The tiny Christian church birthed at Pentecost shortly after Jesus ascended has become a vast global presence of diverse nationalities, gifts, and organizational expressions. It has been remarkably adaptive and resilient. The myriad identities of churches and denominations can be confusing, however, especially in their relentless change, which prompts people to ask, “What is the church? What is its purpose? How is it supposed to function? Where should we begin to best understand it?”
Inevitably, the question of unity arises. People ask, “Why are there so many different churches and denominations? How can you justify all these divisions in the church? How did it happen? How can you decide which church is right for you?” These are reasonable concerns. If we ever hope to resolve them, we must begin at the beginning—with God.
The Triune God
The Triune God revealed in the Scriptures is the basis and model for the church and its unity. That is not to say that you cannot begin elsewhere, but any attempt to understand or achieve unity among believers that doesn’t begin with or ultimately find its basis in the doctrine of God is poorly grounded. In hindsight, it is now easy to see that John Calvin had the right idea when he began his Institutes of the Christian Religion with a treatise on the knowledge of God. He understood how foundational the doctrine of God is to all theological and biblical study. That is where all theological inquiry and the search for understanding must begin. For this reason, it makes good sense to consider the doctrine of God, and specifically the Trinity, as foundational to our understanding of the church and its unity.
Most Christians would agree that as our understanding of God is enlarged through a serious study of the Scriptures and a growing awareness of his work throughout human history, we gain a more accurate comprehension of our world, ourselves, and what God expects of us. A correlative intellectual and spiritual (or heart) awareness develops, giving us a sense of what is right. The same could be said regarding what God expects of the church and our place in it.
In reflecting on many years of ministry and observation of the church in its various ecclesiastical forms, I have frequently wondered why the Trinity, although so important, has been an oft-neglected key to rethinking ecclesiology.
Fortunately, during the twentieth century, a renewal of interest in the social significance of the Trinity has led to substantial theological research and writing, enriching the conversation about the church and its unity—particularly during the last half of the twentieth century. This interest in rebuilding spiritual communities—a reaction to the effects of social fragmentation that left people feeling alone or estranged—is understandable and has been a welcome development. The social or relational aspect of the church is often referred to as the “communion of saints” or “fellowship of believers.” That communion has its roots in the Trinity.
The initial pages of the Bible clearly reveal the existence of the one true God, who has eternally existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although the word Trinity is never used in the Bible, the Trinitarian message is consistently relayed to the reader: God is one, yet God is also three (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). It is important to emphasize that as three persons, God is a relational being in whom unity and diversity are perfectly blended. Augustine put it well: “Each is in each, all are in each, each is in all, all are in all, and all are one.”
Not only does the Trinity give insight into the nature of God, it enables us to comprehend the significance of and the value of diversity in all human relationships. Because God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we should quickly realize that he is just as much relational as he is sovereign, wise, just, or holy. Although it is not usually mentioned, the relational attribute of God deserves equal emphasis with his other frequently mentioned attributes. Although we cannot completely comprehend the profundity of the Trinitarian relationship, we may assert with confidence that God has eternally existed in an intimate, harmonious relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Tertullian was the first of the church fathers to use the word person to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity was offered by the Council of Nicaea in a.d. 325, and the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381). The latter explored it by stating: “There is one Godhead, Power and Substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; the dignity being equal, and the majesty being equal in three perfect essences and three perfect persons.”
The Trinity is a triunity of intimate understanding, perfect love, and seamless functioning, as the three persons of the Godhead eternally relate to and exist in one another. Moreover, their personal identities are revealed in their reciprocal relationships. As would be expected, God’s relational perfection is revealed in this unity. This is significant for the church because as we grow spiritually, we are being remade in God’s image in many ways, including relationally. Relational factors, including our ability to work together harmoniously in spite of our differences, play a significant role when assessing our sanctification. You might say that the closer we are to God, the closer we should be to one another. This has, or should have, a direct bearing on the unity of the church; you would expect the unity of the Trinity to be expressed in the unity of the church.
It is also important to note the diversity revealed in the very nature of the Trinity, which does not come at the expense of unity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as distinct and different persons with distinct and different responsibilities. This is consistently presented throughout the Bible. Herman Bavinck, aptly noting the diversity that existed prior to sin, says that this should lead us to conclude that it is “good and important also for the church.” Differences can enrich relationships; diversity enriches the church. By contrast, it is hard to imagine life in a universe of clones.
Given our inclination to think of God as detached and impersonal, this is a timely corrective. The nature of God makes me the person I am: a person influenced by love—or its absence. God is personal and loving, longsuffering and forgiving. He is known by his love because “God is love” (1 John 4:16). That love has always existed within the Trinity. As Jesus said to the Father, “you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).
Love doesn’t happen in the abstract; it needs an object. It is impossible to love nothing. Love needs someone to love and someone by whom we can be loved. Companionship, therefore, is essential to God’s very nature because God is love. John’s Gospel reminds us of this eternal relationship: “the Word was with God” (John 1:1) and “at the Father’s side” (v. 18). Not only was the Word in the beginning and essential to the creation of the world, the Word was with God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were bonded together before the world came into existence.
This is taken from Luder Whitlock’s book, Divided We Fall: Overcoming a History of Christian Disunity. To read the entire first chapter, click here to download.