How Important is Christian Unity?
How important should Christian unity be? This past week that question has been on my mind. We would all agree that unity is a biblical concept and Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one (John 17: 23). How high a priority should be given to Christian unity and should it be above other aspects of church life? The reality is that many of us, consciously or unconsciously rank unity quite low. How do I know that? Over my years in ministry I have had to spend a large portion of my time dealing with conflicts within the church – conflicts over theology, ministry, inter-personal relationships, worship & music styles, jealousy, pastors / staff (either you love them or hate them), change, cliques, finances – these are just a few of the conflicts I have had to deal with in my ministry the last 25+ years.
Why was unity so important to Jesus? I think the answer is found in the prayer that Jesus prayed in John 17: 20-23. “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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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” (emphasis mine). In other words, unity amongst his followers was very important to Jesus because it would be a testimony to the world that Jesus was the promised anointed one sent by God.
Think about that for a second. If Christian unity tells the world that Jesus Christ was sent by God to reconcile people to Himself so that they could become one in Christ, the opposite must be true as well. When followers of Christ cannot get along with one other and have conflicts it prevents the world from believing in Christ.
There is a powerful confession of faith that came out of South Africa in 1982 during the years of apartheid called the Belhar Confession. It was named after a South African city where it was first adopted. At that time, racial separation made it impossible for Christ followers to worship or celebrate communion together. The statement focused on three themes – unity, reconciliation and justice. Gradually churches around the world recognized the power and theological insight of Belhar as an expression of Scriptural truth.
Let me quote a segment of the Belhar Confession regarding church unity:
• that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
• that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
• that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);
• that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13);
• that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.
Christian unity is both relational and doctrinal. We need to be proactive in maintaining unity and this is done through building relationships with one another in the fellowship. It is also doctrinal in that our unity is based on a genuine faith in Jesus Christ and through that faith we are reconciled with God and each other.
My prayer is that as a Christians, we will work hard to maintain the unity that Christ has given us. We must stick together because we want the world to know that Jesus is the one sent by God to reconcile us to himself and one another. Unity must be one of our top priorities so “that the world may believe”. The bible promises that when we are united the blessings of God will flow (Psalm 133). So, let us lay aside our personal preferences, prejudices and agendas which cause division in order to embrace the diversity that exists within the Christian community where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female” because we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3: 28)