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Unity in the Christian church has been a challenging thing since the earliest days of Christianity. The importance of getting Christian belief and behavior right, coupled with the open-to-interpretation nature of much of Scripture, leads to VERY strong feelings and uncompromising convictions on all manner of Christian theology and praxis.
Another challenge to unity is geographical and cultural diversity. Unlike other more regional religions which are buttressed by shared geographical or cultural identity, Christianity has since the beginning been global and transcultural. This means that local cultures and contexts create a multiplicity of Christian identities and permutations. The shape of Christian practice in a Korean megachurch, thus, looks different than a Pentecostal church in Appalachia. Unity amidst such diversity is one of the most brilliant and yet challenging things about Christianity.
But it’s a challenge we must continually take up. Why? Here are just three reasons why unity is a value we must pursue:
1) It is theologically crucial.
Jesus passionately prayed that his followers would be one and “may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:21, 23 NIV). Why? “So that the world may believe that you have sent me,” he prayed (v. 21). Their unity was rooted in Christ’s own unity with the Father, an idea Paul picks up in his own writings about unity and oneness, for example Ephesians 4:4–6: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Paul had much to say about the importance of unity as product and proof of the gospel, and he underscores it in his regular use of sibling and family language when he’s dealing with divisions in churches, whether it be the Jew-Gentile divisions of the Roman church or the status divisions of Corinth (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:10–11; 6:1–8; 2 Cor. 8–9; 13:11). As Joe Hellerman notes, “If there was one place in the ancient world where a person could expect to encounter a united front, it was in the descent-group family of blood brothers and sisters. For Paul, the church is a family; as such, unity must prevail.” One way this is practically embodied is in material solidarity (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8–9; Rom. 15:26–27). For Paul this is a tangible expression of the uniting of Jew and Gentile as “siblings in God’s eternal family.” And “alleviating a brother’s poverty is, first and foremost, a family responsibility.”
2) It is a powerful witness.
A unified church is one of the strongest evidences of the truth of the gospel. This is especially true in a world as fragmented and divisive as ours, where countercultural unity among diverse people stands out. When the rest of the world can’t seem to agree on anything or bear to be around people who are different, a church where natural enemies become siblings in Christ is a powerful alternative. Unity is a critical manifestation of a Spirit-empowered church. That’s why Paul told the Ephesian Christians to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). It’s why he wrote to the Corinthians: “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). Where division might normally reign, unity should instead lead to an uncommon love, where believers listen to and bear with one another. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
3) There is a common enemy.
Highs and lows in the history of church unity tend to correspond to the presence or absence of persecution. When things are comfy for the church, it finds reason to squabble and divide. When persecution arises, unity takes on a bit more urgency. As American society secularizes and conservative faith communities become more marginalized, I hope we see a more unified remnant emerge. I’ve witnessed this a bit in my involvement with religious freedom challenges facing Biola University and other Christian colleges in California. During the intense fight to ward off a particular state legislative bill, I was part of meetings and strategy sessions with black and Hispanic pastors, Catholic leaders, and others from the diverse cross section of the Christian church. Even though it shouldn’t have taken this sort of “foxhole ecumenism” to bring us together, these gatherings were beautiful reminders that we are ultimately on the same team. There is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. The challenges we face, the spiritual battles we fight, demand that we embrace the truth that we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).