We all want church unity. But what does it look like in real life? What does it require of us? Turns out, it’s not easy.
In the hours before he was arrested and crucified, Jesus had his church on his mind (the “people whom you gave me out of the world” John 17:6). He was praying for the disciples he had poured himself into for three and a half years. He made that crystal clear: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me” (v9). And then his thoughts moved to the future disciples who would believe in years to come. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (v20). How encouraging it is to know that, just hours before the cross, Jesus Christ was thinking about his people – all who would ever believe the gospel! Real people, with names and faces…and real sins he was about to take on himself. Jesus was praying for his church.
But what did Jesus pray for? Three times he asked the Father to make his disciples one. Jesus prayed for a unity to be modeled after the oneness experienced by the members of the Godhead (“just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” v21). Unity is easy to talk about; it is something that many talk about as a goal, or ideal. But unity requires something of us.
We Are One
First, we need to understand that the church is, by nature, already unified, spiritually. There is only one God, one Savior, one Spirit, and one gospel (Eph 4:4-6). Through his death, Christ tore down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile, creating one new man out of the two (Eph 2:11-18). When a person comes to faith in Christ and is born again, the Holy Spirit unites him (baptizes, immerses) into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). At conversion, we who believe are united with Christ’s body, and therefore united to his people, the church. You just can’t have Jesus without his church! We are, already, by nature, one.
We Must BE One
But, although the church is one body, we as individual believers are called to walk out this unity in real life. The spiritual truth must be lived out in relationships with other Christians. This is practical unity. This is where it gets tough, because Christians still have the remnants of that sin nature clinging on for dear life; unity must happen among imperfect people. The dominating power of sin is broken for us at the cross (Rom 6:14), but until we are perfected at Christ’s return, our spiritual life will be lived out with other saintly sinners.
Paul charged the Ephesian church members to bear with one another in love, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 6:2b-3). Unity already exists, spiritually. But we must maintain the Holy Spirit’s unity in the daily life of the church by cooperating with Him. Paul does not leave this idea in vague, general terms, but gets real specific. Awkwardly specific. He writes to the divided, problem-filled Corinthian church: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” 1 Cor 1:10). And when he writes to the Philippian church, Paul even calls out two of the members by name! “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil 4:2). He asked one of the other members of the church to serve as a peacemaker, helping these ladies work out their differences (v3).
What Does Unity Require?
So, what does unity look like in real life? First, it requires that we commit to a local church. A Christian in the United States simply cannot walk out unity with the church in China, or Russia. There are geographical limitations! Some may claim that membership in the universal, spiritual church is enough, but the New Testament’s teachings and instructions can only be carried out by Christians who commit themselves to a local church. In that local church family, here are a few more requirements if we want to pursue the unity Jesus was thinking and praying about before he went to the cross:
- Humility. Pride divides.
- Forgiveness. You will be hurt in a local church, but that’s part of God’s plan. He’s teaching you to forgive.
- Sacrificing Preferences. Have you ever considered that every member of a local church comes to the table with their own set of expectations, agenda, desires, and ideas for what the church should be doing? The church cannot possibly do it all and please everyone! Nor should it. Unity in a local church requires that we, as the members, approach the work of the church with humble love and self-denial, giving up our preferences for the greater goal of God’s glory shining through a unified church! We’ve all heard the war-stories of churches splitting up over the color of the carpet, style of music, etc. This is not the will of God. Lay down preferences, for his glory!
- Love. Unity exists alongside love. Yes, Christ calls us to love each other in real life experience.
- Self-denial. Jesus called his disciples to self-denial, not self-promotion; unity is impossible when we are focused on ourselves.
- Vulnerability. You can’t pursue unity when you are building spiritual privacy fences between you and the other church members. Tear down the walls and let people into your life, even though you risk getting hurt!
- Inconvenience. Unity won’t happen on your time schedule. None of church life is about convenience. Getting things right with other believers interrupts our life.
- Prayer. Like Jesus, we should pray for unity – in general, for the unity of our local church, and specifically if there are issues between members. God softens hearts through prayer!
- Hard Work. Yes, pursuing unity is work. And it’s worth it)
- Valuing God’s Glory. Church unity glorifies God. We must value his glory enough to pursue unity.
- Obedience. Pursuing unity is a matter of obedience to the Lord.
- Faithfulness in the Local Church. We must be faithful in attendance, working on building relationships with the church family. We can’t pursue unity if we are not there, and it’s tough to be “one” with people we don’t know.
- Kindness. Gentle speech promotes unity. Abrasiveness works against it.
- Sensitivity. We need to be sensitive to the issues, perspectives, needs, and desires of other believers. This includes believers of different ethnicities, or those in the church family who see things differently than we do. Love drives us to consider their perspective.
- Letting Go of Personal Freedoms. Paul in Romans 14 instructs the stronger believers to consider the needs of the weaker believers in matters of personal freedom. People are more important than our freedoms. So is unity.
Finally, we need to understand that unity is not about giving up truth. Some people think that churches should throw out their statements of faith and simply work together to meet needs. But this is not Jesus’ idea of unity. In this same prayer for the church, Jesus constantly mentioned the “word” he has taught his disciples; the church is different from the world because they have received Jesus’ teaching (v6, 8, 14). As he prayed for unity, Jesus also prayed that the church would be sanctified in the “truth,” adding, “your word is truth” (v17). Jesus does not want the church to lower the doctrinal standard to promote unity; he wants us to unify around his gospel! The church can agree to disagree over secondary theological matters, but we must unify around the primary truths of the faith, centering around Jesus Christ.
We conclude that unity is not easy. But it is possible for local churches to walk in great measures of unity, by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit among us! Jesus has unified the church through his death and resurrection, and he calls us to walk out that unity, with gentleness and love, for his glory, until he comes. Let’s get to work!