Before I begin discussing the importance of Christian unity and our call to work toward it, let me be clear by saying first that I think it is dangerous to pursue unity at all costs. There are, to be sure, things worth dividing over. Think, for example, of Paul’s remarks to the church at Corinth concerning immorality (1 Cor. 5) and likewise his message to the Galatians over the issue of adding “works of the law” to their faith in Christ (Gal.1:8). For Christians, truth is important, and the church must hold fast to conviction. The fact is that there is such a thing as heresy, and we cannot afford to compromise what is essential to Christianity. Therefore, in extreme cases, division might very well be healthy. In other words, we do not pursue unity at all costs.
That said, I fear that if we are not careful as Christians, we will not give proper weight to the important role unity must play in the life of the church as well. I fear that we Protestants, who have protest running through our veins, might be tempted to forget that, in addition to being called to contend for the Faith (Jude 1:3) even to the point of division if necessary, are also called to foster and work toward visible unity among others who reside in the Faith. This includes working toward unity not just within our local congregations (a very important component to our calling), but also with those of other orthodox Christian traditions.
It is in Jesus’ priestly prayer in John 17 where we see most clearly why unity is important. Jesus prays,
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23 NIV)
Jesus’ prayer here reveals his desire for his people: unity. Oneness with both God and each other is his will. Why is unity important? It is important for the church because of a watching world. When unity exists in the church, among the people of God, then, says Jesus, “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (v.23).” The clear point here is that there is a missional consequence to having (or lacking) visible unity.
One of the most powerful ways to bear witness, that is, to proclaim Good News, to the world is to bear the marks of Christian unity. As I said above, the world is watching. They watch how we act and how we interact; they listen when we talk with, and when we balk against, one another. The fundamental question, therefore, that we need to be asking as Christians is not, Are we representing Christ to the world?, but rather, How are we representing Christ to the world? To be sure, we are always putting Christ on public display. The question, then, is, Are we bringing glory or disdain to him as we display him?
As we eavesdrop on Jesus’ conversation with the Father, perhaps we could afford to do a good checkup on ourselves: How committed are we to local, congregational unity? Are we actively engaged in seeking oneness in our congregations, or are we sacrificing our brothers and sisters on the altar of self-absorption? Are we even committed to a local body of believers? Likewise, we must also ask, How committed are we to true, ecumenical unity? Do we see ourselves, our particular tribe and denomination, as part of a larger body of believers, or do we arrogantly shut our ears to meaningful dialogue and communion with others who worship in other Christian traditions? A self-checkup begins, I think, by evaluating our prayer life. Are we prayerfully making war against the principalities and rulers of this present age that are working to ensure a spirit of disunity in both the local and catholic Body of Christ?
In light of the rugged individualism, as well as the lust for personal autonomy, that so permeates much of evangelical culture in the West, it is necessary that we pay close attention to Jesus’ prayer above. When Jesus says, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (vv. 20-21), the Lord’s heart could not be more clear: the church is called, indeed commissioned, to be just as unified with each other as Jesus is to the Father. His heart is “that [the church] may be one as we are one” (v.22). A question, I think, which ought to be considered is, Can this be said of today’s church? It seems that the contemporary church has advocated for too long a sort of “Christian” reductionism. That is to say, in much of what is considered Protestantism, a person’s Christian identity has been reduced down to nothing but one’s personal relationship with Christ. The Christian Faith, it seems, to many Evangelicals in particular is nothing more than a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ. To be sure, an individual relationship with Jesus is important, but what about a relationship with the church? Much of Evangelicalism, in what I consider to be a betrayal of historic Protestantism itself, has unfortunately emphasized the former to the demise of the latter. We have, in other words, driven an unscriptural wedge between “having a relationship with Jesus” and “having a relationship with the church.” For many American Protestants, for example, church is not essential. In our consumer-driven culture, church has become an optional choice. “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” many say to me. My response to this, not least as a pastor, is simple: I wonder whether a branch can have any life without being attached to a vine?
I wonder, too, if church-less Christianity is even scriptural. As it has been said many times over, the New Testament knows of no lone-ranger, church-less Christian (except, of course, in those cases where a believer is put outside the church in an act of discipline; see 1 Cor. 5). And even in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, notice again what is said: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (vv.22-23). It is fairly evident, I think, that the Lord himself sees a Christian’s unity with other Christians as part and parcel with what it means to be united to him and, through him, with the Father. That is, a person would be hard-pressed to say they can have a viable relationship with Jesus without, at the same time, expressing that in unity with the church. A person, it seems, cannot effectively have one without the other. It must be said, then, that even though rugged individualism and self-consumed autonomy finds welcome space in much of today’s evangelical culture, one must confess that it finds no warrant in Christian Scripture.
It is important for Christians–for me, you, and believers everywhere–to work toward, and pray for, Christian unity. This includes attaching and committing ourselves to a band of believers in our local area. But Christian unity does not happen magically when we join a group. The real work happens, rather, when we live and pray and cry and laugh and mourn and lament together. These opportunities happen in the various seasons of life, seasons which, through their coming and going in the passing of time, become real only in a long journey together. Thus, Christian unity can only be fostered through time(s) with one another. In other words, we will need to commit to the church for the long-haul. And the same must be said on the ecumenical front. We will not always agree with one another on every secondary issue, and I am not even suggesting that we should, but the Lord’s prayer is that everyone within the world-wide Holy Communion would welcome and receive one another just as he himself has already received us, namely, with much grace and patience.
Let us pray and work, therefore, toward our Lord’s vision. Amen.