“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17: 20-23).
These words were spoken by Jesus mere moments after celebrating the first Lord’s Supper with his disciples. Jesus pours out His heart to the Father, praying for Himself, His disciples, and finally, for all believers. In his prayer for His disciples and for all believers he prays specifically for unity, asking that all men may experience the perfect unity enjoyed by the Godhead. Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one, so Jesus prays that believers will be perfectly one as this unity will serve as a testimony of the truthfulness of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. Truly unity deserves a high place in the church.
All believers place a degree of importance on unity. Some, such as the signatories of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, believe that unity is of critical importance and we must, as Christians of any creed, unite on our common ground to present a unified face to the world. Others, such as those who were invited but refused to sign ECT, regard unity as no-less-important, but will only claim unity on specific, well-defined grounds.
We need to ask ourselves what Jesus means by unity and at what cost we are to attain it. Are we to seek unity at the cost of doctrine? If so, what doctrines are we to let go in order to join together. It is also possible that we will need to add doctrine. Again, what doctrine can we add to our beliefs in order to be unified?
As I was reading the last pages of Evangelicalism Divided this morning, I came across the following quote, in which the author speaks of the ecumenical movement of the mid-twentieth century. “The ecumenical call was not for truth and salt; it was supremely for oneness: the greater the unity of “the Church”, it was confidently asserted, the stronger would be the impression made upon the world; and to attain that end churches should be inclusive and tolerant. But it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world. At no point in church history has the mere unity of numbers ever made a transforming spiritual impression upon others. On the contrary, it was the very period known as “the dark ages” that the Papacy could claim her greatest unity in western Europe” (Evangelicalism Divided, Iain Murray, page 291).
The unity that Christ prays for us to attain is not a unity based on forsaking doctrinal differences so that we can meet at the lowest common denominator. It is not a unity based on mixing “churches” one with the other. The unity Christ pleaded for on our behalf is a unity of people who know and trust Christ. It is a unity in the truths of the Scripture, truths despised by the world, but loved and treasured by believers. It is a unity which, as Murray says, “binds his [Christ’s] members together in love” (Evangelicalism Divided, page 291).
Perhaps the most clear example of this type of unity is shown to us in the book of Acts. We read in Acts 5, “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…” (Acts 5:12-14). This unity was based on unity of doctrine, and that asserted itself in practice. In the previous chapter Luke writes, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35).
The unity was based on doctrine, for the people were of one heart and one soul. Those who did not believe held them in high esteem, just as Jesus had said would happen. While their numbers were small, their impact was great.
It seems that much discussion and confusion about unity arises from our misunderstanding and misuse of the word “church.” In days past the church was considered to be the complete number of believers, either in the world (the church universal) or in a specific context. But as time has passed, church has come to mean any number of things. We refer to denominations as churches and to buildings as churches. Consider the following quote. “The application of the word “church” to Christian denominations severally is at best the acceptance of a misnomer forced upon us by what has happened in history. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions, together with the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and many others, are not, strictly speaking, churches but denominations” (Schism in the Church, S.L. Greenslade, page xviii).
It is obvious that the church described in Acts was a church of believers, and thus a church in the truest sense. Yet today, it is not unusual to have churches which are deliberately composed of both believers and unbelievers; churches where unbelievers (or “seekers”) are encouraged to attend and to belong in the hope that they will eventually come to believe. Furthermore, there are whole denominations where, if the members adhere to denominational doctrine, they must be unsaved.
And so we return to the question of, “Unity at what cost?” We are to share, profess and enjoy unity with other believers, even those who do not share certain “lesser” doctrines. This is not to imply that any doctrine is unimportant, yet some are more important than others. J.C. Ryle wisely observed that believers should “keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them as often as you can.” There are times when we must reject unity because of the higher importance of Truth. To repeat Murray’s words, “it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world.” Nor will it ever be.