Does Unity Matter?

As a follow-up to my review of John Armstrong’s new book, Your Church Is Too Small, here are some verses to provoke more discussion, prayer, and concrete actions towards visible church unity:

Jn. 17:20-23

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 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.” (ESV, emphasis added)

Now, some maintain that Christians already have “spiritual” unity, and that is all the Bible requires. My big question is, “How will an unseen, spiritual unity convince an unbelieving world?!”

I think Paul has more in mind when he writes:

Rom. 16:17

“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.” (ESV, as well as all other Bible citations following)

This assumes that we can distinguish those who cause divisions from those who don’t. This means that divisions can be see with the naked eye. We’re not talking about a Platonic “spirituality” here. Division is visible, so unity should be visible.

1 Cor. 1:10

“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.”

I admit this verse scares me a little. This seems impossible to realize. Oh well. God says it, I believe, so I’ll start with seeking unity with those Christians that I live closest to.

Rom. 15:5-6

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Oh boy, sounds pretty liberal and ecumenical to me. Must have been a later, scribal addition by proto-ecumenists! Luckily, they were quickly squashed by the proto-orthodox, all their books were burnt, they were buried alive with stakes driven through their hearts, and they were forgotten … until Satan resurrected their damnable heresy in these latter days! (Apologies to those who have no idea what I just said–that was just a bunch of theological inside jokes 🙂

Phil. 1:27-28

“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, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”

Phil 2:1-4

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

I think these texts are pretty clear. We need to realize that our divisions are sinful (the divisions may have been caused by large-scale disobedience by a segment of the church, as in the Episcopal homosexual crisis, but sin was still the cause). Admitting we have a problem is the first step to recovery (I learned that in HHA, Heresy-Hunters Anonymous).

Now, it is certainly true that Paul is not an idealist. He recognizes the presences of “weaker brothers” (Rom. 14), and gives specific instruction on how to live peacefully with them.

It is also true that unity does not mean uniformity. The Body of Christ is One Body, but has many members (1 Cor. 12). While I think denominations are sinful, part of our process of repentance needs to be recognizing the glorious things that God is doing with other members of Christ’s One Body. (Thank God for the rapid growth and fervency of the Charismatic churches in the 3rd World! Thank God for the Baptists and their staunch defense of the reliability of the Bible! Thank God for the unwavering Roman Catholic stand against abortion, even before Protestants started caring about the issue!)

Compare this to marriage (something which Paul certainly does–Ephe. 5:21-33). How are a husband and wife united? Obviously, there is spiritual unity, but that “spiritual” unity needs to manifested in very concrete ways–bringing your wife flowers, saying “I love you,” doing the dishes for her, and making love to her. Oddly enough, these concrete actions help create a deeper spiritual unity.

In the same way, I believe Christians from one church/tradition should rub shoulders with Christians from other churches/traditions. Not only is this part of our witness to the world (see Jn. 17 again!), but this is how a family interacts. We are all “brothers and sisters” in Christ. The term “brother” and “sister” were NT descriptions for “fellow Christian.” This was a revolutionary concepts in the ancient world–people from every socio-economic class, male and female, children and old men, all part of the same family! This can be revolutionary again, if Christians would come out of their denominational ghettos and actually work together to advance the Kingdom of God.

Our Lord taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Will we be divided into denominations in heaven (or, in the new heavens and the new earth, to be theologically precise!)??? Will we be surprised that people from ____________________ (fill in the blank according to your prejudice) church/denomination/tradition are there? If we will see Christians from all types of backgrounds in glory, then why not start talking with them, and working with them, now?

One thought on “Does Unity Matter?

  1. I finished the book and is really great. An amazing experience of going through the realization of the meaning of the Jesus prayer in John 17. Wish that so many more Christians have this vision and have the Church Unity at heart. And when you see this fulfilled through stages in your life, you see clearly God’s working in your life, and I hope that He will do this in other people’s lives. I cannot say so much, the book hits the nail, in relation to the problem of divisions that we face today.

    The questions that John asks are so challenging and are rarely asked these days in the evangelical world. He challenges the complete denial of dealing with Tradition, with the Visible Church, and the seriousness of schism. This was challenging also for me: “the road to the future must run through the past”, offering great insights to the problems that we are facing today.

    I am also impressed by the spirit of openness and love toward the Catholics and Orthodox, being enriched by the traditions of these churches.

    He analyses well the problems that are seen in achieving unity, putting one thing over another, like putting Truth over the Unity, rather then working to achieve it the right way, even if it is difficult.

    And the great value of this book is related so much in my opinion with the challenge that is offering to the evangelical world, which needs it so critically, or to the hot minds there in the reformed word, with the fundamentalists views which see everything ecumenical as heresy or as an alliance with the enemy.

    I can put now some of the most favorite quotes:

    “True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feelings but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to groups with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian” (18).

    “As a young Christian, I was taught that the church was divided and confused immediately after the generation of the apostles. But the historical evidence fails to support this idea. Cults often suggest this notion as they seek to promote new revelation.

    “Everyone interprets the Bible. This truth may be abundantly clear to you, but I have that it is easily forgotten by ‘Bible-centered’ Christians. Quoting the Bible rarely settles disagreements. By themselves, Bible verses fail to promote unity” (79).

    “Many evangelicals opposed Christian tradition because they pit the spiritual against the historical. This is a false antithesis. Those who dispense with tradition always create new traditions” (123).

    “My appeal here is simple: The modern church desperately needs both ministers and nonprofessionals to read the patristic writers” (127).

    Once again I am delighted to have read this challenging and thought-provoking book, which have great challenges that are needed in our times, to work together for the Kingdom and for the Unity.

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