January 23, 2018
In my work, as both a Campus Minister and the founder of an ecumenical organization, I am often asked to offer some kind of Scriptural foundation for Christian unity. Two questions frequently follow that request: If the Bible is so clear on maintaining unity amongst the people of God, why has it been so elusive throughout the history of the Church? And, aren’t there equally compelling passages that would encourage followers of Jesus to separate from one another over critical issues of belief and practice?
My hope in this brief article is to take a quick pass at answering those questions, both laying out an overview of what the Bible says about Christian unity and asking why it has been so hard for the Church throughout the centuries to live out what we read about unity in the Scriptures.
For any overview, we must start with John 17:20-23, the end of what is often called Jesus’ high priestly prayer in the gospel of John.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 23 I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
It is the foundational text for understanding how Christians are to be united. Much commentary has been written about it, and space here limits me from pressing too deeply into it. I would only make one important observation: Jesus seems compelled to pray for unity because it is both critical to his post-resurrection purposes and that it will be constantly at risk. 2000 years of Church history should convince us that this was indeed something Jesus needed to pray about.
Even in the very early history of the Church, we have a record of conflict that threatens to undo the bonds of unity. In Acts 6:1-7, ethnic tension between the Judean and Hellenistic Jewish communities must be resolved before the Jerusalem community can continue to press forward in mission. And later in the book of Acts, the spread of the Church among the Gentiles creates even more tension. This culminates in a leadership gathering – and a process to resolve the conflict – in Acts 15 that later becomes identified as the first ecumenical council of the Church.
When the apostle Paul writes to various churches, his awareness of the obstacles to unity, and his commitment to maintaining it, are clearly articulated. In his first letter to the Corinthians (1:10), he appeals,” …in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
In Ephesians (4:3), he desires that the church “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” And when personal conflict puts the Christian community in Philippi (4:2) at risk, Paul writes, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
Paul’s words (and Jesus’ upper-room prayer) are also echoed in the epistles of James, Peter, and John:
- 1 Peter 3:8 – “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”
- James 4:1 – “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”
- 1 John 4:20-21 – “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
Finally, in Revelation (e.g. 7:9) – the very last book of the New Testament – we are given a beautiful future picture of a reconciled Christian community of many ethnicities from all over the face of the earth giving their eternal praise to the one who prayed for their unity on the night before his Passion.
Even in that brief survey of New Testament passages, I think it’s safe to say that unity is supposed to be a fundamental characteristic of the Church. Now we’re left with the question: why is this so hard to live out? I believe that the Pauline scholar and former Church of England bishop N.T. Wright provided us a succinct and helpful response during a January 2014 lecture on the Apostle Paul that he gave in King’s College Chapel, London:
“The visible tangible thing [to Paul] is the ecclesia (Church), the united and holy community. Unity is easy if you don’t care about holiness. Holiness is quite easy if you don’t care about unity. It’s doing the two of them together that’s the real trick.”
This tension that Bishop Wright identifies – between unity and holiness; between preserving truth and preserving fellowship – has been at play in most of the major conflicts that produced division in the Church throughout its history. Assigning value to cultural and ethnic identity between Jews and Gentiles that was already at play in Acts eventually led to a split, and then the disappearance of Jewish participation in the Church.
Questions of who speaks for the Church and how theological conflicts are to be resolved had a huge impact on the East/West division of the Church in the 11th century. Varying understandings of apostolic succession and the visible nature of the Church factored into the fracturing of the Western Church during and after the Reformation. And multiple interpretations of passages such as Paul’s admonition to “come out and be separate” (1 Cor. 6:17) and Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13) have affected efforts to bring Christians together down to the current moment.
And so, as followers of Christ who desire to see greater unity in the Church, we must constantly wrestle with this tension. We must hear – and obey – the strong New Testament witness that calls for love, peace, healing, and reconciliation amongst the people of God. But we must also acknowledge that various convictions of belief and practice (also arising from the New Testament witness) make that task difficult.
Scott Brill has worked in various leadership capacities for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship all over New England for the past 34 years, and is a campus minister at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, where he has established a unique partnership between InterVarsity and the Catholic Campus Ministry.