Unity in the Church, is it Possible?
Over the years I’ve heard Christian speakers and writers talk a lot about unity in the church, or among churches. Since the days of the Reformation back in the 1500’s the world has seen a plethora of protestant churches form. Usually it’s due to a key leader within a movement having certain beliefs about a doctrine (teaching) and the followers insisting on that view until they separate and form a new church group. And so, we end up with Lutherans and Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Pentecostals and Quakers and Episcopalians. You have General Baptist, Free-will Baptist, Southern Baptist; in my home town 1st Baptist (white) and 2nd Baptist (black). If you’re involved enough to have conversation with a member of a different church group, discussing key doctrinal variances, you’ll quickly find it hard to bridge the gap and come to agreement. Is unity even possible?
Jesus prayed for unity. He prayed that his believers would be one, just as God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are separate but still one (John 17:20-21). The church I belong to, the “independent” Christian Church (independent only meaning they have no formal denomination, each congregation is managed by the local elders with the Bible as their constitution), is part of what’s called The Restoration Movement. This movement began in the early 1800’s, a back-to-the-Bible movement that sought to restore certain key elements of Bible teaching and to call all churches to unity around the Bible as our common source of faith and practice. Sadly, even this movement, with pure ideals, ended up with division, as it eventually split into three separate groups: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – a liberal branch that has largely moved away from the Bible as the source of truth; the churches of Christ – a conservative branch that became very particular about certain issues like musical instruments in worship; and finally the Independent Christian Churches and churches of Christ – also a conservative branch minus the musical issue. Needless to say: unity is tough.
Mark Moore in his book Core 52 says that maybe we’ve sought unity on the wrong basis. Most seem to think we need organizational unity, with all denominations (including Catholics) uniting under one organizational umbrella. Others want doctrinal unity, with all agreeing on the key doctrines of the New Testament (but how do we even agree on what constitutes the “key” doctrines?). Mark makes the case that Jesus primarily wants relational unity. He points to Jesus illustrating this by comparing to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each has unique purposes they pursue, but they are all in relational unity, all seeking the same goal, all part of the one God.
So maybe we should seek an attitude that appreciates what other Christ-followers who belong to different groups bring to the table, as long as they accept Jesus as Lord and the Bible as His Word of direction. As we all pursue Jesus with the Bible as our guide, that should move us closer and closer together. Then as we love each other, despite our differences, we have relational unity. “There is neither Jew or Greek, neither slave or free, no male or female, (no Baptist or Methodist), for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Don’t misunderstand, there are issues worth contending over. It was true in New Testament times, when the Gnostics taught all things physical were evil, and the apostles had to contend against that; or when the Jewish leaders tried to make keeping the Law part of being a Christian, and the apostles said no, it’s following Christ alone that makes you Christian. Baptism is another important doctrine, with Bible teaching that’s very clear, and yet churches all over the place in belief and practice. We need to search for what the apostles taught, our goal to agree with them, not any particular church group (Acts 2: 42). The fact is, when we focus on using our God given gifts (Romans 12; I Cor. 12; Ephesians 4) and appreciate others doing the same, we find unity in that. Spiritual gifts are always used to help others. Paul healed others, he never healed himself. When our primary goal is to bless, rather than be blessed, we appreciate others doing the same. Such unity is within grasp.
Cross Point: Jesus prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you…to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”