterian nature of the church has been fundamentally violated and mutilated.
For more on these practical implications of the presbyterian unity of the church, see here, as well as in general here.
May we all better recognize in our own day and age the blessings God wishes to bestow upon us through a full, biblical understanding and practice of what it means to be the one Body of Christ.
UPDATE 2/14/14: Here is an article from Matthew Vogan which looks at some Old Testament evidence regarding the unity of the church.