Visible Church Unity in the Old Testament
In discussing the subject of unity we need to begin with Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is alone determinative for us. We need to agree about a Scriptural definition of unity and schism before we can agree about what should be done about its application. There is evidence of a prevalent impulse to rush straight into identifying solutions before we have even properly identified or agreed what the problem is and how things ought to be. In such circumstances, proposals are often half-baked and suggestions are not thoroughly weighed. This runs the risk of marring the whole purpose of such an endeavour, sometimes for a whole generation and more. Scriptural unity is not always possible at all times and circumstances, indeed in some circumstances it would in fact be undoubtedly sinful. Agreement upon Scriptural principles will, however, be beneficial and prepare a proper foundation for the future.
The relevance of visible unity in the Old Testament
There should not need to be any apology for visiting the Old Testament in order to learn key principles on this matter if we share the assumption that the Westminster Confession teaches one Church and Covenant under both Old and New administrations; Scripture speaks of the Church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) and the Gentiles as being brought into the already existing visible Church (Eph 2:14-16 and Rom 11:1-24).
As Thomas M’Crie outlines, the Old Testament ‘conveys important instruction’ in this area:
Even those parts of the inspired record which refer to the Jewish, admit of an application to the Christian economy, in the way of analogy – by setting aside whatever was peculiar to the former, and seizing on the points of agreement or resemblance between the two economies, and on those principles and grounds which are common to both. This is a key to the Old Testament which appears to be much neglected, and whose value has not been sufficiently appreciated – although our Saviour and his apostles have set us examples of its use and importance (Matt 12:3-8; 1 Cor 9:8-14; 10:1-11; Jam 5:16-18, with many other places).
The Church in the Old Testament is very relevant because as M’Crie notes, ‘erroneous, mistaken, or defective notions on this subject are injurious to the unity and peace of the Church’. Many are not willing to accept anything other than what they can find in the New Testament and thereby reject the abiding principles that God has established for the Church in order to come to entirely different views on church government and the sacraments. These views are applied by establishing distinct churches from those who hold to Westminster Presbyterianism.
Unity and the Old Testament Visible Church: Beginnings
We can begin our overview at the first book of the Bible. Genesis 4:26 seems to indicate (as Jonathan Edwards highlights) a corporate calling upon God in public assemblies for worship, rather than the idea that men never engaged in any form of prayer until this point. Jonathan Edwards establishes a good case that in order for this to be the case there must have been an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. After this we read in Genesis 6 of the Sons of God – those who were of the godly line but who degenerated on account of mixing themselves among the daughters of the line of Cain through marriage. At this time the visible Church declined to only one family of eight souls and its separation from the world was solemnly visible in their taking refuge within the ark.
It was particularly, however, the calling of Abraham (Gen 12) that laid a foundation for the visible Church in the OT. The line of Shem had previously been selected for blessing, now it was a particular family within that line. In Abraham there was to be a visible separation from the idolatrous world in order to preserve those from whom the Seed of the woman would come.
Jonathan Edwards brings out the significance of Abraham for the Visible Church:
And then it was needful that there should be a particular nation separated from the rest of the world, to receive the types and prophecies that were needful to be given of Christ, to prepare the way for his coming; that to them might be committed the oracles of God ; and that by them the history of God's great works of creation and providence might be upheld; and that so Christ might be born of this nation; and that from hence the light of the gospel might shine forth to the rest of the world.
These ends could not be well obtained, if God's people through all these two thousand years had lived intermixed with the heathen world. So that this calling of Abraham may be looked upon as a kind of a new foundation laid for the visible church of God, in a more distinct and regular state, to be upheld and built up on this foundation from henceforward, till Christ should actually come, and then through him to be propagated to all nations.
So that Abraham being the person in whom this foundation is laid, is represented in scripture as though he were the father of all the church, the father of all them that believe; as it were a root whence the visible church thenceforward through Christ, Abraham's root and offspring, rose as a tree, distinct from all other plants; of which tree Christ was the branch of righteousness; and from which tree, after Christ came, the natural branches were broken off, and the Gentiles were grafted into the same tree.
So that Abraham still remains the father of the church, or root of the tree, through Christ his seed. It is the same tree that flourishes from that small beginning, that was in Abraham's time, and has in these days of the gospel spread its branches over a great part of the earth, and will fill the whole earth in due time, and at the end of the world shall be transplanted from an earthly soil into the paradise of God.
It is useful to note the essential unity and identity of the Visible Church under the New Testament with the Church as established through the line of Abraham, the father of many nations. God gave to this visible Church the sign of his covenant in circumcision, which provided a wall of separation (as Edwards puts it), from the other nations. Unity was therefore of the essence of the visible Church under the OT in terms of its purpose and character. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word ekklesia is used to speak of the assembly of the covenanted Israelite community who had been called out of Egypt and gathered together to be distinct and separate by being holy to the Lord (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:10; 9:10; 10:4; and 18:16) (notice the same terms and ideas for the New Testament Church in 1 Pet. 2:9).
Unity was essential to the Old Testament Visible Church
The Church in the wilderness was under the same leadership and benefits (1 Corinthians 10:2-4) and was bound together more strictly by covenant with God in one strictly regulated common worship and government.
Later, under the rule of the judges and the kings, the same idea prevailed, that they were to be one nation dedicated to God. The focus of this unity was upon Jerusalem where the temple of God and the throne of David were established (Ps 122). The visible Church was to be one.
If this unity was a great means of blessing and preservation of the truth under the Old Testament, we would expect this to continue under the New Testament. The tendency is for blessings to be widened under the New Testament rather than being removed. Indeed it was prophesied of the New Testament Church that it would be characterised by one kingdom with one king (Isa 9:7).
The same point is made by James Durham: ‘before Christ, the Church was one: and if after His coming, her unity were dissolved, then she were not the same Church … but many Churches.’ He expresses and summarises very well what we have sought to establish thus far: ‘Adam’s family is once God’s Church, thereafter Noah’s, then Abraham’s is especially adopted, after that at Christ’s coming the Gentiles are engrafted in that stock, and the ordinances that came from Zion prevailed; and that not to constitute different Churches, but to increase and enlarge that one Church.’
Click here for Part II.