Scandal. Contention. Division. These are too often the headlines the Church of Jesus Christ produces for the watching world. How different this image is from that of Jesus praying that his people would be one, as He and the Father are one. I’d like to share some thoughts (certainly not original) about the nature of Christian unity. In an era where Wikipedia cites the existence of 41,000 Christian groups and denominations, the question of the essence of unity must be asked. Indeed, what kind of unity can we expect in our churches and between our churches?
What do the Scriptures say to us? A key Bible passage relating to unity is Ephesians 4:1, 3 – “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called…giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Here are three principles on unity that we can glean from this passage:
- Christian unity is not something we attain, as much as something we maintain. So, the essence of unity is not structural or organizational at its heart. Unity is a common relationship with Christ. Structure matters; organizational efforts to build up the Body have consequence. But only to the extent that they are premised upon a spiritual relationship with Christ that we already hold in common.
- Christian unity is a miracle given by the Holy Spirit. Again, this is not something manmade. It is something that is God-wrought. So, for example: if we perceive a lack of a unified purpose within a church, we must first respond with increased dependence on the Holy Spirit for the miracle of unity.
- Christian unity is possible as we live out of the peace produced by the cross of Christ. Christ has created “one new man” out of Jew and Gentile. And the gospel ground on which we stand is that of equality, with no room for hostility. Unity among brothers and sisters can be enjoyed where there is a commitment to this peace. Where there is no peace, it is there that the cross has been forgotten.
Finally, I’d like to round this out with some practical implications for church life in these days.
- The keeping of unity in your church will require a wholehearted commitment on your part. Unity doesn’t mandate a suppression of differences or a devaluation of truth. What it demands is that we view each relationship we have through “first principles”. Questions to ask: What does the fact that Jesus shed his blood for my brother or sister entail? Do we not both have the Spirit? Irrespective of the other’s behavior or opinions, what kind of behavior does God call me to manifest?
- The flesh will always find a way to rationalize a divisive spirit. This doesn’t require much explanation. Here are some rationalizations that I’ve made or encountered: (1) “If so-and-so has his way, our church is going to decline”, (2) “I am not going to participate in this ministry effort that so-and-so is promoting; I don’t it’s right for the church”; (3) “Maybe if I stop giving to the church, our leadership will get the message”.
- The world will be persuaded of Christ as they see the miracle of Christian unity lived out before their eyes. In John 17:21, Jesus declared that as we manifest the same kind of unity that He shares with the Father, the world would come to believe that He was sent by the Father. To me, this reveals an area in which much of Protestantism has gone awry. For many, unity is something more easily achieved by forming or joining a church where we all have the same opinions about sacraments, church government, etc. Yet, Jesus seems to be communicating the following, in effect: “Sinful unbelief is powerful. And it’s going to take the miraculous to overcome unbelief.” It’s not a miracle to see a happy homogeneous church where everyone is comfortable with everyone else. Doesn’t the miracle occur when Christ truly unifies a group that the world would think impossible to unify? People with divergent politics, racial background, economic status, personal history. Maybe the world doesn’t think much of Christ because they don’t see anything unique about people gathering with others with which they are comfortable. After all, that’s how the world operates!
May our churches maintain the unity that only the Spirit of God can give!