We know that unity is an important topic in the Bible. Jesus prayed for the unity of believers in His well-known prayer in John 17 (see verse 20-21).
The apostle Paul gives us this exhortation in Ephesians 4:1-6 (emphasis added): “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were 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.”
There is great power in Christian unity, but it seems so out of reach in today’s church. We have hundreds (thousands?) of denominations, sects, and divisions in the body of Christ. Jesus said that a house divided cannot stand, and the devil knows this all too well. If the enemy can get us fighting against each other, he can get us distracted from our true focus.
What is the foundation for Christian unity, and how can we move toward becoming a more unified church?
The Protestant Reformation was one of the most significant events in church history. With it came the restoration of some of the core doctrines of Christianity, such as justification (salvation) by faith. I would never want to go back to pre-reformation days. However, I wonder if there also crept in a subtle notion that has been causing division in the church ever since; the idea that doctrinal purity is the foundation for Christian unity.
Don’t get me wrong; sound doctrine is extremely important. I am not advocating a sloppy unity that throws doctrine out the window. But is having full doctrinal agreement (even on non-essential items) the true foundation for unity? I want to suggest that there are higher reasons for unity; reasons that transcend denomination and doctrinal bent.
The first reason why there should be Christian unity is our relationship to God. Notice in Paul’s exhortation above, all three members of the Trinity are named: “…one Spirit…one Lord…one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Every believer in Jesus has this in common: God is their heavenly Father. When Jesus taught us to pray, He started by saying “Our Father…” We are brothers and sisters in Christ—not because we have the same interpretation of certain doctrines—but because we have God as our common Father. We have all come to the Father the same way, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and we all have a relationship with the same Holy Spirit: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
We are part of the body of Christ, unified by our relationship with the Father.
1 Peter 5:8-9 says this: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.”
As believers in Christ, we have a common enemy, the devil. Our true battle is not against people, but against the powers of darkness in the spiritual realm (see Ephesians 6:10-13). And this is a battle that all Christians are in.
Just as a nation becomes more unified when facing an outside enemy, the church should be unified against our common enemy, Satan. We have spent far too much time fighting against each other, and far too little time destroying the works of the devil.
Jesus gave us what has become known as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The entire church has been commissioned to take the gospel to the world, make disciples, and advance God’s kingdom on the earth. We are unified by a common mission.
There will be times that we must focus on internal issues within the church. There are times when we need to stand against false doctrine and deception. But we must not lose sight of our mission. We all have different roles to play, but we are all on the same “team” with the same assignment.
Though doctrinal purity is vital, perhaps we should see that there are other foundations for Christian unity that bring us together. We are united in one family under a common Father. We have a common enemy and a common mission. This does not mean that we will necessarily function together with every believer or church. But it does mean that we have greater reason for unity, and can bless what God is doing in streams and denominations that are different than ours!