Anthony Burgess, a member of the Westminster Assembly, preached CXLV sermons on John 17, five of which were concerned with the topic of unity among Christians. This is the first of those five. It is well presented and well worth reading. I also find this material, including the subsequent sermons, to be excellent arguments and information for the practice of associationalism (although Burgess of course would not have taken it in that direction).
The fundamental doctrinal assertion of this sermon is in italics below: “That union amongst the godly is of so great necessity and consequences that Christ doth in their behalf principally and chiefly pray for this.” Unity is important, and necessary. We must pursue unity. And, as Burgess argues, this unity is fundamentally built upon agreement.
Burgess proceeds to distinguish between invisible and visible unity. Our invisible unity comes from our union to Christ through the Holy Spirit. This invisible union is the foundation for our visible union. Christ’s people establish visible union by “outwardly and visibly express[ing] their compacted nearnesse to one another.” Such a visible unity is one of the chief testimonies to the world of Christ’s church, and conversely all divisions and ruptures are a blight on this otherwise beautiful picture.
But what does this visible union look like? It is first of all, and above all, a unity of faith and profession. It is a doctrinal unity, “for unity in errour and idolatry, or false waies, is not peace, but a faction or Conspiracy.” Apart from unity in faith and sound doctrine, unity is worthless, meaningless, and useless.
But Christian unity is much more than simply collective intellectual concordance. We are to be sincerely and deeply concerned for the being and well-being of our brothers in Christ. If we are brothers, God’s children, how can we ignore our spiritual siblings?
This union is visible in churches. Rogue Christians who will not join the church either are not Christians (because they intentionally reject Christ’s commands) or they are unwittingly destroying the church’s unity under some false delusion of doctrinal deviation which they think keeps them from joining the church. When we gather to worship, hear the word, and partake of the Supper, we collectively hold fast the confession of our hope and proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Within the church, visible unity plays out in a biblical order of church government. Each member ought to play his or her role faithfully, complementary to the rest.
Visible unity also produces a people who help one another and share a common pilgrimage and exile while waiting for our eternal inheritance.
There is also a visible unity within churches and between churches wherein they cooperate for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.
These things being premised, we should understand that the invisible unity of Christ’s people goes far beyond any boundaries of visible unity we may have established for doctrinal or practical reasons. And we ought to pray for the church throughout the world.
Visible unity means that there will be some false professors who are not truly of the church. And because our unity begins and ends with Christ, such individuals not only do not share in Christ, but receive greater judgment for their false profession and apostasy.
However far away we may be from other believers and churches, let us pray for the church around the world.
Application: If Christ prays for the unity of the church, let us strive for the unity of the church. And because unity is fundamentally built upon the truth, let us eschew division, departures, breaches, and differences among the body of Christ. Let each one examine himself and be sure that we are contributing to the unity, not the disunity of the church.
Associationalism is essentially the idea that because there is one church, the family of God, therefore each individual visible manifestation of that one church ought to be deeply concerned for and cooperating with other individual visible churches. This is confirmed by the example of the apostles and the early church. Thus, while no church can impose beliefs or exercise authority over others, the churches ought to join together under a voluntary, mutual, sincere, collective, and common profession and confession of the faith. And in this way, confessing the faith together, we present a united front of doctrine and practice to the world.