I care a lot about the unity of the Christian Church, because the impression contentious Christian behavior gives to persons outside the church is harmful. Dr. David Field once wrote, “The essence of true church is to be a community that unites diverse people together.”[i] When the world looks at Christians and sees our divisions instead of unity, then we become unbelievable and unappealing. We look hypocritical. Our divisions hurt our reputation, and by extension, they hurt Christ’s reputation and his Gospel message for the world.
In a scripture passage from John’s Gospel, right before he is arrested, Jesus prayerfully addresses those divisions. He knows his time with his friends is short, so Jesus goes about taking care of his final business. He washes his followers’ feet, summarizes his teachings to them, and then looks up to heaven and offers a final prayer to God. And, what does Jesus choose to pray? He prays for the unity of his followers, his friends, and those he hopes will carry on the ministry after he is gone. He prays:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father 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” (John 17:20-21).[ii]
Jesus prays that his current and future followers may be one. He prays there will be unity among all those who believe in him. That is a powerfully important message, and it leaves us with a vision that is both partially realized and still ultimately unfulfilled today.
When we look around at the general church today it is easy to see how far from oneness we are. There are literally thousands of different kinds of Christian communities today. The community which I call my faith home sits on the brink of possibly splitting into at least two more different communities. And, every time another schism happens, we get further from the vision for which Jesus prayed: that his church would be one, so the world may believe.
It is no wonder some people outside the church (and inside!) look at Christians and determine there is no way they want to be a part of such a divided group. But, that is also precisely why some Christians hold Christian unity as essential to our faith and self-disclosure to the world. In The United Methodist Church we say this principle is so important that we claim it as one of the required visible passions of our spiritual leaders, our bishops. The hopeful ideal is clear: Christians are called to be in unity with each other, so there is solidarity in the church, so the behavior seen by those outside the church will be that of love, so people will see it and come to believe. This is the vision for which Jesus prayed.
And, this is the vision for which many groups work within Jesus’ church[iii]. Groups like the World Council of Churches and many regional and national councils of churches exist to bring leaders from different communities together for worship, understanding and joint action. Groups like the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together exist to bring Christians together, so they might meet each other, hear each other’s stories and appreciate each other. And, dialogues amongst communities exist to bring theologians from different communities together to gain understanding of similarities and differences among those communities.
This ministry is crucial. It’s about the integrity of Christians and the authenticity of our actions. It was Jesus’ prayer for us, and so working toward visible unity among Christians continues to be worthy of our efforts.
At a recent Global Christian Forum meeting one of the speakers used the symbol of “the universal Zoom picture” to talk about Christian unity. She said when you are in a meeting, and you look at the Zoom screen, you see all the participants in their separate boxes, but at the same time, they are all together, doing the same thing, talking about the same thing, and working together. Such is the unity of the church. We have created separate spaces for ourselves, but we are unmistakably bound together by the big picture, by the grace shown us by Jesus and the love we are called to share with others in his name. [iv]
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is from the book of Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[v] When we become followers of Christ, we become a part of a diverse, global family that is one, because we are all equally loved by one God. We may live our faith in different ways, but we remain of one, holy foundation. We often forget this reality, but the movement of Christian unity tries to remind the church of this truth and call the church to actively live into its vision.
[i] David Field, Our Purpose Is Love, 2018, Nashville: Abingdon Press, p. 140.
[ii] All Scripture is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (which is a translation of Scripture rendered by a diverse group of Christians from several different church backgrounds).
[iii] Collectively, these groups working toward visible unity in the church is often referred to as the Ecumenical Movement.
[iv] This metaphor was spoken by Dr. Ani Ghazaryan Drissi of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches during the Global Christian Forum Bogota Reunion online gathering on April 27, 2021.