As the calendar moves into November and we come to the end of an especially contentious election season and begin to face its aftermath, it seems like a particularly important time to remember the witness of the New Testament concerning the unity of the church.
Perhaps the most significant text is found in John 17. After praying that his disciples would be sanctified in truth and that he had sent them into the world as he had been sent, Jesus turns his attention not only to their unity but also for the unity of all who would believe through their word — the church.
In John 17:20-23 (NIV) we read: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 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 worth noting here the close connection that is made between truth, the sending of the church, and the unity of the church.
The sending of Jesus into the world is to proclaim the truth, to be the light of the world, in order that the world might believe. The church is entrusted by Jesus with the continuance of that mission as those sent by Jesus into the world to proclaim this reality that Jesus had been sent by the Father for the purpose of reconciling the world to God.
The unity for which Jesus prays is to be a prime indicator of this truth. Hence it is to be a visible unity and not simply an invisible one.
It can be seen by the world and is a visible testimony to the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. This indicates that the unity of the church is vitally connected with its life and witness and as such is a central aspect of its vocation in the world.
This concern for unity is prominent in other parts of the New Testament. For instance, in the letter to the Ephesians the church is called upon to adopt attitudes and practices that will promote peace in the church and urged to maintain the unity of the Spirit:
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:2-6, NIV).
Unity is not simply an invisible reality but also a calling that is to be manifested in visible ways through the cultivation of the disciplines of humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance with others.
The letter to the Philippians connects these qualities to the life of Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but instead humbled himself, taking the form of a servant and urging that the church follow this example (Phil. 2:1-11).
The letter to the Galatians speaks of the qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). This way of the Spirit is essential for the unity of the church.
These texts point to the importance of the visible unity of the church as a testimony to our neighbors of the truth of the gospel. The mission of the church is vitally connected with an appropriate and visible manifestation of its unity in the midst of its diversity, and failure to maintain this unity will significantly compromise its witness to the world.
In the midst of the deep divisions currently shaping our culture, the followers of Jesus would do well to remember his prayer that we might all be one.
This doesn’t mean we will all come to agreement on the social and political issues of the day. It does mean that the unity we share in Christ transcends our differences and calls on us to love each other in spite of them.
This is a way of life that our world needs to see. NFJ
By John R. Franke
—John R. Franke is theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis and general coordinator for the Gospel and Our Culture Network.