Is the Effect of the Holy Spirit
to Unite Us or Divide Us?
According to the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit was supposed to be a blessing from the Father to unify His children. Consider three of the apostle’s exhortations.
To the Corinthians In his characteristic way of starting with truths he shares with his readers, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the possession of the Holy Spirit is one of the main things all of the Christians have in common. The Spirit’s divine presence should pull them together, not tear them apart. Paul observes:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by [or in] one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 1 Corinthians 12:12–13
Note the alls in these verses. Despite all of their differences, the Corinthian Christians had one thing in common, the Holy Spirit. All of them were soaked in the Spirit at their baptism and at that time, all of them received the Spirit as if drinking Him in like a desert wanderer gulps water at an oasis well. As far as God is concerned, there is no such thing as a distinction between a "Christian" and a "Spirit-filled Christian." All true Christians are Spirit filled according to this passage. He is what they all have in common.
To the Ephesians Paul urges the Ephesians to maintain the unity God has achieved for them. He writes:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:3–6
The seven ones that the apostle lists, including the one Spirit, constitute once more what all Christians have in common. All of them, by the way, are gifts from God, not human achievements. Paul urges us to hold on to what God has already done for us. That's what he means by "keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." His charge is not for us to achieve unity, but to hang on to what God has already achieved for us through Christ.
To the Philippians Following a similar line of argument, Paul insists that the Philippians recognize what they have in Christ and avoid disrupting or destroying their oneness because of a desire for personal recognition or advancement. Based on the common ground they share (expressed by the ifs), Paul offers some practical wisdom:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:1–5
We could turn each of those conditions in the opening sentence into a question: Is there any encouragement from being united with Christ? Do we find any comfort from His love? Do we share in the Spirit? Do we experience as a result tenderness and compassion? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, joyful YES! Given all of those gifts we share from God, Paul calls on us to have the attitudes and make the effort to maintain the unity we ought to have as a logical consequence of our redemption.Unity of Primitive Church
The Book of Acts indicates that the primitive church experienced this kind of unity. For example:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42–48
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Acts 4:32–35
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord. Acts 9:31
The final passage in this series of quotations explicitly connects the unity of the early disciples with the Spirit, but the other two do so implicitly (see Acts 2:38-39; 4:31).
"What God Hath Wrought"
We could summarize this quite simply:
- Christ died to redeem sinners, all sinners!
- He calls them to submit to Him as Savior and Lord.
- To all who respond in obedient faith He gives the same gifts:
- Cleansing from sins.
- His own righteousness to wear.
- His Holy Spirit as a divine presence in the heart.
- Membership in God’s family and kingdom.
- Purpose for living: to bring praise to God through Christ.
- Assurance for eternity: resurrection and inheritance.
None of us is better than anyone else, since everything we have and are we have received from God (see 1 Corinthians 4:7). God’s Unity Agenda has divine power to accomplish His purpose “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
Fractured, Splintered, Fragmented
Yet the religious world has never been more divided than it is today. A website that tracks statistics for the religions of the world, Adherents.com, divides the churches of Christendom into Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Latter-day Saints, and each one of these broad categories can be divided and subdivided again and again. Some estimate as many as 40,000 denominations and sects that all claim connection to Christ and Christianity.
Nor has the rise of the Pentecostal movement (starting around 1900) and the Charismatic movement (also called the Neo-Pentecostal movement and arising in the 1960s) brought about unity. Pentecostals themselves have divided into Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland), apostolic churches, and United Pentecostal Church, among many others (Wikipedia lists 37 groups under "Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America"). In addition are hundreds more sects ranging in strength from one to a dozen or more churches. Charismatics remain within the major denominations, but often they form distinct sub-fellowships.
This demonstrates an obvious disconnect between what God intended to be the effect of His giving the Holy Spirit to all Christians and what has actually happened, especially in modern times. Why is the Spirit a cause of division rather than the basis of unity? Why do some believers tend to ignore or avoid any discussion of the Spirit, while others seem to focus on the Spirit so much that other topics are neglected? What can we do to change the situation and bring about a spiritual renewal that includes broad agreement about the Holy Spirit?
We need three things for this unity to occur. First, we need to recognize our common ground: all the spiritual blessings accomplished for all sinners in Jesus Christ and applied to each obedient believer by the Spirit. Second, we must accept our responsibility to maintain this unity with the attitudes of humility and mutual respect that the Spirit prompts in our hearts. Third, we need to gain a deeper understanding of the Spirit by careful Bible study.
Choices about the Holy Spirit
I believe that a great proportion of the biblical doctrine of the Spirit can be summarized into a series of either-or questions. Searching for and finding the answers to these questions will result in a significant gain in clarity regarding the biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which in turn should lead to fundamental progress in how we all can harness the Spirit to accomplish His purpose to bring believers together and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some of these questions are:
Series on Holy Spirit Choices
In future essays, we will seek answers each of these questions. To give you a preview, in each one of these either-or choices, I believe that the first is the correct answer rather than the second, and I will strive to demonstrate that truth from Scripture. Our study will range through the entire Bible, for the Spirit is mentioned in the first paragraph of Genesis (1:2), in the last paragraph of Revelation (22:17), and hundreds of times in between.
God wants us to reach unity about the Spirit, and if we can, then perhaps a greater unity will no longer elude us.
Whose Fault Is It?
Conclusion: God intends for His Holy Spirit to unite all Christians. If we are divided, the fault is ours, not His. The starting point for that greater unity He wants us to have is to find unity regarding the Holy Spirit.
Want to go deeper?
I highly recommend the following books about the Holy Spirit and Pentecostalism:
Bruner, Frederick Dale, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness. Originally published: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970. Reprints: Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2001; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006 (still in print from both sources).
Bruner is a non-Pentecostal who nevertheless documents the teaching of Pentecostalism from its own literature and then compares it with a careful exegesis of Scripture.
Synan, Vinson. The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the U.S. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971.
Synan has written a number of other books on the Pentecostal movement since this, his doctoral dissertation, was published. One of the most recent is The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901-2001. He is a lifelong student and historian of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement and is regarded as a prominent Pentecostal theologian. He is Dean Emeritus of Regent University.
I will share more resources on the biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit as this series continues.
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