There are many ways of working out what we believe about an issue that impacts our faith as Christians. We may look at our personal experience and see what has proved to be true in our own life. We can look at the examples of ‘great’ Christians of the past and what they had to say, as well as listen to those we respect around us, those in whom we see something of Christ shining through. We will also be impacted by things which we believe God has revealed to us – this may be through circumstances, coincidences, a specific word for us, dreams etc. But ultimately we can be misled by all these things and, while these other ways of learning are certainly important, we must always tie what we believe into what God’s word says. Is what others have said, or our own personal experiences in line with the Bible? We may need to alter our beliefs a bit (or a lot!) as we reflect on all these other matters in light of the truth of God’s word. For this reason I’m going to start my series on ‘Christian Unity’ by looking at some of what the Bible has to say on the topic.
I should also mention that I will only sometimes use the term ‘Christian Unity’ in this series. It’s a good term because the Bible makes references to ‘unity’ between Jesus’ followers. However it may also conjure up ideas of what that means, related to the reader’s past experience of when that term has been used, which may not necessarily be so helpful. Because of this I may prefer sometimes to to talk about Christian togetherness, or something similar – not because I mean something different, but rather to use terms which are less endowed with pre-existing meaning and ideas.
Perhaps the Bible passage that most comes to mind about Christian unity is Jesus’ prayer for all believers, shortly before he is arrested and then crucified. We can read it in John 17. His prayer contains these famous verses.
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.John 17:20-23 NLT
So we see that one of the things most in Jesus’ mind as he prepares to go to the cross, is for his followers – in which he includes all those who will believe in Him over all time – to be united, to be ‘one’ and to experience ‘perfect unity’. He clearly is not happy to settle for ‘just about getting on with each other’ but wants a unity, a togetherness that is like that between Father and Son, that is a shining example to the world, a unity so distinctive that people will inevitably conclude that we are sent by God, and loved by Him.
There are many other Biblical passages which make it clear that God wants His people to be united, just as is evident in this prayer of Jesus. Paul writes about unity between believers many times. For example in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that they should ‘make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace’. Some might say that this is just about the unity that should exist within a church congregation, yet the letter was written to all the believers in Ephesus. So for all believers within any locality there should be a striving for a lived out unity between each other. Paul writes on a similar theme elsewhere too, such as in his letter to the Philippians where he says ‘Make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another and working together with one mind and purpose’ (2:2), to the Romans where he talks about living ‘in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus ‘(15:5), or to the church in Corinth, where he again urges the believers to live in harmony, saying “Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather be of one mind, united in thought and purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).
Some of the images used to describe the church in the Bible also point to both the differences that exist within the church and also the need for unity across those differences, working together as we follow Christ. This is particularly so in the image of the church as a body. We read about this in several places, for example in Romans 12 where Paul writes that “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body and we all belong to each other,” Our unity as Christians is complementary to our differences, both are needed. A body that is all one function – just a nose, or a foot, for example – is not much use, but so is a body that is separated and disjointed, where each part of the body is only loosely connected to the other! The image of the church as a body occurs elsewhere in the New Testament too, such as 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul makes it clear that all the parts of the body are needed, and sums up this image by saying (v27) ‘All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it’.
Most of the passages I have mentioned up till now have been written about, and to, the church as a whole (or all the believers in a particular place). But the Bible is clear that this unity has to be worked out at the individual level. In his letter to the Philippians (4:2-3) Paul appeals to two believers, Euodia and Syntyche to settle their disagreement. There is no detail on what that disagreement is about, and Paul doesn’t take side with one or the other by telling one to change their view, correct their behaviour or apologise. There are issues where getting the truth right is important and some behaviours should not be tolerated within the church. But these verses seem to imply that for many other issues, attitudes and behaviours, being reconciled and maintaining that unity between believers, is more important than winning the argument and ‘being right’. Jesus in the sermon on the mount (Matt 5:23-24) also emphasised the importance of one individual being reconciled with another above religious observance, in this case the temple sacrifices.
Christian unity should be based upon, and brought about through, love. John’s writings, in particular are insistent that we should love one another. We see this both in his gospel, where he passes on Jesus’ new commandment to His disciples that they should love each other just as Jesus has loved them (John 13:34-35), and also in his letters, particular 1 John, where he re-emphasises this command several times in chapters 2-4 (for example 2:7, 3:11, 4:7 and others within these chapters). In both places, the passages speak of how the reality of God’s love between us is evidence that we are His children, and is a witness to the world around that we are His people – ‘Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples’ (John 13:35). Some may say, “Of course I ‘love’ those Christians in other churches.” But if that ‘love’ doesn’t work out in ways that mean we care for, worship with, and serve alongside our brothers and sisters in those other churches – if it doesn’t work out in visible ways to people outside the church, then how can this be a witness to others, proving to them that we are Jesus’ disciples?
The reality of our unity as Christians is relevant also to the integrity of the good news about Jesus that we share. In Ephesians 2, in the midst of an explanation of all that we have in Jesus, Paul describes the reconciliation that Christ has brought about between Jew and Gentile -“You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel … But now you have been united with Christ … For Christ Himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” (v12-14). He then, shortly after describing reconciliation between believers, goes on to describe our reconciliation with God, how “Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death”. We have a wonderful message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18) – we can be reconciled with God because of Jesus, and the reality of reconciliation between believers of different ethnicity, social background, upbringing, personality, way of worshipping, theological slants etc. because of Jesus, is a great illustration of the reality of the reconciliation that we can also know with our God through Jesus.
The narrative of the early church as we read through the New Testament, especially in the book of Acts and some of the epistles, also demonstrates the genuine unity that existed in the whole church in those times. There were certainly challenges, and issues that needed to be dealt with, for example when disputes arose about some being discriminated against in the church’s care for the widows among them (Acts 6:1), or when discussing whether all believers should follow the Jewish ceremonial law (Acts 15). But despite this we very much get the impression that the church – across all the many towns and cities where Jesus’ followers were scattered – was united, they were all serving and following Jesus together and supporting each other in many ways, both practically and spiritually. There is little of the division and separation into different groupings that we see in the church now.
Even with all the verses that I have mentioned, I haven’t touched on everything the Bible has to say on this topic. I would like this blog post (and all those in this series) to be ‘living documents’ which I am happy to update as relevant questions / additional contributions thoughts come in, so please so let me know if you think there is something more I should add to the discussions above.
Ultimately however, I hope I’ve convinced you that the Bible has a lot to say on this topic, and there is little room for doubt that God wants His people to be united! There are questions as to how this should be worked out in practice, for example what do we do when other believers see things differently about something that we see as fairly fundamental to our faith. I will look at these sorts of questions more in future posts. But for now it is enough to say that there is a command to be united and we need to follow it!