I suggest five (yes, count them, five) modes of visible unity that give expression to the underlying unity of the Spirit among believers. These practices not only exhibit the unity of the Spirit but are also means by which the Spirit dynamically works among believers for unity. The Spirit acts through them to manifest the unity the Spirit has already achieved. At the same time these practices are also transformative as they not only move us into a deeper experience and recognition of that unity but they also transform us as exhibits of that unity.
- Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Paul provides the ground of this point: “No one is able to say “Jesus is Lord” except by (in) the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Contextually, this stands in contrast with those who say “Jesus is cursed” or who serve idols. This is an orienting confession. It is a centered-set confession, that is, we confess Jesus at the center of our faith journey. It is a directional confession, that is, we have turned our face toward Jesus and we walk toward him. But none of this is possible except by the work of the Spirit. The confession arises out of the Spirit’s work, operates within the life of the Spirit, and lives because we have all drunk of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).
This confession is made from within a story, which is essentially what is called the Apostles’s Creed or the developing Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith) of the early church. It gives shape to the confession of the Lordship of Jesus and locates believers in the flow of the history of God’s people. We confess the Father as creator, Jesus as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as the communion of believers.
Theologically, we acknowledge this, whoever confesses “Jesus is Lord” does so “in (or by) the Spirit.” We recognize the work of the Spirit in the confession itself. Whenever we hear Jesus confessed, or the Triune faith articulated, we confess that the Spirit is at work. We may embrace the unity of believers through this confession that is the result of the Spirit’s enabling presence.
- Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
We all know Jesus’s saying “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). Sanctification belongs to the Holy Spirit who indwells, empowers, and gifts us for new life in Christ.
Theologically, transformation is the goal of God’s agenda. Transformation is an effect of communion. Through mutual indwelling, we are transformed by the presence of the Spirit in our lives. The fruit of the Spirit, then, is evidence of our union with God. The fruit of the Spirit is the life of the Spirit already present in us. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared sanctification or mutually experienced transformation that is the result of the enabling presence of the Spirit.
- Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).
The foundation of liturgy—not necessarily the foundation of liturgical forms—is the work of the Spirit. Our liturgical acts—not necessarily our liturgical forms—are deeply rooted in the work of the Spirit. Assembly, as communal praise and worship, is mediated by the Spirit. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Assembly, as an eschatological, transforming and sacramental encounter with God, happens in the Spirit; it is a pneumatic event. This is what gives significance and meaning to Assembly, and it is also the root of the unity we experience through Assembly as the whole church—throughout time and space—are gathered before the throne of the Father in the Spirit.
Liturgy might not appear to be a very fruitful approach to thinking about the unity of the Spirit since “worship” has often divided communities. The point will turn on whether or not we are able to discern the role of the Spirit in liturgy that transcends specific forms. If we take seriously the point—made in the Gospel of John—that the Spirit vivifies all life, sacrament, and worship in such a way that the reality is rooted in the work of the Spirit rather than in the specific form, then we can move beyond binding the Spirit to that form. There are no fixed forms that bind the Spirit. Rather there are gracious gifts—even specific forms—through which the Spirit offers communion and grace (e.g., sacraments). We may have preferred forms or even think some forms more biblical or more theologically coherent, but the forms are not boundaries for the Spirit.
To recognize that the Spirit is the means by whom we commune with and experience God, that this means is not dependent upon perfectionistic obedience to specified forms, and that the Spirit is not limited by forms, enables us to affirm the presence of the Spirit among those communities who do not share the forms that we think are most biblical. We may embrace the unity of believers (worshippers) through our eschatological and sacramental encounter with God in assembly by the enabling presence of the Spirit.
- Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).
Spirit Christology is particularly important in the Gospel of Luke. The Spirit anoints Jesus, leads him into the wilderness, and empowers him for ministry in Luke 3-4. This is the ministry of the kingdom of God in which Jesus practices the kingdom of God by heralding the good news of the kingdom, exercising authority over the principalities and powers, and healing brokenness. Jesus is sent, and he sends a people.
This is the missional ministry into which believers are called. This praxis is an expression of the life of the Spirit within the community, and the community of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, continues the teaching and doing of Jesus, that is, they continue to practice the kingdom of God.
When believers practice the kingdom of God, the Spirit is present. Where the Spirit is present, Jesus is present. This manifests the unity of the Spirit through praxis. It is a missional unity. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared ministry (shared participation in the good news of the kingdom of God) by the enabling presence of the Spirit.
- Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).
In Luke’s Gospel the kingdom of God comes in response to prayer by the ministry of the Spirit. This connects points four and five, but it also calls us deeper into the experience of prayer itself.
The unity of believers through the presence of the Spirit in prayer is a common theme in the history of spirituality. Throughout that history we see evidence of the presence of the Spirit in communal and individual experiences. This is where an acquaintance, if not a full immersion in, the history of spirituality might open doors for conversations about unity.
Theologically, we recognize that the practice of prayer (as well as other disciplines) is rooted in the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is present to listen and speak in these moments. When a community practices them together, or each member of a community practices them in their own walk with God, the Spirit works to unite through shared experiences and shared communion. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared experience and communion in prayer by the enabling presence of the Spirit.
The present experience of visible unity, however, is progressive (though not always evident). The present is not a “perfect” manifestation of the eschatological telos. Consequently, we pursue unity, just as we pursue sanctification. The church is constantly undergoing a process of communal sanctification parallel to the process of individual sanctification. It should not surprise us that the church is not united in experience since we all acknowledge our own progressive sanctification.
At the same time, however, we are not left with nothing. Though we have not yet experienced the fullness of our unity with God and with each other—and we will not until the eschaton, we do—even now—experience that future when we give space to the presence of the Spirit. We are already united, and we progressively experience that reality the more the Spirit sanctifies our communities and our lives. The present practice of visible unity though marred by brokenness is healed by mercy; it is hindered by human brokenness but empowered by the gifts the Spirit offers to the church, which include the five gifts listed above.
Through the practice of these gifts, the Spirit mediates an already-but-not-yet experience of that unity. Together, we confess Jesus is Lord; together, we seek transformation; together, we participate in the eschatological assembly; together, we practice the kingdom of God; and together, we pray in the Spirit. Yes, you counted correctly. The number is five.
[For a fuller reading of this perspective within the context of Stone-Campbell history, click here.]