That They May All Be One?
Why Unity Is Still Worth Pursuing
On the night our Lord was betrayed, he prayed “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). As his cross loomed before him, our unity was on his heart. And the unity he was praying for must be visible: “. . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Something glorious is at stake in our public unity as Christians: our witness to Jesus as the One sent by God.
Our diversity as Christians is also glorious. We rally around Christ our Lord as Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and many others, with our wide-ranging musical styles and liturgical practices and missional emphases, with fascinating splashes of human color and variety, each enriching the whole body of Christ (Revelation 7:9–10).
“Something glorious is at stake in our public unity as Christians: our witness to Jesus as the One sent by God.”
Nearly fifty years ago, in 1974, I remember seeing the worldwide church on display at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland. Christians from all over the world came together, as they were, true to themselves and true to Christ. It was a foretaste of heaven. And whoever you are, I hope you feel fully authorized in Christ to be yourself, in your culture, standing tall in Christ by his grace. If you love him, you belong. Amazingly, so do I.
But it is our unity — our surprising solidarity, our heartfelt oneness, our tenacious stick-together-ness, our shared beauty together — that makes it easier for others to believe in Jesus as sent from God. And I don’t think many of us prize our unity as much as we should.
Unity Is A Doctrine
Is our unity as Christians a hill we’ll die on? I look at us on social media, in our churches and denominations, in our marriages and families and friendships, and I have to wonder, Do we revere our unity — or do we vaporize our unity as a creedal abstraction? In practical reality, are we “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? Sometimes it appears we might even be suspicious that “unity” is theological compromise sneaking in to ruin us.
“The unity of the church does not threaten doctrine; the unity of the church is a doctrine.”
Let’s settle one thing right now. The unity of the church does not threaten doctrine; the unity of the church is a doctrine. The Bible teaches, clearly and emphatically, “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6). Our unity bears witness to the gospel, because our unity is part of the gospel. Are we as doctrinally pure as we claim to be?
Isn’t Unity Essential?
What else does the Bible say? Notice how the little word all is sprinkled through the New Testament, nudging us toward a shared mentality:
May the God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:33)
To those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)
Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Ephesians 6:24)
Think too of the New Testament’s explicit appeals that we come together, strongly and decidedly, in unified resolve:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:2)
Isn’t our unity, therefore, essential to biblical Christianity?
Warnings Against Divisiveness
Let’s not overlook the biblical warnings against division and faction and aloofness:
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)
(Maybe the most disobeyed verses in all the Bible every Sunday!)
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10–11)
And from the Old Testament, the wise old voice of Proverbs alerts us to the sickened revulsion God feels about our violations of unity:
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16–19)
When the Old Testament uses this literary pattern, X // X + 1, “six // seven,” it is the last item added at the end of the list that explains the others. So, what the Lord detests about haughty eyes, and all the rest, is how they sow discord. Our Lord above hates it when we so betray trust that we destroy friendships, often permanently. He abominates such destructive evils among us. How could it be otherwise? If Jesus died to bring us together in harmony, then our sowing discord says to him, “You don’t matter. What matters here is my grievance. Get out of my way, Jesus, while I make these wretched Christians feel the pain they deserve!”
Disagreeing for God’s Sake
Naturally, you might already be objecting, “But Ray, what about the biblical calls, like 2 Timothy 4:2, to rebuke people as part of legitimate gospel ministry?” Good point. (Indeed, this article is something of a rebuke!) Here are three ways I would respond.
One, if a Christian is guilty of serious evil, and his or her guilt is a properly established fact, then a heartbroken and even angry public rebuke, to preserve Christian integrity, might be right and re-unifying. We are morally serious people, following a morally serious Jesus.
If a powerful Christian is found to have abused someone, for example, it is right for abuses of power to be called out. Silence could add a layer of hypocritical complicity on top of the already heinous sin. I don’t see enough of this kind of careful, solemn rebuke. But just blurting out grievances, especially online — we do too much of that. We would be more compelling as a Christian community if the mature among us would stick their necks out and bravely guard our integrity with appropriate rebukes. To those of you who do so, thank you.
Two, before we vent our personal frustrations, let’s be humble enough to stop and ask, “Who is even asking for my opinion? Is this urge to speak up just me being pushy?” Arrogance doesn’t ask, “Why does my pronouncement even need to be heard?” On the other hand, I am sure that the body of Christ in our generation is far less injured and divided than it could be, because so many humble Christians really are being modest, self-aware, restrained.
Three, I am myself rebuked and helped by this wise caution from Francis Schaeffer:
We should never come to [differences] with true Christians without regret and without tears. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Believe me, evangelicals often have not shown it. We rush in, being very, very pleased, it would seem at times, to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down. This can never show a real oneness among Christians.
There is only one kind of man who can fight the Lord’s battles in anywhere near a proper way, and that is the man who by nature is unbelligerent. A belligerent man tends to do it because he is belligerent; at least it looks that way.
The world must observe that, when we must differ with each other as true Christians, we do it not because we love the smell of blood, the smell of the arena, the smell of the bullfight, but because we must for God’s sake. If there are tears when we must speak, then something beautiful can be observed. (The Mark of the Christian, 26–27)
Do We Really Want Unity?
Whatever the controversy of the moment might be, do we express our differences with such care that a reasonable unbeliever could say, “There is no bloodlust here. This is different. There is sincerity of heart here, even beauty”?
But if we are so angry and so sure of ourselves that we don’t even want to be the answer to our Lord’s prayer for unity, then let’s admit it. And let’s have the honesty to stop attaching ourselves to the name of Jesus. We don’t love him.
But if we do love him, then let’s join him in his heartfelt prayer for unity. And let’s go do something about it — starting with that one Christian we have been avoiding.