This is war!
Imagine a resistance army fighting against an evil empire. This army struggles to hold back the encroaching darkness while working to rescue those who have fallen captive to its power. Much good has come from their efforts, but there’s one glaring weakness: they are comprised of dozens of distinct groups… that itself is not the issue, their various sizes, locations, and fighting abilities actually serve to their advantage, the problem is that they don’t work together nearly as much as they could. Their communication is lacking, and they often fail to coordinate their efforts. Sometimes they have disagreements regarding seemingly small details related to battle techniques and strategies and as a result, opt to keep their distance. In spite of their differences, all of these groups have given their allegiance to the same prince who they believe is the rightful king of all the lands that have been overtaken by the darkness. Ironically, this prince has specifically said that it is through their coming together that the mission will be accomplished most successfully.
Our great King, Jesus the Messiah prayed for all of us who belong to his Church to be united as one even as he and the Father are one, and in an increasingly secular and hostile culture, the need for unity among the body of Christ is more pressing than ever. In John 17:20-23, as in the illustration above, it this unity that will serve to advance the mission of making known the good news of our King and of his Kingdom.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
“…in an increasingly secular and hostile culture, the need for unity among the body of Christ is more pressing than ever.”
So what hinders the Church from living this out?
#1 A wrong understanding of what practical Church unity means
Of course, John 17 isn’t the only place where unity is emphasized in the Bible. Paul writes the entire letter of Romans about it, and calls the Church to strive for it in places such as 1 Corinthians 1:10-12, Ephesians 4:1-16, and Philippians 2:1-5. As one examines these passages it becomes increasingly clear that unity is certainly not an optional add-on but a central priority for the church. So why aren’t we working toward it more diligently? One reason, is that these commands are often primarily, if not exclusively, applied in the context of local congregations. In other words, many think that these verses are simply about getting along with the Christians who they see on Sunday mornings, and give little thought to how these passages might speak into their relationship with the other congregations down the street. Certainly it’s important for people within one local congregation to be unified and that is definitely one application of these texts, but the striking truth is that these commands were not originally given to one specific congregation within a city but to the whole Church in that city. Paul is not writing to one little house church in the northeast corner of Rome, saying “you guys need to get along with each other!” No, he’s writing to the Church in Rome, made up of numerous local congregations (Jesus communities), and saying “all of you should be united and work in harmony, so that together, with one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our King, Jesus the Messiah.” (See Romans 15:5-7)
We can clearly observe in the book of Acts that the various congregations in a city or region are collectively referred to as “the Church” in that particular place (See for example Acts 9:31, 11:22, and 15:3). In light of this, we must understand that working towards practical church unity means reaching beyond our local congregation and partnering on mission with other Jesus communities, recognizing that together we make up the Church in our city or region.
#2 A contradictory understanding of the importance of doctrine
Sound doctrine is vital for the health of the Church (2 Timothy 1:13), and in light of that a significant number of Christians are skeptical about pursuing unity with other congregations that they perceive to be less doctrinally sound. My response to the objection of “what about doctrine?” is: Absolutely! Yes, doctrine matters, and there is a particular doctrine in Scripture that we might call the doctrine of the one body, and that doctrine matters too. We can’t ignore the teaching (doctrine) about unity under the guise of upholding doctrine. There’s a great irony there, and sadly, there is often a great amount of pride as well. So let’s not ignore one doctrine for the sake of others, these doctrines must be held in tension (for more on this please see what I’ve written about the importance of doctrine and how Christians who disagree on secondary matters can strive to work together without abandoning their convictions here).
#3 The Sin of Kingdom Building
Shouldn’t we want to be building the kingdom? How is that a roadblock to unity? The problem is that all too quickly our work to build God’s kingdom subtly morphs into a desire to build our own little kingdom. Pastors of churches both large and small struggle with this unity-blocking sin. Manifesting itself in a longing to be that church that does what other local churches haven’t done. Our pride delights in the idea of being “that church.” You know the one? That church that has all the college students and young couples. That church that has the best worship team in the city. That church that’s big enough it can make an impact in the city all on its own. That church that really cares about theology and has the most solid preaching in town. How cool it would be for that church to be my church. Oh, may God set us free from such pride and arrogance! May God forgive us for ever thinking this was “my church” to begin with. There is one Church with many members and Jesus is the head.
May God help us recover the conviction that all the Jesus communities in one particular city or region make up the Church in that place. Rather than quarreling over our secondary differences, let us unite our resistance against the dominion of darkness and advance the reign and rule of the rightful King. A true unity movement needs people of different personalities and perspectives and from different denominations and tribes to join forces and unite around a common vision for gospel saturation in their city. Each expression of the body brings something special and unique to the table. In light of this truth, may we work together as many members of one body, so that the presence of Jesus, the Savior and Lord of the Church, would be made known to every man, woman, and child in our cities.