A Biblical Case for Christian Unity
JESUS’ HEART FOR UNITY:
A biblical case for our coming together in Christ
by Lester Zimmerman and Mark Ammerman
I do not pray for these only, but for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee-that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.
-The prayer of Jesus in John 17:20-23
Jesus knew what was in the heart of man. He knew that in ourselves we fight for position, for place, for advantage over each other-in order to see, to taste, to have, to hold and to control. We fight, and we even kill, because we want what we want when we want it.
Even among Jesus’ own followers, the pride of position and the desire for selfish gain raised its head constantly. Jesus rebuked his men for sectarianism (Luke 9:49-50), corrected them for clambering for position (Mark 10:35-45), and consistently addressed their need to humble themselves (Luke 9:46-48).
Only hours before praying the words recorded above, Jesus addressed the prideful boastings of his followers by stripping down to the underclothes of a common house servant in order to wash the disciples feet in a dramatic example of humility and servanthood (John 13:1-17).
On the same night, one of his handpicked men slipped away into the shadows in order to betray him to the Jewish authorities (John 13:21-30). That betrayal-as Jesus knew and had openly predicted-would lead swiftly to his arrest, his trial, and his death upon a Roman cross. Yes, Jesus knew what was in the heart of man.
In sharp contrast to the darkened, selfish human heart, we can feel the compassionate heartbeat of God in this prayer of Jesus for his followers. We can hear the consummate concern of the savior for the well-being of those who would come to trust Him for the forgiveness of their sins. Sadly, Jesus could also foresee the broken relationships, divisions, mistrust and even hatred that would manifest itself among those for whom he would lay down his life. And so he prayed for unity.
And now the centuries have passed. And the view from heaven has been filled with glory as well as shame. The church of Jesus Christ has marched across the years with love as its banner, but with Satan nipping at its heels and with sin howling in its soul. The family of God today is divided and disfunctional in so many ways, and still Jesus cries out in intercession for us (Romans 8:33-34).
Will his prayers go unanswered? Absolutely not.
Will his plea to the Father for the unity of his people ever come to fruition? Absolutely yes!
Jesus spoke as the Father spoke, reached out to touch and heal as the Father reached out to touch and heal, prayed what the Father prayed. His words were the words and the will of God.
What Jesus prayed will come to pass. His church will come to unity. The time is in God’s hands, but the answer is assured.
Even with the diversity of denominations and theological streams, biblical unity is possible. The issue for believers is not uniformity of doctrine, but unity of faith and purpose. This challenge hasn’t changed from the days that Jesus walked with his disciples; it is still a matter of the heart and a test of our willingness to work together.
We would suggest here that the Bible declares A THREEFOLD PURPOSE OF UNITY:
1) To Convince
2) To Collect
3) To Cast Down
1) To Convince the world of the reality of Jesus’ message. (John 17:22-23)
The primary reason Jesus prayed for unity is not simply so that we become one, big, happy family of Christians (though he is fully committed to the spiritual and relational nurture of that family). The ultimate purpose of unity is for ‘the harvest’, for those outside the family who have no true hope of eternal life.
Our unity is a manifest witness to a lost and dying world of the reality of Jesus’ power to change lives. In the natural, there are many things that cool our love and tend to separate us: varied ethnic backgrounds, social economic factors, religious traditions and experiences, age differences, language, culture, taste, interest, long-held convictions and doctrines. All these things have divided humanity for millennia. Historically-and tragically even today-the world has also seen these issues divide the church. They know our standard is high, but they see us living far below it. So why should they look to us for the answers when we quarrel and fight like all the other nations and tribes of the world?
But when the world sees us loving each other, that is a different story! Then they cannot deny the power of God’s love. Then, as Jesus said, they will know that we are his disciples (John 13:34-35). And, as he also prayed, they will believe that the Father sent the Son and that God loves his children just as he loved Jesus.
Our unity, therefore, is the greatest evidence, as well as the greatest convincer, of the validity and power of the gospel message.
2) To Collect or gather up the harvest.
No one church or denomination can reach the harvest by themselves. We know that, but we often function as if we can take care of all of God’s business just fine, thank you. And even when we acknowledge our small place in the bigger picture, we seldom make the move to join hands in the harvest with others outside our camp.
But harvesting is a team effort. And when the season’s harvest is large and ready for the sickle, the need to walk the fields together is great. We live in such a day. And in Lancaster County, we live in a field sown with so many cultures, so many traditions, so many mixed groups and peoples, that we simply must combine our tools and our efforts to get the job done (Ecclesiastes 6:9-10).
There is such a diversity of people, that it will take many kinds of churches to reach them. There are people in my backyard that my church can never reach, but yours can. And there are folks in your backyard that can only be reached by the church on the other side of town.
It’s time for churches to stop competing and instead focus on our strengths, affirm each other, lay all our gifts on the table-because the gifts belong to God to begin with (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)-and work together.
A full ‘regional’ harvest (shall we call it ‘revival’? shall we call it a ‘visitation’? shall we call it a ‘great awakening’?) requires teamwork on a grander scale than we may be used to. But our God is a big God. And if we are willing to commit ourselves to practical, relational unity and begin to join efforts, we will start to see a significant harvest in our region.
3) To Cast Down the major demonic powers over a region.
It is my belief that individually we can cast out demons and tear down certain strongholds of Satan our enemy (Luke 9:1-2, 10:19; Mark 9:25-29; John 14:12; Mark 17:17; Revelations 12:10-11; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; James 4:7), but that the major demonic powers controlling a region (Daniel 10:11-14; Ephesians 6:10-12; Matthew 12:28-29) can most effectively be pulled down by a unified group of churches. The biblical argument here is twofold: a measure of God’s blessing and anointing awaits unity (and it takes his anointing to break the yoke: Psalm 133; Isaiah 10:27); and the principle of unity and numbers to put an enemy to flight (Matthew 16:19, 18:18-20; Ecclesiastes 4:12; Deuteronomy 32:30; Leviticus 26:3, 7-8). Transformation comes after churches come together in unity, address the powers of darkness, and work together in God’s harvest fields.
UNITY MUST NEVER BE AN END IN ITSELF
If we focus on unity for its own sake, we will soon grow deaf to the ultimate call of the Great Commission: to go into all the world in order to make disciples of all people. An undue obsession with unity will only result in something very superficial and empty. Until we possess God’s heart for the lost, we will continue to fuss over the nonessentials that divide us.
God is more concerned about the lost in Lancaster County than how systematic our theology is, how good our worship is, how nice our buildings are, how many programs we offer, or whether we are evangelical, pentecostal, charismatic, independent, denominational, Orthodox or Roman Catholic.
God’s number one priority for our region is the LOST (John 3:16; Luke 19:10).
When we truly bear that burden, it changes how we see each other. For the closer our hearts are aligned with God on this issue, the easier it is for Him to open our eyes on others. When souls matter more to us than our religious convictions (though never more than God and a humble dependence on His word), unity will then be possible.
SOME HINDRANCES TO UNITY IN OUR REGION.
One hindrance is simply a resistance to the word ‘unity’ itself. Many of us, when the subject of unity is broached, whip out the sword of ‘separation’ and start quoting, “come out from among them,” and “what fellowship can light have with darkness?”, verses never intended to be used against fellow Christians. We fear biblical compromise or some kind of forced uniformity to unbiblical or unfamiliar doctrine and practice. Among some of us, this fear is founded (and justly so) on the history of the rise of modernism and liberalism in the church during the decades following the Civil War. Modernism and evangelical Christianity clashed head-on in the beginning of the 20th century, eventually giving rise to independent fundamentalism in America. The fundamentalist movement began by seeking to shore up the walls of biblical orthodoxy by rallying around some basic evangelical doctrines and ended by pulling out of mainline denominations which were increasingly influenced by liberal theology. This liberal influence still continues, but God has not abandoned the denominational ships, and true biblical unity is neither compromise nor uniformity. Unity must be approached with biblical eyes and a biblical mind-but also with a biblical heart.
On the flip side of the coin are those who hold that if we could all come to the same convictions and doctrines, unity would be assured. But this is impractical because it is practically impossible. Even in the natural family unit, diversity of thought and opinion is inevitable (and most often healthy). Just as a good family sticks together while maintaining its differences, relational biblical unity enables people who are different to work together without trying to subtly change each other. Commitment to one another, ‘come hell or high water’, is the basis of unity. In the family of God especially, hell should never push us around, and blood should be thicker than water!
Locally, several other factors raise up walls against unity: wrong motives for unity (unity for unity’s sake; unity for my sake), the turf mentality (I’m out to protect my own church and its investments and agenda in Lancaster), the survivalist mentality (The world is going to hell on a handcart, so let’s circle the wagons and hang on until Jesus comes), spiritual pride (My doctrine is better than your doctrine. I’m right, so you must be wrong), and racism-Lancaster City is one of the most residentially segregated cities in the nation, and our churches are largely and distinctly separated by race, class and culture.
We must repent of these things that divide us and humble ourselves before God and one another. We must learn to love.
ATTITUDES AND ACTIONS FOR UNITY
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, plead with you that you walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all lowliness and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all.
But to every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore it is written: When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men.
Now that he ascended, it is because he first of all descended into the lower parts of the earth. And he that descended is the same that ascended far above all the heavens that he might fill all things.
And he gave some to be apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors, and teachers-for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ until we all come in the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and their cunning craftiness with which they lie in wait to deceive. But speaking the truth in love, we will grow up into him in all things, into Christ our head. Through him the whole body grows, and with the effectual functioning of each member joined firmly by each supporting ligament, it builds itself up in love.
Even convinced of the biblical basis for unity, we must go beyond intellectual assent to a genuine change of heart. Only when our hearts are inclined to biblical unity will we really experience a renewal of our minds concerning the body of Christ as a whole.
Develop a heart for unity, not just an intellectual assent.
What does a heart attitude for unity look like?
With all lowliness and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. -Ephesians 4:2-3
I will consider others as better than myself (Romans 12:3, 10, 16). This is a foundational approach to relating to others in a way that will build them up and enable us to freely give and freely receive. Only by considering others as better than ourselves can we put ourselves in a posture of submission to all that God would say and do through them. If I believe that my brother is a better man than I am (not putting myself down, but sincerely believing the best in him), I look to him for grace and great things. I encourage him. I am able to walk with him without envy, judgment or fear. I trust him. With that attitude, even when offended by him, I am able to forgive, to seek to understand, and to keep walking side by side.
I will pray for God to bless other churches and not just mine. I will “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
I will see (and acknowledge) that I only know in part and see in part (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12), that my church has been given charge of only a particular and partial deposit of the truth, and that I need others to balance me spiritually.
I will recognize that we are all in different places and at different stages in our Christian walk and understanding.
I will keep in mind that unity is not easy, that there will be setbacks and misunderstandings.
We have inherited the suspicions and sectarian enmities of the generations before us. There are stereotypes and prejudices-that we may not even be aware of-that are alive in me and in those who sit next to me in church. There are issues that still need to be dealt with. Generational curses and habits that are yet to be broken.
There are many among us who have been wounded in one local church and have left it to go to another. Many of these wounds have not been healed, and we need to bind up those wounds and apply the soothing balms of love, acceptance, forgiveness and strong, caring biblical counsel.
Bearing With One Another
We must give each other room to fail. We must be mature enough not to be easily offended. We must be so committed to unity and to relationship with one another that offenses become bridges to growth and not bridges to burn (Colossians 3:12-17; Galatians 6:1-3). We must be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19-20). We must let ‘iron sharpen iron’ and not let the heat of the process “burn us up’.
Making every Effort
Are you and I really serious about unity or is it just something nice to talk about over coffee and donuts? Are we committed to the work involved and the relationships themselves, or do we show up at that united prayer meeting just to ease our consciences and keep ourselves on the inside loop?
Unity takes effort. Unity is hard work! It will not happen if we don’t become intentional and put our hands to the plow together.
Recognize that Unity is costly.
There is a price to pay for unity. Our schedules are crowded a bit more. Our brains are taxed as our theology is tried in the fire of spiritual ideas and convictions that are not our own. Our allegiances to our ‘home folk’ may be questioned. We will have to learn how to speak (and understand) the spiritual languages of those outside our comfortable camps. Our faith will be tested. Our love will be tested. Our hearts will be exposed to men and women who may not treat us as tenderly or as empathetically as we might like. Unforgiveness and pride will be uncovered in our own souls. Our personal church agendas may be altered dramatically. BUT WE WILL GROW IN GOD. WE WILL SEE JESUS EMERGE IN OUR MIDST IN A WAY THAT WE HAVE NEVER SEEN-AND THE WORLD WILL SEE HIM TOO!
Understand the basics of unity.
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in you all. -Ephesians 4:4-6
There is a secular unity and there is a Kingdom unity. The first is based on a secular understanding of tolerance and diversity devoid of (or mixed with) traditional Judeo-Christian values. The latter is based on the revealed will of God as found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
The primary truths that bind us together as a regional (and worldwide) body of believers can be summed up in the words of the apostle Paul which he penned in his letter to the Ephesians (4:4-6).
Ephesians is a revelatory book concerning the spiritual and relational nature and calling of the church of Jesus Christ. The passage quoted above is the textual foundation for authentic Christian unity.
One Body (vs.4)
God is no polygamist. He is preparing only one bride for his Son. That bride, the church of Jesus Christ, is one church, one body (Romans 12:3-5). And though God certainly sees our multitudinous camps, denominations, sects, fellowships, and local churches (and is intimately involved in each of them), he recognizes only one body.
Denominations (and every other manifestation of church life and government) serve to fulfill the purpose of organizationally carrying out the work of the kingdom on earth. But when such groups compete with, separate from and work against each other, they acting in opposition to the prayers of our Lord and the will of our Father.
One Spirit (vs. 4)
There are different impartations, manifestations and functions of the Spirit, but all the same Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). There are different understandings of the ministry of the Holy Spirit-and these differences have often been cause for disagreement and disunity. But there is ONLY ONE SPIRIT. Our unity must first of all be based on the fact that it is the same Holy Spirit that brought each of us to salvation and baptized us into that one Body (1 Corinthians 12:13).
One Hope (vs. 4)
Our Common Blessed Hope is this: Jesus died for our sins, rose again on the third day, ascended to heaven where he sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, he has prepared a place there for us, and he is coming back again to take us where he is. This is the hope that the scriptures promise, and this is the hope and expectation that lives within us (Titus 2:13, 1 John 3:3).
One Lord (vs. 5)
Jesus Christ is our Savior, Lord and Master. We know him to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). No one can go to the Father but through Jesus. He is not just another of the thousands of self-proclaimed prophets that this fallen world has produced. He is our Lord (Matthew 16:15-16), and together we are his disciples.
We all get our direction from Jesus. We all get our marching orders from Jesus. We all must follow and obey Jesus. We all are going to give an account to Him. And he told us that if we are to be called his disciples, we must love each other, accept each other and walk in unity in his name (John 15:7-17, 14:15, 17:13-26).
One Faith/Gospel (vs.5)
(Acts 16:5; Galatians 1:23; 2 Timothy 3:8)
Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life in complete obedience to the Father, shed his blood and died for our sins upon the cross at Golgotha, and rose from the grave on the third day.
We are all born sinners, have all sinned grievously throughout out lives, and are lost in our sins without Christ.
Each of us must individually repent and accept Christ as Lord and Savior. Then our righteousness and our salvation is found in the perfect life and finished work of Christ-and not in our own works.
Upon repentance, we are accepted by God-in Christ-as beloved and adopted sons and daughters. This is the good news. This is the gospel. This is our One Faith, and none other.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warned against those who preach “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9). But our ‘one faith’ is in the person and work, life and death, obedience and sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We stand together in Christ.
One Baptism (vs. 5)
We are all baptized into Jesus. We are all baptized for the same reason-the remission sins (Acts 2:38)
Paul, in addressing the church at Corinth, reminded them of the fact that they were all baptized with the same baptism, and he told them this to encourage them to stop fighting and walk in unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Though today, in the larger body of Christ, we may differ as to the form, mode or means of baptism, the fact is that when a believer is baptized, he has been publicly identified with Christ as redeemer.
One God and Father of All (vs. 6)
One of the most basic truths concerning our unity as believers is that we all have the same heavenly Father. The Spirit he has placed within us testifies to our own spirits that we are children of God, and therefore brothers and sisters to one another. Together we can cry out “Abba (Daddy), Father” (Galatians 4:6). Together we are literally God’s family on earth. Let us ‘do our Daddy proud’; let us bring honor to our Father by loving one another. Jesus came to do the will of the Father. Dare we do any less?
The early Corinthian believers should have made this common bond a rallying point of their life and faith. But instead, they behaved like squabbling siblings, building a personal unity around church leaders instead of the fatherhood of God (1 Corinthians 3:1-11).
“I follow Paul,” some said.
“I hang out with Apollos,” said others.
And the super spiritual among them said, “Oh, yeah? Well, I follow Jesus! Now, how do like that?”
Paul told them all: “You are acting like a bunch of babies. Carnal. Fleshly.”
But we do the same today.
“I follow Menno Simons, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Bob Jones, Kenneth Hagin, John Wimber, Benny Hinn.
Of course we must be faithful to our leaders. Of course we should submit ourselves to and rally behind those who have been called to shepherd us and ultimately give an account for our souls to God (Hebrews 13:17). But let us not be ‘babies’ in the process. Let us not be ‘carnal’, by allowing ourselves to be divided by partisan human loyalties when our Father calls us to submit to one another as his family in the earth (Ephesians 5:21).
Embrace the Leaders of Unity.
The risen Lord has gifted his church with apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Though we may differ concerning the contemporary roles of the apostle and the prophet especially, the scriptures are clear that these five giftings are for the purpose of equipping the rest of us for the work of the ministry and calling of the church in the earth. Paul states plainly that these foundational ministries are given in order to impart what the local church (and the whole church) needs to build itself up in the unity of the faith and in intimacy with Christ Jesus.
Though our understanding of these gifts varies with our theology, our tradition, and our experience, we all recognize them as leadership gifts. And we all know that we are called to follow the leaders God has appointed. As we embrace the call to unity, we must also be willing to recognize the leadership that God is raising up in our region to equip the body and to champion unity at a regional level. Some of these leaders may not reside in our favorite camps, but we must see the calling that God has placed on them for the greater good of the body of Christ, and we must support them as we are able.
Find ways to link or network together for the harvest.
From whom [Christ] the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by every joint with which it is supplied (according to the effectual working in the measure of every part), increases the body by building itself up in love. -Ephesians 4:16
The body of Christ is not an organization; it is an organism. It is alive with the life that is in each one of as individual members of that body. And Paul reminds us that only when each member is functioning properly will the Christ’s body (the church) be healthy.
But the body is not well served when each member functions independently. Rather, the body grows as a whole when each member is “joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied.” It’s the ‘joints’ that count; the connecting points-the relationships!
When we link together relationally, sharing God’s heart and gifts with one another for the common good, we truly are building something lasting. We are then a responsible member of a body that “builds itself up in love.”
Yes, it takes relationship, and relationship takes effort and time.
It’s around our dinner tables and in the ditches on the front lines of service that we must find ourselves in determined and united fellowship. It’s in the Indian Summer heat of the harvest field that we must purposefully roll up our sleeves together. It’s in the pews and at the altars in one another’s sanctuaries that we must weary our knees in partnered prayer. And when we hear the impassioned call to battle coming from another front on the spiritual battlefield in Lancaster, we must take up our own arms to join in the fray on behalf of our brethren.
God has called us to unity. Practical, relational unity. It’s that simple. It’s that hard. It’s not an option.
Do you hear Jesus praying?