Previously, I’ve written about the urgency of prioritizing unity in the Church (meaning a greater collaboration and sense of partnership between congregations within the body of Christ located in the same city or region), and about some of the most common roadblocks to this unity. In this article, I want to explore more specifically what we should expect to see when this unity is actually worked out in the day to day life of the Church. Is the goal to pull off an event once or twice a year in which all the churches partner together? Or for pastors to occasionally come together for fellowship and prayer? Or is there something beyond those kinds of things, as good as they may be? Answering these questions is crucial because unless we understand what genuine unity looks like on the ground, we will fail to work towards it intentionally and specifically.
So what would this unity look like? What would be the characteristics of a sustainable movement of healthy cooperation among the body of Christ? The good news is that Scripture doesn’t stop with simply giving us a vision for this unity, but paints various pictures of what it looks like on the canvas of everyday life. One of the most magnificent of these paintings is Ephesians 4. In this passage, Paul not only encourages the Church to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (verse 3), but goes on to show them how this would actually get worked out in their daily lives. Two additional paintings, both stunning in their own right, also stand out as we walk through this section of the gallery, they are John 17:20–26 and Romans 15:5–7. Now, let’s take a step closer and see what we discover!
So what characterizes genuine unity according to Scripture?
1. It must be more than just an event (it cannot be contained within the four walls of a building but must be visible to the world)
In John 17, Jesus makes it clear that our unity is a demonstration of the reality of the gospel before the eyes of the world. “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:23 ESV). The obvious indication is that the kind of unity Jesus was talking about meant something more than churches coming together on a Sunday for a unity service or even pastors meeting at a church building for prayer. In order to accomplish its purpose, this unity needs to be put on display in the everyday stuff of life where believers interact with unbelievers on a regular basis.
2. It must be owned and lived out by both leaders and the people they serve
Reading Ephesians 4:1–16 and failing to notice the emphasis on the whole body working together would be like reading the Hobbit and missing Bilbo entirely. In verses 7–13 we discover that grace in the form of gifts has been “given to each one of us” (not just to the leadership), and that these gifts serve “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to––” what? “…the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…” (verses 12–13a). It could not be expressed more clearly; unity comes through every member exercising their gifts for the building up of the whole body. In light of this, we could conclude that any way of “doing church” that does not promote and make room for every believer to use their gifts will stand in the way of authentic unity.
3.It must be centered on the Good News of Jesus
As we progress through Ephesians 4, we find that it is not only crucial for every member to serve as a minister, but also that they must be ministers of something in particular, namely the gospel. Check out verses 15–16, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” It is through speaking the truth in love, which is the truth that is in Jesus (see verse 21), that the body builds itself up in love. That is to say, that through the gospel they grow to resemble a loving family that lives and works together in unity.
As the Church, our invisible unity exists in our union with Jesus, so too, in order to practically work towards visible unity, we must be committed to the centrality of the good news of Jesus in our daily lives. The gospel brings us into a united family and it is essential in helping us live out that family unity. This is why, just following his plea for the Church in Rome to be unified, Paul exhorts the believers there with these words, “Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 ESV).
Wrapping it all up
So if we genuinely desire the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for and that Paul wrote about, we’ve got to consider how we might “do church” in such a way that would include the three characteristics mentioned above. In other words, we would need to create a pathway for believers from different congregations, but who share the same workplace, school, neighborhood, or sphere of influence, (1) to learn to more intentionally partner together as a community on mission in those places, (2) to discover how to use their gifts and work as a team, and (3) to learn to live daily in light of the gospel and to speak it fluently. This is basically a description of a missional community. You may not have heard it called that before, but it is nothing new. God has always called his people to be a community on mission with his good news concerning the redemption and blessing that comes in and through the Messiah for every family on earth. This whole concept is at the core of the biblical story, as Jeff Vanderstelt has convincingly argued here.
Without a doubt, countless local congregations are “doing church” this way––at least to some extent. They are seeking to be faithful to the priesthood of all believers and intentionally engaging the world around them with the gospel as a family of believers on mission, but what would it look like for this to spread across the entire body of Christ in a particular city or region? What if every local church in your city embraced their identity as a community on mission and intentionally partnered together to see that identity lived out in everyday places where their members might find themselves. Can you imagine the impact that could have?
What if gospel-loving leaders more intentionally partnered together, shared resources and best practices, in order to equip and support their people as they united with other believers, not seeing those partnerships as competition to their local church agenda but as a crucial part of it?
Perhaps, most followers of Jesus are already trying to be salt and light in their places of work, neighborhoods, schools, etc., but sometimes churches unintentionally hinder their people from proactive engagement by creating programs that remove these believers from their most natural sphere of gospel influence. Some leaders might even feel threatened by their members serving in areas that are outside of their church’s focus, but what if pastors in the same city or region got behind these efforts? What if gospel-loving leaders more intentionally partnered together, shared resources and best practices, in order to equip and support their people as they united with other believers, not seeing those partnerships as competition to their local church agenda but as a crucial part of it?
The result, I believe, would be greater gospel saturation in that region for the glory of God through a united Church that proclaims and displays the good news of Jesus. Big events can be great but they’re not sustainable on a daily basis and they often fail to include the whole body. Equipping believers to partner together as gospel communities and commissioning them to be missionaries in the everyday places where they already work, play, learn, and live will lead to a much more sustainable path to unity over time. Yes, church leaders will need to provide training and cast vision, but in the end, everyday people will be the ones doing the ministry in community with each other and demonstrating what it means for the Church to be one body not just once or twice a year, or inside a church building but in all of life. I believe this is something worth striving for, how about you?